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BSFA Review, Er, Reviews

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As you should have clocked by now, I update my BSFA Review editorials when my reviewers post their pieces online on their own sites. Usually this is pretty sporadic but two people have had a bit of a splurge recently so I thought I’d draw attention to the extra goodness now available.

Firstly, Maureen Kincaid Speller:

Secondly, Martin McGrath:

(Apparently I only let Martin review things in pairs.)

Written by Martin

30 April 2015 at 19:01

Posted in books, sf

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Actually, It’s About Ethics In Award Nominations

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So, as promised, let’s turn to the nominees for this year’s Hugo Awards. Lots has already been said and I’ve no wish to repeat it but here are some good pieces which summarise the issues. The upshot is that this year – as last year – I am going to use No Award a lot but unusually lots of other people might join me. This is why I don’t think the Sad/Rabid Puppies have killed the Hugos; it is easy to influence the nominations but hard to influence the vote as we saw last year with Vox Day placing below No Award. The effect will be massively multiplied this year and after a couple of fruitless attempts, I think the Puppies will just get bored. The question then is how do we get through those couple of attempts with our sanity intact and some works that aren’t irredeemable on the shortlist. To that end I was suggest everyone reads the excellent Plokta proposal:

The problem with the puppy slates is not that they’ve got stuff on the ballot. They’re members of the Worldcon, and they’re entitled to have the stuff they nominated on the ballot, regardless of their decision processes in making their choices. The problem is that they have kept off the ballot some other stuff that most voters would probably prefer to vote for. So what we should be doing is preventing a slate from forcing stuff off the ballot, not from getting stuff on the ballot. The voters can then use their alternative vote preferences to take care of the slate, as happened last year when the slate failed to completely dominate any categories.

I really hope something comes of this but, to be honest, weathering the Puppy storm is the easy bit. The harder part is having a conversation about how we, collectively, nominate works for the Hugos.

Honestly, after last year I never wanted to write about eligibility posts again. It was an important piece and I’m glad I wrote it (and that the editors of Speculative Fiction 2014 are reprinting it, despite disagreeing with it) but the discussion around it was so polarised and productive as to be draining. As I said when last year’s shortlists were announced, I do think there is a connection between author’s publishing their eligibility and the rise of nomination slates but I had no intention of being dragged into it all again this year, an intention only strengthen by seeing it play out again in exactly the same way. However, at the same time, I’ve been increasingly doing my own lobbying as well as mulling over Abigail Nussbaum’s increasingly militant line on awards recommendations:

Last year when the nominees were announced there were several attempts to distinguish between “good” and “bad” campaigning–to argue, for example, that Larry Correia’s Sad Puppies ballot (which gave us Vox Day, Hugo nominee), and the campaign to get all fourteen Wheel of Time novels nominated for Best Novel, were substantively different from, say, my posting my Hugo recommendations on this blog, or John Scalzi recommending me for the Best Fan Writer Hugo. I don’t believe that’s true.

I disagree with Nussbaum – I think there is a substantive difference – but I also think there should be more discussion of these issues. Recognising that this might be difficult, I’d like to propose a framework for this discussion. I’m not saying that this framework is right or definitive but I do hope it is at least helpful. First of all, I think there are three axes to consider: someone’s authority, the extent to which they direct others and their own self-interest. Secondly, the range of each axis is quite large:


1 – Some random person on the internet
2 – Someone with a social media network including Hugo voters
3 – Someone with a large social media network including Hugo voters or an author
4 – An author with a large following
5 – A superstar author


1 – Listing your nominations without comment
2 – Recommending multiple works to consider or posting your own eligibility
3 – Recommending specific works to nominate
4 – Actively campaigning for specific works
5 – Actively campaigning for a full slate


1 – No relationship with the person you recommend
2 – Acquaintance, colleague or part of social network
3 – Friend
4 – Yourself
5 – Yourself and your friends

Finally, the way in which the three interact means there is likely to be a large grey area in the middle. I’m going to suggest scoring six or less counts as ‘good’ behaviour and scoring 12 or more counts as ‘bad’ behaviour with everything in the middle up for discussion. So let’s consider two baseline case:

But what about less clear cases? As linked above, I used a BSFA Review editorial last year to encourage people to start thinking about their Hugo nominations as well as discussion some of the things I would be nominating. My strongest recommendation was for the Best Graphic Story category: “But if I could compel you to go out and read one piece of fiction it would be Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky.” If I’d posted this here my authority would be a 2, in a BSFA publication it is probably 3. I’d suggest my direction is also a 3. Compare this to George RR Martin’s recommendation of Laura J Mixon for Best Fan Writer: “So I’m nominating Mixon for Best Fan Writer, and I urge you to do the same.” Not only is his direction stronger, his authority is several orders of magnitude bigger.



As it turns out, both our picks made the shortlist. It is possible Mixon only made it because a member of the Sad/Rabid Puppy slate declined his nomination but it seems likely that Martin’s intervention had some effect whereas I’m pretty sure my own effect was negligible. But we’ve no way of knowing. Likewise, it seems likely that John Scalzi’s recommendations for Best Fan Writer last year had some effect: “Abigail Nussbaum is another excellent candidate for a win, in my opinion… These are just four people off the top of my head; there are many more.” However, the direction is even weaker than mine and spread across multiple candidates. I’d also suggest his authority is weaker than Martin’s but this is a good example of how my methodology does a good job of making the highly subjective seem more objective. Nonetheless, I do think this helps expose that there are different shades of grey here. Which finally brings us to eligibility posts. Here I think the picture for Scalzi is very different and, indeed, that is one of the reasons he has been so keen to use his platform to promote others. But, of course, most authors don’t have this platform.


Scalzi 2

So what does this all mean? Not much; re-label the points on the axes or change the shade of the radar charts and suddenly says something very different. This is very much one perspective. But I hope it does show that there is a continuum of behaviour here that we are all part of and that is it worth talking about the way we behave as a community since, after all, the Hugos are community awards.

Written by Martin

10 April 2015 at 14:25

Posted in awards, sf

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Okay, It Wasn’t That Hard Last Year

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The Clarke Award shortlist is out so I am going to try and repeat my trick of predicting the winner.

  • Europe In Autumn by Dave Hutchinson – 1/2
  • Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel – 3/1
  • The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August by Claire North – 3/1
  • Memory Of Water by Emmi Itäranta – 6/1
  • The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey – 9/1
  • The Book Of Strange New Things by Michel Faber – 18/1

Incidentally, I reckon this is the best shortlist since 2011.

Written by Martin

8 April 2015 at 13:25

Posted in awards, sf

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Further Thoughts On The BSFA Award For Non-Fiction

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If you are a member of the BSFA, you have until 1 April to vote in the BSFA Awards. I had hoped to write about the shortlists but, as is increasingly common these days, I’ve run out of time. So instead I’ll briefly follow up my thoughts on nominating for the Non-Fiction Award.

The first thing to say is that I’m very pleased ‘The State Of British SF’ has been shortlisted. This was very much a team effort but it is also the first time I’ve ever been nominated for an award. Which is nice. (In other nice news, I’m also one of the contributors to Speculative Fiction 2014.)

Second, I’m also pleased to see one of my nominations, ‘Deep Forests And Manicured Gardens: A Look At Two New Short Fiction Magazines’, on the shortlist. Since nominating it, Ethan Robinson has posted this very interesting response to both ‘Deep Forests’ and ‘Short Fiction And The Feels’. I think Robinson’s piece is best when describing the latter because of the different political contexts of the two essays under discussion and the fact McCalmont only has a direct stake in one. I don’t think that he would disagree that he has a fondness for rhetoric and grandstanding; often, as in ‘Deep Forests’, I think that can be creative but in ‘The Feels’ it is more destructive. Or, as Robinson puts it: “In general the fact that oppression is something real and concrete that actual human beings have to deal with every moment of their lives, and not just an abstract “issue” for people unaffected by it to have fun opinions about, is something that McCalmont seems utterly unable to grasp.”

Finally, I’m a fan of Paul Kincaid’s criticism and had a quick skim of Call And Response before I sent it out for review so I’m pleased to see his collection on there too. But it does point to the continually problematic nature of the award. Not only do we have books competing with essays, here we have what is essentially a re-print collection competing with a brand new monograph. Meanwhile, Sibilant Fricative by Adam Roberts – which to my mind is essentially the same type of book as Kincaid’s – is ineligible. It is all a bit messy but then this award category always has been and my only solution I can come up with is to abolish it.

Written by Martin

30 March 2015 at 19:49

Posted in awards, sf

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BSFA Review – Vector #279

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Well, it has been a bloody good year for British SF. But, as our BSFA Review Poll shows, it has also been a resurgent year for British SF: it features three debuts and two long overdue returns.

I’m delighted that one of those British debuts jointly tops our poll: The Race by Nina Allan. Over the last decade, Allan has been quietly building one of the most impressive reputations in the short fiction field, culminating in her BSFA Award for Short Fiction last year with Spin. Kerry Dodd reviews the novel overleaf and finds it a “thought provoking and gripping book which peels back the emotive struggles of the human condition, focussing upon the connections between people’s lives, their emotions and, most powerfully, the nature of reality.” Creatively, Allan’s career seems unbounded but the publishing industry needs to catch-up and bring her to a wider audience.

So the community owe thanks to Newcon Press who have been having a pretty good year themselves. As well as The Race, they also published our bronze medallist, The Moon King by Neil Williamson, and the BSFA Award nominated story ‘The Honey Trap’ by Ruth E J Booth (which you can read for yourself in the awards booklet elsewhere in this mailing). Like Allan, Williamson has come up through the short fiction scene – a reminder of how vital Interzone remains as a testing ground for new talent. As Kate Oylett put it in Vector #277: “It’s a real delight to find a debut full-length novel where the characters pop, the situations glisten with sheer wonder and you realise you were meant to have put the book down and gone to bed sensibly a good hour or more ago.”

Nina Allan shares first place with another resurgent writer: Jeff Vandermeer. Who could have predicted that this cult weird fiction author would publish the critical and commercial international science fiction hit of 2014? Still less that it would be a thoroughly contemporary take on the mid-20th Century estrangement of writers like Budrys, Ballard and the Sturgatskys. In our last issue, Dan Hartland described it as “preternaturally fertile, the sort of layered and constructed fiction that readers pine for and so rarely receive” so perhaps it is slightly surprising it didn’t appear on the BSFA Aware shortlist for Best Novel alongside The Race and The Moon King, particularly given this year’s shortlist ran to ten books due to a tie for fourth place.

Dave Hutchinson published his first short story collection in 1978 but didn’t publish a novel till 2001 and has only followed it up now. Likewise Simon Ings’s last science fiction novel came out in 1999. Europe In Autumn (reviewed by Ian Sales) and Wolves both show that British science fiction has been missing out.

No such pause for Ann Leckie. Ancillary Sword (reviewed by Anne F Wilson) immediately followed up 2013’s international sensation, Ancillary Justice. That debut won the BSFA Award for Best Novel – along with every other award going – and you wouldn’t want to bet against it doing the same again. Or indeed for the Hugo.
Robert Jackson Bennett has probably also got a shout of getting on the Hugo ballot with City Of Stairs, another change of direction for this versatile writer. It was reviewed by Gary Dalkin last issue: “an ambitious and accomplished novel with interesting things to suggest about the relationships between peoples, their cultures and their gods.”

Finally, the poll confirms Frances Hardinge’s position as queen of British children’s fiction, sneaks in a characteristically slippery work by Karen Joy Fowler and heralds the arrival of Renaissance Man Paul Kingsnorth. Let’s hope 2015 is half as good.

BSFA Review Poll

=1) The Race by Nina Allan
=1) The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer
3) The Moon King by Neil Williamson
4) Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
5) Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
6) Wolves by Simon Ings
7) City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
8) Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
9) We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
10) The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth


  • The Race by Nina Allan – Reviewed by Kerry Dodd
  • Cataveiro by EJ Swift – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
  • Sibilant Frictive by Adam Roberts – Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
  • Bete by Adam Roberts – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
  • Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie – Reviewed by Anne F Wilson
  • Europe In Autumn by Dave Hutchinson – Reviewed by Ian Sales
  • Irregularity, edited by Jared Shurin – Reviewed by Aishwarya Subramanian
  • Paradox, edited by Ian Whates – Reviewed by Duncan Lawie
  • Descent by Ken MacLeod – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
  • War Dogs by Greg Bear – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
  • Defender by Will McIntosh – Reviewed by Shaun Green
  • Parasite by Mira Grant – Reviewed by Patrick Mahon
  • Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes – Reviewed by Shaun Green
  • Cold Turkey by Carole Johnstone – Reviewed by Graham Andrews

Written by Martin

30 March 2015 at 10:24

Posted in sf

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Hugo Nominations – Best Novella

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“With only ten days left before the Hugo nominating deadline, I’m cutting these posts a little close.” So begins Abigail Nussbaum’s draft ballot for the Hugo short fiction. I think it is safe to say she is miles ahead of me. However – unusually – I’ve read a clutch of very interesting novellas, all of which I would recommend voters check out.

I might manage to post some other short fiction recommendations here too but I thought I’d focus on the long ones first. If you need other suggestions, Nussbaum’s post is an excellent source of tips (even if she does have ‘The Husband Stitch’ by Carmen Maria Machado ‘bubbling under’, the big wronghead).

Written by Martin

3 March 2015 at 19:53

Posted in awards, sf, short stories

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BSFA Review – Vector #278

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Southern Reach: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer (Fourth Estate, 2014)
Reviewed by Dan Hartland

There is a powerful spell of which many of those active in online criticism have for some time been aware. SUMMON VANDERMEER is best effected simply by referring to one of the eponymous scribbler’s works in a published review, blog post or comment; upon conjuring, VanderMeer will manifest, most often offering a faintly under-written defence of even the smallest gripe or criticism, occasionally doing so in a way which leaves the readers of this digital ectoplasm less than confident that the summoned sprite meant to do that.

VanderMeer’s occasionally less than happy history of engaging with his readers makes the rapturous response to his Southern Reach trilogy all the more remarkable. Coming as it does after something of a break from fiction – VanderMeer has in recent years made most (and significant) impact in editorial conjunction with his wife, Ann – the trilogy is as heavy and serious a statement as a returning writer could possibly wish to make. It is a distillation of the genre in which he is now widely regarded as an expert, the Weird; it is an act of astonishingly wide-ranging pop-culture criticism; and it is a furiously well-written, sometimes shockingly evocative story of ecological disaster, adaptation and accommodation.

Set in a world in which a tranche of land known only as Area X has been given over entirely to a weird physics with no identifiable origin or cause, the novel centres on the invisible but impermeable border with few know egresses which separates Area X from all but the ill-fated expeditions sent by the government agency set the task of investigating it, the Southern Reach. In this scenario, VanderMeer plays with issues of perception and penetration: how Area X can and can’t be measured or understood; how it may or may not interact with the world beyond it; and what its creeping weirdness, its inhospitability and indifference to human beings might mean or portend.

The first volume of the trilogy, the quite unusually discomfiting Annihilation, follows the group of women who enter Area X as the Southern Reach’s twelfth expedition (but who are in fact much further along a hidden sequence of secret visits that that). We never learn the names of any of the expedition’s members but instead come to know them by their function: the viewpoint character, for instance, is identified as the biologist and her desire to observe and understand proves ill-suited to the impossibilities of Area X. Most obviously, this includes the subterranean structure on the walls of which is written a recursive prayer-like koan in iridescent script. Counter-intuitively known by the biologist knows as the Tower, it houses the Crawler, a fractal, shifting being which appears to contain the essence of Area X and yet is utterly ineffable. “The longer I stared at it,” bemoans the expedition’s supposed expert on unusual organisms, “the less comprehensible it became.”

VanderMeer is quite brilliant in this first volume at instilling in the reader the disorientation and terror which Area X inspires in the expedition. To read Annihilation is to interface with the inaccessible. VanderMeer’s spare prose presents the illusion of transparency, the suggestion of clarity, but the subjects of his sentences are something other, crafted to be just beyond the extent of his diction: “I was no longer a biologist but somehow the crest of a wave building and building but never crashing to shore”. This is crystalline writing, cut and polished to gleam, but what it quite means is unclear. Only by accretion and exposure does the reader begin to piece together a working understanding of events and it is a real achievement of VanderMeer’s that unlike many lesser writers of the Weird he does not revel in incomprehension. He rewards his reader.

He also tests them. In the second volume, Authority, VanderMeer leaves Area X entirely for the confines of the Southern Reach’s headquarters. Here, the protagonist is John Rodriguez, a disgraced former counter-terrorism field agent who prefers the nickname Control. This, of course, echoes Le Carré and, where Annihilation distilled the Weird, at times Authority seems to refract spy fiction and thrillers. This second book may test the patience of some. It feels in many ways less urgent and less alarming than the first, yet I think in its uncanny depiction of office politics it sounds a satirical note which adds a new voicing to the trilogy’s overall euphony.

One of Control’s most creative staff scientists, Whitby, develops a terroir theory of Area X: that, as with wine, “environmental varietals” have conspired to produce specific and unrepeatable effects within its weird boundaries. But the palimpsests of agendas and personalities at the failing Southern Reach lead Control to another conclusion, “finding now in Whitby’s terroir theory something that might apply more to the Southern Reach than to Area X”. That is, Control (again denied a real name) is out of control, both of a territory which systematically and entirely erases all trace of human activity (reshaping it as weird doubles or fatal cancers) and also of the agency designed to contain it. “Topological anomaly?” Control imagines his grandfather scoffing at the term used by his staff to describe the Tower. “Don’t you mean some kind of spooky thing that we know nothing, absolutely fucking nothing about, to go with everything else we don’t know?”

Control’s family have more purchase on this bureaucratic farce than his mere imaginings. Control is Acting Director of the Southern Reach at the behest of his powerful spymaster mother, following the disappearance on an expedition of the previous incumbent. The drifting of the trilogy into the family saga genre can feel like a bridge too far. Control’s mother proves to be an important character and his relationship with her is therefore rather more significant than the queasy attenuation VanderMeer sketches with notable facility for unease. At first they read as another iteration of the trilogy’s over-arching theme that most people want “to be close to but not part of”]; their rapidly apparent plot importance makes the story oddly local for a trilogy constantly skirting the cosmic.

Perhaps, though, we require an anchor: Authority ends with Control and the returned double of the biologist (now referred to as Ghost Bird) finding a fresh entrance into an expanding Area X, which seems if anything more rather than less strange on second encounter. Indeed, the third and final volume of the trilogy, Acceptance, proves both its most ineffable and its most up-front. Told from a range of perspectives – Control, Ghost Bird, the former Director and, most disturbingly of all, the lighthouse keeper in the region that becomes in the course of his story Area X – connections begin to be made. The trilogy rejects the idea that any single one of us can perceive completely and its multi-voice finale attempts to show why.

“There’s nothing to this world but what our senses tell us about it,” insists Control, “and all I can do is the best I can based on that information.”. Control is repeatedly undone by this inflexibility and he passes through these novels rather lost and buffeted; his opposite number is the twin-face of the biologist and Ghost Bird, who seek to inhabit a space as natively as possible. “Area X was all around them; Area X was contained in no one place or figure. It was the dysfunction in the sky […] the heavens and earth. It could interrogate you from any position or no position at all, and you might not even recognise its actions as a form of questioning.”

In the online magazine Strange Horizons, Adam Roberts has written better than anyone about the ways in which the Southern Reach trilogy in this way reimagines nature writing for our troubled times. What does it mean that our environment is altering in ways we don’t understand, into shapes for which we are not necessarily suited and in a manner that emphasises its indifference to our presence? The expeditions of the Southern Reach are forays fated to doom because they seek human-sized solutions to these questions; VanderMeer’s inexplicable clarity is an idiom suited to disputing this.

But in its lovers and families, its terrorists and spies, its intimate villages and expansive governments, the world of the Southern Reach is also more widely about connection and motivation. In fact, I’d suggest that to read the richness of the trilogy through a purely ecological lens is to deny the potency of its effect. In the lighthouse keeper’s tale there are moments of pure horror – “Sadi spun and twitched and twisted on the floor, slamming into chairs and table legs, beginning to come to pieces” – but it is impossible to challenge Ghost Bird’s welcoming of the inevitable accommodation to come. The simultaneity of the horror and beauty of Area X – that the individual cannot prevail against the universal – is the terror and redemption at the heart of our every interaction.

All of which is to say that the Southern Reach is preternaturally fertile, the sort of layered and constructed fiction that readers pine for and so rarely receive. We will all in future SUMMON VANDERMEER with markedly less trepidation.

Due to production deadlines, space and my own laziness, this issue of the BSFA Review contains no editorial from me. Instead, here is the lead review.


  • Southern Reach: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer (Fourth Estate, 2014) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
  • Gemsigns and Binary by Stephanie Saulter (Jo Fletcher Books, 2013 & 2014) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
  • Get Katja by Simon Logan (ChiZine Publications, 2014) – Reviewed by Shaun Green
  • City Of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett (Jo Fletcher Books, 2014) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
  • The Just City by Jo Walton (Tor, 2015) – Reviewed by Liz Bourke
  • City Of Endless Night by Milo M. Hastings (Hesperus Press, 2014) – Reviewed by L J Hurst
  • Terror And Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, exhibition (British Library, 5 October 2014 to 20 January 2015) and book, edited by Dale Townshend (British Library, 2014) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
  • The Complete Uncle by JP Martin, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Matador, 2013) – Reviewed by LJ Hurst
  • Half A King by Joe Abercrombie, (Orbit, 2014) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham

Written by Martin

22 February 2015 at 11:17

Posted in sf

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