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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

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Thoughts On The BSFA Award For Non-Fiction

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Since my post about my draft BSFA Awards nominations, two things have happened. First, Best Fan Writer-in-waiting Nina Allan has posted her recommendations for the BSFA Non-Fiction Award. Second, I’ve signed up with Pocket, got the plug-in for Chrome and activated En2Kindle to allow me to automatically save webpages to my Kindle. Since most of my free time is spent away from a computer and my phone is a little too small to make reading articles or stories a pleasure, I’m hopeful that this will allow me to better keep abreast of things rather than bookmarking them for later and never returning. I’ve started by whacking a load of Allan’s recommendations over, including the following pieces from Jonathan McCalmont:

McCalmont should be another Best Fan Writer-in-waiting but I suspect he will be waiting in perpetuity. Over the course of these five posts, he makes a broad ranging assessment of the contemporary SF short fiction that mixes big, bold theorising with a close reading of individual stories. Allan notes that she “remains undecided as to how much of Jonathan’s argument I agree with – all mulchy middle ground, me – but I find much that interests me in his viewpoint, and the gutsiness of his writing always leaves me feeling liberated and inspired generally.” For me, it is not just his gutsiness but his ambition; I quite often disagree with his theories but this big picture approach, grounded but not mired in academic thought, is vanishingly rare.

In terms of the BSFA Awards, I do worry that his vote will be split. Like Allan, I think the three middle posts are essentially a single piece and the strongest individual part of the total argument. But I know Ian Sales in his nomination post went for ‘Short Fiction And The Feels’. Sales also rightly praises Allan’s own non-fiction and says nice things about ‘The State of British SF and Fantasy’, the Strange Horizons symposium both her and me contributed to. I was proud to be a part of it so I’m glad others found it worthwhile.

Speaking of Strange Horizons, I’ve just been commissioned for my first review under the new triumphivrate of editors who have taken over from Abigail Nussbaum (another Best Fan Writer-in-waiting but the one who probably won’t be waiting that long). It will be my first review in a while but hopefully this year I will be producing a bit more non-fiction as well as reading more.

Written by Martin

21 January 2015 at 19:54

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BSFA Award Nominations – My Draft Ballot

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We are half way through the month so it is worth reminding members of the British Science Fiction Association that nominations close for the BSFA Awards at the end of the month. This year they are crowd-sourcing suggestions and, as with the Hugos, I also thought I’d post my draft nominations here.

Best Novel was the easiest category for me this year as I’ve read a surprising amount of good, current fiction. Those who read my last BSFA Review editorial won’t be particularly surprised by my choices:

  • The Race by Nina Allan
  • Wolves by Simon Ings
  • Southern Reach by Jeff Vandermeer
  • Echopraxia by Peter Watts

As well as writing one of the best books of the year, Allan has also written a very helpful post covering her candidates for Best Non-Fiction. She starts with an epiphany:

What if every BSFA Awards voter (and Hugo voter) were to read just twenty pieces of new short fiction every year? Surely this would have at least some impact, not just upon individuals’ knowledge of the field but on their sense of investment in the awards process. Whether through random online reading (one of the most radical advancements in the field in recent years has been the increasing quality and availability of free short fiction online) or through the purchase of magazine subscriptions would be down to individual inclination and cash available, but I honestly do think the twenty-shorts-per-year formula would have a considerable effect on the discourse around short fiction. Why not try it and see?

I came to a similar conclusion last (you’ll have seen some of the results of that earlier) and I hope other voters do adopt this approach. Anyway, here are my three favourite stories from my own reading:

I’m currently reading through Allan’s recommendations for the fourth slot. Posts like hers provide a vital service in trying to filter the vast about of work out there. Moving from words to Best Artwork, recommendation post are even more helpful as it so easy to quickly check out a large amount of different pieces of art online. Carl V Anderson has got pretty different taste to me but this post is a helpful taster of what is out there. So far I’ve been concentrating on book covers and my three favourites are:

  • Wolves by Jeffrey Alan Love
  • Voyage Of The Basilisk by Todd Lockwood
  • Mirror Empire by Richard Anderson

the-mirror-empire-by-kameron-hurley-cover-art Vouage-Basilisk_cover_Lockwood_Brennan wolves

My final slot goes to ‘The Wasp Factory’ by Tessa Farmer. Which leaves Best Non-Fiction. Despite the fact this is my field, it is often the category I struggle most with. But the single piece of criticism that has stayed with me the most this year is this:

Written by Martin

16 January 2015 at 20:30

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Spun

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A double apology. Firstly, I should have congratulated Nina Allan for winning the BSFA Award for Short Fiction with Spin when the awards were announced. Secondly, I should have reviewed the novella but – as with Ian Sales’s BSFA Award-winning novella last year – I failed to get round to it. I was reminded of this by Daniel Libris’s recent review so go and read that then go and buy Allan’s book.

Congratulations to all the other winners and commisserations to the others on the short fiction award shortlist:

Written by Martin

30 April 2014 at 10:43

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‘Saga’s Children’ by EJ Swift – 2013 BSFA Award Short Story Club

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‘Saga’s Children’ was originally published in The Lowest Heaven, edited by Anne C Perry and Jared Shurin (Jurassic London, 2013)

You will have heard of our mother, the astronaut Saga Wärmedal. She is famous, and she is infamous. Her face, instantly recognizable, appears against lists of extraordinary feats, firsts and lasts and onlys. There are the pronounced cheekbones, the long jaw, that pale hair cropped close to the head. In formal portraits she looks enigmatic, but in images caught unaware – perhaps at some function, talking to the Administrator of the CSSA or the Moon Colony Premier; in situations, in fact, where we might imagine she would feel out of place – she is animated, smiling. In those pictures, it is possible to glimpse the feted adventurer who traversed the asteroid belt without navigational aid.

So that is Saga. Speaking – collectively – are her three children, carelessly conceived and then left behind as she followed the path of her career across the solar system. The story narrates an unexpected but ambiguous end to their estrangement which is abruptly curtailed by Saga’s death.

‘Saga’s Children’ is a short, attractive story but one which I found gave me very little purchase as a reader. So I outsourced my critical faculties to Niall Harrison who suggested that rather beginning at the beginning, I start at the end. The children close their story with a mantra: “They are looking for something. They are prepared to spend a lifetime looking.” The context is a metaphor, a description of Russian women searched for their purged ancestors (“With every winter, a new layer of ice crystals hardens over the tundra, fusing and compacting upon what lies below, sealing the mass graves forever”) that stands in for the children’s own search for their mother, a Saga beyond the image. It is a longing they have previously projected onto their fathers – “we imagine, he lived out his life awaiting Saga’s return. He waited a long time.”; “his father moved to Mars, we imagine, to search for Saga. He searched a long time.” – when again they are really talking about themselves.

This does suggest two routes into the story. Is Saga a satisfying locus for this longing? And is the affect of this longing sufficient to satisfy the reader?

The first question might seem trivial or even pointless. After all, does the object of longing really matter when it is the affect that is important? And if it does, surely longing for a mother is deep and universal feeling? But I think it is worth considering since the story is built around Saga. (At first I was going to say around her abscence but then I started to think of her more as a black hole, distorting the psychic space-time around her.) The contradiction, of course, is that the whole point of the story is that Saga is not only unknown but unknowable. Our narrators the children can never get beyond the image and so neither can we. But Saga is too much of an image for me, too much of a placeholder for the rest of the story to define itself against. I do not get a sense of the real woman underneath, only her traits. All other lives are ultimately unknowable but that doesn’t mean they are unintelligble.

That brings us to the second question (which, if anything, is even more subjective) since because Saga’s traits are exceptional she moves from being merely a cipher into something approaching a saint. The whole story is couched in a mythic tone: the scale of the stage, the size of the deeds, the ineffability of the universe. This tone is well-pitched but it is still slightly overdone for my taste. A personal tragedy is not a small thing but perhaps it is not so large either. So that final sentence probably is the barometer of the story. For me, the futile, eternal longing it evokes is too grand.

Written by Martin

7 February 2014 at 12:16

Non-Hugo Awards – Art

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Right, the shortlists for the BSFA Awards and the Kitschies are out and they are looking pretty good. As with last year, I’ll be reviewing the nominated short stories and I’d love you to join me. But first – and again, as last year – the art categories.

BSFA Award For Best Artwork

1) Poster for Metropolis by Kevin Tong

Met_LArge2

One of my nominees, courtesy of a tip-off from Liz Batty. As Tong says, it is inspired by Russian Constructivist design, a highly appealing style in its own right and a good thematic match for the film. But what I like best is Maria’s robot doppelganger emerging from the background and then surging past her.

2) Cover for Tony Ballantyne’s Dream London by Joey Hi-fi

Ballantyne-DreamLondon[7]

Hi-Fi was my number vote for last year’s award but he lost out to Black Sheep’s cover for Jack Glass. I’m going to be controversial and say 2013 wasn’t – by his high standards – a great year for him (although I’ll still be nominating him for the Hugos). His vote was split three ways for this award and though this is my favourite of the three, it likes the impact of some of his other work. I like the composition but from the condensed landmarks to the splashes of red on a black and white background, it all feels a bit familiar.

3) ‘The Angel At The Heart Of The Rain’ by Richard Wagner

angel

Unlike last year, there are no outright stinkers on the shortlist (which is only three works long) but this is pretty duff. It illustrates a story entitled ‘The Angel At The Heart Of The Rain’ by Aliette de Bodard and so cunningly depicts an angel at the heart of some rain. It has the cheap, flat look of much CGI art and the reflection in the window particularly draws attention to this. The only interesting thing about the work is that it places the viewer in the position of a worshiper. No bad enough to warrant No Award, this still can’t win.

The Inky Tentacle

Unlike the BSFA Awards, I don’t get a vote for this. If I did, it would go to the cover for Cory Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema by Amazing15:

pirate_cinemahomeland

But wait, what’s this? It has been shortlisted as a single entry with their cover for Doctorow’s Homeland. Boo, I say. On principle, I’m opposed to this and it smacks of lazy judging but perhaps more importantly, it shackles a great image to an average one. Pirate Cinema is a crisp, clever visual pun of the type that made the cover for Mira Grant’s Feed so effective; Homeland is just pastiche. In contrast to these clean designs, next up are two riotous covers:

dreams_and_shadowsapocalypse now now

There are similarities to the pair but, for me, the cover for C Robert Cargill’s Dreams And Shadows by Sinem Erkas edges out that for Charlie Human’s Apocalypse Now Now by (that man again) Joey Hi-Fi. Its unified colour scheme makes the weirdness of the detailed illustration that bit more macabre, a portal into the book itself. Hi-Fi, in contrast, splatters the book all over the cover but without including much in the way of his trademark touches. The strong shadow on the central characters face is halfway there but really, this could be a lot of other people. And what are those at the top? Tentacles? Blatant award bait! By this point, I think it is fair to say that the judges are fans of colour blocking:

strayage_atomic

I go back and forth on the cover for Monica Hesse’s Stray by Gianmarco Magnani. I like the fact it deliberately signals a different tradition of design and I love the cropping of the image. At the same time, the image itself isn’t anythign to write home about it is all slightly anemic. It summons up ennui rather than teenage angst. Finally, there us the cover for Adam Christopher’s The Age Atomic by Will Staehle probably is a good guide to the contents but really all you can say about it is that it is green. I don’t think it has much of a place on a shortlist that already contains the Amazing15 covers.

Written by Martin

29 January 2014 at 21:17

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Second Best Is Pretty Good

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The Hugo shortlists were announced on Saturday and, if not utter twaddle, they are still pretty bad. On a personal level, I think four things I nominated made the ballot (yay, Strange Horizons!). When it comes to the actual voting, I suspect I will probably be using No Award quite liberally. But judiciously. God knows there are stupid things about the Hugos but Aidan Moher is completely right that the primary problem is not the process but the voters. So I’m going to try to be the best voter I can.

The winners of the BSFA Awards were announced the day after the Hugos. They look good in their own right but even better in comparison. Which is not to say that any of my choices actually won.

Best Novel went to Adam Roberts for Jack Glass. Obviously, my first vote went to Empty Space by M John Harrison but I’m very pleased to see Roberts win an award. As, I imagine, is he. When the shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke Award is announced later this week, I expect Jack Glass to be on it (if not, blame me).

Best Short Fiction went to ‘Adrift On The Sea Of Rains’ by Ian Sales. This year’s shortlist contained three interesting but flawed stories and three stories that were beneath consideration. Of the former, ‘Limited Edition’ was the most interesting and least flawed and got my first vote but this novella got my second slot. However, I’ll expect his next story in the series, ‘The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself’, to go further.

Best Artwork went to Black Sheep for Jack Glass. I discussed the shortlist at length when it was announced and I was obviously hoping for a Joey Hi-Fi win. Since that was not to be, I’m glad Jack Glass pulled off the double.

Best Non-Fiction went to the World SF Blog, adding to their Kitschie from last month. This is funny category and one I where I naturally gravitate towards a discrete work. So this was the only category where my second choice didn’t win. My first choice was Paul Kincaid’s ‘The Widening Gyre which crystallised some of my own thoughts and framed the most important debate of last year for me. Second place went to Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn; I have my problems with the book but it is long overdue.

Written by Martin

2 April 2013 at 18:37

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