Blogging the BSFA Award Shortlists – Short Fiction

I’m still reading my way through the BSFA Award Best Novel nominations but took a break to read the nominations for Best Short Fiction last night. Again, kudos to the BSFA for gathering the short story nominations together in this convenient booklet.

Nina Allan’s Flying In The Face of God and Aliette de Bodard’s The Shipmaker form an unintentional diptych, dealing as they both do with women in the science-fictional future, but the two authors handle the subject in rather different ways.

Allan’s Rachel, training to be a flier on the Aurora Space Program (clearly some sort of deep-space project), is leaving Earth, probably for the last time. Already set apart from those around her by the effects of the Kushnev Process, the conditioning she undergoes as part of her training, she is cutting her final ties with this world. We see her through the observant eyes of her friend, Anita Schleif, herself the daughter of an astronaut, Melanie Sheener, who died on her ship when Anita was only a few months old. Anita is also a documentary-maker, working on a film about the women of the Aurora Project; it is perhaps her way of trying to come to terms with her mother’s own career choices.

I like this story in part because of the simplicity of the language and in part because of the way Allan situates the story in a setting that is close to ‘now’ yet obviously at some point in the future. I like too the way it raises more questions than it answers, and I like the delicacy with which Allan draws the relationship between Rachel and Anita.

Aliette de Bodard’s The Shipmaker is very different in terms of setting. We are far in the future and far from Earth; the journey was made so long ago that it is now Old Earth and we are living in an interstellar world. At the heart of the story is the building of a space ship; ships, we are informed, are ‘living, breathing beings’, controlled by a human Mind, and their construction is as much about fitting ship to Mind through a myriad small touches as it is about riveting sheets of metal together. Dac Kien, the Grand Master of Design Harmony, is therefore perturbed when the Mind-bearer, Zoquitl, arrives on her half-built ship ahead of schedule.

The story is, I suppose, a meditation on the nature of creativity; the link between birthing a ship and birthing a baby points for this, although to my mind it’s a little too obvious I’m also not entirely comfortable with some of the implicit assumptions that seem to lurk under the surface here, but that is a personal thing (in the same way as Hélène Cixous’s insistence on women writing with white ink, the milk of motherhood, rather gets on my nerves; I can’t engage with it as a concept). I’ve noticed in other stories that de Bodard’s characters also tend to be very passionate, in a way that doesn’t really speak to me, and I find I prefer the slight detachment and melancholy of Allan’s piece.

It turns out that I’d already read Peter Watts’ The Things. It’s an enjoyable enough riff on John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There, written from, effectively, the point of view of the aliens who have taken over the men. It’s competently executed, as one would expect from Watts, but, oh, I don’t know, it just doesn’t set me on fire. I find it difficult to get overly enthusiastic about revisiting old stories, except on the rarest occasions. We honour our history and all that, but how far do we need to go.

In a way, history brings us to Neil Williamson’s Arrhythmia. I am at a loss to understand quite what it is about this story that seems to have attracted people’s attention. The music of the young will break the rhythm of the old is hardly an original theme, and I’ve seen it done more than once over the years. Williamson seemed to me to strain rather too hard for effect; it was all a little too 1984 for my taste, and if Williamson was reaching for allegorical effect, I don’t think he really pulled it off. I had the impression that he was writing about punk (possibly the most manufactured musical rebellion ever, thanks to Malcolm McLaren, and no more significant than the arrival of rock and roll in the Fifties), but as Paul Kincaid pointed out it could as easily have been set in the Fifties or the Thirties, and for that matter, it made me think of the early Sixties too. This may be a good thing, it may be a bad thing, but this was really not a science-fictional thing.

So, in this category, I’ll be voting as follows:

1 – Nina Allan for Flying In The Face of God
2 – Aliette de Bodard for The Shipmaker
3 – Peter Watts for The Things
4 – Neil Williamson for Arrhythmia

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