Tag Archives: bsfa award

Blogging the BSFA Award Shortlists – Novel

My grand plan was that I would read and write about all the nominations for the best novel category in the BSFA awards. So far I have read them all and blogged about two! However, blogging about the rest will have to wait until I’m a little less busy generally (and I still have the Clarke Award nominations to get through). But I can say how I will be voting.

1 – Ian McDonald for The Dervish House
2 – Lauren Beukes for Zoo City
3 – Paolo Bacigalupi for The Wind-Up Girl
4 – Tricia Sullivan for Lightborn
5 – Ken Macleod for The Restoration Game

And this will, I think, be the first time I have ever voted in the BSFA Awards having read or examined every single nomination. I’m beginning to feel as though I might be a grown-up!

Blogging the BSFA Award Shortlists – Non-Fiction

I have a dilemma. Some of will know and others may have guessed from the coincidence of names that my partner, Paul Kincaid, is nominated in this category for a series of posts he made about the Hugo-nominated novels last year on Big Other. It will be perfectly obvious to one and all that I plan to give him my top vote so I am not going to waste any time trying to justify that decision (though I firmly believe that Paul is a very fine critic indeed). Sometimes the heart rules the head and that’s all there is to it. That, and I’d love to see him finally win a popular award for his criticism.

Even without my unique moral dilemma, this category is a real bitch to deal with. I hugely admire everyone nominated, and don’t really want to have to make a choice at all. Also, given the different formats involved (blog, podcast, book) it’s not simply a matter of comparing like with like. No obvious order has emerged as I’ve reacquainted myself with the nominations so I shall have to reason my way through this some other way.

Of the five nominations, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty is an obvious anomaly. To begin with, there seems to be no agreement on whether it’s non-fiction or a novel, and there has been some controversy as to whether it should be nominated in Best Non-Fiction at all. I’m going to stick my neck out here and say I actually think it’s in the right place. Spufford’s own introduction makes clear that Red Plenty is a hybrid piece, and indeed raises a number of interesting questions about the nature of non-fiction that I haven’t got time to deal with now but which I plan to come back to after Easter.

Myself, I am thinking of it as a biography of a moment in history, and biography is, I’m quite prepared to argue, as much about fiction as it is about non-fiction. However, the deal-breaker today is ‘how science fictional is this book?’, and I think the answer has to be ‘not quite science-fictional enough for a BSFA Award’. It’s certainly examining important ideas that have shaped the world we know, and I grant you there is something more than passingly unreal about the subject, but ultimately I don’t think it passes my test. So, regretfully, I’m placing it fifth in my list of votes.

Fourth, I’m putting Adam Roberts’ heroic series of posts on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time , in which he describes his responses to reading all eleven volumes. They’re incredibly funny, also incredibly perceptive and informative about the ways in which epic fantasy works. But, and there has to be a ‘but’ otherwise they wouldn’t be in fourth place, Roberts inevitably becomes the victim of the series he’s reading, simply because after a while there is no more to be said. There were moments when I wondered if I’d strayed into some weird genre-related version of Super Size Me. Having said that, the posts are still really funny and I now hurt from laughing.

Third, I’m placing the Coode Street podcasts. I’ve only begun following podcasts with any degree of seriousness in the last year (alright, I admit it’s because it’s only in the last year I have finally figured out how to make my podcast download program actually download the podcasts automatically). I like Coode Street in part because I like the cheerful interactions of the participants, I like the wide-ranging discussions, I like the regularity of the podcasts and I like the fact that I get to eavesdrop on some fascinating conversations between people I wouldn’t normally get a chance to listen to.

I think it’s fairly obvious by now that my personal interest in this category is in critical discussion, and that is why I’ve placed Abigail Nussbaum’s review of With Both Feet In the Clouds on her blog, Asking the Wrong Questions, second. What can I say? I wish I’d written this review. It does everything I look for in a long review. It introduces me to the book, gives me a flavour of its content, engages with that content makes me want to go out and buy the book immediately.

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

1 – Paul Kincaid for Blogging the Hugos<
2 – Abigail Nussbaum for With Both Feet in the Clouds
3 – Jonathan Strahan and Gary K Wolfe (and guests) for the Notes From Coode Street podcast
4 – Adam Roberts for his review of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series in 11 instalments
5 – Francis Spufford for Red Plenty

Mostly, I’d just like to give everyone else second place and be done with it.

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

Blogging the BSFA Award Shortlists – Art

While I’m plugging away steadily behind the scenes on my BSFA reading (more novel-blogging later) last night I took time out to inspect the shortlist for the Best Art Award, which the BSFA has thoughtfully published on the back of the booklet containing all the Best Short Fiction finalists. I rarely vote in the Best Art category, not least because I haven’t always seen all the nominations, so before all else, kudos to the BSFA for coming up with this neat idea.

Beyond the problem of tracking down copies of the nominations, I am never quite sure what criteria to use in deciding how to cast my votes in this category. Am I judging art qua art or should I really be thinking about whether the art is fit for purpose, that is to be a book or magazine cover. And if the latter, a further set of criteria come into play. Can I make a judgement about the book’s cover without reading the book? How important is the relationship between cover and content? And what about the input of the art director in designing the cover?

Questions, questions, and none of them easily answered.

Of the six nominated pieces, I own only two of the books involved, though one piece of art is from a magazine that has an online presence as well as being available through print-on-demand so the contents are accessible; however it’s clearly not going to be easy to make any judgements about relationships between cover and content without finding more time to read so I shall strike that criterion from the list.

Of the six pieces, five are presented on the booklet in their physical ‘cover’ form. When I went to the Crossed Genres website to see how they’d used the art online I found the piece had been severely cropped, with only the right-hand part of the panel being used on the issue’s ‘front page’. I am guessing that on the physical object the entire piece would form a wrap-round cover. The title is, unsurprisingly, in the black area at the top. In turn I have no idea what the designs of the other five covers originally looked like, so I don’t think I can usefully follow that line of reasoning.

Which brings me to how the covers look on the booklet’s back page. This line of enquiry is slightly impeded by the fact that each cover picture has a large number on it, which in three cases obscures the novel’s title, so black mark for that design failure, BSFA.

The two that immediately catch the eye are Joey hi-Fi’s cover design for Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City and Charlie Harbour’s cover for Gareth Owen’s Fun With Rainbows, with Adam Tredowski’s cover for Jeff Vandermeet’s Finch coming in third. I’ll put them to one side for a moment and think about the other covers and why they don’t capture my interest.

With Ben Greene’s cover for Crossed Genres issue 21, it’s a combination of colour palette, subject matter and technique. I really don’t like the sludgy colours or the smeary paint effects. The spacecraft are so generic they could have come from anywhere, while the tentacle-things are just that, tentacle-things, and equally generic. This doesn’t persuade me that the magazine’s contents are going to be anything more than ‘some science fiction’. (View the artwork in its entirety here.)

Andy Bigwood’s cover for Conflicts is as far from Greene’s cover as one could get in terms of technique and colour palette. I love the blues, greys and smoky pinks, and the actinic white highlights as well as the sense of ‘photo-reality’, but again the ships seem generic; I think immediately of  Babylon 5 rip-offs. Between that and the title, I would be thinking this book is not really for me.

Moving on to Dominic Harman’s cover for Cat’s Cradle. I like the colour palette again, and the artist has either read the book or at least been briefed to know that one of the characters helped design an atomic bomb. However, my understanding is that the bomb is not germane to the novel’s main plot. The use of the cat’s cradle design is, I suspect, inevitable, but I worry about the pose of those hands. It hurts when I try to replicate that.

Also, this publicity shot shows something rather odd. The promotional quotation on the cover is about a Philip K Dick novel rather than anything by Vonnegut so I am assuming this is a still of a mock-up cover. I’ve not been able to get hold of a photo of the actual, physical book so, in fact, I’ve absolutely no idea what it really looks like. Even the Gollancz website shows the rogue version.

Next, Adam Tredowski’s cover for Finch. It is a bit of an oddity, this one. I don’t particularly like the palette. What I do like is the flavour of ‘City of Dreadful Night’ that it has, although I’m not actually sure how well that chimes with the novel itself (which was, incidentally, my best-of-year novel for 2010).

Which brings me to the Charlie Harbour and Joey Hi-Fi covers.


First, Harbour’s cover for Fun With Rainbows: something about the palette and the draughtsmanship of this makes me think of various early twentieth-century artists along with a flavour of late Arts and Crafts. It’s a ‘happy’ cover; I smile every time I look at it. I have absolutely no idea what relation if any it bears to the stories inside but I want to know about the story that goes with that picture.

However, Joey Hi-Fi’s cover for Zoo City is my winner in this category. I like the way that s/he integrates the book’s plot into the lettering and I like the black and white simplicity of it. Nothing distracts from the title at all. Yet focus in and in and in and there is so much going on

So, this turns out to be the first category in which I can actually announce my voting intentions. I’ll be ranking the nominations thus:

1 – Joey Hi-FI for Zoo City
2 – Charlie Harbour forFun With Rainbows
3 – Adam Tredowski for Finch
4 – Andy Bigwood for Conflicts
5  – Dominic Harman for Cat’s Cradle
6 – Ben Green for Crossed Genres 21

I wonder how the final result will compare.

Blogging the BSFA Award Shortlists – Novel – The Restoration Game

I am continuing to blog the BSFA Award shortlists, still focusing on the Novel shortlist. This time around it’s Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game.

I’m fairly sure this is the first MacLeod novel I’ve ever read and I can’t honestly say it’s inspired me to read another, if this is typical of his output (though I’m assured it’s not). My most pressing concern throughout the novel was ‘where is the science fiction?’ I’d been told that there was a highly science-fictional coup de thêatre partway through and when I got there it was indeed highly science-fictional and really rather impressive. And had the story been wrapped more closely around it I would have been delighted. However, it was just sitting there, like an artefact in a museum, and once one had admired it, there wasn’t much left to do except to proceed to the end of the novel.

The Restoration Game is far more a spy novel than it is a science-fiction novel, and in some respects a rather old-fashioned one at that. The story focuses on Lucy Stone, a young woman living in Edinburgh, working for a start-up games company, interested in sf and all the other things a twenty-something geek girl might be interested in. However, when her mother, Amanda, approaches her with a games project, things become more complicated. Amanda’s Ph.D was on the folklore of Krassnia, a tiny autonomous region on the Russian-Georgian border. Amanda later turned her work into the Krassniad, a best-selling work of fiction, and now wants that in turn transformed into a computer game, to provide a cover for political activists planning a revolution in Krassnia. This, so far as it goes, is a pleasing idea.

The story is complicated by the fact that Amanda has, in the past, been a spy, and is obviously working for someone now. The question is, who? And, as it turns out, this plot is not about revolution but about finding an explanation for a mysterious phenomenon. On top of that, Lucy’s family connection to Krassnia reaches further into the past than she had hitherto realised, and nor is she clear who her father is, though there are several possibilities. And there is the matter of who owns a particular mine. The whole set-up has a distinct inter-war years flavour about it, with the unwitting civilian caught up in a situation beyond their control; I was more than passingly reminded of Margery Allingham’s Sweet Danger, though I gather, too, that Helen McInnes’s novels would provide a useful reference point. Having said that, possibly The Prisoner of Zenda might have a thing or two to say. But one asks oneself if, in the twenty-first century, one would quite so calmly believe a cock-and-bull story from one’s manifestly unreliable parent and consent to be driven into a country on the brink of revolution, in search of who knows what? I would not; for the sake of the story, Lucy does.

I suppose I might feel happier if I thought this was a good spy novel too, but the plot seems too mechanical for my taste, and there really aren’t any surprises or indeed that much dramatic tension. There is a lot of explanatory documentation about the political situation in Krassnia, now and in the past, and this is what MacLeod seems to be most interested in. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it that interesting, though I was here reminded of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, as though this were carrying out a similar function but concerning Eastern European politics. It’s an intriguing thought given that while I recognise that Little Brother is an important book I have never felt that I was its intended audience; I felt something similar here. There are also a lot of sf-related references, nods to fan cultures, reading lists, and so on, to the point where it felt more like a novel about science fiction rather than it actually being science fiction, and that feeling is reinforced by the framing narrative, which slim as it is, is more engaging than the main part of the novel.

I suspect that I am entirely missing the point of this novel somewhere along the way, that it is some sort of political fantasy, and that for the right reader it’s a marvellous piece of work. I know a number of people rate it very highly but it simply left me cold.

After two novels, Lightborn is winning out over The Restoration Game.

Blogging the BSFA Award shortlists – Novel – Lightborn

My plans to blog my way through the BSFA Award shortlists got off to a bad start, thanks to needing to work and to being a bit under the weather during February. And, given the general feeling of ennui that has assailed me recently, I’m not sure Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan will turn out to have been the best place to start.

It is not that I actively dislike the novel; it is more that I can’t quite seem to make sense of the various facets of the plot and the way in which they hang together. Or, more accurately, the way they don’t quite hang together. And yet, I never felt totally lost or disoriented; it was more that at times I felt as though I had blinked and missed something, but no amount of going back over the previous few pages could reveal what it was I thought I hadn’t quite seen. This might, in some circumstances, be considered a plus rather than a minus. Fiction that disorients the reader intentionally is always interesting, but this didn’t seem to me to be Sullivan’s intention. Perhaps I should see it instead as a fast-moving romp, best read rapidly in order to bridge the crevasses that appear every time a couple of plot pieces don’t quite butt up to one another? When I say that I think of Maul which was, in its way, something of a romp, or more accurately, a siege; but no, that’s not what is going on in Lightborn, and I am anyway not persuaded that novels that have to be read fast in order to accommodate structural flaws are a good thing.

It’s not good, though; I can’t get past these oddities. For example, what should I make of the way in which this novel is pegged so very firmly in time, beginning in 2004, but a 2004 that is not quite familiar. Superficially the world is similar but the computer technology has either developed along different lines somewhere in the past or is simply far more advanced than anything we’re used to, in which case, how did that happen?

Terms are bandied around – ‘shine’ and ‘lightborn’ – in such a way as to suggest that the reader will of course know what they are, as a result of which it is quite difficult to determine what they actually do mean. Shine seems to be both drug and app, depending on what you do with it. Lightborn seems to mean both the system producing shine and those who partake of it. And most people do, once they reach a certain age, a kind of techno-puberty that is apparently hard to avoid. Yet we know that people can and do abstain from using it. Roksana fakes her reasons for not using shine (in fact, she can’t) while Amir, her father, a former Rider, has not engaged with the system for some time, although he does now, to earn extra money. But how does it really work? We’re not told; this is something we seem, as readers, to be asked to overlook.

The vagueness of the way in which shine and lightborn are portrayed suggests that they are intended so much a part of the novel’s culture that no one really thinks about them any more. Sullivan’s novel offers a glimpse of a world where the relationship between human and something that is close to an AI has become utterly commonplace, though there are degrees of involvement (Roksana’s mother is a lightborn addict and Amir’s being a Rider is problematic). It’s all very vague, and it is difficult to grasp what is and isn’t acceptable in this alternative place, though inevitably when something goes wrong it’s only too clear what does happen: chaos.

Two years on, after the Field has been infiltrated by rogue AIs, closed down, brought back up, and Los Sombres consequently quarantined, what kind of world are we living in? It is actually very difficult to tell. The Triple Cross Ranch (and one wonders if that title is itself significant) seems positioned in some sort of borderland, caught between Los Sombres and the rest of the world, which seems to exist only as a place which is about to bombard Los Sombres. The ranch looks towards Los Sombres as a place of fear and a place to scavenge for supplies, but what about in the other direction. There are people out there; there are references to the Hopi living in the area, to their tribal council, not to mention to other people and groups acting as look-outs, but the siege mentality seems to be so complete it is impossible to get any real sense of what is happening. In the end, there is only one direction, towards Los Sombres, and almost everyone will make that journey again.

Ah, Los Sombres, the dark, the unknown place, the unfathomable place, the place where weird shit happens but, somehow, it makes sense. The place where the AIs wait for their saviour, their carrier, the person whom they can in turn Ride. There is a lot of horse/rider imagery in this novel. Doug and his son Rex are cowboys, in an old-fashioned sense of saddling up, patrolling the fences. Powaqa, the Hopi woman, ‘trains’ horses, or rather employs shine to control them and send them into the town for supplies. Xavier will in turn be trained by the AIs for their purpose while Amir is both Rider and ridden. There is a tension between the wild and the domesticated throughout the novel, between making a life out of chaos and recognising that things still need to change. I was especially struck by how Amir’s safe spaces, created to protect Roksana, are a combination of children’s playhouses and modernist machines for living, fun yet filled with fascinating contrivance for survival. I was reminded of a number of my favourite post-disaster novels, particularly things like Pat Murphy’s The City, Not Longer After, with their sense of a suspension of everyday life, the possibility of something new and creative emerging from the chaos and the inexplicable holes in the story.

And yet, throughout Lightborn I had an odd sense of déjà-vu. I kept thinking I had seen something like this before, a long time ago. But what and where? Then I remembered. Does this small moment from Lightborn remind you of anything?

Xavier peeled one eyelid back and the man’s feedback light emitted a feeble bean in the afternoon soon. American Dream insignia. Top of the line, and the beam lacked an alphanumeric. Probably custom. (31)

Neuromancer, perhaps? Not quite. Try Count Zero instead. There are a surprising number of resonances between the two novels; what set me thinking about a certain similarity was the voodoo terminology Gibson employed: the voodoo deities or AIs or whatever they were – Gibson was, in his way, equally vague – ‘ride’ human ‘horses’ when they appear in the everyday world. it seems to me that the same thing is happening here. Whether the fact that the main horse in Lightborn is called Bob Newhart is deliberately intended to resonate with Count Zero’s given name, Bobby Newmark I have no idea (not least because Bob Newhart is also an American comedian) but there is a level of coincidence I find it difficult to ignore, in particular the adolescents being represented as the fulfilment of prophecies emanating from the AIs struggling for autonomy.

Almost twenty-five years divide the two novels which in turn prompts me to wonder why, in 2011, Sullivan is still playing around with something Gibson was writing about in 1986, and at a point where it seems so old-fashioned she is practically obliged to point this out by actually setting Lightborn in the past. A homage to Gibson, perhaps, yet cyberspace has been almost parodically domesticated. Or is this the real downside of Gibson’s shiny hi-tech world? Or, is it simply that sf has become so bereft of ideas we need to go back and mine one of those great seminal moments in sf literature.

Which brings me back to where I began with this novel. I don’t actively dislike it but I still can’t make sense of it in fictional terms, not even if I choose to read it against William Gibson’s first three novels. In fact, especially not if I choose to read it against Gibson’s novels.

Since I began scratching away at this piece (rather like my attempt to read  the novel, this has proceeded slowly and then been suddenly finished in a burst of activity), Lightborn  has also been shortlisted for the Clarke Award. I still have a number of books to read on both shortlists so it would be folly to make a definitive statement about this book’s chances. However, I think it’s weaker than the books on the Clarke shortlist I’m familiar with, but even the highly informed voters of the BSFA Award might go for something that is, despite everything, an enjoyable read, if you ignore what’s going on at the sides of the stage.