Tag Archives: nina allan

Shagreen, or chagrin: the shadows begin to gather

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,

And he shows them pearly white

I’m going to try keep the shark references to a minimum over the next few months, not least because my fellow Shadow Clarke Award judge, Vajra Chandrasekera, is already staking out that piece of territory quite nicely, but that snatch of song just popped into my head. ‘The Shadow knows!’ flitted through my brain as I finished that sentence; I have no idea why, as I’d mostly been preoccupied with thinking about Babylon 5 until that point. Sometimes, the early-morning brain is a startling mish-mash of cultural fragments. But now, after a cup of tea, it’s time to work.

A week ago, Nina Allan announced that a group of writers, critics, readers and Clarke-watchers have come together to form a shadow jury for the 2017 Arthur Clarke Award. As Nina goes on to say:

We will be following the Clarke Award right from the beginning, selecting our ideal shortlists from the submissions, reading and reviewing those books and picking our own winners. Then, when the official shortlist is announced on May 3rd, we’ll be reading and reviewing those books, too, before having our own virtual judgely huddle and selecting the shadow winner of the Clarke Award, to be announced, in the honourable tradition of most shadow juries, the day before the unveiling of the official winner.

Other awards have shadow juries – the Booker, for one, and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, for another. But I can’t think of an sff award that has had a shadow jury before. (And yes, I am aware of the Not-the-Clarke panels at Eastercon, but I’m obviously going to argue that this is a different kind of project.) I did carry out my own informal shadow project on the Clarke Award a few years ago (The Shortlist Project), which was something of an eye-opener. I enjoyed the process on some levels but missed the discussions with other people and didn’t do it again. Which is one reason why I’m so glad to be involved in the Shadow Clarke jury this year. More people to talk to, and such people!

But more seriously, Nina’s initial post raised some important points, I’d like to reiterate here:

To survive and thrive, every branch of literature needs a robust, engaged and diverse critical hinterland. I’ve been concerned for some years that the discussion around science fiction literature in general and the Clarke Award in particular has not been as robust or as challenging as it might be …

I’ve shared Nina’s anxieties for some time, arising from my own reading, and from conversations with Nina herself. But how to articulate that feeling of dis-ease? It’s very easy to jump up and down and shout ‘what was the jury thinking? Was the jury even thinking?’ but that is unfair to each individual Clarke jury. They set their terms anew each year and go about their business as best they can. I’ve been a Clarke judge myself and it is no picnic. I’m sure a lot of people imagine it’s all ‘wow, free books’, but a look at the submissions list will tell you that the jewels are accompanied by a lot of dross – and yes, let’s be blunt about this, dross. This is not unique to the Clarke Award, by any means. I’ve been a Tiptree judge, and witnessed a Campbell Award judge at work; it goes with the territory. But while it’s worth being mindful of the fact that one woman’s dross is another man’s treasure, some dross is just dross …

If there is a problem, with the Clarke and other juried awards, it’s that … actually, there are two problems. One is that the jury’s deliberation is private, and indeed it should be, but as a result we have no access to the debate and can never know what prompted them to make certain decisions. There is probably horse-trading some years, and publishers are not always willing to have their titles submitted if they’re trying to market a book a certain way that is emphatically not science fiction. We don’t know, we can only guess, and it makes things difficult when a book doesn’t appear on a shortlist, and we ask ‘why didn’t they put that on?’ not knowing that the publisher couldn’t or wouldn’t submit. Judges can ask for books but that doesn’t mean they’ll arrive.

But the other problem is that when the shortlists roll out, ‘what were they thinking?’ is a quick and easy response, because it’s really hard to come up with anything else, in the absence of prior debate. And too often this becomes a veiled attack on the competence of the judges, which is not fair on them. They were asked to judge and they did their best in the circumstances. The one thing I will say is that it has seemed to me in recent years that the organisations who nominate judges have tended not to nominate practising critics, which means that one particular approach to sf has been neglected. And that may look like special pleading, but critics have their place in the ecosystem too, alongside the readers.

Which is the other reason I’m glad to be a part of this project: the freedom it affords to have a wide-ranging discussion about the whos, whats, whys and wherefores of science fiction in 2017, and how they pertain to the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I can’t speak for anyone else involved, but I’m taking it as an opportunity to test everything I’ve ever thought or felt about science fiction, using the submissions list, and the shortlists (ours and the actual Clarke Award shortlist) as bench marks.

I am a slightly late arrival, as ever, to the introductory posts-party. Nina Allan has already posted about the Shadow Clarke on her own blog, while Paul Kincaid laid out his stall over at Through the Dark Labyrinth. David Hebblethwaite isn’t blogging much at the moment, but he’s posting on Facebook and on Twitter and is well worth following in both those places. Megan AM, known to some of us on Twitter as @couchtomoon, has opted for a classier level of punning, invoking Gene Wolfe, and has posted about her involvement with the Shadow Clarke at her own blog, From Couch to Moon. Megan and I talked about the Clarke Award 2016, with Jonah Sutton-Morse, on his Cabbages and Kings podcast here and here, so I’m particularly pleased to be working with her again on this project. Jonathan McCalmont blogs at Ruthless Culture but hasn’t said anything about the Shadow Clarke there as yet; you can also find him being pithy at @apeinwinter (I said pithy). Victoria Hoyle gives her thoughts on the Shadow Clarke here, with moving pictures and all (but don’t expect that from me as it isn’t going to happen. I have an excellent face for podcasts). And Nick Hubble can be located at @contempislesfic on Twitter. You already know where to find Vajra’s blog but he is also on Twitter at @_vajra

But most important of all, this project is taking place under the auspices of the shiny new Anglia Ruskin Centre for Research into Science Fiction and Fantasy, based in Cambridge, and run by Helen Marshall. This is incredibly exciting, not least because we hope it will bring even more people to the discussion. We’ll be publishing our thoughts there as well as on our blogs, and talking on Twitter (#shadowclarke).

I’ll also try to collate material from the internet about this project on Paper Knife as we go along.

File 770 has already covered the launch of the Shadow Clarke; some of the comments were interesting, especially from people who had never encountered the notion of a shadow jury before. And I utterly refute the Puppy comparisons.

Also, we have no influence whatsoever on the actual Clarke Award, as people have asked. We don’t get to put any titles on the shortlist. I rather hope the Clarke judges will entirely ignore us until it’s all over.

But that’s all for now. The Arthur C. Clarke Award submission list is out later today, so the work will begin in earnest.

Two final thoughts.

Sharkskin is also known as shagreen, and was once used as an abrasive to achieve a fine finish on wood. I’m not quite sure what that means here, but it feels significant.

And lastly, to finish off the verse I quoted at the beginning of this post,

Just a jack-knife has Macheath, dear

And he keeps it out of sight.

I mention it only because this is of course Paper Knife.

BSFA Awards shortlists

Two shortlists in one day, as the BSFA Awards shortlists were also announced yesterday. Another interesting set of nominations. And for the second time, Paul Kincaid, Karen Burnham and I are all up against one another in the Best Non-Fiction category.

Best Artwork:

Richard Anderson for the cover of Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley, published by Angry Robot Books.

Blacksheep for the cover of Bête by Adam Roberts, published by Gollancz

Tessa Farmer for her sculpture The Wasp Factory, after Iain Banks.

Jeffery Alan Love for the cover of Wolves by Simon Ings, published by Gollancz

Andy Potts for the cover of Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall, published by Egmont

Best Non-Fiction:

Paul Kincaid for Call and Response, published by Beccon Books

Jonathan McCalmont for ‘Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens: A Look at Two New Short Fiction Magazines’

Edward James, for Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers and the First World War

Strange Horizons: Nina Allan, Dan Hartland, Martin Lewis, Juliet McKenna, Kari Sperring, Maureen Kincaid Speller for The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium

Karen Burnham for Greg Egan, published by University of Illinois Press

Best Short Fiction:

Ruth E J Booth for “The Honey Trap”, published in La Femme, Newcon Press

Octavia Cade for The Mussel Eater,  published by The Book Smugglers

Benjanun Sriduangkaew for  Scale Bright, published by Immersion Press

Best Novel:

Nina Allan, for The Race, published by Newcon Press

Frances Hardinge, for Cuckoo Song, published by Macmillan

Dave Hutchinson, for Europe in Autumn, published by Solaris

Simon Ings, for Wolves, published by Gollancz

Ann Leckie, for Ancilliary Sword, published by Orbit

Claire North, for The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, published by Orbit

Nnedi Okorafor,  for Lagoon, published by Hodder

Neil Williamson, for The Moon King, published by Newcon Press

 

Kitschies Awards shortlists

It’s time for the Kitschies Awards shortlists  – always a highlight in my reading year. I’m very much looking forward to working my way through the lists.

2014 FINALISTS

The Red Tentacle (Novel)

  • Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith (Egmont)
  • The Peripheral, by William Gibson (Viking)
  • The Way Inn, by Will Wiles (4th Estate)
  • The Race, by Nina Allen (NewCon Press)

The Golden Tentacle (Debut)

  • Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre (Jonathan Cape)
  • The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne (Blackfriars)
  • Memory of Water, by Emmi Itäranta (HarperCollins)
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers (Self-Published)
  • The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara (Atlantic Books)

The Inky Tentacle (Cover Art)

  • The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, design by Steve Marking, lettering by Kimberly Glyder (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming, cover by Ben Summers (Hodder and Stoughton)
  • Through the Woods, cover by Emily Carroll and Sonja Chaghatzbanian (Faber and Faber)
  • The Book of Strange New Things, cover by Rafaela Romaya and Yehring Tong (Canongate)
  • Tigerman, cover by Glenn O’Neill (William Heinamann)

The Invisible Tentacle (Natively Digital Fiction)

  • echovirus12, created/curated by Jeff Noon @jeffnoon, Ed @3dgriffiths, James Knight @badbadpoet, violet sprite @gadgetgreen, Richard Biddle @littledeaths68, Mina Polen @polen, Uel Aramchek @ThePatanoiac, Graham Walsh @t_i_s_u, Vapour Vox @Wrong_Triangle
  • Kentucky Route Zero, Act III, by Cardboard Computer
  • 80 Days, by Inkle Studios
  • Sailor’s Dream, by Simogo

 

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