BSFA Award for Best Non-Fiction

This is the ninth year that I have blogged about my BSFA votes, though I haven't consistently noted my choices in this category (I did so for 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016). This year we have one monograph, two essays and two series of blog posts, leading to the usual problems of comparing apples, oranges and mangoes. I think I have to take form as well as content into account; a series of blog posts will always be under a disadvantage for me in that it doesn't represent a complete structured argument, and the reading experience (unless you were following the posts contemporaneously as they were written) is necessarily more frustrating than that of reading a single piece or a finished book.

5) That said, my fifth and lowest preference goes to Vandana Singh's essay "The Unthinkability of Climate Change: Thoughts on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement". Since it has no chapters or sections, here is the third paragraph:

Amitav Ghosh, in his relatively brief but urgent book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, offers some possible ways to understand this silence, via excursions through the history of the modern novel, the inadequacy (as he claims) of science fiction to handle the ongoing climate crisis, and reflections on historical and political forces that have brought us to this moment in time. The essays are drawn from lectures given at the University of Chicago in 2015, and their titles—“Stories,” “History,” and “Politics”—are arranged in the Contents page at the corners of a triangle. The nonlinear placement of these topics suggests a concept map of overlapping ideas, as well as the possibility that the essays may be read in any order, which is more or less borne out when one reads the book.

Singh's essay is a sympathetic critique of Ghosh's assertion that sf as a genre does not engage with climate change. I must have been reading different sf to Singh and Ghosh, because Brian Aldiss won a Hugo for Hothouse in 1962 and won two BSFA awards for Helliconia in the 1980s, Sarah Hall won the Tiptree for The Carhullan Army ten years ago, Kim Stanley Robinson keeps writing about it, I was one of the Clarke Award judges who shortlisted Emmi Itäranta's Memory of Water in 2015, and only a couple of months ago I read an sf novel with a post-global warming setting by a Nobel Prize winner. Singh does give Robinson and Itäranta shout-outs in the essay (along with Octavia E. Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin), but otherwise seems to accept Ghosh's framing of the situation. I think Ghosh is wrong, and Singh is wrong to accept Ghosh's assertion.

Singh and Ghosh legitimately urge the consideration of climate change from the perspective of countries like India. But this is not the only valid alternative perspective. Perhaps my experience of engaging with the issue is atypical – I had the honour of working with the late Tony De Brum of the Marshall Islands on his campaign to prevent his homeland (already devastated by American military exploitation, including nuclear weapons) from disappearing beneath the waves. I don't think either Singh or, by Singh's account, Ghosh, accurately reflects the breadth and depth of the climate change debate as it is experienced by some of the developing nations who are most at risk.

Climate change is a vitally important issue, and it's right that Singh and Ghosh should call attention to it and challenge sf writers to talk about it, but this essay doesn't get my vote. (I might feel differently if there were any serious writers, other than a couple of Puppies, arguing the denialist perspective.)

4) After this it gets a bit trickier. All of the other four nominees seem to me to be worthy. Form rather than content starts to come into it now, and I think my fourth place goes to The 2017 Shadow Clarke Award blog, in part because of navigation issues; there is no chronological index, so, as a reader coming to it fresh in 2018, it's difficult to orient yourself. The third piece is a reprint of Paul Kincaid's introduction to The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology (2006), recounting how the award started, and its second paragraph is:

The meeting was chaired by Professor John Radford of what was then the North East London Polytechnic, quondam home of the Science Fiction Foundation. We knew, of course, John Clute and Edward James, and also George Hay. The stranger was introduced as Maurice Goldsmith of the International Science Policy Foundation, a lobbying organisation on behalf of science whose function was never exactly clear to me. It was Maurice who had started this whole ball rolling.

I did find most of the blogposts which I read here interesting, and often enlightening. However there was a rather unfortunate tone in some of them, particularly those who firmly stipulated that they knew what the Clarke Award was for, beyond what is stated in the rubric. I feel pretty strongly that the Clarke judges' decisions deserve to be treated as acts of good faith, even if they are decisions about which reasonable people may disagree, no matter how personally invested you may feel about the award. (Full disclosure: as stated above, I am a former Clarke judge myself.) There is a line between what is reasoned critique and what is not, and to my mind if you say that if a particular book were to win, "I will no longer ask what is the point of the Clarke Award, because I will know it has no point", you are perilously close to that line. A couple of years back I was accused by the creator of the Sad Puppies of having stated that if he won the Campbell Award it would "end literature forever", which would definitely have been on the silly side of the line had I actually said it; in fact I said only that it would be "embarrassing" and would "take us way back to the past", not quite the same thing, though I can understand that some may not see those comments as reasoned critique.

3) In third place I am putting Juliet E. McKenna's essay "The Myth of Meritocracy and the Reality of the Leaky Pipe and Other Obstacles in Science Fiction & Fantasy" from the Luna Press collection Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction (PDF). Again, there are no sections or chapters, so here is the third paragraph, with footnotes:

When looking for evidence of Gatekeepers in SF&F, it is immediately apparent that women are now well represented at the highest levels of genre publishing, as commissioning editors and editorial directors in both the UK and the US. This is not to say women cannot be misogynist or subject to other prejudices but the numbers of new books from different groups being promoted for 2017 would argue against gross, systemic bias at this entry stage. Barnes & Noble’s list of 96 titles recommended by SF and Fantasy editors1 has 48 titles by authors readily identifiable as men, compared to the rest. The Verge2 website’s article on 33 SF and fantasy titles ‘that everyone will be talking about in 2017’ offers 18 titles by self-evidently male authors.

1 96 Books Sci-Fi & Fantasy Editors Can’t Wait for You to Read in 2017
2 33 science fiction and fantasy books that everyone will be talking about in 2017

It's a solid and sobering exposure of how sf publishing fails the voices of half the population, an iteration of the various obstacles that women writers face in being published and recognised compared to their male counterparts – this is an important piece of research which deserves the exposure of the BSFA shortlist.

2) The two remaining entries are both concerned with the works of a single author. Adam Roberts does at least have an index for his series Wells at the World's End, which makes it more accessible than the other nominated blog. The third entry is nominally about Wells' early novel Select Conversations with an Uncle (now Extinct), though in fact it starts by discussing Wells' very first book, a biology textbook. The second paragraph is:

That title, incidentally, is Text Book on the front cover, Text-Book on the title page, and Textbook in later reprints. ‘We met the demand for biological tutoring as it had never been met before and if it was a strange sort of biology we taught, that was the fault of the university examinations.’ The whole thing is available online here, and, as you might expect, it makes for dull reading. After Wells became famous the book was reprinted in 1909, as by Wells, ‘revised by J. T. Cunningham’; and it was reprinted yet again in 1932, when Wells was even more famous, with further revisions by W. H. Leigh-Sharpe. But though these present the book as still Wells's, in fact almost all of his writing, and every last one of his original drawings, have been taken out, and the whole book rewritten and re-illustrated. Which gives some sense of the scientific merit of the original edition.

Somehow I've ended up engaging a lot with Wells in the last few months, and I find considerable sympathy with Roberts' obsessive determination to read the entire corpus of Wells' published writings from beginning to end (having done one or two projects like that myself). Certainly some of these pieces made me want to either return to old favourites or to expand my Wells reading further. And they do what I want from genre critique, to tell me more about the things I have read and encourage me to read more stuff that I will enjoy. However, I also think that in general a series of blog posts which finished in 2018 should be eligible for that year and not for 2017.

1) Having been a bit mean to Paul Kincaid earlier, I have no hesitation in giving his Iain M. Banks my top vote. This is the second paragraph of the third chapter, with footnotes.

Above all, by Easter 1990 every one of the seven novels that had been published to date had been both a commercial and a critical success. Even his most recent book, Canal Dreams, reckoned by Banks himself to be one of his weakest, had been respectfully received. In Vector, Kev McVeigh had called it “a hard hitting piece of fiction” and “his most effective writing yet.”3 But despite the rich variety of the Iain Banks novels, Iain M. Banks was known only as the writer of the Culture novels. It was inevitable, therefore, that he would be asked during his guest-of-honor speech about future Culture novels, and it was probably a surprise when he replied that Use of Weapons would be “the last one for a couple of books. The book after that will be non-sf and the next sf due out in two years’ time will be a non-‘Culture’ story” (Eastcon 6). Banks was preparing the ground for the fact that the next science fiction novel, and indeed the one after, would be a deliberate “digression from his main theme to see if he could in fact do without the Culture as a narrative element.”4 Or as Banks himself put it later: “I always enjoy writing Culture novels, I feel at home; it’s my train set, I built it, I chewed that papier mache! I love writing Culture novels—it’s almost too much of a self-indulgence. That’s why I deliberately took two books away from the Culture to reassure myself that I wasn’t so besotted with it that I couldn’t write science fiction elsewhere.”5 The next science fiction novel (or, to be more precise, the next novel under the name “Iain M. Banks”) would be Against a Dark Background. This was actually one of the earliest of Banks’s novels, written immediately after his first attempt to write Use of Weapons but based on an idea developed even earlier, during his first year at university. It dates, therefore, from a time when Banks was simply trying to be a science fiction writer and when the Culture was the background for one novel only rather than the basis for a long-running and highly popular series. Now, given the fan base the Culture had already acquired, abandoning that setting was probably as radical a venture as the move into science fiction in the first place.

3 McVeigh, “Canal Dreams,” 18.
4 MacGillivray, Iain Banks, 8.
5 Branscombe, “Iain M. Banks.”

In a better world, Iain Banks would have turned 64 last month and would have published his thirtieth novel some time last year, or maybe even the year before; and we'd be debating his eligibility for this year's awards. We live in an imperfect world. Some popular authors disappear as soon as their career is over, but Iain Banks won't be one of them, and Paul Kincaid explains why in a succinct but thorough survey of his literary career, part of the same University of Illinois series as Edward James' Lois McMaster Bujold, which I read last year. I found the analysis of Banks' politics particularly enlightening, as that's the sea that I swim in; but it was also very interesting to read of the influence of Alasdair Gray's Lanark, R.D. Laing, T.S. Eliot, and Erving Goffmann's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life which includes some research in Scotland and which I read recently.

I met Iain Banks myself only a couple of timesdue by next Friday).

That concludes my write-ups for this year's BSFA awards. For the first time since 2013, I won't be at Eastercon this year – I plan to spend the night of the awards ceremony in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, where I will have a mildly political dinner and will hope to catch up with news of the winners at the end of the evening.

My votes in other categories:

Best Novel
1) Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid
2) Provenance, by Ann Leckie
3) The Rift, by Nina Allan
4) Dreams Before the Start of Time, by Anne Charnock

Best Short Fiction
1) The Enclave, by Anne Charnock
2) The Murders of Molly Southbourne, by Tade Thompson
3) “Angular Size” by Geoff Nelder
4) “All These Constellations Will Be Yours”, by Elaine Cuyegkeng
5) Uncanny Valley by Greg Egan

Best Artwork
1) Geneva Benton – Sundown Towns
2) Galen Dara – Illustration for ‘These Constellations Will Be Yours’ by Elaine Cuyegkeng
3) Victo Ngai – Illustration for ‘Waiting on a Bright Moon’ by JY Yang
4) Marcin Wolski – Cover for 2084 edited by George Sandison
5) Jim Burns – Cover for The Ion Raider by Ian Whates
6) Chris Moore – Cover for The Memoirist by Neil Williamson