BSFA Best Non-fiction

Five finalists here, three of them online essays and two monographs. I found it pretty easy to rank them, and I will be very surprised if voters choose something other than my own first preference. (Having said that, I was surprised last year!)

5) “Preliminary Observations From An Incomplete History of African SFF”, by Wole Talabi

Second paragraph of third section, with footnotes and graphs:

The database contains 30 nationalities represented by 497 authors, but Nigeria and South Africa make up more than 73% of the works. Reasons for this are likely colonial legacies of proximity to Western publishing, size, economics, etc. Looking at this in the context of population[3] and gross domestic product (GDP)[4] and limiting to countries with total works having proportional significance (> 1%), it’s clear that these are key factors in the trend, and the number of works is most strongly correlated to GDP with a linear regression R2 value of 0.97. South Africa produces a lot more than its population would suggest, and Ghana and Tanzania produce less.
[3] Based on the United Nations (UN) official 2021 statistics.
[4] Estimates for 2022 from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

I’m always up for a good bit of statistical analysis, and this has some decent crunchy numbers about science fiction in Africa. I must say that I am surprised to see so little from Francophone countries (let alone others) and wonder if there is some selection effect going on. The writer disarmingly admits up front that it is incomplete.

While I found it interesting, I’m not ranking it higher than fifth out of five. The main text has less than 1100 words.

4) “Too Dystopian for Whom? A Continental Nigerian Writer’s Perspective”, by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki

Third paragraph (there are no sections):

It has often been surmised, most especially around discussions of war, climate change, natural disasters, and more recently the outbreak of COVID-19, in articles like this in Wired and on The Apeiron Blog we are living in a dystopia. This realization has weaned many of the need for apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian fiction, and has them preferring instead to immerse themselves in lighter, more upbeat and positive work. This is of course valid, as we all must do what we feel right. But beyond personal preferences of individuals for lighter, “happier” works in this period of gloom, there is a wider and more general assertion that dystopias, apocalypses, grimdark, dark fantasy, and the like are now unnecessary because we live in and have it all around us. A Publishers Weekly piece talks about dystopian fiction losing its lustre due to the pandemic and spells doom for the subgenre of doom. But is this really so? In a viral tweet, the account tweets its disagreement, which I quite agree with, saying that “Dystopian fiction is when you take things that happen in real life to marginalized populations and apply them to people with privilege.” The dystopian reality is not new and has been with us for a while. Its fictionalizing continues till date despite those debates regarding its relevance or necessity.

Another very interesting piece, making the point that a lot of concepts which European and US writers consider to be the stuff of dystopian fiction are happening right now in the reality of Africa, specifically in Nigeria. It’s an important perspective and I hope people read it. I’m marking it down, however, for two reasons: first, it could have done with a bit of editorial smoothing – it reads rather first draft-y (even the above paragraph shows this); second, again, it is rather short (3100 words) and I prefer the BSFA Award for Non-Fiction to celebrate substantive contributions.

3) “The Critic and the Clue: Tracking Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker“, by the much-missed Maureen Kincaid Speller

Second paragraph of third section:

Similarly, Garner has ranged back and forth in time. The Stone Book Quartet (1976–8), ostensibly about Garner’s own family—and its cantankerous patriarch, the stonemason, Robert—brought with it the first hint of Garner’s interest in deep time. When Robert takes his daughter, Mary, under Alderley Edge to visit a chamber whose clay floor is marked by thousands of footprints, representing all the Garners who has visited it, we are asked to marvel at this sense of continuity. It is presented as a family rite of passage, although so far as anyone knows, there was no actual family ritual of this sort.

One of MKS’s last bits of criticism, this is a detailed examination both of the reception and of the content of Alan Garner’s recent novel, ending with a reflection on the role of the critic which is perhaps a suitable envoi for her own career. Over 8,000 words, which is getting a bit more substantial compared to the two above. I have not read Treacle Walker, and to be honest Maureen’s review doesn’t strongly incline me to do so. But I like her ending:

As I’ve noted, disagreeing is very much part of the critical process. And reviews are part of the critical process too, even if, in this instance, they do not offer that much critical insight into the novel.

And it is the insight I’m in search of, both when I read criticism and when I write it. I’m not interested in whether X likes a novel, any more than you should be interested in whether I dislike a novel. The questions should always be, “What is this piece of fiction doing, does it work, and if not, why not?” Everything else unfolds from that.

2) Management Lessons from Game of Thrones: Organization Theory and Strategy in Westeros, by Fiona Moore

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The first type of leadership theories we will be considering are the earliest to emerge, largely between the 1920s and the 1960s, and are known as “behavioural theories of leadership”. What they have in common is that they generally assume (a) that there are leaders (as opposed to followers); (b) that leaders can be identified and classified into types; and (c) that those types can be defined by certain ways of behaving. Despite their age, they also, more or less overtly, still tend to have a strong influence on popular management literature and leadership teaching, and some of them have passed into popular culture with regard to leaders and leadership.

Fiona Moore is a professor of Business Anthropology in her day job, and a fan and critic on the side (at least I think it’s that way round), and this is her elucidation of some of the principles of basic management theory as they are demonstrated in the TV series Game of Thrones, with occasional reference to the books where needed. It’s always useful for someone like me to see some of the principles I find myself engaged with at work applied in fiction, so in a sense the book ticks both a fannish box and a professional box for me. Also mercifully short.

1) Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes, by Rob Wilkins

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Granny Pratchett, Terry’s paternal grandmother, rolled her own cigarettes. Then, having smoked them, she would take the butts from the ashtray, pick the paper apart and return any strands of unburnt tobacco to the tin where she kept her supply. Waste not, want not. As Terry wrote in a short essay about her in 2004, ‘As a child this fascinated me, because you didn’t need to be a mathematician to see that this meant there must have been some shreds of tobacco she’d been smoking for decades, if not longer.’

This is also a very good book about a very important subject. A lot of us know parts of the Terry Pratchett story – I first heard him speak in public in Cambridge in, I think, 1987, and last saw him at the 2010 Discworld Convention, and spoke to him a couple of times in between. It’s lovely to have it all between two covers, with the laughs and the tears, and with Rob also explaining the complicated nature of his relationship with Terry over the years, beginning as amanuensis and ending as nurse. At 439 pages, it’s easily twice as long as the other four finalists combined, and also surely has more weight and relevance than the other four combined; I am voting for it and I expect that others will do so as well.

I’m conscious that I have ranked these in order of increasing length; but to be honest, if we are ranking finalists by the extent of their contribution to our appreciation of the genre, length is an important indicator of the magnitude of that impact. It’s nice that the BSFA final ballot has a certain diversity of form, but it doesn’t always turn into a fair comparison for the shorter pieces.