BSFA Short Fiction and Non-Fiction, 2018

Rounding up my votes in the other two BSFA categories (see also Best Novel and Best Art Work).

Best Short Fiction

No less than seven shortlisted works this year, five of which I liked. (Though this means there must have been at least a three-way tie for fifth place, which indicates a rather low turnout at the second stage of nominating.)

7) The Land of Somewhere Safe, by Hal Duncan. Second paragraph of third chapter:

So presently then, she’s snug in nightie, dressing gown and slippers, peeping into the kitchen to find Peter scoffing down his third bowl of cullen skink, and a clean bowl waiting for herself, and Mrs Macleod with a ladle: In and sit ye down, Lass.

I didn't really understand what was going on here – the use of language looked clever but it was too much like hard work for me. You can get it here.

6) Exit Strategy, by Martha Wells. Second paragraph of third chapter:

I crossed one of the multi-level plazas, where humans and augmented humans were sitting singly and in groups at scattered tables and chairs, talking, viewing entertainment media on the displays, or working in their feeds. Surveillance was tight so I started one of the new codes I had written on the way here.

Lots of people love this series about an anthropomorphic robot that is programmed to kill. Personally, I hate stories about cute robots, even cute killer robots, and this didn't change my views. You can get it here.

5) Phosphorus, by Liz Williams. Second paragraph of third chapter:

I couldn’t tell whether Essegui was relieved or not to see the back of me: we’d always been quite fond of each other–at least, I’d thought so–but since recent events she’d taken to looking at me sidelong, as if trying to anticipate what I might do. Or what I might change into. It upset me to see the suspicion in her eyes, but it also made me angry. Did she think I might turn on her? But in the dark of the night, as I tossed and turned, the little sneaking thought would come: she might be right.

I liked all of the rest of the shortlisted stories. This was an intense tale of family secrets and ancient mysteries on Mars. Wasn't quite sure how the two narratives hung together, but I enjoyed the read. You can get it here.

4) "The Gift of Angels: an Introduction", by Nina Allan (Clarkesworld). Second paragraph of third section:

In the image he talked about, the woman’s mouth is partially obscured by her hair as it blows back across her face. In my father’s moment of epiphany, Mum’s head is thrown back as she laughs uproariously at a joke made by one of her companions. They are seated around a table outside a cafe on the rue Linné, in the 5th arrondissement. The sun glints off cutlery, coffee cups, the rims of glasses. My father is walking past them, away from the Jardin des Plantes and towards the metro. Hearing my mother’s laughter, he turns his head. He looks straight at her, gazing into her eyes as into a painting.

Gripping atmospheric story of family and romance set in Paris a few decades from now. Heavily rooted in two films which I haven't seen, which is on me rather than the author, but that meant I bounced off some of the cultural references, and also it seemed odd that in a story set decades ahead, culture seems to have stopped in the meantime. Generally good stuff though. You can read it here.

3) "The Purpose of the Dodo is to be Extinct", by Malcolm Devlin (Interzone #275). Second paragraph of third chapter:

(1.1) Articles fallen upon subject. (Definition: articles struck subject at force, directly OR indirectly causing physical trauma which led directly to death.)

A fun story of cross-time-stream problems, the guy who always dies at the same time whichever parallel universe he is in and the attempts to work out what is really going on. Comedic tone appealed to me as well. You can get the relevant issue of Interzone here.

2) "Kingfisher", by Marian Womack (Lost Objects). Second paragraph of third chapter:

My dreams were getting more elaborate each night: the less I wrote the more I dreamed, apparently. I got some more reclaimed paper and cut each sheet in four pieces. Then I used my yarn needle and some leftover yarn to tie it together. I put the little notebook on my bedside table with a pencil. The first night I had carefully prepared it all, sharpened the pencil, etc., nothing happened of course. But I left it there, just in case. Soon I started filling the notebook with ideas for short stories, impressions from my dreams, strange landscapes. If Jonas had read it he would have mocked me. But I knew somehow that I would understand the labyrinth of impressions when the time came to sit down and finally write.

A very different, grim story of a relationship breaking down in a near future world where we have had environmental catastrophe and yet middle-class struggle against harsh economic reality continues, as does the battle against patriarchy. Vividly realised and tautly told. You can get the full collection here.

1) Time Was, by Ian McDonald. Second paragraph of third chapter:

There were enough clues in the letter for me to place and roughly date it. The references to Osborne House and the Heliopolis Club immediately identified Cairo; Al Max and the Western Harbour landmarked Alexandria. The line about hearing the guns placed the time around either the first or second battle of El Alamein. The front was only eighty kilometers west of Alexandria—Montgomery’s line in the sand—and on a still night, across the waters of Mareotis, notorious for how they warped sounds and closed up spaces so that a distant conversation was as intimate as a whisper, it would be possible to hear the artillery. I can’t imagine any troops being rotated home in British Egypt’s darkest hour, so I inclined more towards the Second Battle of El Alamein in October. A place and a time. Five minutes online would give me the British order of battle in Egypt in 1942. I glanced again at the letter. I suppose His Majesty needs his photo-boy more than I do. Ben served in Intelligence. This would be fun. It was then that I realized I had dreamed through my stops, and I regained enough presence of mind to push onto the platform as the doors were closing.

Fantastic queer romance timeslip war story, tying in lots of lovely detail (both historical and narrative) and building to a conclusion that I didn't quite see coming. Gets my top vote. You can get it here.

Best Non-Fiction

I'm really hampered this year, in that three of the short-listed finalists are series of review columns in publications that I don't generally read. I may get around to reading enough of some of them to feel that I can form a judgement, but voting closes in less than six days from now so it may not happen…

The remaining two are both good solid pieces. I am putting Aliette de Bodard's essay, "On motherhood and erasure: people-shaped holes, hollow characters and the illusion of impossible adventures", second of the two – it's a critically important topic, but I think also it deserves a longer treatment than this, and also I think that 1600 words is in general too short for a BSFA-winning piece. You can (and should) read it here. It is too short to have chapters; the third paragraph (plus footnote) is:

To put it bluntly, mothers are just not there [1]. While pregnancy is either monstrous or sacred, either body horror or the delivery of the chosen child, motherhood is defined by its absence. We aren’t characters: we are people-shaped holes. We are empty spaces or hollowed-out characters, whose sole purpose–when the story bothers to give us one–is to erase ourselves for the sake of our children.
[1] Throughout this blog post, I’ll be making a deliberate gendered distinction, because the set of expectations is vastly different between cis mothers and fathers. People who don’t fall in either of these categories (trans, non-binary people, and other marginalised genders and sexes) are even more at risk of erasure, othering, demonization, etc.

So my top vote (as of now) goes to Publishing the Science Fiction Canon: The Case of Scientific Romance, by Adam Roberts, a short monograph that looks at the links between the development of the book market, mass literacy and sf as it was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I learned a lot from it, not just about the history of the genre. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

This latter fact [better public education] is the horizon within which all book production necessarily exists: books, after all, cannot be sold to an illiterate audience. The UK Parliament passed a number of Elementary Education Acts between 1870 and 1893, and these vastly increased levels of literacy amongst the general population. In 1840, less than two-thirds of grooms and less than half of brides in England and Wales could sign their own names at marriage; in 1900, 97 per cent of both groups could do so (fully functional literacy, sufficient for reading novels for pleasure, would have been lower in both cases of course, but these numbers give a sense of the magnitude of the social shift). Similar moves in France reduced the percentages of illiteracy from 53 per cent of men and 73 per cent of women in 1790 to 23 per cent of men and 33 per cent of women in 1876. By 1900, both numbers were in the low single figures (Woods, The Demography of Victorian England and WalesLire et écrire: l’alphabétisation des français de Calvin à Jules Ferry).

You can get it here. Thouigh as I said, I may bump in some of the reviews if I manage to look at them in the next few days.

One thought on “BSFA Short Fiction and Non-Fiction, 2018

  1. Broken Harbour? It’s the only one I’ve read so far, and it was well worth reading. I first heard of French when Ian Rankin was bragging on Twitter about how he had an advance copy of her newest book and how happy this made him. I’ve always found his recommendations sound. Nicholas, you should definitely try one.

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