My votes for BSFA Best Non-Fiction 2016

This is the second year that the BSFA has had its two-stage vote system in effect, and for the second year in succession I think it’s had a positive impact particularly in this category, where some very odd stuff was showing up in the early part of this decade (like, a novel in this non-fiction category back in 2010, and a poorly written essay in 2013).

It’s good to see academic treatments of sf getting extra prominence via the shortlist as well, even though it does mean that there is some variation of format among the entries, with blog posts and series of blog posts jostling monographs and essays. But I don’t think that is avoidable; there’s not really enough interest in the category to allow splitting into sub-categories.

So, all that being said, here is my ranking, in reverse order, with the second paragraph of the third chapter or section of each shortlisted work. (None of the BSFA shortlist is on the Hugo final ballot, so I am unrestrained.)

Not Ranked: “New Model Authors? Authority, Authordom, Anarchism and the Atomized Text in a Networked World”, Paul Graham Raven (Adam Roberts: Critical Essays)

Second paragraph of third section:

So the framings of Crowe’s with which I am here concerned are those of ephemerality and utopianism, and I shall deal with the latter first. Writing on the history of the utopian form in science fiction, Edward James (2003: 219) contends that the SF utopia has ‘mutated [ … ] into something very different from the classic utopia’, due to ‘the profound way in which utopianism has permeated SF’; this resulted in the subgenre of ‘technological utopianism’, in which the formation of the utopian society is achieved partly or totally through technological or scientific means, as opposed to the predominantly political; these utopias are defined less by a static, perfected society than a ‘continued struggle and progress’ ( James, 2003: 222). Meanwhile Ken MacLeod (2003: 238), in a survey of political forms in science fiction taken from the same volume, observes that ‘the closest analogy for a functioning anarchy is the internet’, a model whose attractiveness is rooted in the way in which it ‘vastly extends both private initiative and public space’ (MacLeod, 2003: 239). While the basic analogy still holds, however, technological progress has (perhaps counterintuitively) undermined the latter of the two extensional powers MacLeod ascribes to it.

This is a very well done and well executed piece of work, and I really enjoyed reading it and can understand why people nominated it. However it is clearly a work of fiction, so I won’t vote for it at all in the Best Non-Fiction category. I won’t say more to avoid spoiling the joke.

5) “Breaking the Cycle of the Golden Age: Jack Glass and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy”, Anna McFarlane (Adam Roberts: Critical Essays)

Second paragraph of third section:

In Jack Glass, this plurality is shown as silence, just as the Occupy movement’s lack of a cohesive political programme was experienced as silence by the political and financial elites. However, this silence is a powerful resistance due to the interplay between silence and servility in the text and its intertexts. Part 3 of the novel, ‘The Impossible Gun’, sees Jack Glass, Diana Argent, and her once-servant Sapho arrive at the Sump where they seek someone who can access information from a droid that they have in their possession. The droid has witnessed a murder which the group believe to be recorded in its memory, if only they can access it. Since Karl Čapek’s 1920 play R. U. R. first coined the word ‘robot’ (from ‘robota’, the Czech word for ‘forced labour’),18 robots have been used in science fiction to represent the working classes, the ‘trillions’ of the Jack Glass galaxy on whose labour the capitalist system relies. Texts featuring robots have revealed a bourgeois fear of revolution in that the earliest pulp stories about robots and mechanical men often portrayed robots running amok and destroying bourgeois society. Asimov wrote that,

By the time I was in my late teens and already a hardened science fiction reader, I had read many robot stories and found that they fell into two classes. In the first class there was the Robot-As-Menace… In the second class (a much smaller one) there was Robot-As-Pathos. In such stories the robots were lovable and were usually put upon by cruel human beings. These charmed me. (Asimov, 1995: 9)

One of two essays about Adam Roberts’ work on the list. I enjoyed Jack Glass when it was up for the BSFA Award four years ago; I was less convinced that it will have the staying power of the Foundation trilogy and didn’t feel I learned much from the comparison.

This was the only thing on the shortlist that I really bounced off.

4) “Introduction to The Big Book of Science Fiction“, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (The Big Book of Science Fiction)
Second paragraph of third section:

Conte philosophique translates as “philosophical story” or “fable of reason.” The contes philosophiques were used for centuries in the West by the likes of Voltaire, Johannes Kepler, and Francis Bacon as one legitimate way for scientists or philosophers to present their findings. The conte philosophique employs the fictional frame of an imaginary or dream journey to impart scientific or philosophical content. In a sense, the fantastical or science-fictional adventure became a mental laboratory in which to discuss findings or make an argument.

An ambitious attempt to summarise the history of science fiction in 18 pages, which pointed me in some new directions. Very interesting.

3) “100 African Writers of SFF“, Geoff Ryman ( blog posts, part 1, part 2)

Second paragraph of third section of Part 1 [Nairobi]:

Binyavanga [Wanaina] was a key figure in the selection of writers for Africa 39, credited with researching the writers, with Ellah Wakatama Allfrey editing and a panel of three judging the final list of the 39 best African writers under 40. Binyavanga is a mainstream figure but he has always defended science fiction and its role in African literature. He did a reading a couple of years ago at the London School of Economics and it got inside his father’s head in a mix of biography and stream of consciousness fiction—it also drew heavily on science for its metaphors: Higgs Boson for unknowabilty, neutrinos (I seem to remember) for people who don’t interact with others.

Second paragraph of third section of Part 2 [Writers in the UK]:

Her mother wore the latest cloth in the market and held her head high, for her daughter was young – had just finished university, in fact – and was doing strong things. Her father bought himself an ozo title; one could hear him laughing kwa-kwa-kwa as he sat with his friends on the veranda of his new house, drinking palm wine and eating bush meat, flicking flies with his horsetail whisk. Yes-men and boy-boys would sing his praise names from the compound below and he would get up to spray naira notes on them like manna. Life was good.

—From “Story, Story: A Tale Of Mothers And Daughters”

Ryman has been evangelising the increasing strength of Africa as a source of new and great sff for some time, and in these two posts he looks very specifically at writers in Kenya and in the U.K. It’s a convincing survey which again gave me some new things to look out for once I have time to start looking out for new things again.

2) “THEN: Science Fiction Fandom in the UK 1930-1980”, Rob Hansen

Second paragraph of third chapter:

In the summer of 1947 the Willises discovered, in a second-hand bookshop on Austin Street, something whose existence they had not previously suspected: a US edition of Astounding. This led to a frantic scouring of Belfast and surrounding districts that didn’t produce any other issues but which did turn up a copy of Walter Gillings’s prozine Fantasy. In the letter section was a missive from a Belfast fan, one James White. Walt Willis wrote to him and White replied on 26th August, a day thereafter known as Irish Fandom day, and arranged to meet. The group had been born, but for the first few months they were content to do little more than read through each other’s books and magazines and to combine their collecting efforts. In December 1947, Willis came across an ad for the British Fantasy Library in one of the prozines and wrote off for details. The reply came in the form of a scribbled note from Ron Holmes and a mess of duplicated BFL material, including Operation Fantast. Since OF offered magazines that Willis wanted he got in touch with editor Ken Slater about them and also asked if Slater could put him in touch with any other fans in Belfast. He couldn’t. In March 1948 the third OF appeared, and among its enclosures was a copy of the first issue of Norman Ashfield’s fanzine, Alembic. As Willis recalls:

“It was this that started me off as a fanzine publisher, for Madeleine held it up and said, ‘Surely you could do better than that!’, and I thought maybe I could. It wasn’t that we had such contempt for Alembic, it was rather that it was more our sort of thing than OF had been. OF had news items and all sorts of proper magazine stuff, whereas Alembic was just comments and general talk by Norman. Besides, this was only the second fanzine I’d seen, and it made me realise that there was no closed shop.”

This was an absolutely fascinating read, covering the history of sf fandom in the U.K. from its earliest beginnings in great detail. I’ll hope to get my act together sufficiently to write a proper review of it; I was particularly interested in the important role played by fans in Belfast both before and after the Second World War, and of course it is interesting to read of the origins of people who we now know as venerable beings (including of course the late Peter Weston). I’m sure this will win the award, and deservedly so.

But my own top preference will go to:

1) “Boucher, Backbone and Blake: The Legacy of Blakes Seven“, Erin Horáková

Second paragraph of third section:

That aside, a remake can’t happen (or it really shouldn’t) because this is a show about terrorism—not like, incidentally. It’s a huge structuring element of the plot, because the central characters (whether or not they signed up to be) are political terrorists. They attack military facilities, sometimes threaten civilians, hijack a ship, and do other things that would be read by an anxious modern US audience as terrorism. If I say “terrorism” three times, an American network executive will appear in the mirror and pull funding (try it at home!). Get “Netflix?” out of your mouth—even your beloved “edgy”, “independent” networks would balk. They produce content with fucking and gore that pretends at sedition while reinforcing conservative thinking about the normalcy of sexual assault, the acceptability of military violence, etc. I’m not prudish about this, I’m just bored. Because it’s not fucking seditious, is it? All that is less risky than producing content with a fairly simple, coherent political through-line.

I am of the generation for whom Blake’s 7 was a crucial part of growing up, and a chill still goes down my back at the opening music. Horáková makes a passionate and convincing argument for the importance of the show in shaping science fiction television ever since, and for its wider political importance then and now. She pushes all my buttons, and she gets my vote.

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