BSFA Award: Best Non-fiction

Advance warning: I only had time to read the Best Novel, Best Short Story and Best Non-Fiction categories this year, so there will be no write-up here of the BSFA Award shortlist in the new Best Book for Younger readers category. I simply did not have time, and I wonder about the wisdom of adding another full category of books to a fairly short window for reading the shortlists between announcement and deadline. I’m also conscious that, as with yesterday’s post, I’m writing this in a bit of a rush, which is not ideal and means I am not doing any of the nominees justice. Anyway, we shall see. (I have previously written up Best Art, Best Short Fiction and Best Novel)

I have sometimes complained in the past of the Best Non-fiction category not being serious enough. I think it has ended up too serious this year, with all but one of the finalists being firmly academic essays, books or books of essays. My two simple demands of such writing are first, that I feel more educated about what I have already read, and second, that I have some pointers for new stuff to read. I’m afraid that very few of this year’s list did that for me.

6) Cyberpunk Culture and Psychology: Seeing Through the Mirrorshades, by Anna McFarlane. Second sentence of third chapter:

Pattern Recognition is the first novel in the Blue Ant trilogy, which goes on to include Spook Country (2007) and Zero History (2010). It follows Cayce, a young woman with an acute sensitivity to branding and marketing. This sensitivity, or allergy, manifests itself as a physical reaction that can include nausea and vomiting: ‘some people ingest a single peanut and their head swells like a basketball. When it happens to Cayce, it’s her psyche’ (17). She uses this ‘skill’ in her job as a coolhunter, spotting trends in fashion and passing them on to brands and marketing companies Cayce’s role is based on the sensitivity of her perceptive power – as she puts it, try to recognize a pattern before anyone else does’ (86). She is also a fan of an intemet phenomenon known as ‘the footage’, a series of short films lacking in temporal markers and uploaded anonymously to the intemet. The footage is the subject of much speculation among its followers, the ‘footageheads’ (21) about the origin of the work and whether the short films released online are part of a bigger, complete project. Cayce is hired by Hubertus Bigend of the Blue Ant Corporation, ostensibly to help the company choose a logo. It transpires, however, that Bigend’s real motivation is for Cayce to discover the makers of the footage. Cayce tracks them to Russia via Japan before discovering the truth about the intemet phenomenon: the footage is created by a young woman named Nora, disabled by a piece of shrapnel lodged in her brain, with the help of her twin sister, Stella. Throughout the novel Cayce struggles to come to terms with the loss of her father, Win, a Cold War security expert who went missing on 9/11. To make the connections between Patten Recog-nition and the gestalt I begin by explaining Thomas Kuhn’s concept of the paradigm shift in relation to scientific revolutions before highlighting the nature of the paradigm as a gestalt switch. The ‘anomaly’ of 9/11 undermines the paradigm that existed before, and the reliability of pattern recognition itself. This crisis is expressed through Cayce and her struggle with her own gestalt perception as she attempts to find the maker of the footage and struggles with ‘faulty pattern recognition’. Despite the novel’s contemporary setting it retains some characteristics of science fiction and I argue that the tension between the dystopian impulse of advertising and the utopian impulse of the footage is one of the ways the novel continues to work in a speculative tradition, and begins to imagine a future. Just as the imagery of chaos theory is used to depict human exceptionalism in visual language, the power of the gestalt switch is used as a visual way of describing estrangement from an unpredictable world and the oscillation between utopian and dystopian futures

This is an in-depth analysis of the writing of William Gibson, an author who is much admired by many people, but who I personally find almost unreadable. I read to the end but my views were not changed. Fortunately I was able to get a free copy; you can get it here for a hefty price.

5) The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe in Contemporary Culture, by Mark Bould. Second sentence of third chapter:

Since [Paul] Kingsnorth and [Arundhati] Roy had each published only a single novel at the time [2015], this is hardly a damning indictment or indicative of anything much. But [Amitav] Ghosh’s claims about their work, and his own, betrays a quite stunning literal-mindedness about what it means for a text to be ‘about’ climate change.

Earnest book on climate change and science fiction, which did not really make the arguments very interesting. You can get it here.

4) “Science Fiction and the Pathways out of the COVID Crisis”, by Val Nolan. Third paragraph (of a total of five):

In that way, science fiction is uniquely equipped to envision the ‘charismatic mega-ideas’ which the COVID-19 pandemic asks us to internalise (Robinson 2020). It comprises a dynamic reservoir of assumptions and expectations present ‘both in casual conversation […] and in more formal capacities’ such as disaster preparedness exercises (Mirmalek 2020, 102). Through prose, graphic narratives, films, and TV shows, the genre has long informed us about likely responses to the kinds of revised social contract which now seem to await us, especially that pertaining to human health and enhanced (self-)surveillance. It does this through exaggerated allegories, a process traceable to SF’s originator, Mary Shelley, who herself reconnoitred the viral apocalypse subgenre in her 1826 novel The Last Man. Though Shelley is not quite Patient Zero for pandemic SF, modern science fiction continues to address the themes she emphasised. Take, for instance, the psychological impact of the half-deserted world in Avengers: Endgame (Anthony and Joseph Russo, 2019), a shared cultural moment prefiguring the miasma of loss, languishment, and constant apprehension which defines our socially distant present. The use of SF in this fashion may seem outlandish, maybe even frivolous to some critics, however one is put in mind of the observation in Max Brooks’s World War Z (2006) that ‘no matter how unlikely or far-fetched a possibility might be, one must always dig deeper’ (Brooks 2006). Science fiction is the genre which digs deeper, and our current ‘space of apocalyptic expectation’ is one which it has explored for nearly two centuries (Caduf 2015).

Nothing much wrong with this essay except that it is less than 1500 words in length, which would be skimping it for an undergraduate assignment, never mind an award-winning piece. You can read it here.

3) Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Francesca T Barbini. Second sentence of third essay (“Relationships with the Land in Fantasy and Science Fiction: Landscape as Identity, Mentor, or Antagonist”, by Sarah McPherson):

Well known authors from the fantasy tradition who use landscape effectively in this way include J. R. R. Tolkien (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising Sequence), and Alan Garner (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath). As well as these, this paper will discuss more recent works in which the landscape is integral to the characters and narrative, from N. K. Jemisin (The Broken Earth trilogy), Kazuo Ishiguro (The Buried Giant), and Zoe Gilbert (Folk).

Collection of essays on various aspects of world-building as applied to SF and fantasy, some of them about authors I don’t know or don’t like, some about authors who I do know and like such as Tolkien. The standout for me was Cheryl Morgan’s piece on sex, which had me googling for information about hyena clitorises. You can get it here.

2) Diverse Futures: Science Fiction and Authors of Colour, by Joy Sanchez-Taylor. Second sentence of third chapter:

The authors discussed in this chapter address this tension between peoples of color as “both dangerous and disposable” through the use of post-apocalyptic landscapes, one of the most recognizable tropes of science fiction. Science fiction and fantasy texts ranging from Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) to screen-adapted popular works such as World War Z (2006) and The Hunger Games (2008–10) portray the end of the world as an unforgiving environment where only exceptional white humans can survive. As authors and scholars begin to consider what role race plays in the end-of-the-world scenario, contemporary authors of color are writing post-apocalyptic works that center the narrative voices of peoples of color. As Lavender III notes in the introduction to Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction (2014), in order to move forward to a more racially inclusive science fiction, authors and critics must “[lift] blacks, indigenous peoples, and Latinos out from the background of this historically white genre” (6). The works discussed in this chapter are a small sample of the contemporary voices of color emerging in post-apocalyptic science fiction.

Yet another firmly academic tome, but somehow this gelled for me in a way that none of the others did, looking at familiar sfnal themes and their links with historic racism, and providing me with a good reading list for future self-education. Lovely cover too. You can get it here.

1) Octothorpe Podcast, by John Coxon, Alison Scott, and Liz Batty. Second sentence of third 2021 episode:

John: So many times, Liz.

It would be astonishing if this does not win by a large margin. John, Alison and Liz have somehow caught the Zeitgeist, and Octothorpe has become compulsive listening for a lot of us. Also I vote on principle for anything that actually names me, and I’ve been referred to a couple of times in the margins (and even got two whole sentences into #45, between 35:20 and 35:40). So it gets my vote. You can listen to it here.

See you all at Eastercon, where I am tremendously honoured to be one of the Guests of, er, Honour, along with three much better-known and more talented people.

BSFA Award: Best Novel

Advance warning: I only had time to read the Best Novel, Best Short Story and Best Non-Fiction categories this year, so there will be no write-up here of the BSFA Award shortlist in the Best Book for Younger readers category. I simply did not have time, and I wonder about the wisdom of adding another full category of books to a fairly short window for reading the shortlist between announcement and deadline. I’m also conscious that I’m writing this and tomorrow’s post on Best Non-Fiction in a bit of a rush, which is not ideal and means I am not doing any of the nominees justice. Anyway, we shall see. (I have previously written up Best Art and Best Short Fiction.)

6) Shards of Earth, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Second paragraph of third chapter:

The Vulture God erupted out of unspace, close enough to set Roshu’s traffic control systems complaining, and Idris began bootstrapping the ship’s systems and waking the others. Roshu wasn’t his favourite place in the galaxy, frankly.

Dismayed to admit that I found this very tough going, and I have generally really liked Tchaikovsky’s work before. I think I was reading it during a particularly busy week at work, and my concentration wasn’t up to it. You’ll probably enjoy it more than I did. You can get it here.

5) Skyward Inn, by Aliya Whiteley. Second paragraph of third chapter:

Despite all this, Fosse had known he would return to the farm. There was Geography on the timetable before break, and that sense in the air that he was ready for something, some change, that he wanted to find for himself. He had been told not to return, and yet he needed to understand how the man, the stranger, could have taken that farm away from him so easily.

Again I think my concentration was challenged when reading this, apparently drawing on Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, which I have not read. You can get it here.

4) Purgatory Mount, by Adam Roberts. Second paragraph of third chapter:

The drive took a real long time, and he thought: Double-uh-oh.

I don’t always get on with Roberts’ fiction (I’ve always found him very pleasant in person) but I largely enjoyed this one – except that I could not work out the link between the main story and the framing narrative until it was explained in the epilogue. You can get it here.

3) The Green Man’s Challenge, by Juliet E. McKenna. Second paragraph of third chapter:

I walked over to Fin’s Toyota as she was getting out. Her white-blonde hair was quite a lot longer than I was expecting. Other than that, she looked the same as always: average height, average build, and as far as I’m concerned, absolutely gorgeous in jeans and a cream sweater. We stood looking at each other for an awkward moment. I wanted to kiss her, but that probably wasn’t sensible these days. She was making no move to get closer to me.

Here on the other hand I felt a lot more comfortable with the story, a solid intrusive fantasy with a bit of romance on the side. You can get it here.

2) A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine. Second paragraph of third chapter:

(Three months ago, even if she’d somehow reached this exalted position in the Ministry, complete with her own tiny office with a tiny window only one floor down from the Minister herself, Three Seagrass would have been asleep in her house, and missed the message entirely. There: she’d justified clinical-grade insomnia as a meritorious action, one which would enable her to deal with a problem before anyone else awoke; that was half her work done for the day, surely.)

As previously reported, I hugely enjoyed it; horribly lethal alien incursions, grand sweeping palace politics, and a smart kid and a fish-out-of-water diplomat who separately try to save the day. You can get it here.

1) Blackthorn Winter, by Liz Williams. Second paragraph of third chapter:

Serena, fellow list-maker, had once asked her why she didn’t just put them on a tablet or her phone, but Bee preferred paper and pen. It made it easier for her to keep track. She tried not to list things that she had already done, to make the list look more accomplished, but often failed. Now, she took the pen and drew a firm line through church meeting. Because that was about to happen and soon Bee would be on her way out into the wet cold of the night and down the lane and into the meeting room which joined onto Hornmoon church. It was a meeting about the Christmas flowers because Bee, in an unguarded moment, had offered to become a church warden.

Sequel to Comet Weather, which I also really enjoyed last year. Lovely liminal contemporary fantasy, with lots of Doctor Who references as well. Get it here.

BSFA Short Fiction

(See also: Best Art)

There are only four finalists in the Short Fiction category for the BSFA Awards this year. From shortest to longest, they are:

“Things Can Only Get Better”, by Fiona Moore

Second paragraph of third section:

“What?” Wills set her drink down very carefully on the melamine-look surface.

A fun short story about intelligent machines (“Things”) and crime.

“O2 Arena”, by Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald

Second paragraph of third section:

We had a plethora of assignments and projects that kept us buried to our eyebrows, even on weekends. But assignments were rarely my concern on weekdays, much less weekends. And on this weekend, Ovoke was gone.

Grim tale of a near-future Nigeria where people have to pay for everything, even the air that they breathe.

Fireheart Tiger, by Aliette de Bodard

Second paragraph of third section:

It burnt. The tea burnt. Soggy tea leaves caught fire right in the throne room, in full view of everyone else. Not just in her nightmares or in her bedroom.

Vietnamese-flavoured court politics combined with a g/g love story. Loved it.

Light Chaser, by Peter Hamilton and Gareth Powell

Second paragraph of third section:

“Hello.” She bent down and tickled the purring creature behind its ears. “You liked the fish I made for you, did you?”

Very interesting timeline mystery where the central character keeps visiting planets after very long intervals to find a peculiar legacy.

I liked all of these, but one has to express a preference, so I think mine will be 1) Fireheart Tiger, 2) “Things Can Only Get Better”, 3) “O2 Arena”, 4) Light Chaser. I don’t see an obvious front-runner.

Covers

2021 BSFA Awards: Best Art

A very interesting selection this year for the best Art category in the BSFA Awards, with the shortlisted artworks all being single static images – this has not always been the case; last year’s list included digitised 3D images of several murals, there was an outdoor art piece three years ago, and of course Tessa Farmer’s Wasp Factory sculpture rightly won the award for 2014 (at the 2015 Eastercon).

Glasgow Green Woman
One of the five nominees is "Glasgow Green Woman", a promotional piece for the 2024 Glasgow Worldcon bid by Sunderland-based Iain Clark. A similarly purposed piece won last year's BSFA Award, and Clark was a finalist for the Best Fan Artist Hugo in both of the last two years.
I tend to think of the Green Man legend as more of an English thing, but there are over 100 carvings of Green Men in the mysterious Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, scene of the denouement of The Da Vinci Code. Clark has depicted the feminine aspect of the Green Man, sampling the scent of a Scottish thistle (which has a sexy wiggle to its stem). I found this a very cheering piece as the spring comes in.
Silhouette of a woman falling
The other four are all covers of books by authors with strong links to Africa. Two of them are collections of stories by Eugen Bacon, born in Tanzania and now based in Australia. The first is this stark silhouette by Kara Walker, possibly the most famous artist on the shortlist this year, with the design credited to Peter Lo (who appears to be different from the Scottish artist of the same name) of Transit Lounge, the publisher of Danged Black Thing. It's clearly very evocative of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests
The second is for Saving Shadows, published by Newcon Press in the UK, image by Italian artist Elena Betti, design credited to Newcon owner Ian Whates (who I replaced as an Arthur C. Clarke Award judge in 2015, and he in turn replaced me the following year). It's an interesting combination of fluids and reflections.
Perhaps the most traditional of the nominees is the cover of Son of the Storm by Nigerian writer Suyi Davies Okungbowa (now in Canada). The art is by Dan Dos Santos, a six-time Hugo finalist and three-time Chesley winner, with design by Lauren Panepinto of the publisher Orbit Books, both Americans. It’s nicely done, with the protagonist staring at us vividly.
Finally, Okungbowa and Bacon are both contributors to this anthology of African speculative fiction, edited by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki. The cover is by Filipina artist Maria Spada (who presumably designed it as well, as unlike the other three book covers, no separate designer is credited and she describes herself as a professional designer). I love the resonance between the traditional African mask and the act of uncovering to find that you really did not know what was behind it.

These are all lovely works, and it’s difficult to choose between them. At first I was a bit underwhelmed by Kara Walker’s silhouette for Danged Black Thing, but as I’ve been writing this I have found my eye drawn to it again and again, so in the end I think I will give it my first preference vote, followed by Maria Spada, Iain Clark, Dan Dos Santos and Elena Betti, probably in that order. But I may change my mind again in the next seven weeks.