BSFA Short Fiction

This rounds off my BSFA posts this year – see previously how to get the finalists, Best Art and Best Non-Fiction. I’m a Clarke judge this year so won’t comment on the Best Novel finalists, and won’t have time to read the Best YA finalists.

I found it fairly easy to rank these, though I think the vote between my top two will be close.

5) ‘Seller’s Remorse’, by Rick Danforth, Hexagon Magazine, Issue 11

Second paragraph of third section:

At the gloomy door, Sheytl performed his routine of slicking back the hair and a triple knock.

A bit of a Shaggy God story. Our protagonist tries to raise supporters for a dying deity and shenanigans ensue. A bit uneven in writing style.

4) ‘A Moment of Zugzwang’, by Neil Williamson, ParSec #4

Third paragraph (there are no sections):

Wehlstrasse was a quiet street. Seldom frequented stores and cafés lined one side. Along the other, trees evenly ranked like soldiers guarded the low balustrade above the rolling, grey river. They’d proved poor guardsmen, at least as far as Albert Vogel was concerned. Stina had watched the bee footage a thousand times. The old man visible at the edge of the frame making his way down that side of the street, coming and going behind the trees as he approached the bridge. The distinctive bushy beard jutting before him. The slow but steady gait suddenly faltering, the hand going to the jaw is if he’d forgotten something as the induced heart failure had kicked in. The stumble, the lurch. The plummet into the waters below. No witnesses, either in person or online, so no one had come to his aid and his body hadn’t been found until a couple of days later among the Hundred Island reed beds six miles downstream. Bloated, the skin of his extremities wrinkled and nibbled at by hungry critters.

A near-future police procedural about a perfect murder committed despite panopticon surveillance. I’m always a bit wary of future police stories where the boys and girls in blue don’t behave much like real policemen in our timeline, and in addition here the technology is just sufficiently flawed to allow the twist in the plot to happen. God world0building though.

3) Luca, by Or Luca

Second paragraph of third section:

She’s sitting on the stone-cold floor of the shower, folded into herself. She watches the blood run from her wrist and into the drain.

Some good things in this novella: impressive depiction of the two major characters’ psychological and personal issues, and they are brought together neatly at the end. But I did wonder if it actually qualifies as science fiction or fantasy? The unreal elements of the story are explicitly the title character’s hallucinations, which didn’t seem to me to have much direct impact on anyone other than her. I also wasn’t hugely convinced by the setting, a country in the Middle East which doesn’t feel very Middle Eastern.

2) Ogres, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Second paragraph of third section:

Stunned silence from them. And then… a medley of reactions; quite the range, now you think back on it. Because some still have that core in them, hammered there by church and village life before they did whatever each one did to make them outlaw. Some are shocked that you could even lift a hand against the Masters, let alone shed so much of that vast reservoir of blood that it might kill one. Taboos like that, beat into you from earliest childhood, they don’t get shaken free so easily. Garett, the oldest of them, is pale and shaking his head, and Nell Wilso sucks at her toothless gums. But some of the others, their eyes are lit up. They’re the ones whose crimes were against the property, not of humans but of ogres. They lost that reverence, and maybe they’ve dreamed of doing just what you did every night since. And right then you’re in no position to appreciate it, lost in a welter of guilt and panic, but it’s the first time people look at you like that. Not fond, not exasperated. You’re not the prodigal son or the lovable rogue right then. You’re the hero who slays the monster.

Dystopian agricultural future where an elite minority of big people (the ‘ogres’ of the title) holds the majority of humanity in brutal slavery, and our protagonist discovers the awful truth and begins the overthrow of the system. Enjoyed it, but it didn’t quite convince me.

1) Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances, by Aliette de Bodard

Second paragraph of third chapter:

When Asmodeus saw the unfamiliar dragon trailing behind Thuan, his hand moved — and came back holding a knife he didn’t bother to hide.

I found this a total delight and it’s getting a firm first preference from me. I didn’t completely get on with the earlier parts of the Dominion of the Fallen series, set in a magically devastated Paris, but this is very digestible; the protagonists are a dragon prince and a demon, and the story has them sorting out a murder mystery where the ghost is still around while also babysitting some very inquisitive children. Unlike ‘A Moment of Zugzwang’, there is no police force to get wrong here, and one has the sense of a small but fascinating incident in a much broader and richly thought out society. I hope it wins.

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.

BSFA Best Art

This year, because I am a Clarke judge, I won’t have time to read the BSFA Awards’ YA category and I also won’t be commenting on Best Novel. But that still leaves three categories, and the easiest in term of research is Best Art. It’s also easy in that all six finalists are book or magazine covers, and indeed four of the six feature single human or humanoid figures as the centre of attention. (One of the other two is centred on a single non-humanoid creature, and the other has two humanoids.)

6) You’ve got to start winnowing them down somewhere, and I’m afaid my last place goes to Vincent Sammy’s cover of Parsec 4. We lose a bit by not seeing the hooded central figure’s face, and there’s something not quite right about the dynamics of the posture. (Also, though this is hardly the artist’s fault, I was surprised to see a couple of pilcrows ¶¶ on the cover text.)

5) Jay Johnstone’s cover of The Way the Light Bends, by Lorraine Wilson, has a very pretty dragonfly with Celtic knotwork, but others are more eloquent.

4) There’s a lot to like about Alyssa Winans’ cover of The Red Scholar’s Wake, by Aliette de Bodard, with the central couple of the story in front of a starscape, their attention on each other. In the end I just like the others a little more.

3) Manzi Jackson’s cover for Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction, edited by Sheree Renée Thomas, Oghenechovwe Donal Ekpeki and Zelda Knight, has a young woman in a spacesuit regarding us implacably from a flower-filled dell. I hope there is a good story there.

2) There is clearly a story in Miguel Co’s cover for Song of the Mango and Other New Myths, by Vida Cruz-Borja. It’s graphically the simplest of any of the finalists, but I feel that it says a lot very economically.

1) Fangorn/Chris Baker’s cover for Shoreline of Infinity 32, edited by Teika Marija Smits, hints not just at a story but at a whole universe. On the front we see a feminine robot, plugged into the ceiling (which itself is held up by classical columns), examining a fragment which seems suspended in space; but over on the back cover, we see that this is just part of a wider scene with two more sprawled robots, various discarded pieces of equipment and several masks, and you know that there is more going on. It gets my vote.

How to get the BSFA nominees, and their Goodreads/LibraryThing stats

Slightly slow to get to the BSFA shortlists, as I had a busy few days, but here are the Goodreads / LibraryThing stats for the Best YA and Best Novel categories, compared with the long lists; and also links for them and for the nominees in other categories.

As usual, I have ranked the finalists in descending order of the geometrical average of their number of owners on Goodreads and LibraryThing, and also provided the average rating on both systems, bolding the highest in each category. I’ve also given Amazon links where I have them – I know, I know, evil big river, but I get a (pathetically) small commission from it…

The Best Novel list is curious. The top novel on the shortlist was 35th, just over half way down, on the long list ranking by GR/LT ownership, and the second novel was 30th; the other three were all in the bottom half of the long-list ranking and one was in 61st place out of 68. To be specific, more people appear to have nominated The Coral Bones for the BSFA Award than own it on LibraryThing.

 Goodreads LibraryThing
 ratersav ratingownersav rating
The Red Scholar’s Wake, by Aliette de Bodard8113.401044.06£9.99 from Amazon
Stars and Bones, by Gareth Powell10523.68643.29£8.01 from Amazon
City of Last Chances, by Adrian Tchaikovsky6264.05594.25£8.79 from Amazon
The This, by Adam Roberts2883.92543.90£9.99 from Amazon
The Coral Bones, by E.J. Swift134.545£9.72 from Amazon

The nominations for Best YA Book are much more in line with the long list, with 7 of the long list’s top 11 making the cut, and all of the top three.

 Goodreads LibraryThing
 ratersav ratingownersav rating
Only A Monster, by Vanessa Len170953.914633.60£7.49 from Amazon
Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, by Juno Dawson94813.884183.61£7.91 from Amazon
Violet Made of Thorns, by Gina Chen107013.633404.00£8.99 from Amazon
Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, by Xiran Jay Zhao25794.17994.09£7.35 from Amazon
Unraveller, by Frances Hardinge8664.20674.27£11.99 from Amazon
Illuminations, by T Kingfisher10954.20504.10£12.99 from Amazon
Mindwalker, by Kate Dylan6814.20383.75£13.16 from Amazon

The Short Fiction shortlist includes three stories published as standalones, and two in magazines.

 Goodreads LibraryThing
 ratersav ratingownersav rating
Ogres, by Adrian Tchaikowsky19344.26664.06£25.00 from Amazon
Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances, by Aliette de Bodard2664.22334.15£8.50 from Amazon
Luca, by Or Luca143£11.55 from Amazon
“A Moment of Zugzwang”, by Neil Williamson (ParSec 4)£5.99 here
“Seller’s Remorse”, by Rick Danforth (Hexagon Magazine 11)free here

The Non-Fiction category includes two books and three online articles. NB that the books have higher ratings on Goodreads and LibraryThing than any of the other finalists in any other category.

 Goodreads LibraryThing
 ratersav ratingownersav rating
Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes, by Rob Wilkins12544.721834.34£14.00 from Amazon
Management Lessons from Game of Thrones, by Fiona Moore45.003£19.95 from Amazon
“The Critic and the Clue: Tracking Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker“, by Maureen Kincaid Spellerfree here
“Preliminary Observations From An Incomplete History of African SFF”, by Wole Talabifree here
“Too Dystopian For Whom? A Continental Nigerian Writer’s Perspective”, by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpekifree here

Finally, six book covers for Best Art – I link to each and give thumbnail extracts here.

Alyssa Winans, cover of The Red Scholar’s Wake by Aliette de Bodard
Manzi Jackson, cover of Africa Risen: A New Era of Speculative Fiction, edited by Sheree Renée Thomas, Oghenechovwe Donal Ekpeki and Zelda Knight
Fangorn [Chris Baker], cover of Shoreline of Infinity 32, edited by Teika Marija Smits
Vincent Sammy, cover of Parsec 4, ed. Ian Whates
Miguel Co, cover of Song of the Mango and Other New Myths, by Vida Cruz-Borja
Jay Johnstone, cover of The Way the Light Bends, by Lorraine Wilson

Because I am a Clarke Award judge this year, I won’t comment on the Best Novel list and I won’t have time to read the Best YA Book finalists, but I’ll cover the other three in due course, starting with Best Art next Tuesday.

BSFA long-lists: Goodreads and LibraryThing stats

I’m glad to see the BSFA long-lists are out, always a fun start to one’s reading year (except that at present I am overwhelmed by Clarke submissions).

But these long-lists are long. 18 for Best Book for Younger Readers; 32 for Best Non-Fiction; 36 for Best Artwork; 68 for Best Novel (down from 74 last year); and a stonking 77 for Best Short Fiction. I have to wonder how useful any long-lists as long as this can really be. I also wonder to what extent such an open nominations process can be exploited for marketing purposes. There is still some desirable kudos to being a BSFA long-listed author, even if the barrier to achieving that status is rather low.

As I have done before, I’ve looked at the Goodreads and LibraryThing statistics for the two most relevant categories, Best Book for Younger Readers and Best Novel, ranked by the geometrical average of the number of Goodreads users who have rated each book, and the number of LibraryThing users who have recorded owning it.

For Best Book for Younger Readers, I have bolded the top five in each column. The only book to get all four numbers in bold is All That’s Left in the World, by Erik J. Brown.

 Goodreads LibraryThing
 ratersav ratingownersav rating 
Only A Monster, by Vanessa Len157073.914433.67
Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, by Juno Dawson79483.893773.78
Violet Made of Thorns, by Gina Chen91893.653044
All That’s Left in the World, by Erik J. Brown117204.31874.12
This Vicious Grace, by Emily Thiede64834.12254.11
Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, by Xiran Jay Zhao23244.19894.22
The Kindred, by Alechia Dow12063.68634.17
Beasts of Ruin, by Ayana Gray8594.2594
Unraveller, by Frances Hardinge5644.22474.2
Illuminations, by T Kingfisher7214.19294.06
Mindwalker, by Kate Dylan5844.23344
Survive the Dome, by Kosoko Jackson6163.62304
Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods, by Catherynne M. Valente2334.36334.5
Secret of the Stormforest, by L.D. Lapinski2784.369
The Comet, by Joe Todd-Stanton1634.48114
Loki: A Bad God’s Guide to Taking The Blame, by Louie Stowell894.3664
Born Andromeda, by K.M. Watts253.6853
The Fox’s Tower, by Sam Thompson00

And here’s the Best Novel long-list, with the top quintile in each column in bold. Again only one book manages this in all four columns: Babel, by R. F. Kuang.

 Goodreads LibraryThing
 ratersav ratingownersav rating 
Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel1121064.1515734.07
Babel, by R. F. Kuang453304.3613104.24
The Cartographers, by Peng Shepherd425993.679383.52
Daughter of the Moon Goddess, by Sue Lynn Tan378404.188613.95
Upgrade, by Blake Crouch525603.845803.78
To Paradise, by Hanya Yanagihara275833.795363.86
Nettle & Bone, by T Kingfisher218934.246044.29
How High We Go in the Dark, by Sequoia Nagamatsu248533.895253.83
What Moves the Dead, by T. Kingfisher202603.984414.07
Lapvona, by Otessa Moshfegh222003.593253.36
The Book Eaters, by Sunyi Dean145683.724663.98
Amongst Our Weapons, by Ben Aaronovitch103844.353943.99
Sundial, by Catriona Ward96413.812413.86
Spear, by Nicola Griffith31964.142464.02
Eyes of the Void, by Adrian Tchaikovsky58874.221314.02
Stone Blind, by Natalie Haynes40244.031733.82
The Grief of Stones, by Katherine Addison32074.332124.16
Eversion, by Alistair Reynolds35654.041683.96
Ocean’s Echo, by Everina Maxwell27354.231423.91
Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments, by Tendai Huchu21153.971594.06
Leech, by Hiron Ennes22543.71243.57
Goliath, by Tochi Onyebuchi10943.311503.57
Time Shelter, by Georgi Gospodinov27124.08563.64
Light Years From Home, by Mike Chenn17973.57664.1
A Half-Built Garden, by Ruthanna Emrys8413.711203.4
The Spear Cuts Through Water, by Simon Jimenez10004.27964.21
Children of Memory, by Adrian Tchaikovsky16174.16574.58
The Moonday Letters, by Emma Itaranta11623.82693.63
The Path of Thorns, by Angela Slatter11624.09584.06
Stars and Bones, by Gareth Powell9743.7593.29
The Men, by Sandra Newman9743492.54
Under Fortunate Stars, by Ren Hutchings8434.01554.05
Braking Day, by Adam Oyebanji8544.02523.84
Venomous Lumpsucker, by Ned Beauman8103.88503.88
The Red Scholar’s Wake, by Aliette de Bodard4653.65604.18
Unraveller, by Frances Hardinge5644.22474.2
The Circus Infinite, by Khan Wong3933.62453.5
City of Last Chances, by Adrian Tchaikovsky3324.04414.25
The Immortality Thief, by Taran Hunt3724.23344
The This, by Adam Roberts2573.92453.9
Echoes of Eternity, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden6054.53155
Mischief Acts, by Zoe Gilbert2403.98323.75
Picard: Second Self, by Una McCormack2394.26175
Beyond the Burn Line, by Paul McAuley1453.66283.5
Flight of the Aphrodite, by Simon Morden1983.99163.83
Glitterati, by Oliver K. Langmead1443.73193.92
Plutoshine, by Lucy Kissick1124.1163.5
Expect Me Tomorrow, by Christopher Priest743.65234
A Fractured Infinity, by Nathan Tavares743.76153.5
Cold Water, by Dave Hutchinson654.37174.75
The Green Man’s Gift, by Juliet E. Mckenna1354.4564
HellSans, by Ever Dundas893.8483
Mage of Fools, by Eugen Bacon324.03223.22
Embertide, by Liz Williams484.4694.25
Jackdaw, by Tade Thompson474.115
In the Heart of Hidden Things, by Kit Whitfield434.214
The Way the Light Bends, by Lorraine Wilson274.4144
Resilient, by Allen Stroud234.174
Night Ivy, by E. D. E. Bell174.293
Celestial, by M. D. Lachlan213.192
The Coral Bones, by EJ Swift94.784
On the Brink, by R. B. Kelly44.755
Ocean of Stars, by John Dodd123.921
Empathy, by Hoa Pham141
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way, by Alistair Mackay674.640
From Death to Dawn, by Chele Cook134.540
Cast Long Shadows, by Cat Hellisen163.880
Harpan’s Worlds, by Terry Jackman130

It is interesting to note that some of these books have had more nominators for the BSFA awards than they have registered owners on Goodreads or LibraryThing. Not pointing any fingers, but I think there may be a couple of cases of friends and family helping out here.