Thought For The Day

M. John Harrison:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

Vector 250

Vector 250 landed in my letterbox this afternoon, so hopefully it’s landed in other peoples’ as well. Here’s the lineup, and when you’ve read it, letters of comments should go to the usual address.

Torque Control — editorial
Letter to Vector — by Paul Raven
Behind the Scenes: Origins — Peter Weston on the changing purpose of the BSFA
The View from Vector — past editors remember. Contributions from Rog Peyton, Ken Slater, Doreen Rogers, Malcolm Edwards, Joseph Nicholas, Paul Kincaid, David V. Barrett, Kev McVeigh, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Gary Dalkin, and Andrew M. Butler
The New X: Pattern Recognition — Graham Sleight on the state of the genre
The 2006 Thomas D. Clareson Award — Farah Mendlesohn’s remarks at the presentation of the Award to Paul Kincaid
First Impressions — Book reviews edited by Paul N. Billinger

(Yes, this time the magazine has a colour cover! If you can’t appreciate the full beauty of the Woking Martian from the version above, there’s a larger image here; photo courtesy Peter Young, who also provided the funky photos of books on the back cover and throughout the interior.)

Crawford Award

Award season continues. As reported at Locus Online, the shortlist for this year’s Crawford Award, for best first fantasy book (previous winners here) is:

A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham
Skinny-Dipping in the Lake of the Dead by Alan DeNiro
The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue
In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
Temeraire by Naomi Novik
Map of Dreams by M. Rickert

The winner will be announced at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in March.

London Meeting: Paul Cornell

The guest at tonight’s BSFA meeting is Paul Cornell, writer of various things, including several episodes of some TV show called Doctor Who. He will be interviewed by Graham Sleight.

As usual, the meeting is free to any and all who might be interested, and the interview will start at 7pm. However, the usual venue, The Star Tavern, is closed for urgent work. The alternate venue they have arranged for us is The Antelope on Eaton Terrace, which isn’t far away (Map here). See you there?

EDIT: Ian’s comment reminds me that, given the weather, it would probably be a good idea to check your transport routes for this evening.

The Last Linkfinder

I was hoping to get something vaguely substantial written this week, but I have unfortunately been clobbered by a bout of plague. So here are some links, instead.

  • A conversation about The Road between Henry Farrell and China Mieville.
  • Guardian review of Tricia Sullivan’s latest novel, Sound Mind; on the one hand, it has one of those teeth-grinding introductions about how Sullivan “may be nearing escape velocity” from genre, but on the other hand, it sounds like Patrick Ness has read and appreciated plenty of Sullivan’s other novels.
  • Gary K. Wolfe reviews Resplendent by Stephen Baxter and Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds. I’ve finally got around to reading the original novella in Resplendent, “The Siege of Earth”, and it’s just as brilliant as Wolfe says it is.
  • The Velcro City review of Blindsight
  • On reviewing long and/or hyped books.
  • Locus Online will be compiling lists of books by editor; along with the wiki of editors, this should make nominating for the Hugos in an informed fashion easier.
  • Oscar nominations are out. No nod in “best adapted screenplay” for either The Prestige or A Scanner Darkly? Bah, I say, bah.
  • And finally, Tony wants feedback about potentially changing the start time of BSFA London meetings.
  • EDIT: I KNEW IT: Did 24 go too far? “The key question is whether the drama is a bit of absurd science fiction, or the projection of a not-so-distant future, not in its particulars, but in its awful core depiction.” (OK, the article is a right-wing rant, but still. I knew 24 was turning into sf, and there’s no better confirmation than someone feeling the need to deny that it’s sf. Spoilers if you haven’t seen the first four episodes of season six.)
  • FURTHER EDIT: Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s New Weird anthology, coming in 2008. And whatever else might be said about this project, I do like that cover.

The 2007 Arthur C Clarke Award

And the shortlist is:

End of the World Blues, Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Gollancz)
Nova Swing, M. John Harrison (Gollancz)
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, Lydia Millet (Heinemann)
Hav, Jan Morris (Faber)
Gradisil, Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
Streaking, Brian Stableford (PS Publishing)

EDIT: the official announcement is now up on the Clarke Award website, Paul Kincaid has linked to some reviews of the nominated books here, and there are some reactions here, here, and here.

A Competition

Today’s the day. When I’ve posted this, I’ll be heading into London, to a room in the Science Museum, to sit down with the other judges and decide the shortlist for the 2007 Arthur C. Clarke Award.

So here’s a competition, to get you interested: what do you think should be on the shortlist? What do you think were the six best science fiction novels published in the UK in 2006? I’ll be offline for the whole day, obviously, but if it turns out that anyone’s guessed the entire shortlist correctly, top-to-bottom, I’ll buy it for them.

The rules: one guess per person; all guesses to be posted here; and all guesses must be receieved by 1800 GMT. If your memory needs to be jogged, there’s a list of books here — but bear in mind that (a) it’s incomplete, and (b) it includes fantasy novels. Good luck!

(PS: For those who were following the discussion, there have been a few new comments about the BSFA’s non-fiction award.)

The Siege of Links

(I owe a number of people email. Unfortunately, this situation is not likely to change in the next few days. Sorry, all.)

The Non-Fiction Category

There has been some comment on the BSFA’s decision to provide a recommended reading list of non-fiction, rather than a single award; I thought I’d round it up here, and highlight a couple of points that haven’t yet been made. I am not, in any sense, speaking as The Voice Of The BSFA in this matter. I do welcome letters to Vector on this or related issues.

To recap: this year, BSFA members were asked to nominate any written non-fiction work about science fiction and/or fantasy which appeared in its current form in 2006. Based on these nominations, a recommended reading list of five items was compiled and published. This is different to what happened in previous years. The non-fiction category was first introduced in 2001 as an award voted on by the membership, in the same way as all the other categories. It was suspended for 2004; for 2005, a different approach was piloted, in which nominations were invited as normal, and then a judging panel (of which, in the interests of full disclosure, I was a member) selected a winner and a companion recommended reading list.

Paul Kincaid has said that this was a thoroughly excellent arrangement of which he approved: this is not a consensus opinion. Criticisms of the system for the 2005 award include that it (or at least the way it was implemented) implied that BSFA members at large were not competent to judge a non-fiction award; and, from the other end of the spectrum, that recruiting sufficiently knowledgeable judges on an ongoing basis would be difficult if not impossible.

More generally, any non-fiction award faces the problems outlined by Graham Sleight in a comment on my shortlists post:

I think there are a number of problems built into it as it has stood for the last couple of years, and can’t easily see how they could be resolved. Firstly, it tends to privilege book-length over essay-length (and essay-length over review-length) stuff. Given that this is, historically, a field, where a disproportionate amount of critical work gets done in reviews, how are you going to reward that. (Example: I think David Langford is terribly undervalued as a reviewer – as opposed to a fan writer – and I can’t see anything in the non-fic award set-up that would unpick that.) Second, I think comparing stuff written within the protocols of academic writing and the world at large is not exactly apples and oranges but certainly very difficult. And thirdly, as I understand it, the non-fic award currently (and has always?) excluded stuff published in Vector and Matrix, which is a pretty big gap – Gary Wolfe’s piece in the Storying Lives issue, for instance, is one of the best I’ve read anywhere in the last year.

Graham is right that material published in BSFA magazines has always been ineligible for the non-fiction award, on the grounds that the BSFA should not be giving awards to itself. One suggested alternative to the current situation is to have an award only for BSFA-published material. Graham’s own suggestion is to have an award administered by a body other than the BSFA. (Martin McGrath suggests the sort of inter-organisation approach that the Clarke uses.)

Adam Roberts suggests that:

it’s a bit silly offering a ‘recommended reading list’ of SF criticism, rather than deciding (via bsfa vote, or if it’s thought that too few members are interested enough in crit to have read the stuff, by a panel of experts as was done last year) on a title. I assume the intention is to spread the honour around, but I don’t think it works that way: a ‘recommended reading list’ sounds like something your college professor hands to you, and insists that your read whether you want it or not; it seems, paradoxically, dispraising rather than praising the works themselves. An award makes sense in that it picks one title that deserves closer attention, or merits celebration. Otherwise the award becomes like a primary school sport’s day where everybody is given kojak-lollies just for turning up. My ha’pennorth would be: if the bsfa (I mean members, or committee-on-behalf-of-members) isn’t interested enough in Sf criticism to decide an award it should stop offering one: put out an award for TV, cinema, graphic novel instead perhaps. Don’t get me wrong: I think this would be a great shame, and that SF criticism is very poorly represented in the awards culture. But that would seem to me more honest.

Tony Keen raises one objection to the no-award route:

I think my problem with the Non-Fiction Non-Award is the message that it sends out about criticism, that in the BSFA’s opinion writing about sf really isn’t that important, and doesn’t warrant a proper award. Now, of course, actual original sf creation is always going to be more important than the secondary activity of writing about that creation. But nevertheless, good criticism is important, and I feel that part of the mission of the BSFA is promoting good criticism – that is, after all, why Vector exists in its current form. Now, one can say that the recommended reading list does promote non-fiction, and I suppose it does for someone who has time to read all five. But what of someone who doesn’t? One of the functions of the best novel award is the BSFA as a group saying, “if you’re only going to read one novel this year, we think it should be this”. Now the Association is not going to do this for non-fiction. Given, as Adam rightly observes, criticism is not overly supplied with awards, for the BSFA to pull back in this fashion seems to me to be a retrograde step.

I think I’m right in saying that, excluding graduate or society-specific awards, the only awards for non-fiction are the Pioneer Award for the best critical essay-length work of the year, and the Pilgrim Award for lifetime contribution to sf scholarship. There is also the Clareson Award for “outstanding service activities”, which can include sf criticism, and, in principle (although rarely in practice), the Hugo for Best Related Book.

Edward James raises another objection:

I feel really guilty about not going to BSFA meetings, or, if I go, not making my voice heard. But as someone who produces, occasionally, sf non-fiction and does NOT produce science fiction itself, I feel excluded from the organisation which I first joined 43 years ago… You don’t know why the BSFA abandoned the non-fiction award. OK: two questions — can we find out why they abandoned it, and can we restore it? The BSFA, after all, is only the totality of its members… and probably more of its members write ABOUT sf than actually write sf, so one would think that a majority of the membership did favour a non-fiction award

So, these are the questions: is a non-fiction award something the BSFA should continue to have? Is it practical? And if so, what form should it take? None of which are easy to answer. On the upside, at least one of the people on this year’s list is happy with the current arrangement:

And the nicest thing? There’s not going to be an individual winner. They’re calling it the BSFA’s non-fiction recommended reading list. And the BSFA membership won’t be voting on it. Frankly, I find that much less stressful. No getting your hopes up for a win. And looking at that shortlist, I had buckley’s. Julie’s Tiptree bio is not only the best book on that list, it’s the best book about science fiction in a very very long while.

Next week’s BSFA meeting – change of venue

Tony writes:

Due to some sudden and urgent (structural, I think) work that needs to be done to The Star Tavern, it will be closed for the week of 22-26 January, when the BSFA meeting (with Paul Cornell, interviewed by Graham Sleight) would have been held. But, splendid people that they are, The Star have organised an alternate venue for us, The Antelope on Eaton Terrace (Map here). We used this place a few years ago, when there was a double booking at The Star, some of you may remember.

Start time 6pm, as usual. Spread the word.