BSFA Awards — open for nominations

An announcement from Claire Brialey, the BSFA Awards Administrator:

Nominations are now open for this year’s BSFA awards, with more opportunities than ever before for BSFA members to express their opinions about what’s good in science fiction.

All current members of the BSFA are eligible to nominate and vote for the awards, which will be presented at next year’s British national science fiction convention (Eastercon). Members of the Eastercon will also be eligible to vote for the awards.

The 2008 Eastercon will be the 50th anniversary of the founding of the BSFA and we will therefore be presenting a special award for the best genre novel of 1958. This will be nominated and voted on in the same way as the awards for works published in 2007; details about what’s eligible and how to nominate can be found on the temporary BSFA website.

There will once again be four awards categories for 2007 work: novel, short fiction, artwork and non-fiction. The main change for this year is for the non-fiction category, a topic which has previously excited some opinions on Torque Control. Those of you who are BSFA members now have every opportunity to express those opinions by nominating what you consider to be the best writing about science fiction in 2007. Read the rules and then email me to nominate or to comment more generally.

I’d also like to extend many thanks to Ian Snell for his work as awards administrator last year and his help in handing back over. I shall be acting as BSFA awards administrator until Easter 2008.

Short fiction-wise I suspect I’ll be nominating Holly Phillips’ “Three Days of Rain” and Daryl Gregory’s “Dead Horse Point”, but beyond that I haven’t thought about nominations yet this year. How about you?

If On A Winter’s Night A Linker

  • John Clute’s “Fantastika in the World Storm“, a lecture delivered in Prague earlier this month. Possibly notable for including a four-stage model of sf to go with the models of fantasy and horror outlined in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy and The Darkening Garden, respectively; at least, I think it’s the first time I’ve seen such a model written down:

    Science Fiction. The basic premise is that the world depicted has an arguable relation to the history of the real world. The underlying impulse of twentieth century SF has been to view the world in this manner in order to see what’s wrong; and then fixing it. SF is the most optimisitc of genres. SF bronco-busts the world. It rides the world storm. I’ve cobbled a narrative model for SF out of other writers’ work. Though it uses a different terminology, this model closely resembles an earlier model constructed by Farah Mendlesohn for similar reasons in her essay, Is There Any Such a Thing as Children’s Fiction: A Position Piece (2004):

    1. Novum. Darko Suvin’s term for that aspect of the SF world which differs measurably from our given world.
    2. Cognitive Estrangement. Suvin’s term — modified from Vikor Shklovsky and Bertolt Brecht — for arguable and therefore structured defamiliarization of the world, which derives in part from the fact of Novum, and which allows the defectiveness of the ruling paradigm to be seen whole.
    3. Conceptual Breakthrough. Peter Nicholls’s term, from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979), for the thrust of release when a defective paradigm collapses and the new world — the true world — is revealed. A sense of wonder is often felt, sometimes in spaceships.
    4. Topia (U- or Dys-). The Jerusalem whose gates have been opened by conceptual breakthrough for those who have won through. From this point life is going to be led in accordance with the truths discovered.
  • Michael Swanwick’s “A Nettlesome Term That Has Long Outlived Its Welcome“, an essay about the term “fix-up” that first appeared in NYRSF.
  • I’m sure most of you have seen Ursula Le Guin’s review of Jeanette Winterson’s latest novel The Stone Gods by now, but in case not, here it is. And here is Tim Adams’ review from the Observer.
  • John Clute’s obituary for Robert Jordan (and Andrew Wheeler’s comment)
  • Jeff VanderMeer’s interview with M. John Harrison to mark the US release of Nova Swing (and Andrew Wheeler’s comment)
  • In The Guardian, Patrick Ness reviews Pratchett’s Making Money
  • Abigail Nussbaum reviews two novels by Anna Kavan
  • Jonathan McCalmont reviews Interzone 212
  • Another review of Jeff Prucher’s Brave New Words
  • Richard Larson’s thoughts on Spaceman Blues
  • Matt Cheney reports from a Jonathan Lethem/PKD event, and has the lineup of the next Library of America Dick volume: Martian Time-Slip, Dr. Bloodmoney, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, A Scanner Darkly, and Now Wait for Last Year
  • Jeff VanderMeer’s working definition of the New Weird
  • The winners of the British Fantasy Awards. In Best Novel, Tim Lebbon’s Dusk beat Nova Swing and various others; in Non Fiction, Julie Phillips’ Tiptree bio lost to Mark Morris’ Cinema Macabre
  • Fantasy Debut: a blog that tracks, well, fantasy debuts
  • Eugie Foster has been “summarily dismissed” from Tangent Online; Dave Truesdale will be taking over as managing editor.
  • And finally, not sf but interesting: Stephen King on the state of the American short story

Further Housekeeping

I’ve changed the comment posting settings, from “all comments get posted” to “person posting must have a previously approved comment”, because (a) the blog is picking up a bit more spam than it used to and (b) I can no longer access the site during the daytime to deal with said spam. Hopefully this won’t cause too much hassle. What I don’t know is whether it will remember who I approved last time I had this setting switched on; if a couple of people wanted to post a test comment in response to this post, while I’m around and able to approve it, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Quote of the Day

Gwyneth Jones:

It’s not that feminist analysis in an sf format is out of date. The story is as relevant as ever it was, and the books are still being written. Timmi Duchamp’s Alanya series is a case in point, Janine Cross’s Touched By Venom also comes to mind: I haven’t read it, but the harsh sexual tone sounds rather like Tiptree (people forget just how brutal some of Tiptree’s sexual stories were). But it’s a niche market, a minority interest: whereas the kind of fem-sf reading that the popular audience will read and buy has become practically indistinguishable from mainstream feminine sf. Stories where “girls get to be guys”, either on Space Patrol on with a swashbuckly sword and a feathery hat, will always be popular. Stories celebrating feminine culture, even when men are blame for everything evil, and women have been innocent bystanders for all the millennia, are also comfort fare. They’re womanly. They offer no challenge to conventional, or hyper-conventional “separate development” views on gender role. In short, we’re not in the seventies any more. Feminists who write genre have to address the realities of a changed world. I’d been thinking that since long before 2001. Actually, once you’ve done your “sexual politics” novel or two, you should want to move on. You want to take what you’ve learned about the human condition, and use it in fiction that has no visible connection with women’s lib —except that it’s the work of someone who never forgets that dimension.

(Go read the whole thing, because it comes with an interesting assessment of Kathleen Ann Goonan’s In War Times, among other things.)


I apologise for the silence over the past week or so, but unfortunately things aren’t likely to get any livelier around here for a little while yet. There are several reasons: one is that I’m about to start a new job, and I’m expecting the first couple of weeks to be very much a hit-the-ground-running, affair; a second is that said job involves a somewhat longer commute than I have at present, which leaves correspondingly less time in the evenings for things like blogging (I should be moving house in the short-to-medium term, but this in itself is not an un-time-consuming process); and a third is that it’s reached that time of year when pretty much all my reading energies have to go into Clarke books, which I can’t talk about. (More immediately, I’m also off to Truck Festival for the weekend, which was postponed due to floods earlier this year.) There’s a BSFA mailing on the way, and I’ll try to get around to updating the website, and I’m sure I’ll manage to get something up here once a week or so, even if it’s only a link round-up. In the meantime, any of the links in the sidebar to the right should take you to interesting substitute reading material.

Making Love in Madrid

Reviewing a recent installment in Aqueduct Press‘s “Conversation Pieces” series, the novella We, Robots by Sue Lange, David Soyka wrote:

This is a well told story, though nothing particularly surprising or ground-breaking. It adds nothing to the canon. What’s particularly curious is that this is part of a series put out by Aqueduct Press called “Conversation Pieces” that are loosely connected to feminist SF. Other than the fact that women can be considered a subjugated class (and there is a sub-genre of stories specifically concerning female robots, e.g., C.L. Moore’s “No Woman Born” and Lester del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy”), I fail to see anything about We, Robots that is feminist.

In fact, I’m not sure I completely agree with Soyka’s argument with respect to We, Robots. The story — of a robot who is fitted with a “pain interpreter”, in a world where humans are gradually replacing their bodies with prosthetic and cybernetic parts — is an argument for the value of sensation, of sensory experience. If you accept Elizabeth Bear’s feminist critique of the singularity, or something similar, there are certainly grounds for considering We, Robots a feminist work. For all that its primary focus, as Soyka says, is a recapitulation of sf thought, it is also a story about, to borrow Bear’s phrase, “the messy bits of being meat”.

But I’m at least as interested in the comment Soyka notes by series editor L. Timmel Duchamp, in the brief foreword that accompanies every volume, to the effect that “The Conversation Pieces series presents a wide variety of texts, including short fiction (which may not always be sf and may not necessarily even be feminist), essays, speeches, manifestoes, poetry, interviews, correspondence, and group discussions” [emphasis mine]. If you think about it, apart from anything else it functions as a way of counter-acting the assumptions you might otherwise bring to a book published by a feminist small press. Instead of taking the politics of what you’re about to read for granted, you approach it questioningly: is this feminist? What do I mean by feminist? If it’s not feminist, why has it been published in this series?

Which brings me to the most recent volume, Making Love in Madrid by Kimberley Todd Wade. It’s another novella, this time a debut publication, and seems to have attracted pretty much zero discussion, outside of a brief review in the May 2007 Locus by Rich Horton:

Kimberley Todd Wade’s Making Love in Madrid is a lyrical metafictional piece ostensibly about a blocked writer in Madrid who meets a beautiful amnesiac woman, only to be consumed by jealousy when in addition to taking up with him she takes up with the neighbor, a much more famous artist … anyway, this is how things start, but Wade is really writing, I think, about writers and their characters. As I said, a lyrical story, often quite beautiful, but in the end I don’t think it held together.

Personally I’d reverse the description of the premise: it’s about a beautiful amnesiac woman who meets a blocked writer in what is ostensibly Madrid. At the very least, it’s about both of them equally, since the story is told in a very well controlled omniscient voice, drifting between the heads of the two characters, Sheila and John, in a way that reinforces the dreamlike affect of the setting. The much more famous artist, Alan, I have difficulty calling a character — very occasionally we get a glimpse of his perspective, but most of the time he’s a device for poking at Sheila and John’s relationship. The characterisation there is fine, subject to my criticisms below, but if you enjoy this story, it won’t be for the characters, it will be for the affect. If I’d got around to reading the copy of Ice by Anna Kavan that I’ve had sitting in my TBR pile for the past couple of months, I suspect I’d be making a comparison with Wade’s novella; as it is, the writer I’ve read most recently whose work was called to mind by Making Love in Madrid is Zoran Zivkovic, most particularly in the sense that the uncertain landscape and strange events described have some meaning just beyond my grasp.

Reading it not long after We, Robots and Soyka’s review, however, I found myself wondering how feminist or not Making Love in Madrid is. On the one hand it is, like Lange’s story, very much about the messy bits of being human: you could guess that, perhaps, from the title, although there is relatively little explicit sex, despite the fact that in their first meeting Sheila confesses to John that she’s an insatiable nymphomaniac. There is some, but the characters, particularly John, think about it more than they have it — for instance, on a trip to a market near the hotel in which he is staying, John observes mozzarella “floating in salted water like detached breasts”; he “fondles vegetables he will slice into salad”, “radishes of obscene pinkness” and “piles of knobby phallic tubers” (17). Later he observes Sheila eating a cookie “as if eating were the most sensuous pleasure available to mankind” (57). (It runs the other way, too: a character is referred to as being “as limp as an over-cooked noodle”, 33.) Sheila, for her part, is more likely to associate sexual experiences with music. Alan’s apartment, which she visits while John is out, is filled with musical instruments, and in her eyes Alan plays the piano as if seducing it: he “reclines” in front of it, his fingertips “kiss” the ivory teeth; as he plays, she finds herself involuntarily embracing herself as her knees go week and her hands tremble. Moreover, right at the start of the story Wade hangs a big red flag on everything Sheila does:

She sits poised on the edge of the sofa, angled precisely in [John]’s direction with left knee over right, overtly feminine, someone clearly creating a role but perhaps herself unaware of it, more like a female impersonator than a born woman. (2)

In fact Sheila is aware of the impression she creates, or at least becomes aware of it as the story proceeds and she begins to recover her memories. Despite the fact that she realises that for John “heartbreak is inevitable”, she finds that “the possibility of that moment of revelation, when he can bear it no longer and turns his pleading eyes on her so that she feels like she’s going to break under the pressure of his desperate gaze” is “irresistable” (56); later she begins to wonder why she’s leading him on in the way that she is, why she enjoys it; at the end, perhaps, she begins to accomodate a more compassionate approach to relationships (a more literal approach to “making love”, you could say), having started to gain more control of identity.

This strikes me as a feminist theme, except for the fact that it seems to me to sit uneasily with the other major aspect of the novella. In a blurb on the back, Anna Tambour describes Making Love in Madrid as “a fantasia of amnesia”, and that’s certainly what it presents as; but by the end, as Horton’s review indicates, it would be more accurate to describe it as a fantasia about writers and writing. When Sheila first goes to John, it is because she wants him to write her a history. She remembers reading one of his books and loving it, so she trusts him to do a good job. As events progress, inevitably, Sheila is revealed to be a writer as well. Equally inevitably, at the end of the story, one of them is revealed to be the author of the other. (I said you don’t read this story for character; you don’t read it for plot, either.)

And throughout the story’s second half, John and Sheila’s writing styles are contrasted. For John, writing requires control, and has to be his: musing on his muse, he reassures himself that “She is only the catalyst, not the creator […] This is my story. I’m in control. She will be whatever I want her to be” (41). By contrast, when Sheila starts to write it is “immediately evident” to John that she possesses no discipline, and so he determines to offer his own working method as an example. But it’s no good — typically she reads until lunchtime, after which she might pick up a pen and write, sprawled across her bed, “gustily propelling [the pen] across the pages of a spiral-bound notebook” (60). But she’s just as likely to take a nap. A conversation about writing reinforces the differences between them:

“Of course, it’s personal to me in so far as it’s my work, but it’s not specific to me. If it were specific to me it would not be successful, not that my work has been a great commercial–or, ah, critical–success, but you know what I mean, I make a living at it …” he allows himself to drift off, realizing the stupidity of his defense that only serves to lead him on to other things to feel defensive about.

She looks satisfied with herself for a moment and turns back to her broccoli, evidencing no further interest in him.

How does she do it? She isn’t making a living, so she’s the authority on the pure form–oh, writing as grand art never sullied by thoughts of money–whereas the truth is that she’s probably tried and failed at publishing and is now mollifying her wretched sense of personal defeat with the palliative of “pure art”. How self-righteous; it makes him furious with her and at the same time ashamed of himself. (64-5)

All of this — the idea that Sheila is uninhibited and impulsive and writes for herself, while John is controlled and resentful and writes for an audience — comes too close to stereotype for my liking. Because the characterisation is broad to start with, it begins to feel that Sheila is the way she is because she’s a woman, while John is the way he is because he’s a man; in the passage above, I think it’s only that last note of shame that injects any sort of complexity into John, particularly the way it’s doesn’t seem to be a conscious recognition of his hypocrisy. But that’s a pretty thin thread to hold on to. And the larger problem — or at least, my problem — is that the very self-awareness that Sheila achieves with respect to herself and her approach to relationships, which is so satisfying on its own terms, seems to reinforce this more rigid view of art and artists. Because, of course, it’s Sheila who is revealed as the writer — that’s why it’s her story, and not John’s. She’s been debating within herself about her writing, her responsibility to her characters, her whole approach; and (the end implicitly argues) she’s in the right. I’m not denying that John is in the wrong, but when it comes to art it seems to me that questions of rightness must always be shifting, fluid, open to further discussion. When I finished Making Love in Madrid, although I’d enjoyed the journey, I felt like the conversation was over.

Making Links in Madrid


The Lights of Fairyland

This may become the first in a short series of short posts on aspects of Paul McAuley’s 1995 novel Fairyland, or it may end up orphaned and alone. In either case the place to start is, what kind of novel is it? Here is a paragraph from near the start of the novel, which is surely science fiction:

Old London Town is growing strange and exotic in the grip of what they are now calling the Great Climatic Overturn. Lights drift past the minicab like stars seen from some hyperlight spaceship. Streetlights, the scattered lights of the tower blocks behind screens of hardy sycamores and ginkgoes, the lights of the pyramid-capped tower of Canary Wharf rising into the sodium orange sky. A helicopter slowly crosses the sky from west to east, the needle of its laser spotlight intermittently stabbing amongst the flat roofs of deck access housing. (35)

And here is a paragraph from near the end, which must be fantasy:

Everything is so clear, so bright. A wash of huge, blurry stars arches overhead. The glow of the half-moon that hangs above the treeline seems to be focused into a kind of temple of vaporous illumination in the middle of the road. Within that distilled light, a host of fairies and other creatures flank the two figures sitting on high-backed spiky chairs fretted from thin white spars that might be the bones of extinct birds. (311)

If I hadn’t just told you these come from the same book, would you guess? If I didn’t already know, I don’t think I would. The first is London refracted through the lens of cyberpunk: urban, alienated, the sense of a very limited, street-level perspective on the world. In the second, the location is not clearly specified (it happens to be Albania), but it could easily be another world; the city is missing, and with it the sense that the landscape is defined by human action; the temple and the road could easily be fairy creations. And there is nothing, in that paragraph, to indicate that the fairies described are something other than the creatures of myth, while there is quite a bit to make them seem romantic, enigmatic, magical.

The similarity between the two paragraphs, of course, is that they spend a lot of time describing the nature and quality of the light that illuminates their scene — artificial and scattered in the first case, natural and focused in the second. From the start, Fairyland-the-place is defined by light, and like so much else about the book, it works metaphorically and literally. As a boy, the main character, Alex Sharkey, is told by his mother that the lights of London at night are the lights of Fairyland, and the book’s story is, in part, the tale of Alex searching for the place where those lights become real. But Fairyland is also a book about how we draw on old stories to understand the new world around us, and the difference between the two paragraphs reflects that: as the light in which the world is seen changes, so too must the language with which it is described.

Note that both views are, in a sense, familiar: the first paragraph as representative of a type of near-future sf, the second paragraph as representative of an older type of story. Part of what makes Fairyland special is how convincingly it describes a transition between the two. The shift is more gradual and detailed and sustained than it is in, say, Geoff Ryman’s Air, which also draws on fantasy to find a way of understanding the future. And in Fairyland the shift is never total or irreversible in the way that the end of Air seems to be which makes it, in a way, more haunting. Every glimpse of Fairyland is partial or temporary, and the second paragraph above is, in fact, an illusion — except that at the same time, it is exactly the place Alex has been seeking. So although paragraphs of the second type are more common the deeper into the book you read, the predominant sense is one of urgency. You feel Fairyland getting closer to the surface, closer to breaking through and becoming real.

Future Classics?

(Photo nicked from Paul, because it’s better than the ones I took. Other photos on Flickr here.)

I’ve mentioned these a couple of times in passing, but here are some links to other reactions, both to the covers and to the choice of books:

In passing, I should mention that the re-release of Fairyland was the nudge I needed to finally get around to reading it, and it is stunning — easily the best thing I’ve read by McAuley, and (as various people said last year, when I didn’t really believe them) quite possibly the Clarke of Clarkes.

There’s also a good interview with Simon Spanton at UKSF Book News, in which he summarises the impetus behind the promotion:

This year, aiming to do another promotion that would bring new readers to books on our list via innovative cover designs, we decided that we should look at the wealth of work we’ve built up from some of the contemporary writers on the Gollancz list. So we chose eight books that we hoped gave a good cross section of more recent SF but that would also be accessible to most readers. As with most ‘grand schemes’ dreamt up in the mighty engine rooms of publishing, the list was arrived at by a small group of people sitting around a table going ‘Oooh I love that book’ or ‘What about so-and-so?’ When it came to the covers we were, once again, able to take some of our cues from the SF4U promotion. Both times we were able to go to our art department and give them a pretty broad brief: ‘we want something that will make these books stand out, something different, something that will make SF fans take another look and which might provide people who don’t consider themselves readers of the genre but who have some sympathy with it and may have experimented in the past with an incentive to take a first look’.

I can’t help noting that this is not quite the same selection process that Jo Fletcher described at Eastercon.

See also: Gollancz’s new covers for Greg Egan’s books.