A Reading List

Jonathan Strahan’s Best SF and Fantasy of the Year, vol 3 (via, annotated for venue of first publication and online availability):

Exhalation – Ted Chiang (Eclipse 2)
Shoggoths in Bloom – Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s, March; online)
Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel – Peter S. Beagle (Strange Roads)
Fixing Hanover – Jeff VanderMeer (Extraordinary Engines)
The Gambler – Paolo Bacigalupi (Fast Forward 2; online)
The Dust Assassin – Ian McDonald (The Starry Rift)
Virgin – Holly Black (Magic in the Mirrorstone)
Pride and Prometheus – John Kessel (F&SF, Jan; online in this collection)
The Thought War – Paul McAuley (Postscripts 15)
Beyond the Sea Gates of the Scholar Pirates of Sarskoe – Garth Nix (Fast Ships, Black Sails)
The Small Door – Holly Phillips (Fantasy Magazine, July; online)
Turing’s Apples – Stephen Baxter (Eclipse 2)
The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates – Stephen King (F&SF Oct-Nov)
Five Thrillers – Robert Reed (F&SF, April)
The Magician’s House – Meghan McCarron (Strange Horizons, July; online)
Goblin Music – Joan Aiken (The Serial Garden)
Machine Maid – Margo Lanagan (Extraordinary Engines)
The Art of Alchemy – Ted Kosmatka (F&SF, June)
26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss – Kij Johnson (Asimov’s, July 2008; online)
Marrying the Sun – Rachel Swirsky (Fantasy Magazine, June; online)
Crystal Nights – Greg Egan (Interzone 215)
His Master’s Voice – Hannu Rajaniemi (Interzone 218)
Special Economics – Maureen McHugh (The Del Rey Book of SFF)
Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment – M Rickert (F&SF Oct-Nov)
From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled… – Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s, Feb)
If Angels Fight – Rick Bowes (F&SF, Feb)
The Doom of Love in Small Spaces – Ken Scholes (Realms of Fantasy, April)
Pretty Monsters – Kelly Link (Pretty Monsters)

So let’s see: that’s 29 28 stories, of which 14 (50%) are from non-magazine sources. Is that the highest proportion yet for a year’s best? Of those that are from magazines, the clear leader is F&SF with 6 — twice as many stories as its nearest rival, Asimov’s, and a fifth of the entire book. Three stories were first published online, and an additional four are already available online. Given that, of the seven stories on this list I’ve read so far, the only one I question the inclusion of is the King (I’m not as bowled over by “His Master’s Voice” as some, but it’s certainly ambitious), and three are already on my planned Hugo ballot, I will be tracking down as many of the others as I can before nomination time rolls around. Two further notes: 10 11 stories are by women, or 34%, about the same as 39%, slightly up from the two other volumes in this series; and I could be wrong, but I don’t think any of these stories are novellas. Is that the case? And if so, has it just been a weak year for novellas? [I am wrong; “Five Thrillers” and “Pretty Monsters” are novellas.]

The Gambler

Here’s a good story to read. It almost (almost) makes me sorry that Ted Chiang has a story in Eclipse 2 that is easily up to his usual standards, because I think Paolo Bacigalupi deserves a Hugo, and “The Gambler” could otherwise have won him one. It is a very fine piece of work, which manages to find a new angle on — and, not insignificantly when considering award chances, a new tone with which to explore — Bacigalupi’s trademark environmental and globalisation concerns.

In the very near future (itself not actually a venue Bacigalupi has really used; his best stories have tended to be set after some ecological deadline has passed), Ong is a refugee from Laos who has found a new home and a job in Los Angeles. A couple of flashbacks involving Ong’s father flesh out this backstory, but most of the tale revolves around Ong’s work as an online journalist for a large media conglomerate. The depiction of a data-dense newsphere — referred to as “the malestrom” — is good, vivid and chilling; stories “bloom” into existence, as explosions might over a battlefield, and reporters are spoken of as raising and caring for and sustaining their biggest stories as they might a child.

Unfortunately, the stories Ong writes — exposes about the loss of the genetic archive of an extinct butterfly, or mismanagement of water recycling — don’t bring in the clicks, certainly not compared to his colleague’s latest celebrity paedophilia scoop. Ong is threatened with redundancy unless the hit-rate on his stories improves, and out of generosity a colleague sets up an interview with a pop princess called Kulaap, another Laos exile; she ends up trying to save Ong from himself, when his instincts tell him to try to use the interview as a platform for calling attention to the plight of his home country.

There’s an unavoidable element of meta about “The Gambler”, never more prominent than when Kulaap tells Ong, with a sigh, that “No one reads a depressing story, at least, not more than once”, and Ong responds by insisting (quite rightly) that his stories are real news. Thus (the suspicion is unavoidable) does Bacigalupi deal with his reputation for miserablism. But the reader is never nudged into noticing this parallel — you need information external to the story to see it — and the story instead wisely spends its time deepening Ong’s quiet but firm sincerity. The end of the “The Gambler” is probably the most touching thing Bacigalupi has yet written: what Ong gambles on is human nature, and Bacigalupi makes us want him to win.

In other news: not dead yet, just busy. I’ll be at the BSFA 50th party tomorrow evening, though. And one issue of Vector went to the printers last week (meaning it could start hitting doormats as early as the end of next week), with another hot on its heels.

Helping the Lich King

Venturing into new territory for Torque Control, I’m going to talk about a video game, and when I tell you it is World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King it probably explains my lack of posting around here over the past month.

If you’re not familiar with World of Warcraft, then you’ve probably been living under a rock for the past four years. A massively multiplayer online world with 11 million subscribers around the world, the newest expansion pack managed to sell 2.8 million copies in a single day. I’m pretty sure that makes it the most popular work of fantasy around, and there are spinoff books, comics, card games, and an annual convention with 15,000 attendees.

There are many reasons why WoW is such a ridiculously successful game, and one aspect is certainly the addictive, easy gameplay – it takes a significant time investment to reach a high level, but it doesn’t require much in the way of skill. There’s also an enormous world and backstory to explore, throwing together fantasy and science fiction and horror tropes and lovingly stealing from and referencing everything from Dune to Lovecraft to Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Another big reason for the continuing success is that having made a wildly successful game, they haven’t sat back on their laurels and churned out more of the same, they are actively trying to improve it. Nowhere is this more evident than the epic quest chain which swallowed a large chunk of my weekend, and shows off how well they’ve managed to integrate storytelling and gameplay.

The new expansion introduces a new playable character, the Death Knight. This is the first chance to play a character who is not just morally dubious, but absolute evil in the service of the villainous Lich King, Elric Arthas. (Arthas has a backstory containing pretty much every epic fantasy cliche going, but he’s now a creepy albino cursed by an evil sword.) Of course, it turns out that being evil is a whole lot of fun.

The game can be criticised for relying on too many quests of the “Go over to X and kill me a whole bunch of Y’s” formula, and there’s still a few of those, but when going to X involves sneaking onto the enemy ship by hiding in a decoy mine cart, and the Y’s are slaughtered by taking control of a cannon to effect mass slaughter before escaping on the back of a flying skeletal horse, I really don’t care. I have stolen horses, killed cowering civilians with my enormous glowing sword, corrupted the innocent with an undead plague, and bombed a town from my skeletal dragon.

Another common criticism of the original game is that the world was far too static and unchanging, and quests which led to enormous revelations had no lasting effect – even when you revealed the evil power behind the throne was a dragon in disguise, she would reset five minutes later to let the next player finish the quest. With the introduction of “phasing”, which allows the same area of the world to appear differently to players at different stages of the game, the quests you complete really do make a difference, and when you set the town on fire and murder all the inhabitants, this time they stay dead. The final quest is not only an epic phased battle with hundreds of participants, it ties up major storylines that have run through the game from the start, as well as the previous Warcraft games.

It is by no means a perfect gaming experience. It’s a much more linear story than in most parts of the game, and there’s no opportunity to run off and do something else, or to skip a quest you find boring. The introduction of new controls can be confusing, when you suddenly find all your normal controls have disappeared and you are in what appears to be a floating eye roaming around the landscape, but you get the hang of it pretty quickly. (Or you don’t, and you send me endless badly-spelled messages asking how you do this part, but your fellow players are both the best and the worst thing about this game, and could fill another post entirely.) It’s also buggy in parts – I missed part of the final quest because I was being endlessly killed by a bugged enemy, and it’s not a part of the game you can easily replay. But if there was anyone considering taking up World of Warcraft, or returning to their dormant characters, it’s worth knowing that once again Blizzard have upped their game, and it’s hard to see how anything else can dislodge them from their place at the top of the MMORPG market.

Story Notes 2

Apologies for the quietude around these parts at the moment; I’m going through another busy period at work. I actually have a fair few posts in the half-written or draft-that-needs-polishing stage, though, and hopefully I’ll get some of them up next week. In the meantime, have some more brief short fiction reviews.

“Greenland” by Chris Beckett (IZ 218)
A bleak story, and one which both revisits a familiar Beckett theme (identity) as well as extending into new territory, in that (as he notes in the story’s introduction) it’s one of his few tales to feature climate change as a significant background element. A solidly rendered sub-tropical Oxford is the primary location, with a dystopic background in which “Old Brits” defend the borders of their country with machine guns on the beaches. The narrator, Juan, is a refugee from a fractured Spain, and early in the story he loses his menial job at Magdalen college due to competition from newer — for which read “cheaper” — immigrants. In order to make ends meet, Juan takes up an ostensibly friendly professor’s offer of participation in an experiment for cash. But the bleakest aspect of the story is the depiction of Juan’s dysfunctional relationship with another immigrant, a French graduate called Suzanne; both have been damaged and deformed by the un-person treatment they receive from the population around them, despite the fact that immigrants now represent the majority of the population. When Juan tells Suzanne that he has a way to perhaps make enough money to get them to Greenland (a fabled refuge), her thought is not of the potential risk to him, her eyes just light up. “Here,” Juan thinks, “was the evidence of how much poverty and fear and hopelessness had coarsened and corrupted her. But I was coarsened and corrupted too.” The experiment itself turns out to be a less mundane kind of science fiction, although in Beckett’s hands it doesn’t feel incongruous, and it provides Beckett the opportunity to make some strong points about the moral value of any kind of sentence. In that, the story of Beckett’s which it most closely echoes is “Karel’s Prayer”, though it is to my mind the more effective of the two pieces; worth reading for its detail, and for the cumulative power of its voice.

“Crystal Nights” by Greg Egan (IZ 215)
Charles Stross with the lobsters filed off. This is a story about evolving AI by darwinian selection — crab-shaped AI with control of their own physiology, in fact — and the ethical pitfalls thereof. As with Beckett’s story, in fact, the deeply felt and convincingly articulated ethical concern for other forms of sentience is one of the most satisfying aspects of the story. It comes in this story from the author, not the protagonist; Daniel Cliff thinks himself not an unkind god, just one who is prepared to make some sacrifices, cause some suffering, to promote the development of the kind of intelligence he wants. The story accelerates nicely, in a “Sandkings” direction, with some welcome flashes of wit (how Daniel made his money, for instance, or what the crabs find when they reach their simulated moon), and an ending that is apt, if not completely satisfying.

“Traitor” by M. Rickert (F&SF, May)
I don’t know, you wait years for an M. Rickert science fiction story, and then … this is another near-future piece and, as with “Bread and Bombs” and “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment” (a) it derives quite a lot of its power from revealing exactly how the world in which it is set has changed from our own time, (b) the change is dystopic in nature, and (c) the viewpoint of a child is central. Where “Traitor” goes further than either of the others is the elliptical manner in which the world is described; a scene in which a mother and daughter visit an ice-cream parlour verges on true surrealism, and a several-page digression into another story (another familiar Rickert trick, admittedly) successfully obscures precisely how the relationship between that mother and daughter is developing until the final page of the story. I have to admit that I found “Traitor” a bit less organic than the best of Rickert’s stories, but it still achieves a commendable intensity.

“Shad’s Mess” by Alex Irvine (Postscripts 15)
Irvine strikes me above all as a competent writer; everything in his stories always fits together with a pleasing clockwork deftness. This one is about a blue-collar teleport repairman who, after a somewhat grisly transporter malfunction, gets sued by some Christian missionaries and starts seeing something he refers to as the Entropy Gremlin. You might think that the satiric/fantastic elements wouldn’t mesh with the down-to-Earth grubby space life aspects, yet they do. What it lacks, perhaps, is the ability to inspire a particularly strong emotional or intellectual connection in the reader; I’m left with a sense that as well-executed as it is, it’s a story that doesn’t add up to much more than the description I’ve just given it.

“Africa” by Karen Fishler (IZ 217)
I’ve enjoyed Fishler’s previous Interzone stories, and I enjoyed “Africa”; like the majority of modern Interzone‘s stories, it seems to me, it aspires to craft rather than innovation, but like Irvine’s story it is a good, solid piece, even if that means I’m damning it with faint praise. The set-up is this: at some point in the future, humanity is expelled from Earth by an alien race, probably (though I don’t think it is explicitly specified) for incompetent planetary stewardship, bound never to return or indeed to land on any other planet. A barrier was constructed around the Earth, with a station that travels on its surface to meet and interrogate any intruders; it is manned by long-lived Guardians, although their numbers have dwindled such that there are now only two of them, Tomeer and his clone-father. A ship approaches, which also appears to be carrying only two people, this time a daughter and her natural father, who is dying. The daughter, Ainkia, tells Tomeer that they are all that is left of Expelled humanity, the rest having died of age and sadness. Youthful, innocent Tomeer is touched by her request to bury her father in the Earth’s soil, but his father is less than impressed by the idea. What’s most satisfying about “Africa” is that, though hardly action-packed, it never feels as though it is treading water – indeed, as usual with Fishler the character relationships are well defined, such that when the inevitable hard choices come (and this is where it scores slightly over “Shad’s Mess”) they mean something. It is not an extraordinary story; but it is an admirable one.

The Warwick Prize for Writing

So, the first Warwick Prize for Writing longlist is out:

Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 by Lisa Appignanesi (Virago)
The Tiger That Isn’t, by Michael Blastland & Andrew Dilnot (Profile Books)
Torques: Drafts 58-76, by Rachel Blau Duplessis (Salt Publishing)
Glister, by John Burnside (Jonathan Cape)
Planet of Slums, by Mike Davies (Verso)
The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed Bishop Gerardi?, by Francisco Goldman (Atlantic Books)
Someone Else, by John Hughes (Giramondo Publishing Company)
Reinventing the Sacred, by Stuart A Kauffman (Perseus)
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein (Penguin)
The Burning, by Thomas Legendre (Abacus)
Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion and the Politics of Human Origins, by David Livingston (Johns Hopkins University Press)
The Wild Places, by Robert Macfarlane (Granta Books)
The Meaning of the 21st Century, by James Martin (Eden Project Books)
Brasyl, by Ian McDonald (Gollancz)
Netherland , by Joseph O’Neill (4th Estate)
The Rest Is Noise, by Alex Ross (4th Estate)
The Informers, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (translator: Anne McLean) (Bloomsbury)
Montano’s Malady, by Enrique Vila-Matas (translator: Jonathan Dunne) (New Directions)
Portrait with Keys, by Ivan Vladislavic (Portobello Books)
The Trader, the Owner, the Slave, by James Walvin (Jonathan Cape)

As you may be able to tell from the above list, it’s a bit of an oddity, this one. The process that generated it is pretty quirky, to start with: it’s a biennial award with a 30-month eligibility period; nominations come originally from university staff; the longlist can include a maximum of 15 titles, except that each of the five judges can add one directly, for the total of 20 you see above.

It’s certainly high-minded enough: the website says that “The Warwick Prize for Writing is an international cross-disciplinary award which will be given biennially for an excellent and substantial piece of writing in the English language, in any genre or form, on a theme which will change with every award”, and declares with teleological certainty that “The winning submission will represent an intellectual, scientific and/or imaginative advance and be written with an energy and clarity that makes it accessible and attractive to a wide audience”.

The prize also has a substantial fund behind it — the winner gets £50,000 — not to mention a well-qualified judging panel. On some level, it is undoubtedly a good and welcome thing. But the more I look at that list, with its seven fiction titles, twelve non-fiction titles, and one poetry title, the more sceptical I am about the meaningfulness of choosing a winner.

Bear in mind that it’s a list that includes books I have enjoyed, books I want to read, and books I’ve never heard of but which look interesting, which is about all you can ask of a longlist. My reservation is that measuring fiction, non-fiction and poetry against each other always strikes me as a bit pointless when the Whitbread/Costa does it, and it strikes me as a bit pointless here. This is not to say that such comparisons can’t be illuminating: I’m sure that reading Glister, Portrait with Keys and Planet of Slums together with an eye to how they treat the idea of the city could be fascinating, for instance. Assuming that you found all three to be good, however, I’m baffled as to how you could declare one to be better than the others in ways that rise above the simple subjective fact of enjoying one more than another. Put another way, I can’t think of any sensible evaluative way to compare, say, Brasyl and The Rest is Noise: their goals, reference points, interests, and techniques seem to be so divergent as to make such comparison meaningless.

The publicity for the Warwick prize states that it “is set to redefine traditional forms of writing”; I take this to be a reference to the fact that there are obviously books which blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction, and that it makes more sense — is more honest? — to treat types of writing as a continuum rather than a series of categories. This is true as far as it goes, but the problem is that, as with Larus Gulls, the existence of border cases doesn’t mean that distinct, incompatible categories don’t exist.

Perhaps the stated theme for this iteration of the award — “complexity“, although to be honest I’m pretty sure I could argue for just about anything under that definition of the term — is intended to help. But certainly for the ones I’ve sampled, the most useful answer to the question, “how do these books tackle or embody complexity?” is “very differently”; better and worse don’t really come into it. But it’s a prize, so better and worse have to come into it, and there has to be a winner. Part of me thinks that to be truly radical, they should forego picking a winner entirely, and just divide up the prize money between the works they’ve considered worthy of a longlisting.

BSFA News: Awards and Party

Or, in chronological order, Tony Keen has news about a party:

On Wednesday 26th November 2008, from around 7pm


The Melton Mowbray (18, Holborn, London, ec1n 2le)

BSFA 50th anniversary party

Including the announcement of the winner of the BSFA Short Story competition


(No entry fee or tickets. Non-members welcome. There will be a raffle.)

(Note one-time only change of venue.)

And Donna Scott wants nominations for the awards:

BSFA Awards 2008 – Nominations

The rules
You may nominate a work if YOU:
— Are a member of the BSFA
— Send or give your nominations to the Awards Administrator to arrive by January 16th 2009.

Best Novel
The Best Novel award is open to any novel-length work of science fiction or fantasy that has been published in the UK for the first time in 2008. (Serialised novels are eligible, provided that the publication date of the concluding part is in 2008). If a novel has been previously published elsewhere, but it hasn’t been published in the UK until 2008, it is eligible.

Best Short Fiction
The Best Short Fiction award is open to any shorter work of science fiction or fantasy, up to and including novellas, first published in 2008 (in a magazine, in a book, or online). This includes books and magazines published outside the UK.

Best Artwork
The Best Artwork award is open to any single science fictional or fantastic image that first appeared in 2008. Again, provided the artwork hasn’t been published before 2008 it doesn’t matter where it appears.

Best Non-Fiction
The Best Non-Fiction award is open to any written work about science fiction and/or fantasy which appeared in its current form in 2008, in print or online. Whole collections comprised of work that has been published elsewhere previous to 2008 are ineligible.

Subject to these other rules, you may nominate as many pieces as you like in any category, but you may only submit one nomination for any particular piece.

The shortlists for these four awards will be comprised from the five works in each category that receive the most individual nominations by the deadline. Works published by the BSFA, or in association with the BSFA, are ineligible for a BSFA award. The deadline for me to receive nominations will be midnight, Friday January 16th 2009.

Your nominations can reach me in several ways. Perhaps the easiest is by email – I can be reached at awards@bsfa.co.uk. It would be helpful if you can write the award category, author or artist, title, and the source (i.e. the publisher or magazine). There are columns for this information on the form that should have gone out with this mailing for those who would prefer to use snail mail. All nominations must be received in writing, and must include your name to be accepted.

As Tom Shippey Sees Us

In the TLS, reviewing Anathem. It is not, in my view, a particularly good review; in the first paragraph, he seems to imply that Cryptonomicon is Stephenson’s fourth novel, and refers to the Baroque Cycle as the “Baroque Trilogy”; in the second he asserts that Anathem starts out looking like “high fantasy”, which really isn’t the description I’d choose; and he gives away what’s really going on in the book (a revelation withheld until about two-thirds of the way through which, though it’s not an easy call, I’d say puts it beyond the bounds of discussion in a first-look review) without, in my view, adding any striking insight. It almost seems as though the review is an excuse for him to say this:

One of the great things about (much) science fiction is that its authors really mean it. They do think, for instance, that the human species is doomed to exhaustion and dieback if it does not get itself into space, and soon, while we have the technology and the resources, a window of opportunity shuttered by NASA’s inept bureaucracy. They really do believe that humans could be educated to their full potential and far beyond the levels reached by the tick-the-box grading systems of modern colleges, if we exploited available computer- and nano-technology. To them (some of them) mathematics is not just fiddling with abstractions but a guide to ultimate reality. Some of them think we need never die. In every case, though, there is strong awareness of the obstacles in the way of converting possibility to hard fact, some of them theoretical or technological, but even more of them social, financial, attitudinal.

It’s nice that Shippey likes advocacy-based sf, but it would be even nicer if he realised it’s only one of the strings to sf’s bow. I mean, at the moment it looks like he thinks the many sf writers who don’t believe these things simply write bad sf.

Links Shake the World

I’m in Glasgow for most of this week, for work-related reasons, so posting is likely to be light; but I can at least catch up on my linking.

EDIT: I knew I’d forget something. Can anyone work out, based on these reviews, whether 2666 is a work of the fantastic?

Third Annual Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass

Location: University of Liverpool
Dates: June 10th, 11th and 12th, 2009

Class Leaders: Joan Gordon, Adam Roberts, Paul Kincaid.

The Science Fiction Masterclass is held in conjunction with the University of Liverpool. The aim of the Masterclass is to provide those who have a serious interest in sf criticism with the opportunity to exchange ideas with leading figures in the field, and also to use the SFF Collection.

The Masterclass will take place from June 10-12th at the University of Liverpool. Each full day of the Masterclass will consist of morning and evening classes, with afternoons free to prepare. Class leaders for 2009 will be Joan Gordon, Adam Roberts, and Paul Kincaid.

Applicants should write to Liz Batty at sff.masterclass@googlemail.com

Applicants must provide a short CV of either: academic credentials, essay/book publications, reviews and writing sample (this may be from a blog); all of these will be valued equally as we are looking for a mixture of experiences and approaches. A range of hotel recommendations will be forwarded to those accepted.

Applications will be assessed by an Applications Committee consisting of Peter Wright, Joan Haran, and Farah Mendlesohn.

Completed applications must be received by 31st January 2009.

Feel free to forward this advert to anyone you think might like the masterclass. Niall’s summary of last year’s event is here.