The internet being what it is, even a post as marginally belated as this one feels a little redundant. Still, it would feel stranger not to set down my thoughts on this year’s winners at all, if only because I can’t agree with Cory Doctorow that these are “some of the best results in recent memory”; they seem to me, as usual, a mixed bag, and perhaps more than usual an inconsistent bag.
The only explanation I can come up with for, say, the two Best Dramatic Presentation results – setting the immensely pleasing recognition for the low-key, nuanced Moon against the downright distressing award for the bombastically nonsensical The Waters of Mars, not just the worst nominee and bad by the standards of all TV, but bad by the standards even of the Doctor Who specials – is that completely separate groups of people won the day in each category. (This is just about possible, although not very likely, based on the voting statistics [pdf]: from 1094 ballots cast, after redistribution of preferences Moon won its category with 418 ballots, while The Waters of Mars won with 350.) More seriously, Jonathan Strahan, who worked on two of the nominees for Best Novellette, loses out in Best Editor: Short Form to Ellen Datlow, who didn’t work on any nominees this year; and Juliet Ulman, who edited two of the Best Novels, only got as many first-preference votes as No Award in Best Editor: Long Form. You can, of course, say that the Best Editor categories are for consistency over a body of work, rather than acquiring a few standouts, but that doesn’t seem to explain the continued overlooking of Sheila Williams, whose Asimov’s has in recent years dominated the short fiction categories – 10 of 15 nominees in 2007; 7 of 15 in 2008 and 2009; and while 3 of 15 nominees this year looks like a slump, it’s still more than any other single publication managed – yet who has never won in her category.
It was satisfying to see a new Best Semiprozine – that is, the voters neither went back to their old Locus habit, nor settled into a new pattern with Weird Tales – and Clarkesworld certainly had a good year. (Although as Mark Kelly notes, it is a bit odd that Weird Tales dropped so far down the ranking.) I can only hope the award continues to move around, since I, like Abigail Nussbaum, am starting to feel a little bothered by the number of recusals. (My suggestion? The New York Review of Science Fiction, which is long overdue and having a good year.) Best Related Book was not a surprise, although This is Me, Jack Vance! is the only nominee in the category I haven’t sampled; neither was Best Graphic Story, to the point where it’s quickly becoming clear that voters don’t really know what to do with the category as it’s currently constituted. I’d be in favour of Liz Batty and Nick Honeywell’s proposal, in The Drink Tank [pdf], to change the category to Best Graphic Novel.
The winner of Best Fanzine, meanwhile, and for the second year running, is a winner within the letter of the rules rather than what I consider to be the spirit of them. Contra Jason Sanford, the only boundaries that StarShipSofa pushes for me are the ones I don’t really want to see pushed: ‘zines that publish fiction may be eligible within the current wording, but I don’t want to see them become the norm; ditto podcasts, if only because I’m too much of a written-word junkie; and nor do I want to see it become common for eligible ‘zines to campaign for their nominations. As Mike Glyer points out, however, the voting statistics don’t yet suggest that these two winners represent a sea-change in how the category is treated; and it’s good to see ‘zines like Journey Planet and group blogs like SF Signal bubbling under, not to mention Steam Engine Time, which I’d have dearly loved to see on the ballot.
And looming over everything else there’s that improbable tie for Best Novel, only the third in the history of the Hugos. As others have noted, it’s hard not to feel there’s a certain cosmic rightness in it, either because, like Jonathan McCalmont, you take it as a reflection of the fact that neither is quite polished enough to merit a full Hugo, or simply because these are the two novels that have been sharing out awards between them all year, and it’s appropriate to have that competition captured in this way. I tend to the latter view.
This is a metastory, a story about storytelling and a warning about searching too hard for meaning in stories, which should be about people, not abstract ideas. It is notable that the stories in which Isha finds so much meaning are not very storylike or memorable, unlike the immortal tales of Somadeva. Recommended.
There are moments of beauty, and wonderful little stories that Isha collects in her net, as she travels from world to world between the stars. One of them even coins a term that describes exactly how this sort of story tends to run into trouble. There’s too many elements competing for your comprehension, too many self-referential arrows pointing at each other. I enjoyed reading it, and had fun thinking about how all the parts interact, but they never quite settle down. It’s a collection of stories drawn together only by threads of narrative, caught forever in the moment just before it gels into a solid whole.
The structure of ‘Somadeva’ mirrors that of the Kathāsaritsāgara, in that it consists of a number of interlocking stories, some embedded within others (Singh also writes herself briefly into the story, as the authors of some texts did and Somadeva here wishes he had). One result of this is to make it more-or-less impossible to tell for sure whether Somadeva is in the future with Isha, or in the past telling all this to Sūryavati, or perhaps somewhere else. It’s handled elegantly by Singh, the effect is not so much disorientation as a satisfying recognition of the shape of the whole.
One of the main themes of ‘Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra’ is the extent to which stories can – or should – be pinned down to one definitive interpretation. Isha is excited to discover that a tribe named the Kiha tell stories that can be interpreted as describing fundamental scientific processes; it’s an appealing way to read them, but then Somadeva reminds us that those tales could just as easily be read in other ways – none necessarily invalid.
Perhaps, following on from this, it’s best to leave one’s interpretation of this story open. But there is one thing I think I can say with some certainty: at the start of the tale, Somadeva says,’ I was once…a poet, a teller of tales’; by its end, he’s declaring that he is those things. Whatever else stories do, they bring Somadeva to life.
And Matt Hilliard:
The final section of the story suggests, to me, that we are intended to think of the reconstructed Somadeva as being recreated not in a computer through some technobabble mechanism, but in Isha’s head through her reading of his ancient writings. Isha herself could also be a construct, part of a story thought up by Somadeva to convince Suryavati to stay alive, since he tells us he wants to put himself in a story as other authors of his tradition have done. And of course Isha and Somadeva are finally constructs in the mind of the reader reading Vandana Singh’s story on Strange Horizons. I believe this is also the meaning of Inish section with its talk of combinations of people and of unformed meanings. There’s you and there’s Vendana Singh, and the combination results in “A Sky River Sutra”. The crypto-physics stories within the story demonstrate how the reader (Isha, but also the the reader of “A Sky River Sutra”) contributes meaning, or at least interpretation, to an author’s story.
All of this is interesting, or at least I think so, but the story itself doesn’t really work for me. Part of the problem may be I’ve read a lot stories along these lines lately (Catherynne Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales, Kelly Link’s “Magic For Beginners” and “Lull”, and Inception too I suppose) and all of them were longer, more elaborate, more complicated, and ultimately more sophisticated. More seriously, the worldbuilding is essentially non-existent. Isha, Somadeva, and Suryavati feel more like variables in an equation than actual people. No attempt is made to convince the reader that Isha is a real person living in a plausible future (one reference to “memory raid” doesn’t count as worldbuilding), Somadeva’s own context is allocated a few sentences of description, and the cultures Isha visits are, well, teso. I’m sure someone could write a setting where the naming rules of the Inish actually make sense and result in a functioning society, but this story doesn’t do that. Proportionally, “A Sky River Sutra” is devoted almost entirely to its ideas about stories while its actual story remains little more than a schematic.
Saladin Ahmed drops by the open thread with a question:
Since so many smart critics frequent here, I’d like to pitch a question to y’all: I’ve been teaching undergraduate creative writing for years (am an English MA/ poetry MFA) but this semester for the first time I’m teaching a course focused on writing fantasy fiction. As part of this I’ll be having the students read extensively, in several subgenres of fantasy. I’m looking to fill some holes in the syllabus, esp. at the 1K-3K length. So, if you were teaching a course intended to model fantasy writing for undergrads, and you could assign ANY flash or short-short fantasy stories, classic or contemporary, what would you choose? Bonus points for pieces available online…
So: any suggestions?
There have been a couple of changes to the previously advertised schedule of BSFA London Meetings. The new schedule can be found here:
22 September: Charles Butler and Farah Mendlesohn discuss the work of Diana Wynne Jones
27 October: NK Jemisin interviewed by Niall Harrison
24 November: Colin Harvey interviewed by Dave Mansfield
[No meeting in December]
26 January: Frances Hardinge interviewed by Farah Mendlesohn
The venue, timing and other details remain the same — The Antelope Tavern in Belgravia, interview or discussion starting around 7pm, open to any and all.