BSFA Award Short Story Booklet

So the really good news is that, if all goes according to current plan then, in addition to all the other good things which Niall lined up for Vector issue 265, BSFA members will also be receiving the BSFA Award Short Story booklet in the next mailing! It should be arriving a whole issue earlier than planned, a result of both the issue being delayed, and the short story authors all coming through wonderfully promptly with permissions.

The not-so-good news is that it’s just as well the booklet is done, as one of the nominees, Peter Watts, is now offline in the hospital for several weeks with a disturbingly science-fictional disease.

Reminder: Bold as Love

Just a quick reminder that, per Shana’s post earlier this month, I’ll be kicking off a discussion of Bold as Love next week. So if you were planning to read it but haven’t got around to it yet, now’s the time!

(In other news, those who haven’t been following the comments on my post about Nina Allan’s short fiction may like to know that she seems to be eligible for this year’s John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer.)

Vector 265 update

You probably already know the bad news: Vector 265, the Winter 2011 issue, is running late. There were crossed communication lines which led to this, and the issue is now back on track.

On the bright side, there is a major advantage to its lateness. It was due to go out in January, around the time the BSFA awards shortlists were announced. Since it’s going out in the next few weeks instead, there’s been time to include the BSFA awards shortlists and ballot. This means that subscribers who rely on the mailings to find out what’s going on with the awards will learn much sooner than they would have just which novels, short stories, works of non-fiction, and artworks are on the shortlist.

So some things are late, but they’ve made other things early.

(And – shhh – I’m 90% sure you’ll be getting still more extra material with this BSFA mailing than originally planned, making it even more worth the wait. I should be able to tell you more about it next week!)

The BSFA’s history in numbers

I was intending to tell you some interesting tidbits about this year’s BSFA Awards – but you’ll have to wait until I have one last piece of information: the approximate current number of BSFA members. I emailed away for the details earlier today, but here I was, sitting in front of a web browser with access to a search engine… which is how I came to be reading the eleventh issue of Peter Weston’s Prolapse fanzine, dated May 2008.

The fanzine features a write-up of one of the BSFA’s fiftieth anniversary events that year at Eastercon, organized by Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer. What interested me most about the write-up, given what was on my mind, was the discussion of the BSFA’s membership history. I particularly appreciated Peter Weston’s graph of ’64 to ’78’s membership numbers. (p. 7) These were based on Greg Pickersgill’s work of compiling a history of membership numbers, beginning with a membership list published in Vector #2, from 69 members up to around 738 of them in 1980. By 2008, he estimated numbers were around 600.

I like having long-term data to play with, and between Greg Pickersgill’s (Unofficial) BSFA Archives and the Prolapse discussions, I’m feeling a little more orientated to the BSFA’s – and thus Vector‘s – development. If I use or abuse these numbers in the future, you’ll know where they came from.

Wireless

Wireless by Charles Stross (Orbit, 2009)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

‘Missile Gap’, the novella that opens Wireless, is a pretty good encapsulation of Stross’s concerns as a writer. It takes place in the middle of the Cold War but on an Earth that has been radically altered and flung into another galaxy. The reconstruction of the planet into one flat plate on a vast disc brings with it gravitational changes that render the Space Race dead and flight difficult. These changes allow Stross to play with his love of abandoned engineering projects by introducing, for example, a vast nuclear-powered ekranoplan the size of an aircraft carrier. Piloted by Yuri Gagarin. Carl Sagan also appears as a character and there are many similar winks. So: a big picture hard SF idea, a Twentieth Century alt history, a strong awareness of the history of science fiction, a couple of in-jokes and some cool toys that never were. Like Ken MacLeod, Stross is looking towards the future with nostalgic eyes.

There is more of the same on display throughout Wireless. In fact, ‘Missile Gap’ is something of a retread of ‘A Colder War’, published five years previously. Gagarin and Sagan are replaced by Colonel Oliver North and Stephen Jay Gould, and the missile gap becomes a shoggoth gap, but otherwise they are the same, right down to the infodump chapters presented as classified briefing films with identical security warnings.

‘A Colder War’ is the only story which overlaps with Stross’ previous collection, Toast (2002), and this repetition makes its inclusion a mistake. It also points towards a lack of purpose in a collection which is almost-but-not-quite comprehensive and where Stross unfortunately uses his introduction to pointlessly justify his existence as a short story writer. Obviously the stories collected as the mosaic novel Accelerando (2005) are not reprinted here but only one of his three collaborations with Cory Doctorow appears (‘Unwirer’). Why this one, which feels more Doctorow than Stross in composition? Why include ‘MAXOS’, a joke about extraterrestrial 419 scammers that at three pages is still too long? ‘Down On The Farm’, part of the ongoing Bob Howard series that mashes Lovecraft (him again) with spy versus spy, is great fun – if clunkily structured – but is cut adrift from the rest of its continuity here. The impression is of a writer casting around for any material to hand, that the overriding reason for this collection is that Stross gets jittery if he doesn’t release at least two books a year.

The main selling point of Wireless is ‘Palimpsest’, an unpublished novella. A mix of time travel and deep time future history, it is a powerful piece but sabotaged by an afterword in which Stross makes clear that it should really be a novel, had industry requirements not dictated otherwise. I understand the travails of the jobbing writer – Stross has chronicled them well on his blog – but Wireless is so market-driven that any enjoyment of the stories was overwhelmed by a desire for less haste and graft and more reflection and quality control.

This review originally appeared in Vector #261.

Fools’ Experiments

Fools’ Experiments by Edward M. Lerner (Tor, 2008)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

Perhaps this is just an unfair prejudice of mine but as far as I’m concerned any book that uses sound effects is likely to be a bad book. In this case, at least, the cracks and thwocks and blats do indeed herald a writer with very little facility for the English language.

Edward M. Lerner is a traditional SF writer in that he is an engineer who knows a lot about S and not much about F. After ghostwriting a couple of Ringworld prequels for them, this is his first novel proper for Tor and only adds to my sense that something has gone badly wrong with their quality control of late. Fools’ Experiments is a tedious technothriller doled out in 71 bite-sized (but not particularly thrilling) chapters. Although it is divided into thirds, rather than this being a classic three act structure we have a false start, the actual plot and then a pointless retread of the middle third. The story chiefly concerns the emergence of artificial life but the structure of the novel is so broken backed that it is initially hard to tell where our attention is meant to be focussed.

In keeping with the strictures of the technothriller format there are lots of viewpoint characters but they are all drawn so crudely that you would never mistake them for actual human beings. The main characters are initially Doug, a researcher in neural interfaces, and AJ, a researcher in artificial life. In order to differentiate between them Lerner makes Doug a lover of bad puns. He also (since Hollywood has taught him it would be unthinkable to do otherwise) pairs both of them up with hot chicks. Unbelievably in the case of the overweight, middle aged AJ this involves bagging the attractive IT reporter who is interviewing him with the line “nor do I want to know ahead of time what our children will be like.” (143) These poorly realised characters only add to the sense of dislocation as they can disappear for sixty pages at a time whilst the narrative wanders elsewhere and other characters spring up in their place. Not surprisingly Lerner is better with machines than humans. The section where an artificial intelligence breaks free from AJ’s lab, causing devastating to the surrounding area, actually lives up to the genre’s name. Even this becomes interminable after a while though.

RUMIR is a very useful acronym that Karen Burnham invented from an old Joanna Russ review that described a work as “routine, unoriginal, mildly interesting, and readable”. In five letters it sums up vast swathes of published SF and it could, charitably, be applied to this novel. Fools’ Experiments is not bad because it is a catastrophic failure, it is bad simply because there is absolutely nothing good about it. In some ways this is even worse, at least with a catastrophe there is a perverse pleasure in seeing what abomination the writer will come up with next. This novel just inspires supreme indifference.

This review originally appeared in Vector #260.

February: Bold as Love

This month begins my chronological reading of the novels nominated as the best science fiction novels written by women in the last ten years. I invite you join me, starting with the first-published of the eleven books on the list, Gwyneth JonesBold as Love.

***

2001 was almost last week in the history of books, but a very long time ago indeed in the history of websites. That’s why I’m so impressed that the book-specific URL given in the introductory apparatus of Bold as Love is still going as a functional website.

The site has evolved along with the series, from an all-black version, to green with modulating rainbow-colored type, to animated falling leaves (lovely in concept, gawky in execution), to the more minimalist maroon with a rotating orb of leafery which the present version has retained for the last several years. That design evolution reflects the sheer distance which websites from 2001 have traveled to today.

I’m not telling you this because I’m particularly  prone to posting reviews of website design, but for two other reasons. The first is to think a bit about what the world, particularly the world of science fiction and fandom, was like in 2001. The second is to tell you that there is a copy of Bold as Love, available for free download there in PDF. The sequels are available too. You’ll miss out on the Anne Sudworth cover and the Bryan Talbot illustration of the major characters, but you’ll have the text.

***

Gwyneth Jones had been publishing fiction since at least 1973 and novels since 1977. By my counting, Bold as Love was her thirteenth novel. In 2001, she was Guest of Honour at Novacon, and won the Richard Evans Memorial Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction. She was also at A Celebration of British SF in Liverpool that year, a lively event, well-attended by authors and fans.

The cover of the 2002 edition of Bold as Love which I have proclaims it to have been “Shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award”. More importantly, it went on to win the Clarke Award in 2002, showing that the reprint must have been designed in the gap between the announcement of the shortlist and the announcement of the winner! Bold as Love was one of three Clarke-shortlisted books by women published in 2001, the others being Justina Robson’s Mappa Mundi and Connie Willis’ Passage. (The Clarke Award for books published in 2000 was given out at 2001: A Space Odyssey Event, organized by Pat Cadigan at the Science Museum. At it, China Miéville won his first.)

Women authors of science fiction and fantasy did fairly well in 2001 in terms of prizes. Mary Gentle’s Ash won best novel in the BSFA Award, while Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. J.K. Rowling won the Hugo novel award for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

In other 2001 news, Dorothy Dunnett, Tove Jansson, Douglas Adams, and Poul Anderson passed away. In Britain, the food-and-mouth crisis began and the Eden Project opened. While there is all sorts to be said about the events of 9/11 and their consequences, what still strikes me most in terms of Britain in particular is that it is referred to as 9/11 on this side of the ocean – even though that would normally be the ninth of November.

***

Niall will be leading discussion of Bold as Love in the second half of February. Check back for his posts then!

P.S. You can hear the short story on which the novel was based in Dark Fiction Magazine‘s newest issue.

The Edge Of Reason

The Edge Of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass (Tor, 2009)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

Imagine if Richard Dawkins was not only American but retarded. Imagine he taught himself to read using the work of illiterate megasellers like James Patterson and Tess Gerritsen. Imagine he further fleshed out his understanding of human nature on a diet of romance novels and misery memoirs. Finally, imagine he stayed up one night getting drunk and watching piss poor police procedurals before having the sudden brainwave of re-writing American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Imagine all that and you have imagined Melinda Snodgrass’s dire The Edge Of Reason and thus saved yourself the pain of actually reading it.

Our hero, Richard Oortz, is an East Coast blueblood concert pianist turned New Mexican policeman with a Terrible Secret. You might think this sounds unlikely and you would be right. He is also an extraordinarily good-looking bisexual gymnast whose DNA, unlike most of the rest of humanity, contains no magic. This last is of paramount importance because, counter-intuitively, it allows him to wield a magic sword that will save the world.

The idiotic plot revolves around the rather large co-incidence that the Devil also happens to live in Alberquerque (apparently this is because “it is a place where science and magic rub close”.) In a mind blowing twist, He is actually the good guy since he represents rationality and Oortz must unite with him to overthrow the tyranny of God. What follows is tosh to the nth degree, Snodgrass has somehow managed to harness the worst of the blockbuster thriller and paranormal romance genres. And if the plot is bad – lacking sense, structure and interest – then the writing is even worse. To take an example:

Lean Cuisine hefted light in the hand as if the contents of the package were as cardboard as the box. Richard hooked open the crisper drawer of the refrigerator with the tow of his shoe. Fresh bok choy, peppers and ginger flashed color and guilt at him. He would cook. (p82)

The rest of the prose is equally cloth-eared and over-wrought and the dialogue reads like the work of Elizabots. It was solely because of professional obligation that I read all the way to the end, only to be rewarded with a limp, open-ended conclusion that paves the way for equally appalling sequels.

The book’s jacket bizarrely claims that it is as controversial as The Golden Compass or The Illuminatus! Trilogy, possibly the only time those two books have been mentioned in the same sentence. The Golden Compass was controversial (in the US) because it was marketed at kids and suggested that organised religion wasn’t that great. The Illuminatus! Trilogy was controversial because it was an insane counter-culture conspiracy theory fuckfest. The Edge Of Reason is supposedly controversial because of the whole theological inversion thing but this is only going to shock you if you have parachuted in from the 19th Century (as Oortz appears to have done.) In fact, the only thing controversial about the book is that it ever made it into print from a major publisher like Tor.

This review originally appeared in Vector #258.

Exotic Excusions

Exotic Excusions by Anthony Nanson (Awen Publications, 2008)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

This collection promises to map “the territory between travel writing and magical realism”. Actually the territory it covers is rather broader than that. Regardless of genre or mode though, there is a great deal of uniformity to these stories and the opening story, ‘The Things We Love’, provides something of a template for what follows.

An engineer (and amateur palaeontologist) goes to Africa to supervise a water pipeline project he helped set up. Whilst there he finds indications that dinosaurs may still be living in this remote corner of the world. Accompanied by native guides he goes in search of one such creature and, with very little incident, finds it, only to discover that it is dying because of the changes to its habitat caused by the pipeline. It ends with his realisation – signposted by the title – that we always kill the things we love.

At thirteen pages this is one of the longest stories in the collection but it is still rather abrupt. These are more vignettes than stories, impressionistic rather than narrative, over as soon as they have begun. ‘The Things We Love’ is nowhere near as trite or as moralistic as my bald synopsis makes it sound but both these threats are lurking in the background of Nanson’s work. The themes of pastoralism and colonialism are overwhelming and all the stories end on such a moment of minor internal revelation. Every final sentence is designed to impart Meaning but the effect, particularly cumulatively, is that the reader is beaten over the head with Nanson’s philosophy.

Nanson writes well, if not particularly excitingly. For a writer who makes clear in his introduction that his work is infused with spiritualism he is surprisingly rigorous. If anything it is so self-consciously precise as to be slightly stifling. It is not his writing that proves the problem though but rather his subject. The problem with trying to convey the ineffable is that it is, well, ineffable. Nanson is well aware of this and even explicitly addresses the problem in ‘Touching Bedrock’:

“I pointed down at the sea, hoping she might perceive what I had perceived, that our eyes would meet in an epiphany of understanding… To convey to her what the sight meant to me suddenly seemed a great labour that once set upon would obliterate the tenuous feeling it sought to express.” (33)

It is a striving for the transcendent that he remains unable to realise. Several times whilst reading the collection I was struck by how much better Nanson’s concerns could be served in verse rather than prose. Instead it really only amounts to a sketch book of autobiographical and anthropological observations so although it contains a fair percentage of material that could be considered fantastic, Exotic Excursions is unlikely to be of interest to Vector readers. In fact, it is so strongly personal that its audience is probably very limited indeed, perhaps limited solely to the author himself.

This review originally appeared in Vector #257.