An interview with Shana Worthen

As promised, here’s a short interview with Shana Worthen, Vector’s incoming Features Editor, whose first issue, to which I am very much looking forward, should be out shortly after my last. You can find her current online home here. And many thanks to her for taking the time to answer my questions.

How did you get involved with the BSFA?

I started with the London pub meetings. I moved back to London from Toronto in early July of 2005 and my first BSFA pub night was later that month. After a year of attending, I became a member. It was shareware logic: pay for something after I have already had my money’s worth — not that memberships actually subsidize the meetings. How I first heard of the pub nights, I don’t specifically know, but I had been looking for regular fannish meetings here before I moved over. My inbox tells me that I started following Ansible in that May, so that’s a possibility.

What are your interests within sf?

Novels, poetry, and criticism, primarily. i also really like tie-in reference books! I have a small but growing accumulation of science fictionally-related cookbooks, for example. Movies, occasionally. I am very much interested in science fiction-related artwork, especially landscapes and maps, but can’t say I follow it in any systematic way at this point.

I often read through self-imposed projects, whether an award-related list or a friend’s set of recommendations. For the last several years, I’ve been getting to know the subgenre of science fiction romance in particular. I’m currently reading a short list of books recommended by a friend as a way of getting to know some of the more recent American science fiction publications.

Although I have caught at least one episode per season of Doctor Who, I don’t usually remember to watch television series. I grew up without a television and still have poor televisual instincts. iPlayer is useful, but only if I’m reminded in time to catch something. I did have a long spell back in Toronto of watching lots of anime, but most of it had not been broadcast locally in the first place.

And what do you do outside sf?

Professionally, I’m a historian of medieval technology. It still seems improbable that my day job is teaching online for a university on the other side of the ocean, but it’s true.

Food is my major hobby. I love eating good things, and will cook if need be to have them. I love trying new restaurants, and reading food criticism and related essays and blogs. I mostly read cookbooks rather than cook from them. This also explains my science fiction cookbooks, many of which are only partially designed to be cooked with. I’ve been thinking a lot in the last year about why science fiction and fantasy tend to be so conservative in its use of food technologies. I’ve been dabbling in related academic work too: I have an article coming out next year on smoked foods in fantasy literature.

I like seeing new places, whether industrial tourism, museums, or countryside. I like theatrical musicals, drawing with watercolour pencils, and photographing reflections.

What plans do you have for Vector? What can we expect from your first issue?

My plan is to try to live up to the standard set in the last few years! I will be trying for clusters of related articles rather than the entire themed issues, however.

I’m starting off with the usual year-in-review issue, so the majority of the content will be looking back at 2010. I am happy to report that there will also be two new columns appearing in my first issue. Paul Kincaid is writing one which will revisit older short stories. Terry Martin began a column on graphic novels and comics for Matrix which will now be appearing regularly in Vector. Also, Anthony Nanson has an article on an Arthurian trilogy by Stephen Lawhead.

Are you looking for any sort of submission in particular?

Although Vector‘s focus will remain primarily on text, I would love to see interesting and varied submissions which look at science fiction more broadly. For example, I would love to read more critical work on science fiction drama and science fictional art exhibits. I’d be interested in seeing articles on the relationship between original texts and their adaptations, whether to film or graphic novel. I am actively looking for more articles on science fiction poetry.

Any submission I can learn something from is a good one.

How can people contact you?

I’ll be taking over the vector.editors@gmail.com email address soon; sworthen@owlfish.com is my usual email address.

Transition

Happy new year, everybody — hope you had a great break, and got plenty of reading done. I did, on both counts, although I haven’t yet read a single word of fiction this year, because I’ve been preoccupied with getting some things ready for Strange Horizons’ first issue of the year. There are some changes to our schedule and pay rates, detailed here, and we’re recruiting for a few positions, which you can find details of here.

But more importantly from the point of view of Torque Control, we’ve raised the Strange Horizons blog up to become a permanent part of the site. I’ll be blogging over there regularly from now on, and since my final issue of Vector is being prepared for printing at the moment, this seems as good a time as any to start phasing out my posting here. I’ll be around until the deadline passes for this year’s BSFA Award nominations — deadline midnight, on Friday 14th January — and possibly around intermittently after that, but I’ll be handing over to the incoming features editor, Shana Worthen, and the occasional post from Martin in his guise as reviews editor. We’ll kick things off tomorrow, with a post in which I interview Shana about her plans for the magazine.

Cascadia Subduction Zone

Huzzah! Not too long after the launch of one critical zine comes news of another. It’s like, I don’t know, some holiday when people are encouraged to hand out gifts, or something. The Cascadia Subduction Zone is produced by Aqueduct Press and says of itself:

The Cascadia Subduction Zone aims to bring reviews, criticism, interviews, intelligent essays, and flashes of creative artwork (visual and written) to a readership hungry for discussion of work by not only men but also women. Work by women continually receives short shrift in most review publications. And yet the majority of readers are women. Ron Hogan writes in an August 2010 post on Beatrice.com, “[Jennifer] Weiner and [Jodi] Picoult, among others, are giving us a valuable critique of a serious problem with the way the [New York] Times [Book Review]—and, frankly, most of the so-called literary establishment—treats contemporary fiction. Which is to say: They ignore most of it, and when it comes to the narrow bandwidth of literature they do cover, their performance is underwhelming, ‘not only meager but shockingly mediocre,’ as former LA Times Book Review director Steve Wasserman said three years ago. And it hasn’t gotten any better since then, leaving us with what Jennifer Weiner describes as “a disease that’s rotting the relationship between readers and reviewers.”

The relationship between readers and reviewers interests us. We want to bring attention to work critics largely ignore and offer a wider, less narrowly conceived view of the literary sphere. In short, we will review work that interests us, regardless of its genre or the gender of its author. We will blur the boundaries between critical analysis, review, poetry, fiction, and visual arts. And we will do our best to offer our readers a forum for discussion that takes the work of women as vital and central rather than marginal. What we see, what we talk about, and how we talk about it matters. Seeing, recognizing, and understanding is what makes the world we live in. And the world we live in is, itself, a sort of subduction zone writ large. Pretending that the literary world has not changed and is not changing is like telling oneself that Earth is a solid, eternally stable ball of rock.

All of which I can easily get behind. There are good people involved, too — Managing Editor is Lew Gilchrist, Reviews Editor is Nisi Shawl, Features Editor is L Timmel Duchamp, and Arts Editor is Kath Wilhelm; and the first issue, which I’ve just downloaded and had a quick browse through, includes reviews by Duchamp, Rachel Swirsky, Nancy Jane Moore and others. (You can see the full table of contents on the site front page, here.) In fact, at this stage my only quibble is that they indulge that annoying habit of American magazines, that of starting an article on one page and then continuing it on another non-contiguous page. In a print edition, this is irritating; as a PDF, it’s a bit more than that. Still, I wish the CSZ every success. For those who may be interested, the submission guidelines are here.

An Open Letter From The Arthur C Clarke Award

Per the subject line, something a bit different for a Monday morning. Please do give Tom feedback on the questions he asks below, whether in a comment here, or by email or another route. And spread the link to this post far and wide! Thanks — Niall

The Arthur C Clarke Award

An open letter to all fans of Science Fiction from Tom Hunter, Director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award

In 2011 we’ll be presenting the prize for the 25th winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

A lot has changed in 25 years, and the Award has not been immune to that change.

In many ways the Award is now at one of its strongest points ever. Its profile has never been wider, its organisational and community ties are strong, endorsement and support is high both within the SF community and the broader cultural sphere, and increased sophistication in electronic point of sale tracking is now showing direct correlations between Award announcements and increased book sales.

However the Award has also proven notably vulnerable to change at various points in its history, especially in terms of its reliance on volunteer governance and its historic lack of core financial stability in terms of assets, revenue generation or its ability to capitalise on far reaching fundraising or partnership opportunities.

Following the death of Sir Arthur and the subsequent winding up of Rocket Publishing (Sir Arthur’s UK company which funded the Award’s prize) the Award is now faced with an immediate and pressing need to change, adapt and re-evaluate its role and function as it moves into 2012 and its next quarter century.

This is a process that is happening now, and this letter to you all is a big part of taking my plans and those of Serendip, the Award’s governing body, to the next level.

The Arthur C. Clarke Award is built around three core values:

  • To recognise the best science fiction novels of the year published in the UK.
  • To promote science fiction and science fiction literature both within the UK and internationally.
  • To honour the memory and legacy of Sir Arthur.

I don’t believe that our current resources should define the pursuit of this vision, and rather I see our previous funding model slipping away as a necessary transition and the first step on the road to transforming the Award into a more deeply engaged social enterprise.

The good news is everyone involved with the Award has already been doing a lot of work in this area, looking at consultation, starting new conversations and setting up new partnerships, and the next stage of that process is to open up that dialogue more widely and start sharing our thoughts in places like this blog.

For me, the success of the Clarke Award and Serendip beyond 2011 means more connections with new and existing fans and organisations, and working with them to further raise the profile of the Award. We are also creating ways to quantify the value of the Award and assess its impact. The idea being that from this we can then meaningfully judge its success and demonstrate its continued significance as a key voice within the SF community, the publishing industry and beyond.

The questions we’ve been asking ourselves mostly look like this:

What value does the Award bring to the SF community and what role should it play in its future?

How important is a UK focused prize in an increasingly international and digital marketplace?

What more could the Award do as part of its broader advocacy remit to promote science fiction?

How much does the success and the credibility of the Award depend on it having a cash prize?

What new partnerships and opportunities could we create to generate seed funding for the future?

What do you think? What does the Arthur C. Clarke Award mean to you, how important a part of the SF landscape is it, and where would you like it to go from here?

I’m looking forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts and ideas here, and I’ll aim to answer every question as best I can.

I’d also invite anyone who wants to contact me to discuss these issues or to get involved to find me on Twitter, LinkedIn or drop me an email at ClarkeAward@gmail.com.

People are already asking how they can get involved, and all offers of help, advice or useful connections are greatly appreciated.

Three things people can do to get involved right now are help us show the size of our audience by Liking us on Facebook or following @ClarkeAward on Twitter, re-posting the link to this page and, of course, by letting us know your thoughts in the comments here.

Thank you for reading and for your continued support of the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Tom Hunter
Award Director, December 2010

Loose Ends

1. I’ve put together an index post linking too all the posts of the past week, plus the contexual posts from earlier in the autumn. If you want to link to the poll or discussions, that’s probably the best place to link to now.

2. Matt Denault asked what a top ten that treated book-length series (ie aggregated votes for, say, Bold as Love and Castle Made of Sand) as a single entry would look like:

1. Natural History/Living Next-Door to the God of Love, Justina Robson
2. The Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall
3. Maul, Tricia Sullivan
4. Small Change trilogy, Jo Walton
5. the Time-Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffeneger
6= Spirit, Gwyneth Jones
6= Speed of Dark, Elizabeth Moon
8. Bold as Love series, Gwyneth Jones
9. The Castle/Fourlands novels, Steph Swainston
10. The Vorkosigan novels, Lois McMaster Bujold

So new entries for Bujold and Swainston, Walton and Robson move up, and Life, Lavinia and City of Pearl drop out. Treating the two Robson novels as a series is arguable, I grant — they’re a shared universe but share no characters — and if you don’t, Natural History places joint third with Small Change.

3. A couple of dangling links: Tansy Rayner Roberts on Feed by Mira Grant and on The Gene Thieves by Maria Quinn, winner of the first Norma K Hemming Award. The latest Coode St podcast includes a bit of discussion about the list.

4. Follow-up. This obviously isn’t the last word on this topic; I have a few other ideas in mind, but none ready to go just yet.

The List

At some point over the weekend, I’ll put up a proper index, with links to all the week’s posts, but for now, that’s a wrap. Thank you to Duncan Lawie, Nic Clarke, Nick Hubble and David Hebblethwaite for taking part in the discussions of Ancient Light and Lightborn; thanks to everyone who’s linked and commented during the week; and most of all, thanks to everyone who sent in nominations for the Future Classics poll. And thanks to everyone who’s been reading this week — hopefully some books have piqued your curiosity! If not, then behind the cut are 200 more — the complete list of every eligible novel that received at least one nomination in the poll.

(And BSFA members, I remind you that nominations are now open for this year’s BSFA Awards…)

Continue reading “The List”

Yet More Top Tens

Because I have the data, and because I can, some alternatives to the overall list:

Top Ten SF Novels 2001-2010 by British Writers

1. The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
2. Natural History by Justina Robson
3. Spirit by Gwyneth Jones
4. Life by Gwyneth Jones
5. Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones
6. City of Pearl by Karen Traviss
7. The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston
8. Living Next-Door to the God of Love by Justina Robson
9. In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield
10. Hav by Jan Morris

Top Ten SF Novels 2001-2010 by American Writers

1. Maul by Tricia Sullivan
2. The Time-Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
3. Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
4. Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin
5. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
6. Passage by Connie Willis
7. Spin State by Chris Moriarty
8. Nekropolis by Maureen McHugh
9= Carnival by Elizabeth Bear
9= Hammered by Elizabeth Bear

Top Ten SF Novels 2001-2010 by Writers from the Rest of the World

1. Maul by Tricia Sullivan
2. Farthing by Jo Walton
3. Moxyland by Lauren Beukes
4. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
5. UFO in Her Eyes by Xiaolo Guo
6= The Etched City by KJ Bishop
6= Lifelode by Jo Walton
8. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
9. The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson
10. The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Sincere apologies if I’ve mis-nationalised anyone in any of these lists — do let me know. [last update 12/12/10]

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

The Flowers of War

The Carhullan Army coverNick Hubble’s essay about The Carhullan Army first appeared in Vector 258. Many thanks to him for allowing it to be reprinted here.

‘My name is Sister’

Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (2007) begins and ends with the same note of defiance: ‘My name is Sister’ (pp.5, 207). The combination of nameless heroine and resistance to patriarchal authority has inevitably led to comparisons with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), but the similarities are superficial. Where Atwood criticises radical feminism for its complicity with the sexual repression which underlies the Republic of Gilead and implies that separatism is not a challenge but merely a means of accommodation to traditional hierarchy, Hall deliberately reinstates both tendencies at the core of her novel in order to recover the utopian impulses within them as forces for active intervention in the twenty-first century. Neither is The Carhullan Army a “literary dystopia” in the manner of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) because unlike those works its driving force and moral intensity stem from an unwavering belief in human society, explicitly acknowledged by Sister towards the end of the novel: ‘ … we had a duty to liberate society, to recreate it’ (p.196). As such, the novel eschews the playful satire of Atwood and the easy narrative pleasures of McCarthy (who, in best Tolkien style, ensures every ordeal is followed by a reassuring meal) in favour of direct engagement with the horrors it reveals, which are thus demystified and rendered subject to human agency.

Central to this project is Jackie Nixon, the enigmatic leader at Carhullan, the community which Sister joins. It is Jackie who singlehandedly transforms the women of Carhullan into ‘inviolable creatures’ immune to the horrors of civilisation. Sister says of Jackie that

She broke down the walls that had kept us contained. There was a fresh red field on the other side, and in its rich soil were growing all the flowers of war that history had never let us gather. It was beautiful to walk in. As beautiful as the fells that autumn. (p.187)

Although communicated in a different style and tone, the valedictory outlook expressed here is reminiscent of the death speech of Blade Runner’s Roy Batty: ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. All those … moments will be lost … in time’ [1]. Both passages acknowledge a strange beauty that is nothing to do with sanitising war and everything to do with getting beyond the limits of normal existence. Such desires appear psychopathic because they are not manifestations of the familiar death drive, but the product of a much rarer life force. It is a rejection of what Fredric Jameson identifies in Archaeologies of the Future as the ‘literary “reality principle”’ which triggers high-cultural ‘generic revulsion’ [2] and it clearly distinguishes Hall from those mainstream writers who deploy isolated genre tropes to spice up otherwise conventional narratives.

Continue reading “The Flowers of War”

Future Classics: #1

The Carhullan Army (aka Daughters of the North) by Sarah Hall (2007)

The Carhullan Army cover

And so, the top-rated novel in this poll — by a healthy margin, in the end — is Sarah Hall’s Tiptree Award-winning and Clarke Award-nominated The Carhullan Army. Victoria Hoyle’s review gets at the book’s merits very well, I think:

…the inevitable irony of Carhullan’s insurgency, and of Sister’s membership of its “army,” is that it leads her to repress others against their will, and even to kill in her turn. She becomes party to another administration of terror, and a willing subject of a dictatorial regime. Whether this terror, driven by Jackie’s autocratic paranoia, is necessary or justifiable is left unanswered; the answer being, of course yes and, of course no. It is the embodiment of an essential dilemma, perhaps the most pertinent of our time: is it more courageous to passively follow your principles unto death, or is it your duty to use the tactics of the enemy, however disgusting, to overthrow them? Is it acceptable or reasonable to use the methods of tyranny in the name of restoring or protecting civil freedoms and human rights?

Either way, Hall understands that this dilemma is not an abstraction; it is the central difficulty of Sister’s existence and lies at the very heart of life at Carhullan. In the process of exploring it she makes and destroys and remakes Sister over and over again. Like us all, she is a malleable creature, eager to be inspired, happy to be galvanized to action, begging for a role to play in the world. The novel is an incredibly tender and multi-faceted portrait of her troubled journey, concerned almost entirely with the mechanics of her reasoning and her understanding of her cause. This is why, no doubt, Hall omits to describe the novel’s main scenes of violence and conquest—Sister’s narrative tapes are “corrupted” at all these critical junctures—but instead focuses on the tension of the long road to a short and bloody aftermath.

Other reviews: Colin Greenland in The Guardian, Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria, AI White at Open Letters Monthly, Rachel Hoare in The Independent, Michael Arditti in The Telegraph, Tom Gatti in The Times, Abigail Nussbaum at Strange Horizons; and more critically, Adam Roberts at Punkadidle, Karen Burnham at SF Signal, and Cheryl Morgan.

And as Adam helpfully pointed out yesterday, with impeccable timing Radio 4’s Book Club has just had The Carhullan Army as its subject; you can listen to the programme, which includes an interview with Hall, here, discussed slightly by Dan Hartland here.

All of which leaves us with the following top eleven:

1. The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
2. Maul by Tricia Sullivan
3. Natural History by Justina Robson
4. The Time-Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
5= Spirit by Gwyneth Jones
5= The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
7. Life by Gwyneth Jones
8. Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin
9. Farthing by Jo Walton
10= Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones
10= City of Pearl by Karen Traviss

So: Eleven novels; nine writers, four Brits, three Americans, one American-Brit, one Canadian; three novels only published in the US, three novels only published in the UK, five novels published in both; four books published in 2003, the most recent nominee published in 2008; nine novels published as “genre”, two published as “mainstream”; two novels that at least some people think are fantasy. What do you think?

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Chasing the Links

  • Aishwarya Subramaniam talks about her nominations for the Future Classics poll
  • Michael Froggatt on 2017 by Olga Slavnikova
  • Cold Iron and Rowan Wood on The Meat Tree by Gwyneth Lewis, part of Seren Press’ “new stories from the Mabinogion” series.
  • Jonathan McCalmont on The Red Tree by Caitlin R Kiernan and Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard
  • Tansey Rayner Roberts talks about the new Norma K Hemming Award, for excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class and disability in sf published in Australia or written by an Australian citizen
  • Details of the latest Galactic Suburbia podcast
  • David Hebblethwaite on An A-Z of Possible Worlds by AC Tillyer and on Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Matt Denault on Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren, and its marketing:

    I wrote at the outset that my two chief frustrations with Walking the Tree involve its outside and its inside. The frustration with the outside is easy enough to describe: the book’s cover. The back cover of my published UK edition contains the instruction to “FILE UNDER: FANTASY” and a quote from Ellen Datlow, best known in recent times for her work editing dark fantasy and horror; the front cover bears a quote from Trudi Canavan, “bestselling author of the Black Magician trilogy,” a fantasy work. Additionally the publisher, Angry Robot, is marketing as similar two more of its books on the back cover: Warren’s debut novel Slights and Aliette de Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld, a dark fantasy. In short, this is a science fiction book by a female author that is being marketed very hard to look like a fantasy book—and a fantasy book for a primarily female audience. This was done, I’m sure, with the best of intentions. But there is a deeply insidious notion about the relationship between women and science that’s suggested by this chosen marketing. Labeling a science fiction book by a female author as fantasy contributes to the fallacious but widespread idea that women don’t write science fiction. This in turn can only reinforce the stereotype that women aren’t any good at science. Parallel to this, to fixate the book’s marketing so squarely on women reinforces that damaging gender paradigm that men’s stories should be of interest to both men and women, while women’s stories should be of interest only to women. The two problems are entwined: men’s stories are important to all because they are seen as real, and thus can be grounded in something real like science; women’s stories are dismissed as fantasy, nothing that could ever happen and so nothing that’s worth treating as actionable. So I’d argue that the book’s marketing, whatever its intentions, is actively, damagingly in opposition to the ideas of the book’s content.