2009 BSFA Awards Shortlists

Best Novel

Ark cover Lavinia cover
The City & The City cover Yellow Blue Tibia cover

Ark by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz)
Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin (Gollancz)
The City & The City by China Mieville (Macmillan)
Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

Best Short Fiction
Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster (Interzone 220)
The Push by Dave Hutchinson (Newcon Press)
Johnnie and Emmie-Lou Get Married” by Kim Lakin-Smith (Interzone 222)
“Vishnu at the Cat Circus” by Ian McDonald (in Cyberabad Days, Gollancz)
The Beloved Time of Their Lives” [pdf link] by Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia (in The Beloved of My Beloved, Newcon Press)
The Assistant” by Ian Whates (in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 3, ed. George Mann)

Best Artwork
Alternate cover art for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (art project), Nitzan Klamer
Emerald” by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law
Cover of Desolation Road by Ian McDonald, by Stephan Martinière, jacket design by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke
Cover of Interzone 220, Adam Tredowski
Cover of Interzone 224, Adam Tredowski
Cover of Interzone 225, Adam Tredowski

Best Non-Fiction
Canary Fever by John Clute (Beccon)
I Didn’t Dream of Dragons” by Deepa D
Ethics and Enthusiasm” by Hal Duncan [Note: withdrawn from consideration]
“Mutant Popcorn” by Nick Lowe (Interzone)
A Short History of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James (Middlesex University Press)

Congratulations to all the nominees! Note that there are only four nominees in the Best Novel category, and six nominees in the Best Short Fiction and Best Artwork categories due to ties for fifth place. The Awards will be presented at this year’s Eastercon, Odyssey.

Mr H & Mr H discuss The City & The City

The City and the City coverAttentive readers may remember that I was a bit sceptical about China Mieville’s new novel when I started it. I didn’t end up any less sceptical when I finished it, but struggled to articulate my reasons in a review (subsequently aborted). More recently, Dan Hartland also read it, and asked me if I would like to discuss it. This post is the first part of that discussion; you can find the second part over at Dan’s place, here. Bear in mind that of necessity our discussion assumes knowledge of the nature of the book’s setting, which I’m not sure is yet quite common knowledge. There aren’t many in-depth reviews out there yet, either, but this IROSF review by Eric Gregory will give you a flavour of the book, without fully revealing the gimmick (it’s cruel of me to call it a gimmick, but there you go). But if you already know what I’m alluding to, or don’t mind knowing, then read on …

Niall:

My problem is, I’m not sure I have anything to say that would be productive enough to be worth dialoguing about. I suddenly realised, when I was writing my abortive review of the book, what it reminded me of — a graphic novel I read last year called Rumble Strip, which is about contemporary society’s obsession with cars. There’s a brilliant section about how believing in road markings — believing that lines of paint on the ground denote actual boundaries — is a necessary absurdity, essential to keeping the whole system going. The book points out that our shared belief in those lines of paint is so strong that driving across them — even in, say, an empty car park — always carries a transgressive thrill. And I read that, and while intellectually I already knew what it was telling me, the book brought out the emotion of the situation in a way that made it fresh.

The City & The City wants to be that writ large, I think. It seems to me that for the book to work, you have to be convinced by the central conceit — you have to believe, even if only temporarily, in the separated coexistence of Beszel and Ul Qoma as Tyador Borlu believes in it, as necessary even if absurd – and unfortunately, I never was. Which leaves me intellectually appreciating the neatness of “unseeing” and the rest as refractions of real-world behaviours, but not emotionally engaged by most of the book. Sometimes, yes — I found any scene with driving in is terrifying, because it taps into the same knowledge as Rumble Strip, except here you have a sustained, deliberate transgression of the rules. But mostly, I just didn’t think it scaled. Yes, I “unsee” homeless people sometimes; not that I’m proud of doing so. Yes, people can live in the same physical cities and, metaphorically, in entirely different places. No, I don’t believe that metaphor can be formalized in the way that The City & The City asks me to believe it can.

What did you think?

Dan:

Hmmm.

Well, I think that you’ve cottoned on to what Mieville is up to — not that it wasn’t blatantly obvious — but, at the same time, he reminds us very early on that “this city is not an allegory”. With that warning in mind, I didn’t worry too much about whether the behaviours on show in Ul Qoma and Beszel ‘scaled up’ from our own urban villages; instead, I tried to see whether or not they made sense in and of themselves. Undoubtedly they do — the book is very successful in making sense of its wild conceit. As you say, the concepts of unseeing and unsensing are very neat, and all the cross-hatched city stuff very well drawn: I believed that Borlu believed in it and, more importantly, lived by it.

To that extent, I’m not sure the reader has to believe in the cities as Borlu does for the book to be a success — do we believe in the Ring as Frodo does? Of course not. And yet, of course, LotR is not set in our world. Explicitly, The City & The City is — or rather, it is set in a parallel world as close to ours as not to matter. People write books, use telephones and board planes in Borlu’s world as they do in ours; they speak the same languages, have the same emotions. For me, that’s where the book trips up — it situates its metaphor in a milieu too familiar. I didn’t believe in, as you say, the necessity of the separation because I didn’t believe the cities’ inhabitants would — not because people can’t be conditioned to accept something so absurd, but because people would never have made the separation, or sustained it, in the first place. Unusually for Mieville, I just didn’t buy the sophistication of his politics.

He thanks Farah Mendelsohn in his acknowledgements, and that makes me wonder if The City & The City fails because it is more excercise than fleshed-out world: this fantasy is a portal quest (Copula Hall), yet it is also immersive (because we begin in the world and our POV character is part of that world); at the same time, it is intrusive — Breach and one city exist constantly at the edge of perception for inhabitants of the other — and liminal, since that gap between our world and the fantasy is never properly resolved. Is The City & The City less a novel and more a deliberate taxing of the taxonomy?

Niall:

To take your last point first: ah, I hadn’t thought of it like that! It’s certainly plausible that he was familiar with and playing with Mendlesohn’s taxonomy, particularly since he’s borrowed at least one term from the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy. (Crosshatch: “in many fantasy tales the demarcation line is anything but clearcut, and two or more worlds may simultaneously inhabit the same territory … in a novel like M John Harrison’s A Storm of Wings (1980 US) the entire landscape is a crosshatch … In other words, when borderland conventions are absent, there is an inherent and threatening instability to regions of crosshatch.”) And the book clearly plays with other conventions of fantasy, too, such as the specialized vocabulary — Breach, unseeing, topolgangers, all the rest — which I think is one of the ways in which The City & The City attempts to shape our thinking, as readers: it takes the familiar geeky joy of getting to grips with worldbling and attempts to make it do some work. On the other hand, Mieville has also said that one of the impetuses behind the novel was that it was written as a present for his mother, who liked mysteries; so presumably it is intended to succeed on that level as well.

But your second paragraph nails the problem, for me: my argument with the book is precisely in the extent to which it is not fantasy or allegory. If The City & The City had been set in an invented world, or if it had created a secret, mythic world within our own, I suspect I would have found it (paradoxically) easier to believe in. But all the trade agreements, and the stuff about tourism, and the mention of a Chuck Palahniuk novel set in the cities — all of this repeatedly and explicitly places them in our world, and undermines my ability to believe that people could, as you say, ever have made that separation or sustained it.

I’m harping on about belief because I do think it’s central to the book — and in particular to the ending. You say you didn’t buy the politics of the novel: clearly, in addition to commenting on urban blindness, it’s also a comment on international relations. What did you take it to be saying, on that front? On the one hand, the selective ignorance of Borlu and everyone else in the cities can be seen as a false consciousness, called out as such by some of the political radicals, and by the foreign businessman at the end of the book: the inhabitants of the cities should realise that they are stronger united than divided, but they never will. On the other hand, you can see it as an argument for the necessity and value of borders, the distinct cultures of Beszel and Ul-Qoma being preserved by the separation. (Either way the businessman is a hypocrite, blind to his own blindnesses, but that’s neither here nor there.) But while in principle I’d like to be able to take the ending as holding these two ideas in tension, in the way that it holds the two cities in tension — because both arguments are to some extent valid — in practice the former reading seems very much stronger. I do believe that Borlu believes in the cities; I just think he’s a complete dolt for doing so. Which doesn’t make him a terribly satisfying narrator to spend time with.

[End of part one. In part two: more on politics, detectives and doltishness!]

When A Fantasy Is Not A Fantasy

Charles N Brown, March Locus:

Of the newest books, I loved The City & The City by China Mieville (Del Rey — June), a total departure from his earlier books. The language is much more spare, the story very tight, and the mystery involved very satisfying. There is no magic at all, and I would catalog it as an alternate world or Graustarkian fantasy since the only element that ties it to our field is the very strange central European country it’s set in.

Blurb:

Borlú must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other. It is a journey as psychic as it is physical, a shift in perception, a seeing of the unseen, a journey to Beszel’s equal, rival, and intimate neighbor, the rich and vibrant city of Ul Qoma.

First review I’ve seen:

What makes this book fascinating is that the two cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma exist in the same space, sitting one atop the other, and residents of each city have been trained since birth not to notice the other for fear of ‘breach’, the movement or acknowledgement of the other city that is punishable by the folks known only as ‘Breach’ who investigate and severely punish transgressors. Functionally each city is different. They have different architecture, different currency, they work completely independently but they have to avoid collisions while driving in the same space and avoid noticing each other as they walk the same streets; it’s this setting that makes The City And The City such a compelling read.

The book itself:

“You know that area: is there any chance we’re looking at breach?”
There were seconds of silence.
“Doesn’t seem likely. That area’s mostly pretty total. And Pocost Village, that whole project, certainly is.”
“Some of GunterStrasz, though …”
“Yeah but. The closest crosshatching is hundreds of metres away. They couldn’t have …” (16)


“This morning I found a few of the locals I used to talk to,” Corwi said. “Asked if they’d heard anything.” She took us through a darkened place where the balance of crosshatch shifted and we were silent until the streetlamps around us became again taller and familiarly deco-angled. Under those lights — the street we were on visible in a perspective curve away from us — women stood by the walls selling sex. They watched our approach guardedly. “I didn’t have much luck,” Corwi said. (21)


I lived east and south a bit of the old town, the top-but-one flat in a six-storey towerlet on VulkovStrasz. It is a heavily crosshatched street — clutch by clutch of architecture broken by alterity, even in a few spots house by house. The local buildings are taller by a floor or three than the others, so Besz juts up semi-regularly and the roofscape is almost a machiocolation. (28)

I have to admit, so far I’m a bit sceptical: the metaphor is clear enough, but as framed at this point in the book, if it’s not fantastic in some way, then it seems too improbable to believe. (I’m also not entirely convinced that Inspector Borlu’s narrative voice can accomodate words like “alterity”, or elsewhere, “polysemic” and “effaced”, as casually as Mieville seems to want it to, but that’s a separate issue.)

Looking for Jake

When you first open this book, you quickly discover one thing. Something has happened: something not good. The narrator of the first story lost Jake about nine months ago, but doesn’t remember how. It happened after the city changed; after the urban monotony became “charged desolation” (p.7), after the shadows filled with horrors and the phone lines filled with static, after the coming of “the things that flap.” (p.9) But the details are lost. It seems only fitting. It has been, after all, “a very inexact apocalypse.” (p.11) By the time the narrator decides to end the story (he is writing it as a letter, and posts it before embarking on the journey he hopes will lead him to Jake) he has not been able to pin down for us exactly what has happened or why, but we have been put thoroughly ill at ease. This London is sick, and the sickness seems bleakly inevitable; seems to have been just waiting to happen. Or perhaps the city is transforming, into something “hungry like a newborn” (p.17), and its inhabitants are just having to ride out the pangs. Something has happened; something is happening, and the narrator’s lonely letter is all that exists to mark it.

All things considered, such a messily ambiguous thinning does not make a bad orientation package for what comes next. “Looking for Jake” was published in 1998, making it the oldest story in Looking for Jake (of the other thirteen, which I think represent the entirety of China Mieville’s short fiction output, only two were published before 2002), but it is the most typical story in a collection with a wider range than you might expect from Mieville’s reputation and novels. It is also one of the best. It starts things off well. After reading it, the most sensible thing to do is to continue on; Looking for Jake is a cannily-sequenced book, and most satisfying when read in order. To get at the bones of the book, however, the most useful thing to do is to skip to the story Mieville published next.

“Different Skies” (1999) is in some ways similar to “Looking for Jake.” In “Different Skies,” however, the weirdness is much more localized. It’s the story of a lonely old man who buys an antique stained-glass window, and finds that on the other side of it is another city. (And, yes, another sky. Mieville’s titles tend to be literal, although not always in the sense that you expect. It is one of the ways in which he disguises the truth of his stories.) But both tales use a structural device—a letter in the first story, a diary in the second—to present a first-person narrative in such a way as to maintain ambiguity about the fate of its narrator. Both question the nature of the story they are telling—the narrator of “Jake” wonders how to relate the incredible, while the narrator of “Different Skies” hopes his story is not a “banal morality tale” (p.162)—and both climax with their protagonists planning to cross a threshold into the unknown. Second time around the execution is perhaps a little less sure, but what’s most striking about the two stories is how they highlight an interest in alienation from contemporary landscapes. And this isn’t something that got shouldered aside once Bas-Lag came along: new story “Go Between,” for instance, is brilliantly unsettling in its depiction of a man who receives cryptic instructions from an unknown source at random intervals. The psychological unravelling of the narrator, as he oscillates between pride at being chosen and fear at what he might be a part of, is expertly handled; it could be called Kafkaesque if it was not so solidly tied to contemporary international politics. Even the (perhaps inevitable) Cthulhu-mythos tale “Details” (2002) is light on the squamous and rugose, focusing instead on the grimy reality of everyday life. The Lovecraftian sense of the truth of the world as debilitating is present and correct, but is somehow subsumed into the reality of an old woman in a run-down apartment building who appears to see a literal devil in the details of things.

The third and last of what might be called the early stories is “An End to Hunger” (2000). Like “Different Skies,” it has rough edges; the plot, which concerns a genius marxist/anarchist who seems to have hacked the protocols underlying the world wide web, is fairly cursory; Aykan’s vendetta against An End To Hunger (a transparent stand-in for the real-world click-to-donate outfit The Hunger Site), while entertaining, never really hits the right satiric register. It’s notable, though, as the first of the overtly political stories. “Tis the Season” (2004), which when the book is read sequentially is the next story, is clearly the work of a much more confident writer: here the satire is shamelessly exuberant, centering around a father’s attempts to give his daughter a genuine YuleCo. Christmas(tm), and not just a generic MidWinter Event. The climactic set-piece, in which the two are caught up in a Christmas Day riot in Central London, protesting against the privatization of the season, is a joy. How many other stories can you name, after all, in which the day is saved by the Gay Men’s Radical Singing Caucus? And it makes the shift into New Crobuzon for the next story, “Jack” (2005), that much more effective. New Crobuzon, of course, is custom-built to make place and politics inseparable, and “Jack”—which relates the story of Jack Half-a-Prayer, the nearest thing that city has had to a Robin Hood—is an unarguably political story. But as with many of Mieville’s later stories, the politics are the bones of the tale, not the flesh. The narrator admires Jack, or maybe what Jack stood for or what he achieved, but is unable to say so publicly; he has to maintain a separation between his personal life and his political life. Like and unlike the go-between, his sense of being connected allows him to value himself, but he knows where he stands, which side he’s on. I said that “Looking for Jake” emerged from the book as the most typical China Mieville story; “Jack” is what I expected a typical China Mieville story to be when I started. It is swaddled in rumour and hearsay, and couched in a rough, forcefully baroque argot.

A similar intensity marks two of the best stories, “Familiar” (2002) and “Foundation” (2004), although both take place in our world. The former, first published in the New Wave Fabulists issue of Conjunctions, seems almost to be an experiment in how descriptively dense a story can be without imploding. The plot is schematic in its simplicity—witch creates familiar from his own flesh; witch is creeped out by familiar but can’t kill it so dumps it in the river; familiar grows; familiar and witch have a showdown—and the strength of the story resides entirely in the presentation of the familiar. “Its power was change,” we are told, with “no way of knowing except to put to use.” (p.86) And it uses everything:

When the familiar emerged from the water with the dawn, it was poured into a milk-bottle carapace. Its clutch of eyes poked from the bottleneck. It nibbled with a nail clipper. With precise little bullets of stone it had punctured holes in its glass sides, from which legs of waterlogged twig-wood and broken pens emerged. To stop it sinking into wet earth its feet were coins and flat stones. (p.87)

It learns well; it learns London. It becomes, in fact (in a nice moment of dark humour) a Londoner—as much a native of its city as the narrators of “Looking for Jake” or “Jack” are natives of theirs. It’s impossible not to notice, in fact, that most of the stories that evoke a strong sense of place do so by associating an urban environment with life, or death. In “Foundation”, a modern city has been built on a mass grave, and the protagonist is vividly haunted by the dead. Mieville points out in the acknowledgements that in the past the US army has actually buried Iraqi soldiers alive, and that it is such an act that gives the story its bones and marrow. But although that truth can be excavated from the text with a little work, it too is buried; rightly, I think, both symbolically and because it allows the story to stand alone. “Foundation” works as a demonstration of the moral power horror can achieve: it is possible to read it as the delusional experience of a man complicit in a terrible crime, but it is more powerful to read it as truly fantastic. To do so gives the dead a voice. More literal still, however, in its conflation of city and life, is “Reports of Certain Events in London” (2004). Like “Foundation”, and “Familiar”, and a number of other stories in the book, there is in some senses relatively little substance to the tale; it is entirely about decryption, trying to work out from a succession of found documents exactly what has happened, or is happening. To say that it’s a story about feral streets, and a Brotherhood that tracks their appearance and disappearances across London, is to describe both its premise and almost all of its revelations. Mieville’s narrative sleight-of-hand, however, entraps the reader even on a second or third reading; carelessly bland phrases like “certain events took place” gain a thrillingly cold edge.

The last story in the book is the longest, and embodies the virtues of many of the others—it is, for example, an interesting counterpoint to “Looking for Jake.” “The Tain” (2002) is the story of another London apocalypse, but this time the monsters are fully on-screen. This time London is again diminished, emptied of people but filled with its feral conquerors. It is, even more than the rest of the collection, a strikingly visual story. Look, for instance, at the opening paragraph:

The light was hard. It seemed to flatten the walls of London, to push down onto the pavement with real weight. It was oppressive: it scoured colours of depth. (p.229)

To me, this and later descriptions, such as the Thames “matte as dried ink, overlaid on a cutout of London” (p.231), recall nothing so much as the grainy, washed-out style of Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later (and of course both “The Tain” and that film echo John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), although Mieville’s story also references more gung-ho scenarios such as 1981’s Mad Max 2). The enemies here are not zombies, however, they are a kind of vampire: our reflections, having broken through from the realm beyond mirrors, furious from our millennial humiliation of them, shackling them into our “meat vulgarity.” (p.242) This is not the simple portal of “Different Skies,” but something more strange. These creatures are the fauna of mirrors—the debt to Borges is acknowledged—and they don’t just spill through as whole people: everything that has ever been reflected has been trapped.

Pouting lips fly like butterflies, eyes blink in and out of existence, and manicured hands crawl like rats. Where in “Looking for Jake” the unease came from what was unsaid, here, as in “Familiar,” it appears to be generated by what is on the page. And yet, it is not the narrative that cuts to the bone; it is its implications. The two characters—Sholl, one of those who survived the invasion, and a nameless vampire (or imago) who encounters him in a Tube station—do not follow the paths laid out for them by the story. Sholl’s shotgun-wielding search for the general of the imagos has a logical goal, not an unattainable one; and our imagos’s most profound wish is to escape. Wyndham is revealed as only a starting point (although a particularly apt one), and the vivid menagerie as a diversion, because as in “Foundation” our attention is ultimately drawn to our existence as a privileged enclave: to the peoples on which our civilization is built, and to what they might think of us, if they ever got the chance to break into our lives. It is a point made with superb grace, by a writer who understands how to wield the fantastic both for its own sake, and for ours. “The Tain” knits together Looking for Jake and ensures that at its end, the book leaves us with a thought worse but more important than the one it greeted us with: something has happened, and we haven’t even noticed.

This review first appeared in the Readercon 17 Souvenir Book.

Vector #245

In this way I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the Mundane Manifesto: I just feel that it is incapable of producing ‘better’ science fiction. It will not reinvigorate the genre. Science fiction is an imaginative literature, not a realist one. Much of its strength and power lies in its ability to mythologise – the Manifesto condemns as stupidities many of the genre’s most powerful myths: the alien, time-travel, the artificial intelligence made in our own image.

Ian McDonald

But before you go and read everyone else’s manifestos, we thought we should set out our own. After all, although you may recognise our names from the reviews sections of this magazine and Matrix, we’re still relative newcomers to the BSFA, and we’re only just joining the Vector editorial team with this issue, following in the illustrious footsteps of Andrew M. Butler, under whose guidance Vector was the sort of magazine we discovered we wanted to read – and edit.

Niall Harrison & Geneva Melzack

Moorcock also had a theory about the uses of prose itself, too complex to go too deeply into here or even in his introduction to the anthology. Briefly, rather than being confined to ‘transparent’ narration of the surface phenomenology of the story, the prose line could skip allusively along its surface or swim in the iconographic and archetypal imagery beneath it, rather in the manner of poetry. Which perhaps was why the magazine paid serious attention to serious poetry, too.

Norman Spinrad

I blew up the plums

which were in the icebox

and which you were probably saving

Meghan McCarron

Reading ‘Amnesty’ recalls for me every traumatic and wonderful Butler book I’ve read, and reminds me, again, of how much reading Butler has changed my view of my world and my place in it. What changed me was Butler forcing me to root for characters who didn’t stand up for their rights (because it would have gotten them killed) but rather compromised out of necessity. She forced me to look at myself, at my often silly insistence upon abstract rights in the face of daily, unbearable, soul-destroying compromise. Would I be able to be a slave? Could I do what was necessary to save not only myself but my entire community? What would I do in a situation in which I had no good choices?

Claire Light