2010 BSFA Awards Shortlists

The BSFA is pleased to announce the shortlisted nominees for the 2010 BSFA Awards.

The nominees are:

Best Novel

2010 BSFA Awards Best Novel Nominees

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl (Orbit)
Lauren Beukes – Zoo City (Angry Robot)
Ken Macleod – The Restoration Game (Orbit)
Ian McDonald – The Dervish House (Gollancz)
Tricia Sullivan – Lightborn (Orbit)

Best Short Fiction

Nina Allan – ‘Flying in the Face of God’ – Interzone 227, TTA Press.
Aliette de Bodard – ‘The Shipmaker’– Interzone 231, TTA Press.
Peter Watts – ‘The Things’ – Clarkesworld 40
Neil Williamson – ‘Arrhythmia’ – Music for Another World, Mutation Press

Best Non-Fiction

Paul Kincaid – Blogging the Hugos: Decline, Big Other
Abigail Nussbaum – Review, With Both Feet in the Clouds, Asking the Wrong Questions Blogspot
Adam Roberts – Review, Wheel of Time, Punkadiddle
Francis Spufford – Red Plenty (Faber and Faber)
Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe – the Notes from Coode Street Podcast

Best Art

Andy Bigwood – cover for Conflicts (Newcon Press)
Charlie Harbour – cover for Fun With Rainbows by Gareth Owens (Immersion Press)
Dominic Harman – cover for The Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (Gollancz)
Joey Hi-Fi – cover for Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
Ben Greene – ‘A Deafened Plea for Peace’, cover for Crossed Genres 21
Adam Tredowski – cover for Finch, by Jeff Vandermeer (Corvus)

The BSFA Awards Administrator will shortly make a voting form available for members of the BSFA and this year’s Eastercon, who will be able to send advance votes based on the above shortlists. Advance votes must be received by Monday 18th April. After this date, ballot boxes will be made available at Illustrious – the Eastercon Convention taking place at the Hilton Metropole in Birmingham. The ballots will close at Midday on Saturday April 23rd and the winners will be announced at a ceremony hosted that evening at the convention.

Congratulations to all of the nominees!

P.S. Voting details are here.

Four Stories by Nina Allan

Early on in “Wilkolak”, the story’s protagonist, a London-based Polish teenager known as Kip, has spotted and photographed a man who he thinks bears a striking resemblance to a wanted criminal. But:

Kip didn’t want to think about the murder. It was the photograph of the murderer that interested him, some loser with a plastic carrier bag crossing the street. The image might seem ordinary but Kip knew it wasn’t, that the very act of framing the man in his viewfinder and then choosing to release the shutter made the picture significant. The main point of a photograph was to invite you to look, to concentrate on the world around you a little harder.

“Wilkolak” (which can be found in Crimewave 11) is a horror story with only the faintest hint of a suggestion of a trace of anything not scrupulously mimetic, yet this is a passage that can be taken as emblematic of Nina Allan’s approach to the fantastic in her short fiction. Situations seem ordinary, but are not, and their lack of ordinariness is signalled primarily by small details or moments. In “Wilkolak”, for all that the criminal’s victim is one Rebecca Riding, last seen wearing a red coat, and for all that the predatory nature of the man in the photograph reminds Kip of the Polish folk tale from which the title is taken, there’s no suggestion that the game of is-he-or-isn’t-he-guilty is going to resolve into a literal werewolf tale. Rather, if the fantastic lurks anywhere in this story, it lurks in Kip’s interactions with his girlfriend, Sonia, who asks for a print of the photo only to later reveal that it reminds her of a man she saw in a dream, “some kind of monster … He could kill people, just by looking at them”; and who, after a perfect afternoon in a park, insists out of nowhere that she wants Kip “to know that whatever happened today was real … That all of this really happened.” Such moments may seem to be sidebars to the main action, which circles around Kip’s growing fascination with the man, but the psychic dread they evoke is the story’s true motor.

Kip’s attraction to photography is typical, though: a lot of Allan’s protagonists either are or know people of a creative bent. In other stories she’s published this year we find a blocked writer of fiction, a somewhat desperate journalist, a documentary film-maker, and an acquaintance of a painter. The last of these, in “The Upstairs Window” (Interzone 230), provides the opportunity for another seemingly self-reflective passage. His paintings appear to be an abstract mass of colours, but in fact are composed of miniature paintings of disparate objects, whose connection is not at all clear to Allan’s narrator, Ivan:

Whenever Niko was interviewed he was asked to spill the beans on what the pictures were supposed to mean but he always refused. He said the meaning of any painting always depended on who was looking at it. I’ve never had time for that kind of talk and I didn’t pay it much attention.

Ivan may not have time for this, but we should; just because Allan’s stories are filled with the specific does not mean — in the best cases — that they are overdetermined. To go back to the earlier quote, framing does not determine meaning; framing is an invitation to look at the world around you.

And even in her overtly fantastic stories, Allan’s settings are recognisably derived from the world around her: that is, contemporary London. Often, the fantastic has been normalised; the first indication that the setting of “The Upstairs Window” is in fact not contemporary London, at least not as we know it, is a passing reference to what seems to have been a theocratic revolution. Gradually a clearer picture emerges, of a Britain in which the “Bermondsey Statutes” have instituted severe restrictions on freedom of expression, including the reintroduction of the death penalty for particularly upsetting artists. It’s these statutes that Ivan’s artist friend, Niko, has fallen foul of, and which mean he needs to flee the country. But that’s not what the story is about, it’s just what happens, and only part of what happens, at that. None of the threads are fully resolved; as Lois Tilton observes, it makes for an ending that forces us to choose, to find the overt meaning that the collage of glimpses seems to deny.

There’s another departure in Allan’s other Interzone tale of the year, the more science-fictionally sophisticated “Flying in the Face of God” (IZ227). This might have been the story of a bold American astronaut, Rachel Alvin, who’s volunteered for the deep-space adaptations known as the Kushnev process. Like Cordwainer Smith’s Scanners, or the Spacers of Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah”, once she’s gone through the process, Rachel will be removed from the normal run of humanity. The initial physiological changes involve thickened skin, paled eyes, reduced need for food and water, and by the time of the voyage the fliers will be able to exist in a “a kind of para-existence.” Allan’s focus, however, is not on the changes experienced by the woman travelling to the stars, but on the continuity experienced by a woman who remains behind. “Flying” is actually the story of the London-based film-maker, Anita Schleif, who has already had one flier in her life — her mother, now dead — and who in getting to know Rachel has had the misfortune to fall in unrequited love with another.

It’s a story with a complex relationship with more conventional sf, fully engaged with the troubled myths of the frontier that space exploration stories always draw on, yet more about a life touched by sf, struggling to integrate an sfnal event into the texture of the everyday, than about a life being shaped by sf, or using sf to shape the world. This is, of course, how it is and will be for most of us, most of the time, and I think the great achievement of the story is in the way it establishes a firm connection to the reader (at least this English reader) while acknowledging the frustrating partiality of any human connection — and without selling the strangeness of the Kushnev process short, to the point of actually allowing and succeeding in a moment of honest-to-god sense of wonder, when Anita visits Rachel before her launch: “She’s really going up, thought Anita. For the first time the sight of her friend brought not sorrow or anger, but awe.”

It remains an awe rooted in the specific — in the sense that Anita has finally seen Rachel’s new reality — but “Flying in the Face of God” is rare among Allan’s stories for representing a connection between humans so generously. “The Phoney War”, perhaps the best story Allan has published in 2010, portrays a more fraught situation, at all levels. In the foreground of the story is a journalist, Nicky, setting out on a journey to find out what’s happened to an old friend, across a landscape that if we didn’t read the story in Allen Ashley’s anthology Catastrophia we might at first think is just the greyest parts of Britain on an off-day. It soon becomes clear, however, that there’s an ongoing and pervasive deterioration. There are problems with the power supply. There are no broadsheets on sale, only slimmed-down tabloids. Petrol stations are empty. As much as anything, Nicky keeps working to try to impose a frame on the uncertainty, to force herself to pay attention to the world.

She still wrote for the Clapham Gazette even though her writing no longer paid her enough to make ends meet. She wrote her regular column in the form of a diary and it satisfied the same purposes: the need to externalise thought, the need to make sense of her life and above all the need to keep a record of the things that happened.

As Nicky travels, and the story flashes between past and present, we learn that the cause of the chaos is the possibility of first contact. News of impending alien arrival has caused widespread panic, and the government appears to have taken the opportunity to impose a more autocratic regime; the extent to which the former is exaggerated as cover for the latter is, to those on the ground, unclear. But this remains background — a more insistent background than the worlds of “Flying in the Face of God” and “The Upstairs Window”, but nevertheless — with Nicky’s foremost concern her attempt to find her friend. When she succeeds, however, on the cold coast at Dungeness, she finds that personal truth remains just as elusive.

In her conversations with her friend, and with the “foreign-looking” man she turns out to be living with, Nicky is almost, but not quite, allowed to reach a moment of understanding; indeed, another way of looking at Allan’s stories is that they almost all, in different ways, address moments of hesitation, both for their characters and for their readers. They get away with it, I think, because of the normalised, even mundane nature of Allan’s settings; but “The Upstairs Window” leaves threads dangling; “The Phoney War” refuses any neat emotional closure; “Wilkolak” ends literally in mid-scene, much like Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror” leaving it to the reader to resolve the story. Only “Flying in the Face of God”, of the stories I’ve been discussing here, moves past the moment of hesitation to suggest that something like connection is possible — and even there, it may be a self-deluding, one-sided connection.

Nina Allan’s had a busy year, and a very strong one, yet I feel she’s still one of the better-kept secrets of British sf. What remains to be seen, I suppose, is how well she can sustain her approach — or how she evolves it — at greater length. Apparently she’s been putting the finishing touches to a novel; I’d like to read it.

BSFA Survey Response: Nina Allan

Survey coverNina Allan’s speculative short stories have been published in Interzone and The Third Alternative, and collected in A Thread of Truth (2007). Her story “Bird Songs at Eventide” was shortlisted for the BSFA Award in 2006. Allan was one of more than 80 writers to respond to the 2009 BSFA survey, and her responses are reproduced below.

1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?

If you were to ask me what I am I’d say a writer, and if you were to ask me what I write I’d say speculative fiction. I grew up with sf – as a child and young adult I was a massive fan of writers like Wells and Wyndham and then later Keith Roberts and JG Ballard and the Strugatsky brothers. I loved the dystopian novels of Orwell and Huxley, Zamyatin and Kafka. All the stories I tried to write in my teens involved aliens or monsters or penal colonies in harsh environments. I can honestly say that it never occurred to me to write stories that did not include some element of the mystical or fantastic. I read widely in what you might call the mainstream, but mainstream literature seemed to me then – and still does – to be missing some vital element, some extra layer, to be concerned more with the surface of the world rather than its murky interior.

I often feel my stories are not organized enough to count as ‘proper’ sf – so if I am a science fiction writer I am a very wayward one. On the whole I am wary of genre labelling, because too often people either have preconceived ideas about what sf is or what it should be, which can lead to them either dismissing your work out of hand or else having false expectations of it. I understand that genre labelling can be useful and is often necessary, as a means for facilitating discussion, and as a guide for readers and publishers. I just don’t like it when these boundaries become too rigid.

2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?

All my work involves some element of the fantastic. Sometimes that element is very slight, and is more a shift of emphasis, a tampering with reality rather than any easily definable objective change in it. I like the term hyper-reality, because this seems to suggest a deepening rather than a broadening of the fantastic element, that it has to do with the particular visions and insights of the narrator and/or character.

I have also produced work where the external characteristics of our own world remain largely intact, but where there has been some political, social or environmental change that either affects the way people carry on with their lives in a practical sense, or else affects their belief systems, their sense of the possible. I suppose the shorthand for that is that I write near-future sf.

Not that I have anything against monsters. I would like to write a great big gothic monster novel one day!

3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?

Because I love it, and because it is an inalienable part of me and my world view. I can’t ever imagine not writing it, watching it, reading it, thinking about it. It has always struck me as peculiar and a little arrogant that so many ‘mainstreamers’ – both writers and readers – dismiss sf as ‘unrealistic’ or ‘impossible.’ Today’s sf has always been tomorrow’s reality. If you were to take a Victorian scientist along to PC World he’d think he’d travelled forward a thousand years instead of a mere hundred or so. We have only been here a short time and have barely scratched the surface of our universe. It seems to me that sf has more to say about the world we live in than any other kind of literature, both in terms of what goes on inside our heads and what might go on out among the stars. sf is not just the true literature of the twentieth century but of every century.

4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?
5. Do British settings play a major role in your work, and if so, why (or why not)?

It makes sense for me to group these two questions together. The answer is a big resounding yes, although I suppose it might be more accurate to say that my work is distinctively English rather than distinctively British as such. I didn’t realise how important England – and my own Englishness – was to me until I started writing seriously, and then it became obvious almost at once that I am a distinctively English writer. I think the thing people have most often commented on in my work is its English ambience, that ‘it’s so English,’ or ‘it reminds me of how England was when I was growing up.’ Even my future Englands seem to remind people of their childhood! This is something I am truly proud of, that my work has this kind of resonance with my readers.

I have a very intense sense of recall – I prefer to call it recall rather than nostalgia, because I’m not saying ‘this was better’ but ‘this is how I remember it – and I think it is this fondness and concern for detail that gives my work this quintessentially English flavour. I am English, I grew up in England, it’s where I live now, so it’s not surprising if the things I dwell on and choose to describe are influenced by that. I would even go further in stating that I believe that one of my main ‘jobs’ as a writer is to try and capture the image and essence of England as I have known it and to preserve that the best I can. The world I grew up in is changing – you could almost say it is disappearing – and my work at least in part is gradually becoming an elegy for a lost kingdom.

A sense of place is fundamental to my work. I am proud to be a Londoner. It’s where I was born, and I have recently returned to it as a smelly foot returns to a well-worn shoe. The city is a daily inspiration to me, especially the less-known and under-appreciated corners of South East London, where I live. The coastal towns of South East England, which formed the backdrop to much of my childhood, also feature frequently in my stories. I love discovering new parts of England – I feel it would be quite possible to spend the whole of one’s life in this country and never get to the end of it – and England’s natural history, its invertebrate life in particular, has always been an obsessive interest of mine.

I have spent quite a bit of time in Wales, and feel almost ready to attempt my first Welsh story. I haven’t spent nearly enough time in Scotland – I hope that this lack will be remedied in the years to come.

So yes, British, and proud – though having said all that the story I am currently writing is set mostly in Germany…..

6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?

In terms of abstracts, I would say that my country of origin, the vital role that memory has always served in my life, and the huge love of the written word – understanding a thing or a feeling not just in physical or visual terms but in terms of written letters – have been my main influences. I understood from about the age of four that a thing – a butterfly, a spider, a mallard duck – could somehow be ‘kept’ if you wrote about it. Once I discovered that, writing became for me the most natural and essential of human activities.

Becoming acquainted with other European languages and literatures has been of incalculable value to me as a writer. Whereas you might argue that many English novelists have tended to become fascinated with manners, class and social mores, in European fiction the emphasis has always been on ideas. Discussions of philosophy, religion and politics have always been central to European literature, together with often more advanced notions of sexuality and the role of art. sf and fantasy have always been welcomed into the European mainstream with open arms, whereas in England they have all too often been condemned as the black sheep of the family. It was a Russian writer – Vladimir Nabokov – who first made me want to be a writer, and a German novel – Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus – that first revealed to me just how far the boundaries of speculative fiction could be stretched. All European writers are resistance fighters at heart, and do much to remind us that a little more intellectual anarchy in the UK would not go amiss.

In terms of specific writers, I would prefer to say inspirations rather than influences because I am not a person or a writer who is easily influenced. The works of M.John Harrison and Christopher Priest are a constant and ongoing inspiration. MJH’s A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium makes me weak with envy every time I read it, while Priest’s novel The Affirmation is probably the most important work of speculative fiction to be written in the last fifty years. Priest’s work has redefined what sf can do and what it can be, and the poetic integrity and technical virtuosity of his novels makes them some of the finest examples of contemporary English literature as a whole. I keep coming back to Ballard, his solitary doctor-antiheroes, his visionary landscapes, his cruel poetry, his sparse yet still scintillating use of language. For me, novels like The Drought and The Crystal World contain both everything that first drew me to sf and everything that keeps me reading and writing it. The single novel that has probably influenced me most in terms of its metaphors and symbols (and here I think I probably do mean influenced) is Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, an influence extrapolated and enlarged upon in the radiant, visionary cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky.

On my bedside table at the moment: Bruno Schulz, Thomas Ligotti, Paul Bowles. The list goes on.

7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?

Again, I shall answer these two questions together. Short answer is that it is too early in my career to tell! I’ve not sold to America yet, and I am guessing that the defining Englishness of my writing might have something to do with this. I did have an interesting experience recently when I noticed that an American reader of my story “Microcosmos” (Interzone 222) thought it was set in America. I didn’t mind this at all – in fact I enjoyed it, because it made me see the story in a new way. I’m very much of the opinion that once a story is written the writer should give it its freedom. It’s up to the readers then to see what they make of it.

9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?

Ideally it should make them ask questions. It should make them re-examine and re-imagine their view of the world, of themselves, of particular historical or political events. It should thrill and excite. On occasion it should terrify. (Go and read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road if you don’t believe me.) Personally the thing that would please me most would be for a story of mine to inspire a reader to write a story of his own.

10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction as a genre?

It doesn’t have a weakness. Weaknesses may be present in particular works or the works of particular writers, but the genre itself must be just about the most exciting and inclusive and flexible on the planet. It used to be a commonly held belief that sf novels were strong on ideas but weak on character, but I would argue that a novel that doesn’t pay proper attention to characterisation or language or style is simply a bad novel – it is not made bad by being sf. If I had any criticism at all to make it would be that there are some writers who don’t read widely enough outside the genre. As sf writers we should be aiming for the highest standards of literary excellence – and this means drawing our inspiration from diverse sources.

11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?

Without question the broadening of the genre. We have thrown away the rule book, thank goodness, and a sf novel can now just as easily be set in a mental asylum or a court house as on board a spaceship. You can begin your story twenty thousand years into the future, or right now. There are always going to be ‘sf purists’ who will insist that Russell Hoban’s The Bat Tattoo isn’t really fantasy, just as there will always be mainstream bigots who believe that anything that trespasses on the quotidian is somehow a degradation of literary standards. But on the whole such limited insight is a thing of the past.

On the whole I believe that the ‘incursion’ of broadly mainstream writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Toby Litt and David Mitchell into the field of sf and fantasy has to be a good thing. Not only does it precipitate the blurring of genre boundaries – always a good thing, in my book – but it also promotes discussion and argument and brings some welcome public attention to the subject of sf. While mainstream writers may not be in the forefront of innovation when it comes to science fictional ideas their presence in the field can help us avoid complacency, and so raise our game.

“Microcosmos” by Nina Allan

IZ222 coverFrom Martin Lewis’ review: “It focuses on failed, grudging and inexplicable relationships. It takes a keen interest in geography … Observations … are often precise and clinical … Above all it is a story that suggests rather than insists … fantastic elements are extremely muted.” All spot-on. “Microcosmos” is a brilliant mix of the specific and the elliptic. A near-future, desertifying setting is sparingly sketched; the pain behind a family’s relationships is glimpsed; both are defined as much by what is unsaid as by the details picked out for the intense attentiveness of the young protagonist. The story has a clear shape, but no resolution; troubled emotions are left to ripple behind the page, potential answers ripen but remain un-plucked. All is controlled. This one will haunt, I think.

Perhaps the only problem is that, in that review, Martin’s talking about the stories collected in Allan’s first book, A Thread of Truth, which was published in 2007.