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.

Short Story Club: “Miguel and the Viatura”

I can’t see any coverage for this week’s story in either the print Locus or the online one, so it’s left to the SSC stalwarts to kick things off. Matt Hilliard:

My reaction to the story is similar to how I felt about “A Serpent in the Gears”. That story was steampunk and this one is cyberpunk (or post-cyberpunk, or whatever it’s called this week) but both stories spend almost their entire length on introductions. We are introduced to the titular Miguel and his brother, but, like “Serpent”, the emphasis is on introducing the world. Also like “Serpent”, this story assembles a set of tropes common to its subgenre almost as if it is ticking off boxes: poverty-stricken non-first world setting, telepresence, nanites, environmental problems, evil corporations, and a technofetishist cult, just to name some of the big ones. Like “Serpent” it does a good job with these things, and is in fact tied together with what I thought was somewhat stronger writing, but alas it has a final similarity with “Serpent” in that I found the plot to be incomplete and unsatisfying.

Pam Philips:

Maybe I missed some clues or unstated assumptions, but it’s not entirely clear to me why Joaõ asks Miguel to help him find their father. Joaõ is so vague about the situation that he manages to hurt Miguel deeply without even touching him. Miguel is almost entirely on the receiving end of the action, but the powers that be leap to the conclusion that he is to blame. Mostly things happen to Miguel, and all he can do is protest. Sure he’s a kid, and he grows up a little, but I was left with no idea what he was going to do in the end. There’s also a “torture is pointless and cruel” scene that goes on way too long, but I suppose it wouldn’t be torture if it stopped when you got tired of it.

As for the technology, this comes off as one of those nano-can-do-anything stories. I was also jarred by the term “nanite”, which I mostly associate with Star Trek. Finally, what we see of nanotech seems to be confined to making people into monsters. What’s the point? These people sure as hell don’t need technology to act monstrously.

Chad Orzel:

I don’t recognize the author’s name, but this story is very much in the same vein as the stuff I’ve read by Paolo Bacigalupi and others. I’m not sure if there’s really a formal literary movement in this, a la “cyberpunk” or the “New Weird,” but it’s tempting to think of this sort of story in those terms, as a part of the Recent Unpleasantness. Because, really, that’s the defining trait of these stories: every aspect of the thing, from the setting to the characters to the actions that drive the plot, is chosen to make the result as unpleasant as possible.

Is there more to it? The floor is open.

Hugo Nominee: “The Gambler”

Here’s the story. Here’s the comment:

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, at Strange Horizons:

“The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi explores one character’s sense of responsibility to honest news-reporting in a world that dictates content by popularity (pings, clicks, links, social pokes, etc.). The narrator’s distinctive first-person voice and observations on culture (“Americans are very direct”) weave a fascinating tapestry, though I personally found some of his uninformed perspective unlikely, and bordering on irrational righteousness. Search for identity is always compelling, though, when handled adeptly, and that is certainly the case in this piece. “True Names,” “Molly’s Kids” and “The Gambler” all make comments of varying seriousness on generational succession. “The Gambler” does so most eloquently by having the protagonist explicitly recognize how he is following in his father’s ideological footsteps.

Paul Raven, at Futurismic:

With “The Gambler“, Paolo Bacigalupi steps out of the niche that has been built around him on two counts – first by writing something so near-future it could be set before the close of the current decade, and second by writing something with a glimmer of hope to it. A plausible enough vision of the future of web-based new media to provoke io9 to cite it as accurate (albeit slightly ironically, considering their recent broadening of remit), “The Gambler” is actually a classic story re-told – the journalist who, despite the disapproval of his superiors, wants to write the news stories that really matter as opposed to puff-pieces.

David Soyka, at Black Gate:

However, the story here that I’d pick for the “hit single” […] is “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi. The narrator is a web journalist in a near future in which readership – and the news feed’s stock price – is measured instantly. Reporters who file stories that get the most clicks directly contribute to company profitability. What kind of stories get the clicked on most frequently? Well, if you’re guessing that it might be the tabloid celebrity stuff as opposed to detailed analyses of government reports, you’d be making a reasonable extrapolation based on the current state of media “news” coverage.

The “gamble” is that there might be an audience for something more substantive than the usual fluff. That the gamble might have a chance of winning is why it is a science fiction story.

Charles Tan at Bibliophile Stalker:

Another undeniable favorite is Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Gambler” due to its focus on its Vietnamese protagonist. The strength of the piece is Bagicalupi’s focus on character and this is evident as we get flashbacks of the narrator’s father who is a martyr of sorts. There’s a lot of details packed into the story that gives it a rich flavor and makes it believable. Where Bacigalupi triumphs is that while the story could easily have taken place in the modern era, what makes it science fiction is the exaggerated qualities of our culture. By the time we reach the end, the story’s fairly predictable, but it nonetheless hits your gut and even I’m forced to evaluate my reasons for writing.

My original comments:

There’s an unavoidable element of meta about “The Gambler”, never more prominent than when Kulaap tells Ong, with a sigh, that “No one reads a depressing story, at least, not more than once”, and Ong responds by insisting (quite rightly) that his stories are real news. Thus (the suspicion is unavoidable) does Bacigalupi deal with his reputation for miserablism. But the reader is never nudged into noticing this parallel — you need information external to the story to see it — and the story instead wisely spends its time deepening Ong’s quiet but firm sincerity. The end of the “The Gambler” is probably the most touching thing Bacigalupi has yet written: what Ong gambles on is human nature, and Bacigalupi makes us want him to win.

So generally positive, then, but with some reservations — the plausibility of the central character, and I’d like to know what others make of Abigail’s observation in the comments to my original post that the ending felt truncated to her. I’m also slightly surprised not to have found more comment about this story out there; have I missed any significant write-ups?

The Gambler

Here’s a good story to read. It almost (almost) makes me sorry that Ted Chiang has a story in Eclipse 2 that is easily up to his usual standards, because I think Paolo Bacigalupi deserves a Hugo, and “The Gambler” could otherwise have won him one. It is a very fine piece of work, which manages to find a new angle on — and, not insignificantly when considering award chances, a new tone with which to explore — Bacigalupi’s trademark environmental and globalisation concerns.

In the very near future (itself not actually a venue Bacigalupi has really used; his best stories have tended to be set after some ecological deadline has passed), Ong is a refugee from Laos who has found a new home and a job in Los Angeles. A couple of flashbacks involving Ong’s father flesh out this backstory, but most of the tale revolves around Ong’s work as an online journalist for a large media conglomerate. The depiction of a data-dense newsphere — referred to as “the malestrom” — is good, vivid and chilling; stories “bloom” into existence, as explosions might over a battlefield, and reporters are spoken of as raising and caring for and sustaining their biggest stories as they might a child.

Unfortunately, the stories Ong writes — exposes about the loss of the genetic archive of an extinct butterfly, or mismanagement of water recycling — don’t bring in the clicks, certainly not compared to his colleague’s latest celebrity paedophilia scoop. Ong is threatened with redundancy unless the hit-rate on his stories improves, and out of generosity a colleague sets up an interview with a pop princess called Kulaap, another Laos exile; she ends up trying to save Ong from himself, when his instincts tell him to try to use the interview as a platform for calling attention to the plight of his home country.

There’s an unavoidable element of meta about “The Gambler”, never more prominent than when Kulaap tells Ong, with a sigh, that “No one reads a depressing story, at least, not more than once”, and Ong responds by insisting (quite rightly) that his stories are real news. Thus (the suspicion is unavoidable) does Bacigalupi deal with his reputation for miserablism. But the reader is never nudged into noticing this parallel — you need information external to the story to see it — and the story instead wisely spends its time deepening Ong’s quiet but firm sincerity. The end of the “The Gambler” is probably the most touching thing Bacigalupi has yet written: what Ong gambles on is human nature, and Bacigalupi makes us want him to win.

In other news: not dead yet, just busy. I’ll be at the BSFA 50th party tomorrow evening, though. And one issue of Vector went to the printers last week (meaning it could start hitting doormats as early as the end of next week), with another hot on its heels.

Pop Squad

At some point in the next few years, Paolo Bacigalupi is going to put together a very good collection of very grubby futures. It will not be a book for the faint-hearted. For starters, Bacigalupi’s stories, almost all of which are set in worlds coping with one or more varieties of ecological collapse, from the desertified midwest of “The Tamarisk Hunter” (2006) to the post-petroleum bioeconomy of “The Calorie Man” (2005), typically need unpacking. This is not to say they are linguistically complex—Bacigalupi’s prose can be striking, but it tends to be fluid rather than ornate—but more that they tend to be narrated by characters who have no reason to explain their assumptions to us. All science fiction stories offer that particular pleasure of unfamiliarity—the challenge of learning the ropes—but Bacigalupi’s stories are often more unfamiliar than most. At the start of “The People of Sand and Slag” (2004), for instance, the characters jump from a hovering airship and land in a pile of breaking bones with no suggestion that this is any more remarkable than the bleak weather. By the time they’re eating sand for dinner, if not before, we’ve worked out that we’re in a world where humans have been rendered virtually invincible through the judicious use of nanotech, but for a few paragraphs we’re in free-fall. Moreover, Bacigalupi can be stunningly unsentimental: where similar technology in a story by Cory Doctorow might lead to a post-scarcity utopia, in “The People of Sand and Slag,” with no need to preserve the land for their own benefit, humanity has allowed all to fall into ruin.

“Pop Squad,” from the October/November issue of F&SF, is in a similar vein. It reads like the work of a writer playing chicken with the abyss. I don’t usually have much time for spoiler warnings, on the grounds that if a piece of prose fiction can be truly spoiled by knowing what happens, then it’s probably not a very good example of the form. But there are a couple of first-rate jolts in “Pop Squad”; I’m going to have to talk about them, because they’re integral to the story’s success or failure, but it would be unfair to deny anyone the chance to experience them first-hand. So here’s the warning: to say what I want to say about the story I’m going to talk about all of it, up to and including the ending. If you were planning to read it, skip this post for now, and come back when you’re done.

For everyone who’s left, here’s the opening paragraph:

The familiar stench of unwashed bodies, cooked food, and shit washes over me as I come through the door. Cruiserlights flicker through the blinds, sparkling in rain and illuminating the crime scene with strobes of red and blue fire. A kitchen. A humid mess. A chunky woman huddles in the corner, clutching closed her nightgown. Fat thighs and swaying breasts under stained silk. Squad goons crowding her, pushing her around, making her sit, making her cower. Another woman, young-looking and pretty, pregnant and black-haired, is slumped against the opposite wall, her blouse spackled with spaghetti remains. Screams from the next room: kids.

My comments about unfamiliarity above notwithstanding, this scene, and the confident rhythm with which it’s sketched, are basically familiar. The narrator is a police officer, possibly slightly shady, and he’s visiting a slumland crime scene. We don’t know the nature of the crime, or why the kids are screaming, but that’s ok; these are things we expect to not know. We do know how this sort of procedural unfolds. And we could easily be in the here-and-now. The narrator’s judgement on the women (“It amazes me that women can end up like this, seduced so far down into gutter life that they arrive here, fugitives from everyone who would have kept them and held them and loved them and let them see the world outside”) has a depressing familiarity about it. The only indications that we’re in an elsewhen are a passing reference to wallscreens and, a few paragraphs later, a suggestion of high-tech uniformity in the flat’s design.

Needless to say, this opening is a trap. In retrospect the signs are there: in the way the narrator’s partner hustles the women, but not their children, out the door, for instance, and in the reference to a toy dinosaur as funny “because when you think about it, a dinosaur toy is really extinct twice.” But even on a second reading, we’re not ready for what happens next. The narrator stands in front of the children:

I pull out my Grange. Their heads kick back in successive jerks, bang bang bang down the line, holes appearing on their foreheads like paint and their brains spattering out the back. Their bodies flip and skid on the black mirror floor. They land in jumbled piles of misaligned limbs. For a second, gunpowder burn makes the stench bearable.

With the possible exception of some of Joe Hill’s work, I can’t recall having experienced such a spectacularly effective drop-kick of readerly sympathies for years. We can’t see it coming, because Bacigalupi plays the lead-in straight. But he gives us just enough hints to develop, in the aftermath, a suspicion—which is quickly confirmed—that this isn’t a depiction of a maniac, it is normal. This is his job. While we’re in free-fall, the narrator is going up in the world. Literally: in a vertiginous paragraph he rushes from the slum out of the urban sprawl, out of the jungle, up one hundred and eighty-eight stories of an immense spire, where his girlfriend Alice is playing lead viola in a classical concert. We follow in his wake, dazed. The music is beautiful; notes “spill like water and burst like ice flowers”. The contrast with the scene we have just left could not be more brutal. And it sinks in that the trap has sprung: we are caught in a world we don’t understand with a reliable narrator we absolutely cannot trust.

Inevitably, the story calms down a bit. We start to get more information. Details here and there allow us to build up a picture of how the world is and, maybe, how it got to be that way. It’s a darker, more damaged world than our own; it has warmed, and New York has flooded—hence the spires and the slums. And, via the revelation that Alice’s concert was much like a world-record challenge, an attempt to knock the acknowledged virtuoso from his pedestal, we learn that this is a world of immortals, which in turn suggests a reason for the kid-killing. The price of eternal life is voluntary sterility. But for the people at the concert, the narrator’s job is remote, its implications abstract:

Alice makes a face of distaste. “Can you imagine trying to perform Telogo without rejoo? We wouldn’t have had the time. Half of us would have been past our prime, and we’d have needed understudies, and then the understudies would have had to find understudies. Fifteen years. And these women throw it all away. How can they throw away something as beautiful as Telogo?”

I said that Bacigalupi was playing chicken with the abyss, and I think passages like the above make the point. The incomprehension demonstrated of the true choice being made is chilling, the more so because the authorial handling of the conversation is so deadpan: despite the yawning gap between the story’s world and ours, we are never nudged towards an opinion. The facts of the case speak for themselves. Combined with the memory of the narrator’s murderous actions, we are left thoroughly unsettled.

Unfortunately for the story, however, Bacigalupi ultimately blinks first. In the second half of “Pop Squad”, the narrator makes two more home visits. In the first, he kills a baby—but this time the kill is less because he believes in his job, and more because he can’t work out what else to do with the child. It’s more instinctive, an attempt to ignore the doubts growing inside him. He attempts to rationalise the actions of the women his squad tracks down, arguing to himself that “the whole breeding thing is an anachronism—twenty-first century ritual torture we don’t need anymore”, but we can see that it’s not working. (As an aside, we only ever see single mothers: the men, it is implied, are cowards who prefer to participate in the process from afar, by donation, rather than risk pop squad retribution themselves.) To quash the nag in the back of his mind, he sets out to track down the supplier of the toy dinosaur he saw at the start of the story. These days, it seems, they’re marketed as “collectibles,” at which point we understand why it was extinct twice: once as a dinosaur, once as a toy. The third home visit occurs when the narrator decides to track down a woman he bumps into in the collectible shop, and is the climactic scene of the story.

There are good things about this confrontation. It is tense. The inevitable cute child is not unrealistically or unbearably cute. The scene doesn’t break character, and indeed continues to reveal character: confronted with an obviously fertile woman, the narrator responds with involuntary sexual attraction that we can understand (and find somewhat disturbing, admittedly), but which he is only confused by. “She sags,” he observes, “she’s round, she’s breasty and hippy and sloppy, I can barely sit because my pants are so tight.” The mother doesn’t waste time asking the narrator why because she already knows, even if we don’t. The incomprehension is all on the narrator’s side. And the mother’s outrage is delivered with a conviction that frees it from cliche:

She looks at me, hard. Angry. “You know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking we need something new. I’ve been alive for one hundred and eighteen years and I’m thinking that it’s not just about me. I’m thinking I want a baby and I want to see what she sees today when she wakes up and what she’ll find and see that I’ve never seen before because that’s new. Finally, something new. I love seeing things through her little eyes and not through dead eyes like yours.”

But at the end of the confrontation, the narrator walks away, leaving mother and child unharmed. “And for the first time in a long time,” he tells us, “the rain feels new.” We should be relieved: this sort of awakening is exactly the sort of ending we should want. It’s where the story has been obviously heading from around the half-way mark. The problem is that although seeing the dinosaur was clearly the trigger, it’s not clear why. Why does the narrator wake up now, why this case above all others?

In “The People of Sand and Slag,” the plot revolves around the discovery of a dog, an animal previously thought extinct. It has no place in the new world, and the characters don’t know what to do with it or how to care for it; in a beautifully alien sentiment, one of them describes it as being “as fragile as a rock.” So at the end of the story, they eat it. Bacigalupi allows his protagonists the hint of a realisation that something valuable might have been lost, but that’s all: they never wake up to the state of the world. The narrator of “Pop Squad” does, but he seems to do so only because to not do so would be unthinkable. He wakes because morality demands it, not because the story does. The result is that the obvious skill employed in the first half of the story in creating the world, the situation, and the character feels somewhat wasted. Bacigalupi has done such a good job of interrelating the three that to short-change one is to short-change them all, and what could have been truly haunting becomes a momentary discomfort, not so unfamiliar after all. “Pop Squad”, we realise, is just another story about the development of conscience in a fallen world. We don’t need to struggle out of the trap; we are let out and, despite the narrator’s claims, it feels quite the opposite of new.