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BSFA Short Story Competition 6

Rescue Stories by Andrew West

A space ship crewed by descendants of humans whose make up is of various blends of mixed gender and hence use non-specific personal pronouns, who call themselves numwyn and communicate by “melding” (actual spoken words are very much infra dig) has suffered damage and landed on a planet unknown and too far from numwyn civilisation for rescue to be possible. Neither are they able to carry out the necessary repairs themselves.

They come up with a plan to accelerate, by means of propagating myths among the indigenous inhabitants, the advancement of these locals from their copper smelting stage of development to a point where they will be able to help the stranded numwyn.

While Rescue Stories is well enough written, there are unfortunate instances of characters telling each other things they must already know and a huge info dump sequence describing the advancement of the indigenes and – somewhat unnecessarily I thought, as the nunwyn surely wouldn’t care – comparing it to Earth’s. (This last seems to be present to allow West to get something off his chest.)

Again, the ending more or less writes itself and is not really any sort of surprise.

The theme is of course similar to Theodore Sturgeon’s Microcosmic God, which I mentioned in my review of the BSFA Award nominee Crystal Night by Greg Egan, except this one is played out through the medium of memetics.

Rescue Stories is not a bad effort, though.*

*Note:- In case you thought it was, this is not meant to be patronising. “Not bad” is the best accolade someone who comes from the West of Scotland bestows on anything they rather like.

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Was I asking too much of these stories? Presumably they were submitted in the hope of publication or at the least of attracting attention to the author for the future. However, taken as a whole they failed to meet what I think of as professional standard. In the previous issue of Focus its editor, Martin McGrath, contends that only around 10% of the 120 stories submitted to him “were obviously incompetent in the basic mechanics of writing.” Yet I found at least three of the six on the short list lacking in this regard. Hence I shudder to think what the stories that made up that 10% were like. Perhaps my expectations for this sort of competition are too high.

Of the six stories I much preferred Nina Allan’s Time’s Chariot. On turning to the authors’ published histories it was not surprising to find she has the most widespread portfolio of previous appearances in print. It seems she may not be one to watch but rather has already arrived.

BSFA Short Story Competition 5

Maria Via Lily by Gary Spencer

Maria’s daughter Lily has died. Before death she was scanned and rendered into a Realm where she lives a digital afterlife. Unfortunately her Realm was stolen, copied widely and has become a world–wide hit. Maria grieves for her own Lily – her unique Lily. The story concerns her attempts to persuade Evermore – the company that makes the Realms and whose employee stole Lily – to grant her wish.

The scenario and story idea are fine, then. However, there was a large degree of very crude info-dumping and Spencer’s handling of English is frankly awful. He apparently has no clue about the correct use of the apostrophe. Mostly it is neglected – we are given the plural forms of words instead of possessives – but elsewhere it is inserted where it doesn’t belong. Spencer also has top draw for top drawer, replaces effect for affect and pixilation (intoxication) for pixellation (blurriness.)

These are huge distractions which undermine any trust in the narrative and, crucially, in the author. Had I not been reading this out of interest in the standard of the BSFA competition’s entries I would have discarded it.

As it stands Maria Via Lily is, in my opinion, not of publishable quality. With suitable editorial amendments it might be, but not in its present form.

It looks like BSFA members were getting these stories warts and all.

BSFA Short Story Competition 4

The Mark by Nigel Envarli Crowe

This one is set in a town – in Russia or Ukraine judging by the characters’ names – mostly after a Chernobyl type accident at a nuclear reactor. (It can’t have been a nuclear explosion as, like at Chernobyl, there are survivors in the plant and town. It might even be meant to be Chernobyl itself.)

There are three viewpoint characters representing different generations of survivors and highlighting the deterioration of language and civilisation through time.

The Mark of the title is a growth on the throat, an outward sign of a mutation/adaptation which apparently confers protection from the residual radiation (quite how this works isn’t spelt out) but also brings with it a loss of intelligence.

The story is well enough written but I wasn’t convinced by it. The scenario is perhaps a bit too off the shelf – anywhere else apart from the former Soviet Union would have been more convincing. The explanation for language degradation came to late to salve my annoyance at its early appearance. There are also too many characters for a story with such a low word count. None of them has enough space to convince.

BSFA Short Story Competition 3

Surf Town by James Bloomer

This one’s about a retired surfer who refuses to perform on the new artificial waves produced and controlled by the Mesh, a collection of human minds connected by some sort of neural equivalent of the internet. He is in love with the female star of the Mesh Surf Pro Tour. I’m sure you could almost write the rest yourself from here.

The idea behind Surf Town is fine, if a little trite, but the execution is lacking once more. Plus the whole story badly needs proof-read. Words are missing, others repeated at too short an interval and some of the sentence structures leave a lot to be desired. We also have in the first sentence the neologism skool but later in the story the usual spelling appears. And there is a “span” count of three. (Shudder.)

One more complaint: in a future this far away (such a Mesh is not a likely near future development) the word dude as an appellation will surely have vanished. Its use here is an over-clumsy attempt to convey shallowness of character, made worse by being repeated ad nauseam.

You’ll have guessed I wasn’t impressed.

BSFA Short Story Competition 2

Time’s Chariot by Nina Allan

The writing in this is much better than in Gladwish’s story. No missing punctuation, no errant words, no dangling participles. Allan clearly knows the nuts and bolts of language and how to weave them together.*

But, for an entry to a competition run by a Science Fiction Association, Time’s Chariot is, at best, borderline SF or fantasy and could be read entirely as a mainstream piece (or slipstream if you will.)

It is about the close relationship between a brother and sister in an idiosyncratic but slightly dysfunctional family (wherein I felt that one or two of the familial dynamics depicted did not quite cohere.) To say more would be to give away too much.

I did like Allan’s designation of a watch as time machine. I believe she intends us to take this literally but to my mind the working out of the story does not really lend itself to that. Whatever, it was a good pun. One that made me think for a minute.

The story’s major fault, though, is that too much is told; not shown. However, it is atmospheric, with some fine descriptive writing and a tender sensibility too often missing in the genre. Allan may be one to watch.

*Edited to add:- Except I’ve just read her article in the previous Focus, which I hadn’t got around to till now, and she appears to believe the word “none” is plural. She certainly employed it with the plural form of the accompanying verb.

BSFA Short Story Competition 1

I blogged a while back about the BSFA’s latest mailing and the inclusion in its magazine for writers, Focus, of the successful stories in its 50th anniversary short story competition.

I have now read all six. My thoughts about them were jotted down before perusing the author biogs at the back of the magazine. A summating comment will appear after all the reviews.

Nestbuster by Roderick Gladwish

Set on a tidally locked moon orbiting a gas giant some time after a war which threatened to wipe humans out completely, a surviving hero of that war, along with his family, is subjected to a medical examination by someone from a central authority.

During the narrative and the two flashbacks to his war experiences we discover the life-changing choice he made. The story explores its ramifications.

Amid agreeable suggestions that beyond the bounds of the story other things are going on (the enemy has mysteriously disappeared but may come back) the central idea is fine. Unfortunately its execution isn’t. The writing is too often marred by lack of punctuation, a blizzard of dangling participles and a few instances of words wrongly used. (Examples: lightening for lightning, lead for led, loose for lose, breath for breathe and “in vivo” where the contrast was not with “in vitro” but to refer to a procedure which itself takes place in vivo later in life.)

These things do matter, as they interfere with comprehension. More than several times I had to go back and reread sentences to make sense of them. If you are trying to communicate to a reader and the concepts are not in themselves inherently difficult then this ought not to be necessary. Writing like this is comparable to the products of a carpenter who does not have full knowledge of his/her tools. The end result may be serviceable but it’s not quite as functional or satisfying as it might be. You might say the drawers don’t fit properly; they stick or squeak as you run them out or in.

I read this story – the overall winner of the competition – first, and began to wonder to what degree the BSFA has printed the six stories as submitted, without any amendment, warts and all.

Gladwish undoubtedly shows promise but his faults need ironing out. A good editor, perhaps, or a writing group that can help him eliminate them. (If someone of a similar standard applied to the group I belong to I would certainly vote for their inclusion.)

On this evidence Gladwish is almost there as a professional standard writer, but not yet quite. In that sense, the competition has succeeded in identifying promise.

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