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BSFA Awards Booklet 2013

A welcome innovation this year was the inclusion in the booklet of pieces to do with the Award for non-fiction. The nominees here were:-

“Sleeps with Monsters” by Liz Bourke. Two extracts from Bourke’s blog for are included. One is about fantasy, the other gaming.

“Going Forth by Night” by John J Johnston. A discussion on the history of Mummies in literature from the introduction to Unearthed, an anthology published in partnership with The Egypt Exploration Society.

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer. The Awards booklet contained an extract from the book’s first chapter.

As usual the booklet contains all the nominees for the short story award.

I have already reviewed Spin by Nina Allan, TTA Press.

Selkie Stories are for Losers by Sofia Samatar, Strange Horizons, January 2013.

A girl who works in a restaurant has a host of selkie stories which she says always end in the same way, except she will never tell one. Of course; she does. A story about the faces we present to the world, the masks we hide behind and how we yearn to be our true selves.

Saga’s Children by E J Swift, The Lowest Heaven, Pandemonium, (Jurassic London)

Saga was the most famous astronaut in the Solar System before, and after, she took off into the unknown from the surface of Ceres and was never heard from again. (There is an explosion here due to “unstable gases released by drilling.” No mention of the necessary oxygen though.) The lives of her three children, who up till a few days before that moment had not realised they had siblings, are irreparably marked by her single-mindedness.

Boat in Shadows, Crossing by Tori Truslow, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, no 113, Jan 2013.
A tale of infatuation and betrayal with indeterminate gendered folk, and houses that are alive in a city of canals. More fantasy than SF.

Hmmm. I would say that two and a half out of these four stories are more fantastical in nature than SF.

The winners will be announced on Sunday evening during Eastercon.

Lucius Shepard and Margo MacDonald

Due to my house move I missed commemorating at the times the demise of both Margo MacDonald, former SNP MP and independent MSP, and writer Lucius Shepard.

It says a lot for the esteem in which MacDonald was held by the wider public that she was able to gain a seat in the Scottish Parliament on the list system as an independent.

In recent years her campaign for the right to assisted dying (she was suffering from Parkinson’s disease) was carried out with a dignity which ensured that her views and comments commanded respect.

Luius Shepard’s fiction is elusive to pigeonhole, morphing from Science Fiction to fantasy and bordering on magic realism. He was always readable, though, and intelligent.

Margo MacDonald, 19/4/1943 – 4/4/2014, Lucius Shepard, 21/8/1943 – 18/3/2014. So it goes.

Deathless by Catherynne M Valente

Corsair, 2013, 352p. Reviewed for Interzone 248, Sep-Oct 2013.

Valente here has reworked a traditional Russian folk tale, or perhaps several. Lack of familiarity with this source material may obscure some of its nuances but fear not. In what could have been a dizzying whirl through the unfamiliar – we have to deal not only with the tale itself but with the typically Russian patronymics and diminutives – Valente’s writing, with the occasional exception, is fluid and expressive. Her powers of description and similes can be striking, but her Americanisms stand oddly against the novel’s setting.

The story signals its fantastical elements early on. In a house on a long, thin street during the time St Petersburg became Petrograd, then Leningrad – and the street also changed its name twice – Marya Morevna knows there is magic in the world when she sees a bird fall off a tree – “thump, bash!” – change into a man and ask for the girl in the window. Twice more the same thing happens. (As in fairy tales repetition is a key feature of the novel, though the repetitions may have minor changes.) Each manbird takes away one of her three sisters. She then befriends the domoviye (house imps) who hold soviets behind a door in the stove and tell her Papa Koschei is coming.

Marya regrets missing seeing her bird “thump, bash!” into a man. This is Koschei Bessmertny, Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of life, who nevertheless, in a mechanical vehicle that is also a horse, spirits her away to Buyan, a land where his previous lovers – all called Yelena or Vasilisa – sew soldiers onto cloth and breathe them into life.

In Buyan Koschei’s mother/sister/sometime wife Baba Yaga – relationships there are somewhat involuted – sets Marya tasks to assess her worthiness as a wife for Koschei. These include subduing Baba Yaga’s traditional method of travel, the mortar and pestle. A nice touch during one of these was the scene which is effectively Little Red Riding Hood in reverse. A character Marya befriends in Buyan expresses to her what is perhaps a very Russian sentiment but with universal application, “You will live as you live in any world; with difficulty and grief.” Koschei’s brother Viy, the Tsar of death, turns up uninvited at the marriage and thereafter there will be war between the brothers.

Birds or eggs occur frequently in the text. Marya kills a firebird; in one of her tasks she fetches an egg she believes contains Koschei’s death; a friend turns into a bird; she spends some time in a place named Yaichka which turns out to be an egg; Alkanost, a firebird-like creature, imparts words of wisdom; she is told the world tries to make stories turn out differently – as perfect as an egg.

In a sudden temporal jump we find a human man, Ivan Nikolayevich, wandering into Marya’s life. In the interim she has become one of Koschei’s generals, but the war is going badly. (The war is always going badly.) Koschei is dismayed as Ivans habitually take his wives from him. Marya chides him for his attitude and takes Ivan as her lover, despite his confusion. She tells him, “What passes between married people is incomprehensible to outsiders.”

Whatever her title may be, Valente’s story is not deathless. Escaping the war in Buyan, Marya chooses to return with Ivan to her childhood home and is shocked that a house in Leningrad is painted with characters from her story. With all the fantastical events that have gone before and come after, though, the impact of the German siege of the city and its attendant horrors of starvation and suffering is lessened. The stripping of wallpaper to make bread, its paste to make butter, are not as horrific, not as devastating, as they could be; as they should be. We have not felt, not been shown, enough of the long, slow descent into abjection and desperation that survival there would have entailed. That Koschei has also turned up and is tethered in the basement only adds to the distancing effect.

An interlude in Yaichka features barely disguised versions of Lenin, Stalin, the last Tsar and his family and a priest with whom his wife may (or not) have had a liaison. Two of these have dreams of a war between red and white ants. Russian history hangs heavily.

The human time span of the novel relates to that of the ascendancy of the “wizard in Moscow with the moustache.” There is the necessity to believe, “there has never been another (world)” – “can never be another.” An explicit message is that living under totalitarianism is like death; but a death where, “You still have to go to work in the morning. You still have to live.” But, to use one of Valente’s repetitions, life is like that.

Addendum: The following did not appear in the published review.

For “Americanisms” above read “USianisms.”

Sunk count = 1; plus “off of,” “hung” for hanged, “all of who” – and stalactites might, but stalagmites can not, teeter above your head.

Somerset Dreams and Other Fictions by Kate Wilhelm

Readers Union Group of Book Clubs, 1979, 174 p

Somerset Dreams cover

I missed this book when it was published in the 1970s and picked it up recently in a charity book sale in St Andrews.

Wilhelm was one of the few women who had a relatively high profile in SF in the 1960s and 70s. She continues to be active as a writer.

The stories in this collection tend to straddle the boundary between SF and Fantasy but the emphasis is usually on the effects on the characters in the story of whatever strangeness is involved rather than on the speculative component itself.

Somerset Dreams
Anæsthetist Janet Matthews (Wilhelm uses the word anesthesiologist) who works in New York has returned to her home town of Somerset for her summer break. Since a dam was built in her late childhood Somerset has become a backwater cul-de-sac and most of the people who live there are ageing. A group of dream researchers headed by the unsympathetic Dr Staunton wishes to use the locals to test a theory that city dreams and rural dreams are of a different character. The locals are suspicious and Janet acts as a link between the town and the researchers. As time goes by it becomes apparent that the dreams in Somerset are of an unusual nature.

The Encounter
A man has to stay overnight in a snowbound bus station with wonky heating as the snowdrifts get higher against the door. The woman who is also there brings back memories of his marriage and his time in the Korean War.

Planet Story
An exploratory party is scouting out a new planet, very Earth-like but with no dominant predator. Two of the group have committed suicide and the rest suffer a fear that appears to have no cause.

Mrs Bagley Goes to Mars
Mrs Bagley, taken for granted by her family, announces one day she is going to Mars. (She may be imagining things.) Mars is not entirely to her liking and she informs the locals they have been misinformed. She tells them that female earthmen don’t defecate. They, “go to the little girl’s room, or the powder room, or ladies’ room. They freshen up, or wash their hands, or fix their make-up, but they never shit.” She opts for Ganymede instead.

A girl grows up in Beacham, Indiana. Her mother dies when she is young and her best friend’s mother, Mrs McInally, takes her under her wing. The friendship fractures as Mrs McInally becomes ill.

Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis
Presciently (the story was first published in 1976) this features a compulsive survival game show – slogan This is Your Crisis! – which has people with various kinds of psychiatric need trekking through Alaska (the week before it might have been the Andes) to win one million dollars. The split screens it looks best on are huge and take fifteen years to pay off. Viewers Lottie and Butcher bicker all the way through the programme, which lasts a whole weekend, distracting them from their lives.

The Hounds
A woman whose husband has lost his job at the age of 49 and subsequently moved the family to the farm he buys finds herself the object of fascination of two mysterious dogs who will let no-one else near them.

State of Grace
The things in her tree are destroying the narrator’s marriage as her husband Howard knows there is something there but can’t actually see them. Nor can anyone else he hires to find them. And when he tries to cut it down with a chainsaw he hallucinates cutting his leg off.

Incubus by Nick Gifford

Puffin, 2005, 225 p.

Danny Smith’s secret is that his father is a multiple murderer. His mother has taken the family to a new home far from those who know their background. His reticence about himself is tested by Cassie Lomax, a bright classmate who finds him interesting. As the book unfolds Danny’s worst fear, that the voices in his head that drove his father to murder would manifest in his own, comes to pass. These belong to a family kobold, a Hinzelmännchen called Hodeken, legacy of Danny’s German grandparents – they amended their surname from Schmidt when they came to England. The weirdnesses build up only gradually as the book follows Danny’s burgeoning relationship with Cassie (both of these developing in a chat room) and his struggle against the kobold’s influence, during which the story ranges from modern England to Berlin (both of the Second World War and of the erection of the Wall in 1961) as Danny learns more about his family’s past.

Writing for young adults is not easy but Gifford handles all this very well, with clear lucid prose and a pleasing level of complication with the adults around Danny. He also finesses the necessity of information dumping about kobolds by having Cassie and Danny perform internet searches.

Caveat:- I know I have a bee in my bonnet about this sort of thing but it jarred that at one point the kobold says, “aren’t I?” Kobolds are Germanic. Rather than “aren’t I?” Hodeken would surely have thought, “nicht wahr?” – which would have made the rough translation “isn’t that so?” a better choice.

Signs of Life by M John Harrison

Gollancz, 1997, 246 p. (As part of Anima, Gollancz, 2005.)

Mick Rose (nicknamed China,) nearly fifty, is picked up by much younger waitress Isobel Avens in the café at “the busy little toy aerodrome they have outside the town” of Stratford-on-Avon while he is on a delivery run. He and his mate, Choe Ashton, (pronounced as in Joey) operate a courier business transporting hazardous/biological materials. Within a month or two Isobel has moved to London to live with Mick/China. The novel charts the ups and downs of Mick/China’s relationships with the other two. Rose is the most grounded of the three, Choe has sociopathic tendencies and Isobel wants to fly – not in an aeroplane, but literally. China’s friendship with Choe begins to breakdown when they meet US citizen Ed Cesniak on a trip to Prague, that with Isobel when she does a delivery for him and meets a medical researcher.

The book is in essence a love story but a love story skewed by Harrison’s perennial leanings towards the strange. While starting realistically enough – one might almost say banally; but Harrison’s writing is never banal – by the end we have by degrees shelved over into SF or fantasy territory by way of recombinant DNA, gene alteration and other weird bits along the way. This last is to give a false impression of the book as it reads for the most part as a straightforward mainstream novel, almost Banksian at times but still unmistakably Harrisonian and very good.

The Course of the Heart by M John Harrison

Gollancz, 1992, 225 p. (As part of Anima, Gollancz, 2005.)

During their time at University, Pam Stuyvesant, Lucas Medlar and our unnamed narrator took part in some sort of experiment under the direction of a man called Yaxley after which their minds were never quite the same. They are haunted by what they call the Pleroma and Pam has visions* of a white couple, limbs always intertwined, Lucas of a dwarfish figure. These apparitions are occasionally glimpsed by the narrator. The Pleroma – or fullness – is referred to as “the muddled Christian promise of “Heaven” and contrasted with hysterema or kenoma – pain, illusion, emptiness; the life we must actually live.
The novel deals with the fallout from their youthful experience, which encompasses Pam’s marriage to Lucas, the subsequent divorce and his devotion to her when she becomes seriously ill. Between them, in pursuit of a mysterious state/entity called The Coeur, Pam and Lucas invent “Michael Ashman,” who travelled in Europe between the wars and up to the 1950s. As Pam’s condition worsens Lucas writes Ashman’s experiences down and reads them to her. Incorporating dream-like episodes and evocations of the concentration camps – especially Birkenau – these passages can slip into fantasy but also seem as “real” as the main narrative which manifests elements of the fantastic (*as above.)

Harrison has a deceptive style. His prose is eminently readable and flows past smoothly but his meaning is elusive, plastic.

He does mention Thomas à Beckett, though. The murdered Archbishop was Thomas Beckett. The “à” is not contemporary but a post-reformation creation.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Harper Collins 2013, 391 p

The Shining Girls cover

Harper Curtis walks up to young girl Kirby Mazrachi in July 1974 in order to give her a toy pony made of plastic. She is one of the girls he sees shine and feels compelled to murder. The pony is a calling card of sorts. The next chapter we are with Harper in Chicago’s Hooverville in November 1931 where by a set of somewhat improbable circumstances Harper injures his leg, kills a blind woman and gains the key to a mysterious house. Subsequent chapters flit between different times as we follow both Kirby in her placement as an assistant to Chicago Sun-Times reporter Dan Velasquez and Harper’s murders of various Shining Girls (and other incidental victims) in the intervening years, leaving an item taken from another on or near each girl’s body. Kirby herself almost died as one of Harper’s victims and is obsessed with tracking him down.

Nothwithstanding the shifts in time, the novel is told in the present tense. Most often the viewpoint is that of Harper or Kirby but occasionally other characters are given the task of carrying the story. As far as Harper is concerned it’s all the present anyway.
Beukes’s characterisation is excellent, the interplay between Kirby and Dan and other Sun-Times workers well handled, as is her relationship with her mother. Harper is of course a far from sympathetic character but as a First World War veteran and depression era product is convincing. He does adapt to travelling to the future a trifle easily, however. There is one point at which we are taken briefly to the Century of Progress Exposition (held in Chicago in 1933-4) – I have the second poster shown in the link on one of my walls.) I couldn’t make up my mind if this was merely to show off Beukes’s research as apart from underlining Harper’s callousness it did not contribute much to the story.

The time travel seems to be a function of the mysterious house and/or those caught up in Harper’s murderous activities. It is this aspect of the novel which I found a little unsatisfactory. Like the ability in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife there is no rationale for Harper being able to travel in time. This tumbles the story into fantasy. As a crime/thriller novel it works perfectly though.

The Shining Girls seems to have been a breakthrough novel for Beukes, introducing her to a wider audience than for her two previous novels, both with fantastical elements. Her prose flows beautifully and she certainly knows how to gain and hold the reader. The Shining Girls is without doubt well written and tightly plotted and may well garner Beukes awards, the time loops hang together but I must admit I was more intrigued by her previous novel, Zoo City.

The Art of Hunting by Alan Campbell

Book Two of The Gravedigger Chronicles. Tor, 2013, 433 p

The Art of Hunting cover

This retains many of the characters from Campbell’s previous novel in this series, Sea of Ghosts. The only Gravedigger left, though, is Colonel Granger, now more or less in the thrall of a replicating sword which produces copies of Granger to enhance his fighting powers. This takeover by the sword has the consequence that he dies in the novel (twice over) but he is still nevertheless a participating agent in the story at the novel’s end. This is, then, a fantasy after all. Other familiar names are Ianthe (Granger’s daughter,) Briana Marks and Ethan Maskelyne. Ianthe is now engaged to the Unmer Prince Paulus Marquetta, who may have wooed her merely to earn her protection. She was the power whereby the Unmer defeated their enemies the Haurstaf in Book One.

Various plot strands thread the novel. Marquetta is on a quest to recover the lost Unmer throne of Losoto, Granger to throw off the sword’s influence, Maskelyne to uncover a mysterious Unmer artefact and there is the entropath (an “elder god”) Fiorel’s wish to revenge himself on Argusto Conquillas who killed his daughter Duna in the prologue. These all come together at the climax with a sort of tournament of sorcery. In addition we find out the true nature of Granger’s, and so also Ianthe’s, lineage.

Along the way we have some philosophical aperçus. Of a particularly hideous bodily alteration:- “The human mind can come to accept even the most grievous change.” Then, “If every cell and every drop of blood … in your body had been replaced. Every memory. Would you know?”

The issues of proof reading which I noted in Sea of Ghosts were mostly absent here, thankfully. The first did not come till page 224 “He wondering” has a “was” missing, then (on page 225!) “When the reached the lamp.” Campbell does, though, make the common attribution of maw as mouth rather than stomach (which I suppose we’ll have to accept as the new orthodoxy as it appears as the first definition in and there is a single misuse of “whom”.

The author’s powers of description are as prodigious as ever but as the second in a (presumed) trilogy The Art of Hunting does have a slight sense of marking time. In particular it lacks a firm conclusion. But there has to be something to make readers wish for a third volume. More of the engaging character of, Siselo, Conquillas’s young daughter would be a good thing.

Fantasy is not really my thing, but Campbell can write.

The Book of the Night by Rhoda Lerman

Women’s Press, 1986, 269 p.

Book of the Night cover

A young girl, Celeste, disguised as a boy called CuRoi, is brought by her father to the monastic community on Iona to live her life as a monk. It is Celeste’s viewpoint that carries the novel’s main narrative but this is interspersed with occasional sections told by Generous, one of the monks. Both voices, though, to the syntactically archaic at times have a tendency.

The book also plays tricks with time. Part of the ancillary plot deals with the confrontation between Roman and Celtic Christianity in the 8th century but there are references to the First and Second World Wars, quantum foam, radio, a ferry named the Princess George and the Beatles.

It is not only time that is malleable. So too is matter. Partway through the novel Celeste turns into a cow. A talking, feeling cow, true, but still a cow, with horns, hoofs etc.

The text is also replete with word play. Dense, allusive passages such as, “Michael, Molchu, Mocc-el, Moloch, Melech, King of the Universe, Enoch, eunuch,” or, “an Irish sailor I am, Noe, of the great craft Argo. Noah, Jonah, Iona, I sail with the argot and puns of the Naught to the God Lug of the deluge,” are not uncommon. There is frequent reference to jumping over the moon, animals running away with spoons etc. Indeed Celeste’s last written words, in the book’s final epigram, are, “Hey, diddle diddle.”

But when, “Words collapse, sink, intensify, grow dense. Categories disintegrate. Language trembles. Words remain but the webs of their meanings drift away,” a reader has a devil of a job keeping up.

The idea behind the story, apparently derived from those of Ilya Prigogine (though his Wikipedia entry does not appear to provide support for it) is that matter itself is malleable. The novel’s preamble asserts that, “self-organisation ….. is a property of matter … as if matter has mind, as if the thrust of evolution is will.” In this context the changing of a girl into a cow would not be remarkable. It is doubtful, to me at least, if it is warranted. While it is true that an organism represents a decrease in entropy (at least locally) this is a long way from meaning that the process can be directed.

In this context (and notwithstanding the Women’s Press Science Fiction imprint) the transformation of Celeste into a cow seems to me to belong in the realm of Fantasy rather than Science Fiction.

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