Archives » Science Fiction

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 tor.com 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.

Satellite 4 (Eastercon)

This year’s Eastercon – the annual British Science Fiction Convention – is being held under the name Satellite 4 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Glasgow from 18th to 21st April.

It’s a while since the event has been in Scotland so I’ve not attended for a few years. I’ll be going this year though.

In fact I’m even going to be on two panels. My schedule is below.

Eastercon is a great way to meet people whom you haven’t seen since last the last Eastercon you graced with your presence, and others you’ve not met before. It has always served to enthuse me about SF again.

Good practice in editing and reviewing
Sunday 18:00 – 19:00

Has steampunk gone off the boil?
Monday 13:00 – 14:00

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.

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

Gollancz, 2013, 419 p.

My fourth BSFA Award book out of this year’s five. Aren’t libraries wonderful? The Adjacent is also on the Clarke Award list.

Over the course of the last two decades or more Christopher Priest has been exploring various themes to do with the nature of illusion and reality. Recurring preoccupations have been photographers, doppelgängers, the Second World War, stage magic, the strange world of the Dream Archipelago. He returns to all of these in The Adjacent.

In the mid twenty-first century, photographer Tibor Tarent’s wife Melanie has disappeared from the field hospital in Anatolia where she was working and to where he had accompanied her in a misguided attempt to stop their marriage crumbling. She is presumed dead. He returns to what, from the descriptions of women’s clothing, the habitual greetings of its inhabitants and its designation as part of a Kalifate, is presumably the Islamic Republic of Great Britain but is only ever referred to as the IRGB. (The provenance of this political entity is never satisfactorily explained. It seems somewhat gratuitous, the novel would work as well without it.) A strange new weapon whose deployment is accompanied by a bright light is making whole areas disappear, flattened, leaving only a triangular crater. London has been badly hit. It was an event like this in which Melanie disappeared.

Tommy Trent is a stage magician drafted in by the Royal Naval Air Service to help make their aeroplanes “invisible” during the Great War. On his way to France he meets one Herbert George Wells. What this section contributes to the overall picture beyond allowing considerations of the craft of stage magic – distraction, misdirection, hiding in plain sight and so on – is moot. It could, of course, be a distraction itself.

The progenitor of the Perturbative Adjacency Field, Thijs Rietveld, is interviewed at his home. Almost incidentally a Tibor Tarent is the photographer for this project. Rietveld seems to be able to make a conch shell appear and disappear at will. He explains the effects of a perturbative adjacency field to the reporter.

Michael Torrance, an aircraftman at a Second World War bomber base in Lincolnshire, meets a Polish woman member of the Air Transport Auxiliary who relates her life history up to the point where she had to leave Poland due to the German invasion.

On the Dream Archipelago island of Prachous there is a camp city called Adjacent which no-one is supposed to know about or visit. Tomak Tarrant journeys through this with an emigmatic woman known as The Spreader of the Word. Also on Prachous, Thom the Thaumaturge finds a young female assistant for his stage act. This helps him to secure a week of performances at ‘The Grand Aviator Palace.’

Nothing in this book is as it appears. Similar events occur to, similar things are said by, different people in different times and different places. Characters are mistaken for other people. What at first seem to be the same events as seen from different perspectives turn out differently, names are subtly altered, transitions from location to location can occur at times without a mechanism while at others there is one. Not a straightforward read then.

Everything here is all very accomplished and worked out. Priest undeniably writes like a dream. But.

Is it all just smoke and mirrors?

There are two ways of looking at this. One is to say that this is a writer at the height of his powers demonstrating the arbitrariness and unknowability of the world. Another is to question if this is the spectacle of an author writing his cake and eating it. In particular, the drawing in of the Dream Archipelago to The Adjacent, as if in an attempt to bring all of Priest’s recent fiction into a linked whole, may have been a misstep. The Archipelago is certainly a reflection of our world and therefore illuminates it, but it is also distanced from it. The connection with it that Priest establishes here renders it somehow more prosaic.

Priest is, though, an author of considerable gifts and insight, not to mention a searching intelligence. He is entitled to the benefit of any doubt.

All writing is the creation of illusions. As readers we like to think we can penetrate the mist in which they are wrapped. The Adjacent suggests that mist might be all there is.

Pedant’s corner:-
Span count 1 – though there was a spun on the same page – and signs of catering to the US market (fit for fitted, Kalifate for Caliphate.)

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.

Clarke Award 2014

The list for this year’s Clarke Award is:-

God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Del Rey)

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)

The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann (Gollancz)

Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)

The Machine by James Smythe (Blue Door)

Unusually (I think) I’ve read – or nearly finished – three of these; the same three that appear on the BSFA Award ballot. I’ve linked to my reviews of two of them. I’ll be publishing a review of The Adjacent soon.

Murder by the Book by Eric Brown

Crème de la Crime, 2013, 218 p.

After a myriad of SF books and stories this is the author’s first foray into straight detective fiction. I don’t read very much in the crime genre but this one worked for me. Partly that was the result of the old-fashioned, and welcome, feel of the story, which can be read as an homage to the golden age of detective fiction.

We are in the 1950s. Donald Langham is a writer of detective stories with a good relationship with his patrician agent, the florid of speech Charles Elder, and an unstated affection for Elder’s more than competent secretary Maria Dupré, the daughter of a French diplomat. The murders of the title have started before the narrative does but we do not learn this till later. The first crime we read about is the blackmailing of Elder for gross indecency with a rent boy. Before he settled down to writing Langham had previous experience of detecting so he offers to investigate and find the blackmailer. Things do not go easily and it is not long before Maria has to make a contribution to the endeavour. Meanwhile it emerges that writers of detective stories are dying or being murdered in ways that nag at Langham’s mind. The plot bowls along, with plenty twists and turns and the narrative incorporates both the camaraderie and the resentments of crime writers.

Keen observers of Brown’s previous works will notice certain resonances in the text, especially in the nascent and building relationship between Langham and Maria, which at times has more than a feel of Brown’s “Starship Seasons” quartet of novellas, among others.

In an article in the Guardian Review on Saturday 8th March John Banville identified an “unacknowledged but vital ingredient of a really satisfying whodunnit: cosiness.” In setting his book in the 1950s Brown has caught that cosiness perfectly. It is, after all, the function of the detective story to set the world to rights.

There is at least one more Langham and Dupré novel to come. I’m looking forward to it.

Evening’s Empires by Paul McAuley

Gollancz, 2013, 375 p.

Another BSFA Award ballot book. I didn’t have to go far to find this one. I managed to pick up from one of my local libraries.

Gajananvihari Pilot is part of a family which operates as space salvagers in the decades after an event precipitated by Sri Hong-Owen and known as the Bright Moment. One day their ship, a Mobius ring called Pabuji’s Gift, is hijacked by pirates. Hari escapes with the head of Dr Gagarian, which is supposed to contain files relating to the work he and Aakash, Hari’s father, had been doing to try to understand and replicate the physics of the Bright Moment. The plot revolves around Hari’s search to seek out those responsible for the hijack and to revenge himself on them.

Like the two other books of McAuley’s Quiet War sequence which I have read there is a lot of attention paid to his history of the future. Again, though, the characters seem almost incidental.

The book is riddled with references to SF works of the past including the titles of each of the six sections which make up the novel. This homage may explain its appearance on the BSFA Award ballot.

New Review

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August cover

My next book review for Interzone will be The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North.

The accompanying blurb for this (and the link above) states, “Claire North is a pseudonym for an acclaimed British author who has previously published several novels. This book is completely different from any of them.”

Hmmm.

I’ve got a BSFA Award nominee to read before that, though. Busy, busy.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2013, 386 p.

I bought this since I suspected it might be on the BSFA Award ballot: and it is. (Only three of this year’s nominees still to read now.)

Breq is a fragment of an Artificial Intelligence, the spaceship Justice of Torren, of which she was once an ancillary of the ship’s Esk level. Ancillaries are bodies captured by the Radchaai in their territorial expansions, implanted with augmentations and enslaved to a ship’s consciousness as military units, in companies named decades, which are themselves subsidiaries of hundreds. (An organisational parallel with Roman armies is obvious.) The book deals with the prelude to and aftermath of Breq’s (or Justice of Torren one Esk’s) sudden isolation from her hundred and ship. She goes on a self-imposed mission to seek out a weapon invisible to Radch technology and then use it against the Lord of the Radch. For most of the book Breq’s story is related in alternating chapters describing respectively the search and the events which led up to her separation from Justice of Torren. Once the two strands unite the narrative is straightforwardly linear. Leckie’s depiction of the multiple consciousness Breq inhabits before her severance is effective but authorially she seemed more at ease when the necessity to deal with it was removed.

One curiosity is that, despite some early asides on problems with languages in which gender assignation is important – and the same person is referred to as he or she at different points – all the characters in Ancillary Justice seem to be female, or at least they read as though they are. This is refreshing even though the usual actions, betrayals etc with which Breq deals are perhaps no different from stories featuring male characters – and it doesn’t affect the tale one whit.

Included at the rear were “Extras” – an “about the author,” an interview with her and a totally unnecessary extract from a book by someone else entirely. Here we find that further stories in this universe are to be forthcoming. I found myself curiously disappointed with this as, while there are unresolved elements, it did not strike me that further exploration of the scenario would be as intriguing as this book is.

Ancillary Justice is the better of the two candidate novels for this year’s BSFA Award I have read up to now. By far.

Pedant’s corner: we had publically for publicly, gasses for gases and a character saying, “one point eleven meters.” It was not the USianism of that meters which grated – there were USianisms throughout despite the British publication imprint. You might as well pronounce the number 231156 as twenty-three eleven fifty-six – which would be all but meaningless. The number 1.11 ought to be transliterated as one point one one. Eleven is a number larger than one: by definition numbers after a decimal point are smaller than one. No number after a decimal point should be described other than by its successive single digits. A writer of SF ought to know such things.

free hit counter script