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BSFA Awards for 2019

The BSFA has just published the short lists for the awards for works published in 2019.

As far as the fiction goes we have:-

Best Novel:

Juliet E McKenna – The Green Man’s Foe (Wizard’s Tower Press)
Emma Newman – Atlas Alone (Gollancz)
Gareth L Powell – Fleet of Knives (Titan Books)
Adrian Tchaikovsky – Children of Ruin (Tor)
Tade Thompson – The Rosewater Insurrection (Orbit)

Best Shorter Fiction:

Becky Chambers – To Be Taught, If Fortunate (Hodder & Stoughton)
Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone – This is How You Lose the Time War (Jo Fletcher Books)
Fiona Moore – Jolene (Interzone #283)
Gareth L Powell – Ragged Alice (Tor.com)
Tade Thompson – The Survival of Molly Southbourne (Tor.com)
Ian Whates – For Your Own Good (Wourism and Other Stories, Luna Press)

I have read none of the novels so far though Atlas Alone is on my tbr pile. The Tade Thompson is the second in a trilogy of which the first Rosewater is also on the pile. I’ll need to get round to that soon as I want to read it before The Rosewater Insurrection.

In the shorter works I reviewed This is How You Lose the Time War for Interzone 283 but not yet here. Jolene also appeared in that Interzone issue. My thoughts on it are here. I look forward to the arrival of the usual BSFA Awards booklet with all the shorter works (or extracts therefrom.)

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Picador, 2019, 359 p.

 Exhalation cover

Despite never having written a novel (well, he certainly hasn’t published one) Ted Chiang has made a huge reputation for himself in the SF world. This is his second collection (after Stories of Your Life and Others.) Many of the ones here are thought experiments, intriguing and impeccably worked out. All are very well written.
The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate take its form and inspiration from The Arabian Nights. The titular merchant is telling his tales (within his tale) to the Caliph of Baghdad. His encounter with a man calling himself an alchemist leads to his travelling through a Gate of Years – in essence a time machine resembling an MRI scanner in appearance. Constraints apply but paradoxes are excluded. Well told but the “Arabic” voice wavered a little.
Exhalation won the BSFA Award in 2009. Looking back at my comments all those years ago I find I was very harsh. In this reading it was more a brilliant allegorical evocation of entropy and relativity wherein a difference in air pressure rather than energy as such is the universe’s driving force.
What’s Expected of Us describes a device in which a light flashes one second before its activating button is pushed – no matter how much the operator tries to trick it – and the implications that fact has for free will. The premise here is very like an unpublished story of mine yet is on the other hand entirely different.
By far the longest story in the book, The Life Cycle of Software Objects, is almost beyond novella length and follows the development of digients, software simulations of animals designed to behave as glorified digital pets, taught to speak and grow, able to interact with humans and have their consciousnesses transferred to robot bodies in the real world.
Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny is the story of a mechanical device constructed in order to minimise the failures of human upbringing of children and its ramifications for three generations of the inventor’s family. It gives a nod to the legendary Thackery T Lambshead.
The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’s narrator contrasts the introduction of a new technology whereby memory is set to become outsourced to digitalisation (and possibly deleteriously divorced from emotion) with the impact writing had on a tribal, oral tradition.
The story The Great Silence is actually the text from an Art Installation (also called The Great Silence) for which Chiang was asked to provide a narrative but absolutely works as a standalone story. It concerns the Fermi Paradox and humans’ inability to understand other creatures. It’s narrated by a(n endangered) parrot.
On the Earth depicted in Omphalos, essentially ours but with subtle place name spelling changes, there is direct evidence – ancient wood lacking tree rings at its centre, navelless mummified human bodies, abalone shells without early growth layers – that God created the universe in its entirety a few thousand years ago. Our narrator is an archaeologist whose faith is disturbed by astronomical observations which appear to show a different planet from his, is at its centre.
Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom delves into the ramifications of using a device called a prism (Plaga interworld signalling mechanism) each of which enables communication with a parallel world which branched off at the exact moment it was activated.
Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a resumption of direct speech (x2,) “It’s been more thirty years since I read that” (… more than thirty years … .)

Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock

47 North, 2017, 219 p.

This was on the short list for the BSFA Award last year and subsequently won the Clarke Award.

 Dreams Before the Start of Time cover

It is, however, less of a novel than a series of vignettes featuring characters with some sort of relationship to each other but unfolding over a timescale of 83 years starting in 2034. The one big change to society involved in all this is the advent of technology to nurture human fœtuses outside the womb and to tweak the genetic composition of embryos for desired traits. The slow evolution of approved standards of child gestation into outright disapproval of the natural process – how can you be so uncaring of your child’s welfare as to carry it yourself? – is well served by the form of the narrative; it comes on us gradually, as the attitude would. The choice is not, however, so easy if you lack the resources to purchase the services and provides another stick with which to beat the poor, to go along with all the traditional ones.

As a Science Fictional thought experiment this is almost text book; consequences of a change thought out and demonstrated. I can see why it has garnered the acclaim it did. As a novel it’s less so, though, coming over as bitty and too pat. Moreover I wasn’t convinced by the implied background. Even in 2120 daily life in Dreams Before the Start of Time doesn’t appear to be very different from that in the early twenty-first century. Perhaps this appears so because most of the characters are well-to-do, or at least comfortably off. Charnock writes well, though. The book is never less than readable and in places surpasses that.

Pedant’s corner:- practiced (practised.)

2019 Clarke Award Shortlist

I see the short list for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award has been announced. I missed it at the time as I was away.

The list is:-

Semiosis by Sue Burke (HarperVoyager)
Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (Oneworld)
The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag (Simon & Schuster)
Rosewater by Tade Thompson (Orbit)
The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories)

I’ve read none of them but note the Tade Thompson was on the BSFA Award list this year (despite doubts as to its eligibility – which would apply equally to the Clarke Award I’d have thought.)

Also on both lists is the Yoon Ha Lee. Having read his Ninefox Gambit I have to say I’m depressed by this.

BSFA Awards for 2018

This year’s awards (for works published last year have been announced.)

Best Novel: Gareth L Powell for Embers of War

Best Shorter Fiction: Ian McDonald for Time Was

Best Non-Fiction: Aliette de Bodard for “On motherhood and erasure: people-shaped holes, hollow characters and the illusion of impossible adventures.”

Best Artwork: Likhain for “In the Vanishers’ Palace: Dragon I and II.”

The novel winner wasn’t my choice.

BSFA Awards Booklet 2018

BSFA, 2019, 104 p.

BSFA Award Booklet for 2018

It would appear from the nominations for shorter fiction appearing in this year’s booklet that the SF short story is dead. Barring the last in the booklet none of the shortlisted stories is printed in its entirety. The others are all extracts from longer pieces of fiction.
Nina Allan’s The Gift of Angels: an introduction1 is narrated by a Science Fiction writer, whose mother was the first person on Mars but whose fate remains unknown, and tells what appears to be his life story. The tale riffs on and critiques the films La Jetée and Twelve Monkeys. Allan has a beautiful writing touch. I did want to find the longer version to finish it. The story, though, refers to Harry Potter and Game of Thrones as famous. I doubt these will be quite such cultural touchstones in the fifty years or so time when this is set as they are now.
I read The Purpose of the Dodo is to be Extinct by Malcolm Devlin in Interzone 275, where it was first published. I reviewed the issue it appeared in here.
The Land of Somewhere Safe3 by Hal Duncan is one of the author’s Scruffians stories. Here we have a wonderfully linguistically inventive tale (Dunstravaigin Castle is a brilliant coinage) involving wartime evacuees to Skye and a Nazi spy.
The magnificent Time Was by Ian McDonald I reviewed here.
Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries Vol 4)5 by Martha Wells is narrated by a murder bot apparently lured to a planet by an organisation that has sequestered its boss. The story suffers from being told to us rather than shown and did not grab me in the slightest.
Phosphorus6 by Liz Williams is set on Mars and the planet Winterstrike. One of its viewpoint characters is dead. However, the extract is not really long enough to judge whether its balance is askew or not nor to evaluate the story properly.
Kingfisher7 by Marian Womack is set in a future where wildlife is all but vanished and human births a rarity yet libraries seem to abound. Our protagonist is saddled with a useless tool of a husband, an abiding sense of failure and a fascination with birds. There is a hint of a writerly sensibility lurking underneath the prose but the story is riddled with a ridiculous number of errata.

The non-fiction nominees section contains two of Nina Allan’s “Time Pieces”a columns from Interzone, ditto for Ruth E J Booth’s Shoreline of Infinity essays published as “Noise and Sparks”, Liz Bourke has five of her “Sleeps with Monsters”b columns for Tor.com, Aliette de Bodard writes “On Motherhood and Erasure”c from the blog “Intellectus Speculativus” and there is an extract from Adam Roberts’s “Publishing and the Science Fiction Canon: The Case of Scientific Romance”d.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“A sinister band of scientists prey off” (a band preys off,) “sprung up” (sprang up,) “the museum has replacedtheir stash” (its stash,) “a cetain child .. finds themselves” (a child finds itself.) 3puntied in (punted?) argylle socks (argyle,) liptick (lipstick seems intended but liptick may be one of Duncan’s neologisms.) 5GrayCris’ (GrayCris’s.) 6governess’ (governess’s,) mistress’ (mistress’s,) “The scatter of hovels erected at the tip of the Tail were the last to fall behind..” (The scatter … was the last.) 7 “each bar offered their personal take” (each bar offered its personal take,) statues becomes statue several lines later, “a prevalent Sun descended” (a prominent Sun?) “it was frightening how comforting was to fall back into” (how comforting it was to.) “The library would pay for my librarianship degree on the sole condition that I came back to work for them for three or four years” (to work for it, or, to work there,) “climbing up thopusands of miles up in the air” (one ‘up’ too many,) a ‘seem’ where ‘seemed’ fits the other tenses in the sentence, “and they would let themselves been touched” (be touched,) “Jonas was better at cooking at me” (than me,) “scribbled in old pieces of reclaimed paper” (scribbled on,) “in a strangely elaborated [dream]” (elaborate.) “I looked a Jonas” (at Jonas.) “I fell a moment of void” (I felt.) “I had never knew whsat to do with it” (I had never known, or, I never knew,) although there were not fluff” (although they were not fluff,) “but they seem to accumulate” (seemed,) “when I notice a stain” (noticed,) “too look inside” (to look,) “the dinning room” (dining room,) “what they where for” (were for.) “Whener I don’t remember what it means to be sad I took it out and look at those pages” (either ‘remembered’, and ‘looked’, or, ‘take’,) “minus zero” (that would be zero, then,) “magazines cut-outs” (magazine cut-outs,) “I had tided them up” (tidied,) “plastics bags” (plastic bags.) “They were not native to the local fauna” (‘They were not native’, or, ‘they were not local fauna’,) “so effectively they had contaminated the environment” (so effectively had they contaminated the environment.)
a“are startling out of step” (startlingly.) b“I’m going to look at take two books together” (either ‘look at’ or ‘take’ not both, automatons (automata,) “Neither of them resolve anything” (neither of them resolves anything,) “[X]’s .. pregnancy …. and her feelings … is central to the narrative” (there’s an ‘and’ in there; that makes for a plural verb subject, so, ‘are central’.) “The poets are most affect by” (affected by.) c“are littered with the death of mothers” (deaths.) d“is comic-satiric impossible voyage” (is a comic-satiric impossible voyage,) “triple-decker length SF form this era” (from, I think,) “the content of which were published” (was published.)

BSFA Awards Booklet 2019

BSFA Awards Booklet for 2019

This year’s booklet arrived this morning.

It contains all the short fiction and non-fiction nominees for the BSFA Awards for works published in 2018 and the artworks nominated for the relevant award.

On perusing it I found the closing date for electronic voting is today so I had a lot of reading to pack in this afternoon.

I have been expecting the booklet’s arrival since the turn of the month and was getting worried it would not be forthcoming in time.

Eastercon, which I will not be attending this year, where the final awards will be announced, is of course this Sunday coming.

BSFA Award Novel List

I’ve now read three of the short-listed novels for this year’s BSFA Award.

I can’t say I’ve been too struck on any of them.

Gareth L Powell’s Embers of War did not appear to be anything out of the ordinary.

My thoughts on Before Mars by Emma Newman are here.

Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Dawn was beautifully written but is the fourth in his Fractured Europe sequence and did not add substantially to the world(s) he has created.

I’ll not be reading the Yoon Ha Lee. I found his Nine Fox Gambit was not very good and put me off his fiction for life.

That leaves Tade Thompson’s Rosewater for which I probably don’t now have the time to resource or read. I gather also there is some doubt as to its eligibility as it was published on the Kindle in 2017 rather than 2018.

My reading of the short fiction has not progressed since the short list was announced (see first link in this post.) The usual BSFA booklet containing the stories has not yet arrived. I live in hope. In any case I doubt anything else will be better than Ian McDonald’s Time Was.

Before Mars by Emma Newman

Gollancz, 2018, 345 p.

This is the second of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel that I have read.

 Before Mars cover

Anna Kubrin, child of free-thinking parents, is woken from the mersive (a recording of a memory played on a chip internal to the brain and that manifests as all but real) she’s been accessing towards the end of her trip from Earth to Mars. She’s been engaged by GaborCorp as a geologist but her primary task is to produce paintings of the Red Planet for the Corp’s chief, Stefan Gabor. She experiences the usual disorientation those reaching Mars undergo but seems to recover quickly.

What, though, is she to make of the note – clearly painted by herself – that she finds down the back of the bed in her quarters, warning her to beware station psychiatrist Arnolfi, or the fact that her wedding ring now has no engraving on it, the strange but familiar attraction she immediately feels to fellow base member Dr Elvan, and the lack of response to her comments in messages home – not to mention the human footprint she finds beside a Martian crater that is supposedly unexplored?

Is this immersion psychosis? Paranoia? Or a sign of something deeply wrong at the base?

Anna’s confusion is heightened by her ongoing guilt at the fact she didn’t feel the connection to her child, Mia, that is accepted as the societal norm and by fearing she has inherited the madness of her father whose actions almost killed Anna’s mother many years ago.

Through Anna’s use of mersives, and other snippets of information dumping, we find the book is set in a post-democracy era that nevertheless doesn’t seem to have got beyond the profit motive since it is ruled by gov-corps (some benefiting from the use of indentured labour) and where ordinary people struggle for access to good housing.

The implanted chips all but compulsory for employees in this world – and certainly so for those on the Mars base – enable communication with the base’s operating AI, verbally, visually or via virtual keyboard and can act as a kind of internal mobile phone for non-verbal information transfer with others. These future humans also have retinal cameras which enable the recordings from which mersives are made.

Newman’s invented expletive – JeeMuh – strikes a jarring note, possibly as it seems to lack an origin. This chimes with the tantalisingly opaque nature of the novel’s background. Events which were clearly important and have consequences for the characters are alluded to or referenced but not entirely explained. This is apparently the third in a series of books of which I have not read the previous two and so these things may be more obvious to those who have. Before Mars does stand alone, though, and can be read with no difficulty.

On this evidence Newman is capable enough as a writer but can tend to the long-winded and repetitious. Award-worthy, though? I’ll reserve judgement on that.

Pedant’s corner:- Despite the narrator (and author) being from Britain – albeit a future Britain – we have many USian usages and spellings – though we have one ‘arse’ used to mean ‘bollocks.’ “‘I’m at high risk for that’” (high risk of that,) black currant (blackcurrant,) “for all intents and purposes” (the phrase is ‘to all intents and purposes’,) commas missing before quotations and sometimes, but not consistently, at their ends, “the latter only in Charlie’s case” (syntactically that would be better as ‘only the latter in Charlie’s case’,) “that I’d strived for” (striven, please.) “‘There are a handful’” (there is a handful,) “obligated to” (obliged to,) “‘I wrack my brain’” (rack my brain, wrack is a seaweed,) “none of the remaining dots correspond with the location of the mast” (none …. corresponds,) epicenter (it was a centre, not an epicentre,) “‘the images from one of the drones was missing’” (okay, it was in dialogue but it should still be “were missing”,) “lay of the land” (again, in dialogue, but it’s “lie of the land”.) “‘None of you are permitted to be here’” (again in dialogue, but by an AI. You’d think they’d programme them with correct grammar, wouldn’t you? “None of you is permitted to be here.”)

Embers of War by Gareth L Powell

Titan Books, 2018, 407 p.

This is the first of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel that I have read.

 Embers of War cover

Apart from the prologue, a somewhat ropily written account of the destruction of an entire ecosphere – an act which depending on point of view either brought the war between the Conglomeration and the Outward to a swift end, thus saving lives, or else was an unforgivable crime – this novel is told in first person chapters narrated from various viewpoints, three human, one spaceship AI and that of a peculiar alien creature with many legs whose feet act both as hands and faces and is the spaceship’s engineer/general dogsbody but nevertheless gets the last word, plus a single one-page chapter narrated by an ancient armada of spaceships.

Captain Sal Konstanz was present at that planet destroying act of war but since then has been dedicated to the peaceful House of Reclamation, an organistion set up to rescue survivors from space disasters or acts of piracy. Ona Sudak is a poet with a secret, a passenger on the stricken ship Geest van Amsterdam, Anton Childe a Conglomeration agent gun-running on a backwater planet till his bosses tell him to find Sendak, Trouble Dog is Konstanz’s ship’s AI, once dedicated to war but whose conscience made it too join the House of Reclamation, Nod is the alien, much given to rumination and philosophising.

A lot of this is the usual space opera stuff, various factions clashing, assorted interpersonal conflicts, a somewhat clichéd martinet General (shouldn’t that be Admiral if he commands a fleet?) and his milquetoast son, the exporation of a big dumb object (though this one has the internal characteristics of a TARDIS.)

OK, Embers of War is set in the aftermath of a war rather than its waging or genesis but I don’t see much to mark it out from the ordinary run of military SF/space opera. There must be better SF novels published in 2018 out there.

Pedant’s corner:- The Conglomeration is usually given a plural noun (I would use the singular for a collective entity,) cannons (the military plural is cannon,) “more than handful” (than a handful,) “few ships … had flown without numbering at least one member” – of the Druff – “among their crew” (among their crews,) “a hoarse voice shrieked itself into a crescendo of ragged, agonised silence” (Powell possibly meant climax rather than crescendo. In any case a crescendo builds, and not into silence, which in turn can only be silence, and therefore not ragged,) “this accommodation on the behalf of these ancient monuments (on the part of these ancient monuments,) “wheeling around each one like mosquitoes wheeling around a ship’s lantern” (two uses of “wheeling around” in the space of eight words?) “all of them coming and going from the doorways in th ziggurat like buses comng and gpoing from a central bus terminal” (two uses of “coming and going” in the space of fourteen words,) maw (a maw is not a mouth,) degrees centigrade (it’s degrees Celsius,) “a pack of four Carnivores were inbound from Cold Tor” (a pack was inbound,) staunch (stanch,) immoveable (immovable,) barbeque (barbecue.)

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