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Clarke Award Shortlist

Last year it was Chris Priest who incited controversy over the Clarke Award, this year it seems to be the judges themselves – for not including a book by a woman on their shortlist.

The contending books are:-

Nod by Adrian Barnes (Bluemoose)
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)*
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann)
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Headline)
Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (Orbit)*
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)*

I’ve read the last two of these and Dark Eden is on the TBR pile.

The overlap with this year’s BSFA Awards novel short list is strong (asterisked titles) but only 2312 is also up for the Hugo.

I’m a bit surprised that M John Harrison’s Empty Space didn’t make the list, it’s the sort of book that Clarke Award juries tend to like.

BSFA Awards 2012

The BSFA Award shortlist for stories published in 2012 has been announced.

For best novel we have:-

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)

Empty Space: a Haunting by M. John Harrison (Gollancz)

Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (Orbit)

Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit.)

Unusually I have read three out of the five already, two of those courtesy of Interzone and its kind reviews editor. Thank you, Jim.

My views on 2312 I posted on this blog only two days ago. Those on Empty Space will be forthcoming.

Intrusion I reviewed here.

As for the short stories I have read only one of them so far, the last on this list; and very good it was too.

Three others, though, are available to read on the net. Doubtless the BSFA will be producing its usual booklet.

Immersion by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld no. 69)

The Flight of the Ravens by Chris Butler (Immersion Press)

Song of the body Cartographer by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Phillipines Genre Stories)

Limited Edition by Tim Maughan (1.3, Arc Magazine)

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville (Rejectamentalist Manifesto)

Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books)

BSFA Awards

I’ve now read four of the five short-listed novels – the first time I’ve ever managed such a feat before the vote. While it is so much easier to find books in these internet days I did make a conscious effort this time. My reviews of these five are in the previous post plus here, here and here. It’s probably the one I’ve missed (Zoo City by Lauren Beukes) that will win now.

The nominations for Best Art are to my mind profoundly uninspiring except perhaps the spaceship by Andy Bigwood on the cover of Conflicts.

As to the short stories: the BSFA booklet has been devoured and here are my thoughts.

Flying In The Face Of God by Nina Allan.

The Kushnev drain is a(n unexplained) treatment that allows deep space expeditions to be undertaken more easily. Viewpoint character Anita, a film-maker whose mother was murdered in an anti-space-exploration terrorist attack when she was months old, is in love with Rachel, a recipient of the Kushnev drain who is about to set off into space. Rachel’s boyfriend, Serge, has moved on already.

The Science Fiction in this story is peripheral, being only the mentions of the Kushnev drain and space travel. Apart from that it’s … well, nothing much really.

At the level of the writing, an apparent change of viewpoint character in paragraph 1 (and 2) brought me to a shuddering stop in paragraph 3. Throughout, there is a high degree of info dumping. Tenses within the flashbacks are not precise enough making keeping track of things difficult. Anita’s grandmother features for no good plot reason that I could see. None of the characters displays much psychological depth.

As a result I found this story to be a bit incoherent. And nothing happens.

The Shipmaker by Aliette De Bodard

In a Chinese dominated future culture the shipmaker of the title is in charge of designing a spaceship – on principles that appear to relate to or derive from feng shui. The ship is to be piloted by a flesh and electronic hybrid Mind, gestated in the womb of a volunteer, the mechanics of which process are not laid out. The birth-mother turns up early and throws the delicately balanced design process into confusion. The culture is sketched efficiently and the characters’ problems are believable enough.

This is a proper story with forward movement and motivated characters but with an ending that is perhaps too glib.

The Things by Peter Watts

This story is told from the point of view of an alien, who has always heretofore been able to meld with and assimilate to other lifeforms, and is capable of warding off entropy. The creature’s offshoots have survived a crash and are trying to come to communion with the human members of an Antarctic expedition who come to realise its presence and resist it. Its gradual understanding of the singular nature of human existence, that we have brains – which it regards as a form of cancer – that we die; is well handled.

Again, this is a story, but due to its nature the humans it depicts are never more than names. The alien, however, is as real as you could wish. The last sentence is a little intense, though, not to say unsavoury.

Arrhythmia by Neil Williamson

In a Britain which is reminiscent of the early- to mid-20th century with concomitant working practices and social attitudes yet still has room for Top Of The Pops, Steve whiles away his days at the factory and yearns for the company of Sandra, who is sometimes assigned to work alongside him.

The factory runs to the tune of the Governor. Literally. The assembly line moves in time with piped music – as if Music While You Work was a control mechanism. In fact so suffused with music is this story it even begins with an anacrusis.

The key event is when Sandra gives Steve a copy of a vinyl single by the singer Arrythmia, whose iconoclastic attitude encourages rebelliousness.

As I almost said in my review of the anthology it came from, Music For Another World, this story could perhaps have been titled 1984: The Musical. Arrythmia doesn’t suffer too much by that comparison.

BSFA Mailing

The latest BSFA mailing dropped onto my doormat today.

As well as the usual review magazine, Vector, which (unusually, since I’m normally slow at catching up with the latest thing) contains reviews of three books I’ve already read – Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief which I reviewed for Interzone, Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game and Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House – the envelope also spilled forth the A4 magazine of those short stories on the ballot for the BSFA Awards for 2010 and an A5 booklet published as a memorial to Robert Holdstock.

Apart from the book reviews this edition of Vector is a special Stephen Baxter issue.

Much of my reading for March is now more or less scheduled. As well as the short stories mentioned above, I have one more of the five novels shortlisted in the BSFA Award novel category in my to be read pile. I’ve just finished Paolo Bagicalupi’s The Windup Girl – review to come. For my thoughts on Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game and Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House see previous posts. Tricia Sullivan’s Lightborn awaits. Only Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City will escape my attention.

In addition Interzone has sent me Dominic Green’s Smallworld to review by the end of March. Busy, busy.

The Restoration Game by Ken Macleod

Orbit, 2010. 303 p.

MacLeod’s last novel had, as well as the usual SF, elements of the police procedural to it, not to mention a setting which featured Edinburgh heavily. In this book he mixes SF with the espionage thriller and makes an excellent fist of the spy novel aspect. Is he thinking of moving away from the genre?

In the one time Caucasian Autonomous Region of Krassnia, one of those strange enclaves of the former Soviet Union where ethnic strife both within it and with its neighbours was just waiting to break out when that state disintegrated, there is a mountain which hides a secret. A secret which when filmed in 1952 put the fear of God into Stalin and Beria. Krassnia has for centuries been divided between its habitual rulers the Vrai and the underling Krassnars. The mountain is said to hold the secret of the red-haired Vrai and bad things happen to ordinary Krassnars who venture there. (I pondered the significance of vrai being the French word for true but couldn’t work out if there was any.)

Despite her being a US citizen currently living in Edinburgh – again a welcome setting for part of a MacLeod novel – Luciane Stone’s family has been tangled up in Krassnian affairs (the word is apposite) for four generations; indeed she was born and schooled there. In her job with an Edinburgh computer game company she has incorporated almost all the Krassnian folklore that she learned at her mother’s knee into their latest project “Dark Britannia.” Cue much speculation regarding simulations and simulacra. Another game project in hand is of a timeline where the Spartacus revolt in ancient Rome was not crushed. As a consequence Rome did not fall in the fifth century and the industrial revolution occurred much earlier than in Lucy’s world. The Romans reach Mars.

When the call comes from her mother to produce a version of “Dark Britannia” specifically aimed at the Krassnian market Lucy becomes embroiled in all the shenanigans you might expect in a spy/thriller story. As this scenario demands, Lucy does of course ascend the mountain, where she encounters a strangeness illuminating the nature of reality.

While fizzing with speculation, The Restoration Game blends the SF and spy elements a little awkwardly, with the more down to earth sequences fully realised and the fantastical standing somewhat aloof from them – at times appearing almost as an add-on. Nevertheless MacLeod’s prose enables the book to speed by. It is a page turner.

My reservations about the central tenet of the main SF element constitute a spoiler. Do not read on if you wish to avoid this. Get yourself the book instead. It’s a very entertaining read.

SPOILER
SPOILER

SPOILER

The SF element of The Restoration Game turns on the Earth of Lucy Stone, our Earth, being a simulation, run by Synthetic Psyches in a universe in which the Romans did reach Mars.

While this is an acceptable speculation and characters in such a simulation would “feel” (or experience, if you will) in a similar way to “real” people and would not be able to tell the difference – unless subject to the sort of evidence that The Restoration Game postulates – it is dangerously close to being “all a dream.” In dreams, of course, logic and internal consistency are not necessarily strong suits and a story set within one can be rendered meaningless.

Now, MacLeod’s simulated world definitely does not lack logic nor internal consistency but there is a wider sense that if the characters we read about are merely (merely?) simulations why should we care about them?

This is a philosophical conundrum for any reader of fiction, however, since all fictional characters are, by definition, not real. Even those based on historical or actual people are not real in the sense that a living breathing human is.

In this regard, though, to make characters within a work of fiction actual simulations is possibly a step too far. Even if we inhabit the same simulation ourselves.

SFX Book Club List

Over on Ken MacLeod’s blog he recently posted he’d had an acceptance from the SFX Book Club (whose selections of classics are here) for his review of James Blish’s Cities In Flight.

Of their 49 (+ 1) listed SF and fantasy books the ones in bold I’ve read. The italicised one I’ve read as the short story on which it was based. The asterisked one is in my tbr pile. The ones with question marks I may have read years ago but the mists of time have descended. # means I’ve read other works (most likely short stories) within the same setting.

1. The War Of The Worlds by HG Wells
2. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury ?
3. Ringworld by Larry Niven
4. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
5. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller
6. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
7. Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey #
8. Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C Clarke
9. The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
10. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
11. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner ?
12. Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison
13. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin
14. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick
15. The Player of Games by Iain Banks
16. Pavane by Keith Roberts
17. Neuromancer by William Gibson
18. Collected Ghost Stories of MR James
19. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
20. A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
21. Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
22. Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle
23. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein ?
24. Blood Music by Greg Bear
25. Non Stop by Brian Aldiss
26. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift ?
27. Dune by Frank Herbert
28. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
29. A Case of Conscience by James Blish
30. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
31. Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
32. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
33. The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R Delany
34. The Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham
35. Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
36. Vurt by Jeff Noon
37. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
38. The City And The Stars by Arthur C Clarke
39. Strata by Terry Pratchett
40. The Centauri Device by M John Harrison
41. Earth Abides by George R Stewart*
42. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
43. The Death of Grass by John Christopher
44. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
45. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
46. From The Earth To The Moon by Jules Verne ?
47. Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice
48. Life During Wartime by Lucius Shepard
49. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
50. Cities In Flight by James Blish

Small Nuclear War? No Problem!

The launch for Ken Macleod’s new novel (not actually on sale till July) went well.

As well as Ken, Charles Stross and Andrew J Wilson gave readings and there was then a question and answer session for the three panellists.

The subjects discussed were what do you think might go wrong next (ie what disasters/problems might be coming soon) and, interestingly, what will go right?

The demise of newspapers and the subsequent loss of democratic oversight of government, enhanced rubbishing of science and the possibility of a new virus all entered the first category.

Reasons to be cheerful?

War kills fewer people as a percentage of the world population now than in any previous century and affluence is likely to increase. (Abject poverty is at its lowest percentage ever.)

This was the section where Ken raised the biggest laugh of the night when he opined (I paraphrase) that, all things considered, in the bigger scheme of things a few small nuclear wars wouldn’t be all that much to be bothered about.

Book Launch Event

The launch of Ken MacLeod’s new novel The Restoration Game will take place on Wed 17/3/10 at The Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh. I’m hoping to make it but may arrive late as the event is starting at 7 pm.

This has apparently been booked for some time but due to a shift in its schedule the book itself will not be published till July, I think; but Ken will be reading from it on the night. A few other Edinburgh SF luminaries will also appear.

Consider Phlebas: Towards A Scottish Science Fiction

Throughout the 1950s, the early 1960s, through the late 60s efflorescence of the New Wave and into the 1970s and 80s a stream of English authors came to prominence in the SF field and had novels published in Britain. To my mind there was a clear distinction in the type of books all these authors were producing compared to those emanating from across the Atlantic and that certain characteristics distinguished the work emanating from either of these publication areas. While Bob Shaw was a notable Northern Irish proponent of the form during this period and Christopher Evans flew the flag for Wales from 1980 something kept nagging at me as I felt the compulsion to begin writing. Where, in all of this, were the Scottish writers of SF? And would Scottish authors produce a different kind of SF again?

Until Iain M Banks’s Consider Phlebas, 1987, contemporary Science Fiction by a Scottish author was so scarce as to be invisible. It sometimes seemed that none was being published. As far as Scottish contribution to the field went in this period only Chris Boyce, who was joint winner of a Sunday Times SF competition and released a couple of SF novels on the back of that achievement, Angus McAllister, who produced the misunderstood The Krugg Syndrome and the excellent but not SF The Canongate Strangler plus the much underrated Graham Dunstan Martin offered any profile at all but none of them could be described as prominent. And their works tended to be overlooked by the wider SF world.

There was, certainly, the success of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark in 1981 but that novel was more firmly in the Scottish tradition of fantasy and/or the supernatural rather than SF (cf David Lindsay’s A Voyage To Arcturus, 1920) and was in any case so much of a tour de force that it hardly seemed possible to emulate it; or even touch its foothills.

David Pringle noted the dearth of Scottish SF writers in his introduction to the anthology Nova Scotia where he argued that the seeming absence of Scottish SF authors was effectively an illusion. They were being published, only not in the UK. They (or their parents) had all emigrated to America. Though he has since partly resiled on that argument, it does of course invite the question. Why did this not happen to English SF writers?

It was in this relatively unpromising scenario that I conceived the utterly bizarre notion of writing not just Science Fiction but Scottish Science Fiction and in particular started to construct an SF novel that could only have been written by a Scot. Other novels may have been set in Scotland or displayed Scottish sensibilities but as far as I know I’m the only person who deliberately set out to write a novel of Scottish SF.

It could of course simply be that there was so little SF from Scotland being published because hardly anyone Scottish was writing SF or submitting it to publishers. But there were undoubtedly aspirants; to which this lack of role models might have been an off-putting factor. I myself was dubious about submitting to English publishers as they might not be wholly in tune with SF written from a Scottish perspective. I also thought Scottish publishers, apparently absorbed with urban grittiness, would look on it askance. I may have been completely wrong in these assumptions but I think them understandable given the circumstances. There is still no Scottish publisher of speculative fiction.

With Iain M Banks and Consider Phlebas the game changed. Suddenly there was a high profile Scottish SF writer; suddenly the barrier was not so daunting. And Phlebas was Space Opera, the sort of thing I was used to reading in American SF, albeit Banks had a take on it far removed from right wing puffery of the sort most Americans produced. Phlebas was also distant from most English SF – a significant proportion of which was seemingly fixated with either J G Ballard or Michael Moorcock or else communing with nature, and in general seemed reluctant to cleave the paper light years. Moreover, Banks sold SF books by the bucketload.

There was, though, the caveat that he had been published in the mainstream first and was something of a succès de scandale. (Or hype – they can both work.)

[There is, by the way, an argument to be had that all of Banks’s fiction could be classified as genre: whether the genre be SF, thriller, in the Scottish sentimental tradition, or even all three at once. It is also arguable that Banks made Space Opera viable once more for any British SF writer. Stephen Baxter’s, Peter Hamilton’s and Alastair Reynolds’s novel debuts post-date 1987.]

As luck would have it the inestimable David Garnett soon began to make encouraging noises about the short stories I was sending him, hoping to get into, at first Zenith, and then New Worlds.

I finally fully clicked with him when I sent The Face Of The Waters, whose manuscript he red-penned everywhere. By doing that, though, he nevertheless turned me into a writer overnight and the much longer rewrite was immeasurably improved. (He didn’t need to sound quite so surprised that I’d made a good job of it, though.)

That one was straightforward SF which could have been written by anyone. Next, though, he accepted This Is The Road (even if he asked me to change its title rather than use the one I had chosen) which was thematically Scottish. I also managed to sneak Closing Time into the pages of the David Pringle edited Interzone – after the most grudging acceptance letter I’ve ever had. That one was set in Glasgow though the location was not germane to the plot. The idea was to alternate Scottish SF stories with ones not so specific but that soon petered out.

The novel I had embarked on was of course A Son Of The Rock and it was David Garnett who put me in touch with Orbit. On the basis of the first half of it they showed interest.

Six months on, at the first Glasgow Worldcon,* 1995, Ken MacLeod’s Star Fraction appeared. Another Scottish SF writer. More Space Opera with a non right wing slant. A month or so later I finally finished A Son Of The Rock, sent it off and crossed my fingers. It was published eighteen months afterwards.

I think I succeeded in my aim. The Northern Irish author Ian McDonald (whose first novel Desolation Road appeared in 1988) in any case blurbed it as “a rara avis, a truly Scottish SF novel” and there is a sense in which A Son Of The Rock was actually a State Of Scotland novel disguised as SF.

Unfortunately the editor who accepted it (a man who, while English, bears the impeccably Scottish sounding name of Colin Murray) moved on and his successor wasn’t so sympathetic to my next effort – even if Who Changes Not isn’t Scottish SF in the same uncompromising way. It is only Scottish obliquely.

So; is there now a distinctive beast that can be described as Scottish Science Fiction? With the recent emergence of a wheen of Scottish writers in the speculative field there may at last be a critical mass which allows a judgement.

Banks’s Culture novels can be seen as set in a socialist utopia. Ken MacLeod has explicitly explored left wing perspectives in his SF and, moreover, used Scotland as a setting. Hal Duncan has encompassed – even transcended – all the genres of the fantastic in the two volumes of The Book Of All Hours, Alan Campbell constructed a dark fantastical nightmare of a world in The Deepgate Codex books. Gary Gibson says he writes fiction pure and simple and admits of no national characteristics to his work – but it is Space Opera – while Mike Cobley is no Scot Nat (even if The Seeds Of Earth does have “Scots in Spa-a-a-ce.”)

My answer?

Probably not, even though putative practitioners are more numerous now – especially if we include fantasy. For these are separate writers doing their separate things. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether they have over-arching themes or are in any way comparable.

PS. Curiously, on the Fantastic Fiction website, Stephen Baxter, Peter Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds are flagged as British – as are Bob Shaw, Ian McDonald, Christopher Evans and Mike Cobley – while all the other Scottish authors I’ve mentioned are labelled “Scotland.” I don’t know what this information is trying to tell us.

*For anyone who hasn’t met the term, Science Fiction Conventions are known colloquially as Cons. There are loads of these every year, most pretty small and some quite specialised. The Worldcon is the most important, an annual SF convention with attendees from all over the globe. It’s usually held in the US but has been in Britain thrice (Glasgow 2, Brighton 1) and once in Japan, to my knowledge. The big annual British SF convention is known as Eastercon because it takes place over the Easter weekend.

Edited to add (6/6/2014):- Margaret Elphinstone should be added to the list above of Scottish authors of SF. Her first SF book The Incomer appeared from the Womens’ Press in 1987, the same year as Consider Phlebas, but I missed out on it then. My review is here.
See also my Scottish SF update.

Edited again to add (4/4/18) Elphinstone’s sequel to The Incomer is A Sparrow’s Flight which I reviewed here.

The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 2009, 368p

With The Night Sessions Ken MacLeod strides firmly onto SF detective territory and adds his own unique twist. Following on from The Execution Channel (to which it is not a sequel) it is the second of Ken Macleod’s forays into near (well, nearish) future thrillerdom and features acts of terrorism and the police efforts to solve them. It could also be firmly described as Scottish SF as it is set almost wholly in Scotland.

[Aside: Even since before I started this blog I have been pondering writing a piece about Scottish SF. With this book as a spur I may inflict it on you soon.]

There are excursions into New Zealand, though, while solettas – which reduce global warming by directly screening the sun – and a couple of space elevators provide Science Fictional colouring. Another important element is the inclusion of robots/AIs. The police have robot assistants called lekis which, while large, seem to be spider-like, or tentacular at any rate, as well as a collection of smaller bug-like machinery which can infiltrate small places and provide points of view linked in to the police communications system. Other robots are revealed to be useful in construction in space.

The events of the book take part in a world where wars over oil (aka the Faith Wars) have defeated the forces of organised religion – at Armageddon/Megiddo no less – and made these organisations marginal at best, if not quite underground operations. The first terrorist victim is a Catholic priest, the second, in an echo of Covenanting times, an Episcopalian Bishop of St Andrews.

The plot concerns the getting of religion by a group of robots, given the word by a Presbyterian in New Zealand whose sermons – a neat play on the word sessions by MacLeod here – are relayed in real time to members of a sect (of the Third Covenant) in Linlithgow.

As is to be expected given the subject matter, MacLeod’s knowledge of biblical texts is to the fore. There are also some SF in-jokes which the casual reader (if there is such a beast) may miss.

The Night Sessions is a fine blend of the SF and thriller genres. The writing flows, the clues are placed where they are needed and (spoiler alert?) the denouement depends on one of the SF elements. MacLeod could obviously handle a straight detective novel with no difficulty but doing so would perhaps not have allowed him to explore the theme of religion in quite the same way.

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