The Awards Must Flow

Posted by Niall Harrison

First out of the shortlist blocks this year: the Philip K Dick Award for science fiction paperback published in the US:

Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot (Black Cat)
Harmony by Keith Brooke (Solaris)
Helix Wars by Eric Brown (Solaris)
The Not Yet by Moira Crone (UNO Press)
Fountains of Age by Nancy Kress (Small Beer Press)
Lovestar by Andri Snær Magnason (Seven Stories Press)
Lost Everything by Brian Francis Slattery (Tor Books)

I haven't read a single one of these titles, although I've been vaguely interested in the Boudinot and Slattery, and have read a fair few of the stories in Fountains of Age (which leads me to conclude it is not Nancy Kress's strongest collection). But taken as a whole, I don't really know what to make of this list. On the one hand, it is the good sort of list, in that it introduces me to interesting-looking books I hadn't even heard of before, notably the Crone and the Magnason; on the other hand, it includes an Eric Brown novel, which quite unfairly causes me to doubt the entire enterprise. I'm very curious to see what comes out as winner, in the end, because I don't have a clue where the judges are going to go.

Next up, the BSFA for science fiction or fantasy novel published in the UK, announced this morning:

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)

... or just science fiction novel, as it turns out, pointing up probably the most obvious omission: Jo Walton's Among Others, which received its UK edition last November. Other books theoretically in contention: Karen Lord's Redemption in Indigo, Catherynne Valente's Deathless, Paul Cornell's London Falling, Margo Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island (my personal pick for most significant omission), China Mieville's Railsea, and a few others we'll get to in a minute. Putting together a list like this points up the other obvious omission, which is anyone who isn't a white man. Such is the state of genre science fiction publishing in the UK (although it appears that's going to start to improve over the next twelve months), and the BSFA membership is a voting population that likes its genre science fiction.

Meanwhile, what we have is a list with two previous winners (Robinson and MacLeod), two multiple-nominees (Harrison and Roberts), and a first-time nominee who nevertheless has a two-decade career at this point, all of which I think makes it something of an establishment list. When Alison Flood asked me for a quote for the Guardian, I described it as 'a little safe', which is unfair to nearly all of the novels in one sense, since they're all the work of ambitious writers who do ask their readers to think; but it does look like a comfort-zone list, BSFA members sticking to writers they know.

Independent of all of the above, it's a list that includes some good books. I can only agree, and then some, with everything L. Timmel Duchamp wrote about 2312 in these pages earlier this week; Intrusion is one of MacLeod's sharpest; and while I have some quibbles with Dark Eden, it's imaginative and skilfully executed. I haven't finished Empty Space (because I decided I wanted to reread Light and Nova Swing first) or Jack Glass (because I was saving it as a treat, and ended up saving it too long), but reviews have been almost universally positive. Predictions? It feels to me like Harrison's year.

Last but not least for now, we have this year's Kitschies Red Tentacle finalists, for the most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works containing elements of the speculative or fantastic published in the UK:

The Folly of the World by Jesse Bullington (Orbit)
A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan)
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann)
Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
The Method by Julie Zeh (translated by Sally-Ann Spencer) (Harvill Secker)

All of these were eligible for the BSFA (and vice versa), which means that the absence of 2312 is both an outrage and an embarrassment to all concerned (I'm going to be saying that a lot this year, I suspect), but that aside, this is a fun list, featuring earlier-career writers than the BSFA, and generically the most varied of the three: fantasy and sf, YA, genre and mainstream all represented. The Kitschies are too new to have many previous winners, but they do have a previous nominee in the shape of Bullington: a writer whose work I haven't really got on with to this point, but may give another go on the strength of this shortlisting. Meanwhile, Harkaway's novel is rambunctious and sly, Zeh's is agile and spikey, and the Hardinge is hopefully up to her previous high standards. I'm going to guess that the judges will go for either Harkaway or Roberts, though, when it comes to it.

(Of course both the BSFA Awards and the Kitschies have other categories. On the BSFA front, the short fiction is a more diverse group of authors, and a good group of stories [though I do wonder if Mieville's short-short really earns its place], but perhaps like the novel list, without big surprises; and the non-fiction continues to be a selection of things that are all good representatives of their kind of thing, but almost impossible to compare. The Kitschies debut [Golden Tentacle] list, meanwhile, is strong: it includes Madeline Ashby's vN [the one genre science fiction novel by a woman that was both eligible and a plausible contender for the BSFA], Rachel Hartman's impressive Seraphina, Karen Lord's delightful Redemption in Indigo, Tom Pollock's assured The City's Son, and a fascinating-sounding novel by Jenni Fagan called The Panopticon. Both sets of awards have artwork categories, which Martin Lewis compares here. Other coverage: Kitschies in The Guardian, BSFAs at Tor.com, Nicholas Whyte runs the Goodreads numbers for the BSFA list here, and David Hebblethwaite discusses both here.)


           

Comments (7)


I'd like to unpick your omissions and theoretical contenders a bit. Given its Hugo and seeming direct line into the hearts of a certain subset of fandom, Among Others does seem like an omission, even though it was only been out in the UK for two months. Of your theoretical contenders, however, only one of them is an actual contender: Railsea (which I imagine has suffered from being perceived as a children's book, a fantasy book and a weak Mieville). There rest are contenders only in so far as they are eligible. Cornell is a BSFA favourite but his book only came out last month and is in a subgenre that is not popular with BSFA members; Lord and Valente have very little UK profile (amazon.co.uk denies Redemption In Indigo even has a UK edition); Lanagan has more of a profile but is still not very well known. A genuine contender would be Harkaway (another white British man who writes science fiction).

But that doesn't mean I would describe the BSFA members as sticking to writers they know. Yes, Harrison, MacLeod and Robinson are perennial nominees but they are writers that BSFA members rate very highly. In fact, Robinson wrote your SF novel of 2012 and Harrison mine so seems a bit hypocritical to chide others for thinking the same. And things can change: Alistair Reynolds, for example, was a perennial nominee for the first half of the last decade but hasn't been nominated since 2007 despite being just as well known. In contrast, Roberts only appeared on the shortlist for the first time in 2009 and Beckett has been plugging away in Interzone for years before getting to the stage in his career where he gets his first award nomination.

The lack of diversity in the award has everything to do with the lack of diversity in UK science fiction (which, as you say, is hopefully getting a kick up the arse this year). You and I might well want to see literary fantasies by younger writers from outside the UK appear on the shortlist but it isn't something the award can do. The very structure of the award makes it impossible for it to give anything like an overview of the genre; this has always been the case and has always been know. This would be a problem if it was the only UK award for speculative fiction. I noticed you didn't identify the Zeh as a theoretical contender for the BSFA. That book is just as implausible as, say, the Lanagan but there is an accepted sense that "ooh, that's more of a Clarke book". I think that underlying a lot of your issues is the fact there is no such judged fantasy counterweight. Which is why it is so positive that the Kitschies now exist and why I was very pleased to see both sets of shortists appear on the same day since I think that makes it clear that they are two different parts of the same conversation. The Kitschies very much has its own perspective (and is the stronger for it), however, so there is still a need for a UK fantasy equivalent to the Clarke to give voice to authors like Lord, Valente and Lanagan (and, indeed, British novelists).


Surely the absence of Among Others is largely due to people think of it as a 2011 book, and not realising that it was eligible?


Martin, I'll unpick some of your unpicking. I agree with you broadly about the 'contenders' -- that's why I called them theoretical -- although I suspect that, per Tony's comment, Valente, Walton and Lord were all hit by prior US publication. (All three received nominations last year.) The question is, why are they theoretical, and does that bother us? I don't want to perpetuate gender/genre essentialism, so certainly we need more genre science fiction by women published in the UK; but equally, I'd be happy for the BSFA membership to cast its net beyond genre science fiction on a more regular basis, at least so long as the rules say they can.

But that doesn't mean I would describe the BSFA members as sticking to writers they know. Yes, Harrison, MacLeod and Robinson are perennial nominees but they are writers that BSFA members rate very highly.

I don't see any contradiction here. Yes, 2312 is my book of the year; KSR is also a writer whose work I have been reading for twenty years, so when I rush to pick up his new novel, I am absolutely sticking to what I know. I hope that those aren't the only writers I'm able to be impressed by, though.

I think that underlying a lot of your issues is the fact there is no such judged fantasy counterweight.

Certainly I'd be very happy if such an award existed. I'd still be happier if the BSFA membership could demonstrate slightly broader taste.


I'd still be happier if the BSFA membership could demonstrate slightly broader taste.

The BSFA Short Fiction list makes an interesting point of comparison - not just because it includes women and writers of colour, but also because it avoids many 'establishment' names.


Surely the absence of Among Others is largely due to people think of it as a 2011 book, and not realising that it was eligible?

Perhaps. Personally, I very, very rarely buy US imports. I've no idea how common it is amongst the rest of the membership as a whole (although obviously there are individual members who regularly do).

I'd be happy for the BSFA membership to cast its net beyond genre science fiction on a more regular basis, at least so long as the rules say they can.

I'd be happy for them to do that too. But I'm not unhappy if they don't. Despite the wide remit of the award, the membership of the British Science Fiction Association are - unsurprisingly - predisposed to science fiction and especially British science fiction. When you wish for the BSFA to demonstrate broader taste, you are wishing for a different membership. It would be nice if the membership was bigger and broader and more representative of British genre fandom but I don't think that is likely to happen.

I don't see any contradiction here.

My point is that, in the absence of any other data on reading habits, it seems a jump to describe the membership as sticking to what they know. We know they aren't just sticking to writers they know since this only applies to 60% of the shortlist and, for that portion, a) I haven't heard anyone suggest these are bad books and b) there are counter-examples of authors (Reynolds, Mieville) with just as much name recognition who weren't selected. I doubt the rest of the BSFA membership is that different to you in that they both rush to big SF novels and are also impressed by many other types of novel. This is in no way incompatible with the fact that they are collectively more likely to agree on the big SF novels.


As I nominated both Among Others and Deathless for the BSFA, perhaps I should mention a couple of other possible reasons for their not getting enough nominations for the shortlist:

Firstly, both books came out late in the year, in hardback editions from an imprint that seems to be fairly new to publishing fantasy (and I don't think has published any science fiction, at least yet) - and that still seems to be below Locus's radar. Indeed, I believe that their British publisher's decision to bring them out this year was quite a late one - that they had in fact both been scheduled for paperback publication this coming spring before Corsair decided to go for a hardback edition first.

Secondly, Jo Walton (at least these days) and Cat Valente are far better known in America than in Britain. It's pretty notorious that Walton had had quite some difficulty finding a British publisher, and I believe that Deathless and The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland... (which came out earlier in 2012) were Valente's first British book publications.

Now, can someone find a British publisher for Kari Sperring? And if first British publication can either be sometime earlier in the year than October and/or in paperback, so much the better for getting people to read the books in time to nominate them for awards.


As much as I love to read, I have yet to check out most of the ones that are in the list. The books that I was able to actually read are definitely deserving contenders.


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