February 16th, 2011


February Books 9) Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford

This is a really interesting book, a light on an important period of history (the Soviet Union from 1959 to 1969) of which I knew much less than I had realised, looked at through the eyes of true believers in the economic system of Communism as it developed under Khrushchev, who were then bitterly disappointed as Brezhnev and Kosygin (and later Brezhnev alone) took over. I grew up at the tail end of the Brezhnev era, when the Soviet system seemed monolithic and permanent; subsequent events proved that in fact it was not nothing of the kind, and Spufford's book reminds us that it was all actually rather recent anyway. It's told as a series of short stories from the point of view of some of the key economic / cybernetic thinkers of the time, including Khrushchev himself, with some perspectives from ordinary middle-class Soviet life thrown in for good measure, all meticulously footnoted; also all very human, and all told with good humour, to the point where one can understand how otherwise intelligent people could have believed in the system and wanted to perpetuate it. Strongly recommended.

Apart, that is, from the front cover which spells the title ЯED PLENTY rather then RED PLENTY, because, y'know, Я makes it look Russian. Look, Faber, this is simply not good enough. Я in Cyrillic is a vowel, not a consonant, and sounds nothing like R. While I am on the subject, И is also a vowel and sounds nothing like N; and Д is a consonant which sounds nothing like A. Putting ЯED PLENTY on your front cover is not cute, it is ignorant, and will certainly deter anyone with any real knowledge about Russia from even picking the book up in the shop, let alone buying it. It's up to you if you want to alienate your potential readership; I would have thought not, myself, but what do I know?

BSFA award 2010: non-fiction

The BSFA award for non-fiction is a peculiar pancake, as Sergeant Pluck might have said. Three of this year's nominees are blog entries; to be precise, seventeen blog entries, one by Abigail Nussbaum, four by Paul Kincaid and twelve by Adam Roberts. One is a book, and one a series of podcasts. My final vote will have to wait until I have sampled (or decided not to sample) the Notes from Coode Street podcast; I reviewed the book earlier this evening, and I look at the blog nominees below, with some further reflections on the shortlist as a whole.

Adam Roberts' series of posts on the eleven volumes of the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan are most entertaining (summary here including index). I did try reading the books myself once, back in the very brief period of my life when my wife and I were living in a priest's spare bedroom; some well-meaning worshipper had lent him the entire series as it then was, but I got fed up with it by volume 4 or 5, when I realised that nothing had actually happened in the entire vast book, and soundings taken from other sources indicated that this wouldn't change any time soon if I persevered with the series, so I let then remain undisturbed on the parochial bookshelves. Unlike the books, Roberts' pieces markedly improve toward the end, specifically with his write-up of Vol. VIII, and I must admit that his demolition of the prose of the final volume had me crying with laughter. If you can't face reading all of his write-ups, I would strongly recommend just reading those last four. The Wheel of Time books are very bad, and it's helpful as well as entertaining to have their flaws pointed out so forensically. (And I am baffled by the accusation from WoT fans that Roberts is motivated by jealousy that Jordan's books sell better than his own.)

Abigail Nussbaum's write-up of With Both Feet in the Clouds: Fantasy in Hebrew Literature, edited by Hagar Yanai and Danielle Gurevitch, is an excellent window into a culture with which I am unfamiliar. To my shame, I had not heard of a single one of the Israeli writers or scholars mentioned (I had at least heard of Isaac Bashevis Singer, but was not aware that he had made the conscious choice not to become an Israeli), and there are some points of wider interest thrown up - problems of vocabulary in Hebrew, for instance, given its peculiar history as a language. I would be interested in reading such an article about Dutch-language sf, or Belgian sf, or even just Flemish sf.

Paul Kincaid's four blog posts about three of last year's Hugo nominees - Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock, and the eventual co-winner, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl - are a discussion of the novels as examples of writing about America in decline, and also steampunk. They gave me food for thought about the cultural and political context of three books which I had read, and thus deepened my understanding and appreciation of these works in particular and of the genre in general. So of the three blogged nominees, Paul Kincaid will get my first preference vote, followed by Abigail Nussbaum and then Adam Roberts.

I shall not be voting for Red Plenty, even as a lower preference, although I want to be absolutely clear that I enjoyed it a lot and thought it was a very good book. The BSFA website states that "The Best Non-Fiction award is open to any written work about science fiction and/or fantasy which appeared in its current form in 2010." Red Plenty may have appeared in its current form in 2010, but it is in no way non-fiction, despite the copious footnotes explaining the author's workings, and it is in no way about science fiction and/or fantasy - it is about the Soviet Union between 1959 and 1968. I cannot therefore vote for it in this category, and its presence on the shortlist makes me feel that there must have been some conversation about its eligibility which reached what is patently the wrong conclusion. This frankly makes me feel alienated from the BSFA.

As a BSFA member, I do also feel partly responsible for and guilty about this situation. In the course of last year I read two excellent non-fiction books about SF published in 2010, both of which I would rate ahead of any of the blog entries shortlisted here (actually both are about Doctor Who - see here and here), and I failed to nominate either of them for the award (indeed, I failed to nominate anything in any category). I note also this post of potential nominees for the Hugo for Best Related Work, which includes one book (Thomas and O'Shea) on my to-read shelf, one (Roach) on my wish list and two (Wolfe, Gurney) which I had not otherwise heard of.

But I think it's one matter to have worthy books failing to reach the final ballot, and another to have the final ballot include a book that, however excellent on its own merits, and however strongly supported by the selectorate, simply is not eligible by any reasonable interpretation of the rubric. I am open to persuasion, but can't really see how an argument justifying the inclusion of Red Plenty on any BSFA award shortlist, fiction or non-fiction, can possibly be constructed.