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BSFA Best Non-Fiction Award

There are 25 candidates on the BSFA Best Non-Fiction long list (the shortest of the four long lists); I nominated three of them myself - Space Helmet for a Cow, Letters to Tiptree and Companion Piece. (My fourth nomination, The Story of Kullervo, appears to have been disqualified.) Of the other 21, ten are available online (nine blog posts/articles and one collection of articles), one is an article in a magazine I don't subscribe to (Interzone), and the remaining eleven are books. I had already read one of these (Rave and Let Die); I confess that I took a mercenary attitude and just bought the three others whose titles interested me most, those being Lois McMaster Bujold, by Edward James; "Perilous And Fair: Women in the Works and Life of JRR Tolkien", eds. Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie A. Donovan; and Baptism of Fire: the Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I, ed. Janet Brennan Croft. I make no apology for this; my time is limited and I'd rather read stuff that I am interested in.

Throat-clearing

Before I get onto those three books, a word about the blog posts. In general I accept that blog posts have a place in the awards ecosystem, and have even voted for them occasionally in the past. But my personal bar is high. I found it impossible to work up the motivation to read through a set of posts even on as interesting a subject as the history of epic fantasy, knowing that they have not been through the refining and mediating process of preparation for professional publication. Still less am I likely to endorse 56,000 words of second-rate fisking (actually I did read it all the way through when it was first published, but did not gain much enlightenment). Three of the other pieces did stand out for me: Erin Horáková's review of Over the Garden Wall, a fascinating review of a TV show I must admit I hadn't previously heard of, and two linked pieces, Jonathan McCalmont's "What Price, Your Critical Agency" and Maureen Kincaid Speller's "{and then} – a writing life beyond reviews". But in the end, none of them appealed to me as much as the books that I nominated or that I am going to vote for in the second round.

The three non-fiction nominees which I bought for the purpose of this exercise were all academic works, one a monograph and the other two themed collections of essays.

Lois McMaster Bujold, by Edward James

Either the author is too modest or I've been hiding under a rock, because I hadn't heard about this until it popped up on the BSFA list. It's one of a series on Modern Masters of Science Fiction by the University of Illinois Press, featuring books about six men and one woman by six men and one woman. (Another five books are forthcoming, one of which will be about Connie Willis.)

It's a jolly good and fairly short read, looking at Bujold's sf and fantasy work (arguing in passing that the Sharing Knife books are really sf rather than fantasy), and also looking at her treatment of culture, characterisation, disability / genetic modification, women / sexuality and war, leadership, and honor. It's a text in dialogue with a lot of other work, including The Vorkosigan Companion, A Reader's Companion to A Civil Campaign, Jo Walton and the author herself. It's always nice when an author you like writes a book you like about a subject you like.

James finishes his introduction: "The subject of my next book died in a.d. 594." Gregory of Tours, I presume? Look forward to it.

Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J. R. R. Tolkien, eds. Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie A. Donovan

The relative invisibility of women in Tolkien's works is perhaps the most jarring aspect of them to a twenty-first century reader. As Una McCormack points out in the last of these essays, quoting an unnamed conference participant, there are more named horses than named women in The Lord of the Rings. These essays prove that you can write thought-provoking stuff about the flaws in the work you love. Though the case for Tolkien's defence can be made robustly, and John Rateliffe recounts his career of being considerably more active and enthusiastic about educating women (including Mary Renault) than was the norm for his day, C.S. Lewis being a sad counter example. There are a number of other very interesting essays, of which I particularly enjoyed Una McCormack's closing piece on fan fiction and Cami Agan's thoughts on Lúthien and bodily desire. I'm afraid there are a couple of silly pieces as well, one about Valkyries and the other about Éowyn, Twelfth Night and Carnival, but the majority of these are very interesting. (And the last footnote to Robin Reid's introductory bibliographic essay is heart-breaking.)

Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I, ed. Janet Brennan Croft

We are in the midst of the centenary of the Great War, as it was called at the time, and the essays in this book make that argument that as for so much else in European life, it was a crucial moment for British fantasy writing. Six and a half of the sixteen essays are about Tolkien, which is only fair given his importance in the field, the demonstrable importance of the war in his life, and the large amounts of supporting material to investigate the relationship between them. Verlyn Flieger and John Garth are (rightly) frequently invoked. I found all of them thought-provoking, especially the first, Michael Livingstone's "The Shell-shocked Hobbit: The First World War and Tolkien’s Trauma of the Ring ", which convincingly diagnoses Frodo with PTSD. I have to admit that when I first read the book at the age of ten or so, I wasn't convinced by the apparently magical way Frodo's injuries return to cause a physical illness on their anniversaries after his return to the Shire; now that I'm older and I've seen that happen to people in real life, I'm impressed by the understated way Tolkien describes it.

Of the other essays, two and a half are about C.S. Lewis, who said and wrote much less about his was experience: serving in the trenches and getting blown up with permanent injury to his left hand was less traumatic than his experiences at boarding school or the death of his mother. Still, there is war in Narnia, and interesting comparisons and contrasts to be made between the real and fictional variety - most notably, as pointed out by Brian Melton in "The Great War and Narnia: C. S. Lewis as Soldier and Creator", what happens to the bodies of those killed at the various battles? They seem to disappear almost before the fighting is over.

The other authors treated here are Owen Barfield, G.K. Chesterton, Lord Dunsany, Sylvia Townsend Warner, E.R. Eddison (twice) and T.H. White. I really read only the last of these, Ashley Pfeiffer's "T. H. White and the Lasting Influence of World War I: King Arthur at War ", and also Nick Milne's fascinating "The Door We Never Opened: British Alternate History Writing in the Aftermath of World War I ", as I am not familiar with the relevant works of the others (though clearly I should remedy that situation). Anyway, a very solid set of essays with some real revelations for me.

Conclusion

In past years, I have sometimes expressed disappointment with the quality and relevance of shortlisted works for the BSFA award for Best Non-Fiction. If the shift to a two-round process for the BSFA awards is to prove its value, this is one category where I would hope to see a positive impact demonstrated fairly readily. I think in fact it has done so. I'm still deciding which four books I will nominate in the second round, but a short list with one or two of Space Helmet for a Cow, Letters to Tiptree, Companion Piece, Rave and Let Die, Lois McMaster Bujold, Perilous and Fair and Baptism of Fire will be a decently strong short list. And I'm considering all of these as Hugo nominations for Best Related Work.

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Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
livejournal
Jan. 16th, 2016 11:30 am (UTC)
Hello! Your entry got to top-25 of the most popular entries in LiveJournal!
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redfiona99
Jan. 16th, 2016 04:43 pm (UTC)
Since I was looking for a book on Gregory of Tours I will keep an eye out.
aeglefinus
Jan. 16th, 2016 05:24 pm (UTC)
Re: Modern Masters of Science Fiction
It doesn't seem to be mentioned on their website,but Paul Kincaid is writing one on Iain M Banks.
fjm
Jan. 18th, 2016 07:50 am (UTC)
RE: Re: Modern Masters of Science Fiction
And has just submitted it.
fjm
Jan. 18th, 2016 07:50 am (UTC)
As I will report it has proved its value in actually *giving* us a short list in three categories. It has also allowed people to be aware of novels published at the end of the year.

We need to tighten the actual process and time line but generally I am pretty happy with the new system. It will work best tho if lots and lots of people now vote for the shortlist who didn't nominate, so please nag.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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