Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

My BSFA votes (big long post)

Other things being equal, I wold have been looking forward to Eastercon at the end of this week - a welcome return to the Birmingham Hilton where I have had various good times over the years. The last few times I attended Eastercon I got (not very reluctantly) roped into counting the votes for the BSFA Awards; the voting deadline this year has now been extended to the 24th, with an online ceremony promised in early May. But I had been expecting to make my mind up this week, and I have decided my votes in all four categories, as follows.

Best Art

Well, precisely one of my nominations made it to the final five. These are all nice pieces, but I found them quite easy to rank. (In each case, click to embiggen.)

5) Charlotte Stroomer – Cover for The Rosewater Redemption by Tade Thompson (Orbit)

Interesting geometry which however doesn’t say much to me.
4) Chris Baker (Fangorn) – Cover for Wourism and Other Stories by Ian Whates (Luna Press)

Interesting future city, possibly dystopian, or do we only think that because of the dark buildings and the weather?
3) Julia Lloyd – Cover for Fleet of Knives by Gareth L Powell (Titan Books)

Was one of the ones I almost nominated but I am bumping it down a bit on reflection. I love that the ships in the fleet do look a bit like knives.
2) Richard Wagner – Cover for Interzone #284 (Interzone)

This grew on me, looking at it again - there is clearly an interesting story in the picture. (Not sure that it relates to any of the actual stories in the magazine though.)
1) Aitch & Rachel Vale – Cover for Deeplight by Frances Hardinge (UK edition) (Macmillan Children’s Books)

Very interesting, and really made me want to read the book - what is with the porous heart, in the middle of various marine objects? All intriguingly drawn, not crowded, very suggestive. Got one of my nominations, and gets my vote.

Best Non-Fiction

Five finalists here, but I have only read four; I am not going to invest in Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction as it costs more than all the rest of the shortlist combined (in all categories). Sorry. If you want to, you can get it here.

4) Away Day: Star Trek and the Utopia of Merit, by Jo Lindsay Walton. Second paragraph of third section, with footnote:
When Saadia describes what work is like in the Federation, he also implies that the resources that pour from the Federation cornucopia are allocated by some system of reciprocity.11 Just by itself, this claim doesn’t tell us much – there are so many different kinds of reciprocity! But Saadia narrows it down by (quite reasonably) emphasizing the more informal, forgiving, and egalitarian forms of reciprocity. That is, he emphasizes mutual aid, where what is paramount is the care and respect for one’s neighbours (or for those who might one day become one’s neighbours). Gift‑giving is focused on greatest need, and over time the accumulating networks of storied obligations fulfil an emergent function, gradually cultivating a discerning, generous, and fiercely cohesive community. Mutual aid has associations with anarchism – for instance, in Ursula Le Guin’s classic critical utopia The Dispossessed (1974) – but Saadia doesn’t go that far; the Federation does have laws and regulations!
11 Or to put it another way, drawing on Jürgen Habermas’s suggestive terminology, the Federation operates through the communicative rationality of a shared lifeworld, rather than formal systems of bureaucratic and market power. Just by itself, this claim doesn’t tell us much – there are so many different possible states for our shared lifeworld to be in!
A blog essay on the economics of the Star Trek universe which I am afraid did not interest me much, leaning on the work of authors who I have not read. You can read it here for free.

3) About Writing, by Gareth L. Powell. Second paragraph of third chapter:
The truth though, as you’ve probably already realised, is a lot more complicated.
This is a nicely done short account of the experience of being a writer, with recommendations to colleagues and aspiring writers. Quite a lot of it is self-care in one way or another, and that’s advice we all probably need, especially in these days when many of us are unexpectedly working on our own rather than in a communcal environment. It’s a good book, and in fact was the only thing I nominated that made it to the final ballot, but the other two (which I did not read until after the second round deadline had passed) are fundamental contributions to our understanding of the genre. You can get it here.

2) H.G. Wells: A Literary Life, by Adam Roberts. Second paragraph of third chapter:
The Time Machine is, of course, the more famous of Wells’s first two novels, and for good reason. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Henley paid £100 to serialise it [in] The New Review over Christmas and New Year 1894–95; and a strange sort of Christmas story it must have made. William Heinemann advanced Wells £50 for book publication rights, and Wells’s first book-length fiction emerged into the world in May 1895. Despite being only 152 pages long (some scenes from the serialised version were cut for the one-volume edition), Heinemann nonetheless had enough confidence in the book commit to an initial print-run of 10,000 and a 15% royalty—generous, given that Wells at this time was a relatively unknown writer. Just how unknown is reinforced by the American first edition of The Time Machine, which was published by Holt & Co in New York as by ‘H.S. Wells’.
This seems to be a synthesis and revision of the blog posts by Roberts which were collectively nominated in this category two years ago. It is a straightforward sequencing of Wells’ novels, looked at through the lens of what was going on in his life at the time. Wells wrote a lot of novels and lived a long life, so it’s quite a long book, though for the sf fan the interest goes off the boil after the first few chapters. I definitely felt I learned more from this than from David Lodge’s A Man of Parts. One technical point - rather more proof-reading errors than I would have expected from a professional publisher - note eg missing preposition in the third sentence of my extract above. You can get it here.

1) The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, by Farah Mendlesohn. Second paragraph of third chapter:
The sections of this chapter and the next do not represent an even or ordered mapping. Heinlein’s work followed a spiral path, and elements that I wish to identify turn up, are discarded, and then returned to again in later work. But there are three clear divisions in terms of the rhetorical techniques Heinlein uses: the cinematic, the didactic and the picaresque.
I was a huge fan of Heinlein's writing in my teenage years, but the last awful novels came out just around that time and somewhat tainted the memory of the pleasure I'd had a few years earlier. I have gone back to his work a couple of times in recent years, but bounced off it as often as not.

But here Farah Mendlesohn approaches Heinlein with a redemptive eye. It is an interesting comparison with Roberts' Wells book - it is shorter, because Heinlein didn't write as much despite living a bit longer; it is more consciously fannish; but it's a much deeper analysis of what Heinlein thought he was doing with his writing, grouped more thematically than by time line. Heinlein's politics, for good or ill, had much more influence on later science fiction than Wells'. Possibly Heinlein actually had more to say than Wells, even if Wells said more of it.

I learned a lot from this, including in particular what Heinlein thought he was doing with Farnham's Freehold and how it went so badly wrong. It gets my vote. You can get it here.

Best Short Fiction

6) "For Your Own Good" (Wourism and Other Stories), by Ian Whates. Second paragraph of third section:
To my left the land sloped abruptly downwards. I gazed at the waxy-leafed crowns of orange trees and, beyond them, the white walls of a villa. Without consciously deciding to leave the track, my feet carried me down between the trees, almost slipping on the dry loose surface, my fingers reaching out instinctively in passing to drag along the rough grey-brown bark, as they had so often during those long ago days of boyhood.
A story of man vs machine consciousness. Failed to grab me.

5) This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Second paragraph of third chapter:
Other pilgrims wander here, in saffron robes or homespun brown. Sandals shuffle over rocks, and high winds whistle around cave corners. Ask the pilgrims how the labyrinth came to be, and they offer answers varied as their sins. Giants made it, this one claims, before the gods slew the giants, then abandoned Earth to its fate at mortal hands. (Yes, this is Earth—long before the ice age and the mammoth, long before academics many centuries downthread will think it possible for the planet to have spawned pilgrims, or labyrinths. Earth.) The first snake built the labyrinth, says another, screwing down through rock to hide from the judgment of the sun. Erosion made it, says a third, and the grand dumb motion of tectonic plates, forces too big for we cockroaches to conceive, too slow for mayfly us to observe.
Also failed to grab me, though everyone else seems to love it. A bit like Good Omens, the story of two adversaries who find that they have bonded. Obviously that theme appeals to a great many people; I'm just not one of them.

4) The Survival of Molly Southbourne, by Tade Thompson. Second paragraph of third chapter:
It has been quiet, the kind of quiet that makes you think the danger has passed, the kind that makes you go soft, less vigilant.
I very much enjoyed the first of this series, The Murders of Molly Southbourne, which was on the BSFA shortlist two years ago. The sequel felt a bit less surefooted to me, with the rules of the world not being as coherent and the means and motivation of the protagonist less clear. Still, I liked the crackling prose.

3) Ragged Alice, by Gareth Powell. Second paragraph of third chapter:
The headland to the north had a steep path leading up from the end of the concourse to a small chapel overlooking the town. Holly and Scott were met at the top of the path by a uniformed constable in his midthirties.
I liked this a lot - police procedural meets horror, as with a lot of popular UK-based writing at the moment, but this time in Wales rather than London (Cornell/Aaronovitch). Some bits didn't quite make sense, in terms of policce procedure - how come the protagonist gertscalled in so quickly? How come nobody in her chain of command spots the resonaces with her own personal history? - but it was a compelling if chilling read.

2) To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers. Second paragraph of third chapter:
Looking in the mirror, I wasn’t sure I liked what that equated to. I was almost eleven years older than when I'd left Earth. That’s not so much time, but the changes of ageing had largely escaped my notice, distracted as I was by the more dramatic differences of somaforming. I didn’t mind the lines in my face, but I also didn’t remember their development. My hair hadn’t grown too much in the five years spent in torpor, but the frequent shaving meant I never saw it much longer than maybe a centimetre. Now, I saw frequent threads of wintry grey among the black tufts. My body was average, healthy, nothing out of the ordinary. That was the problem. Without the glitter, I felt dull; without the brawn, puny. To my eyes, I looked ill, and the sight made me sink.
What I love about Chambers is that she digs deep into good old sensawunda, and comes out with a new 21st century sensibility. Here a human crew adapts themselves to the environments they are exploring, far from a home planet that has gone awfully silent on them; and they have to move and grow in a newly strange universe. Somewhat downbeat ending which I see other reviewers compaining about, but it worked for me.

1) "Jolene", by Fiona Moore (Interzone #283). Second paragraph of third section:
I shook my head. “Sorry to disappoint you,” I said, “but she wouldn’t talk with me either.”
Somehow this just ticked my boxes - the shortest of the stories on the list, a noir tale involving a near-future London woman detective and a rogue intelligent car; it achieves just what it has to do in the space it has to do it in. Gets my vote.

There are six short pieces to choose from here, which is high but not unprecedented; there were seven in this category last year, and eight novels five years ago.

Best Novel

5) Atlas Alone, by Emma Newman. Second paragraph of third section:
It’s so broad a request I suspect this is actually just a test of my ability. I wouldn’t put it past her to seed some rogue data in there just to see how I respond to it. She says I can take a couple of days if I need to. I decide I’ll get it to her in half the time.
Rather failed to convince me, I'm afraid. The protagonist is at the centre of a vast multi-planet political conspiracy, and spends her time playing immersive computer games. The intelligent AI which turns out to be Behind It All is just powerful enough to keep the plot going and not powerful enough to resolve everything. Didn't work for me.

4) Fleet of Knives, by Gareth L Powell. Second paragraph of third section:
My crew.
I liked all the rest of the shortlisted novels. Fleet of Knives is the sequel to last year's winner, Embers of War, which I really enjoyed. There is a nice theme of the double identity of one of the protagonists, whose two roles are war criminal and dissident poet. In the end, though, MilSF isn't quite my thing and the book slipped down my ballot accordingly.

3) The Green Man’s Foe, by Juliet E McKenna. Second paragraph of third section:
Just after eleven, by the Land Rover’s dashboard clock, I saw a left-hand fork signposted to Bourton, Aylworth and Ashgrove. That last village was where Ben had told me Brightwell’s new owner, Edmund Franklin, lived. As I hit the indicator and followed the road down into the valley, I soon found Bourton under Ashes.
Now it gets very difficult to choose. I found The Green Man's Foe very helpful and hopeful comfort reading. It's the sequel to a book I haven't read, a contemporary fantasy about an English chap with magical relatives, dealing with dark forces and teenagers going off the rails. I am marking it down a bit because the villain was pretty one-dimensional, or at least the protagonist's perception was, which weakend the investment I was ready to make in the characters.

2) Children of Ruin, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Second paragraph of third section:
He had downplayed the possible biochemistry aspect in his reports to Baltiel, while simultaneously knowing that the man would not be fooled. It created a convenient fiction between them that they could show to later auditors. Baltiel was sharper than Senkovi had initially thought. After his big presentation about 834g, Senkovi had asked the man, ‘How did you get through all that fast enough to make the decision?’ and Baltiel had just said, ‘I’ve seen your appraisals and tolerances. You wouldn’t stake your career on a bad bet. All I needed to see was that you were staying the hell off my planet.’ And he had smiled blandly, and Senkovi had learned a lot about his boss from that expression. An inclination to play God was part and parcel of wanting to go out and terraform other worlds, but good practice was to at least play nicely with the rest of the pantheon. Senkovi had met Avrana Kern once – it had been hard to avoid her – and there was a woman who was her own Zeus, Odin and Yahweh all in one. Baltiel’s role had only ever been intended as a subordinate Vulcan, but now he had found a new lease of divinity, a project Kern could not reach across the abyss to dictate.
I hugely enjoyed Children of Time when I finally got around to reading it recently, and this was a really good sequel, with some very vivid non-human aliens and great action between planets. I think this one wins the sensawunda contest among the novels.

1) The Rosewater Insurrection, by Tade Thompson. Second paragraph of third section:
He looks up, and sees the filtering of sunlight through the dome. The light has a blue tinge today. In his mind he queries the xenoforms for conditions outside the dome, in Rosewater and beyond. Nothing unusual. The humans are walking and driving back and forth. Buying food, selling food, fighting, fucking, living, dying. No military build-up, no imminent attack. The religious factions seem calm. The weather is stable, no elevated seismic activity.
Also a sequel to one of last year's finalists, Rosewater, which I ranked top last year and I am ranking this one top again this year. Near-future Nigeria (like other parts of the world) has been subject to an alien intrusion; this plays out on the ground in micropolitics, including sexual politics, for an interesting and intelligent exploration of what it actually means to be human in an unforgiving and rapidly changing world. I think of all the books it's the one that speaks to today's situation most clearly, and it gets my vote.
Tags: bookblog 2020, bsfa 2019, writer: adam roberts, writer: adrian tchaikovsky, writer: amal el-mohtar, writer: becky chambers, writer: emma newman, writer: farah mendlesohn, writer: fiona moore, writer: gareth powell, writer: ian whates, writer: juliet mckenna, writer: max gladstone, writer: tade thompson

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.