The 2015 BSFA Award winners were announced this weekend! Here’s my rundown on the Best Novel shortlist.
After discovering new favorites on previous BSFA award lists, and thoroughly enjoying five-eighths of the BSFA Best Novel shortlist last year, I finally got myself a BSFA membership, perhaps becoming the only Texas member of the British Science Fiction Association. I didn’t nominate or vote because it just doesn’t feel right to do so as an outsider, but I do like to play along and support things I like. Call me a shadow member.
I didn’t experience as much delight with this year’s BSFA Best Novel list, (and no, I haven’t yet touched the short fiction nominees, though I might do a rundown of the really fab nonfiction nominees later on), but this selection of novels is way more interesting than this year’s Hugo list that hasn’t been determined yet but I’m probably right.
Anyway, here are my thoughts on the 2015 British Science Fiction Association Best Novel shortlist:
Dave Hutchinson: Europe at Midnight, Solaris
A fragment: ‘The Community was an orphan universe.’ (loc. 5586.)
Another fragment: ‘The Republic of Dresden-Neustadt was an absolute fucking nightmare. You only had to look at the place to see that.’ (loc. 4002).
A meta-fragment: “…the problem with people like us is that we only ever see parts of the story… Or we see it from odd angles and perspectives. We very rarely see the whole picture (loc. 6473).
Seriously, I could just quote this whole thing.
Thoughts: Popular demand and quick writing have impacted Hutchinson’s delightful balance of metaphor and wit, but the more accessible, first-person style of Europe at Midnight is a refreshing alternative to what usually kills serial novels: redundancy. But I’m biased, and it’s no secret I love this series. I’m a poli-sci nut and this kind of stuff is my catnip.
Possible side-effects: Eager anticipation of a serial release as if you are some sort of fannish commercial slave, god, you disgust me.
Response to negative review about too much female fridging: Agreed, but see above meta-fragment. Also, you know that one character? She’s not dead until I see the body.
Chris Beckett: Mother of Eden, Corvus
Summary: Starlight Brooking is bored bored with her communal island life on Eden and ventures into the dark dark realities of industrial progress. Will capitalism and misogyny destroy her or will she destroy them first?
A glimmer: “When Johnny told the story it was like a way out opening up. I felt excited, and my head filled up at once with thoughts about new possibilities.” (7)
A dubiously self-aware spotlight: “And I tried not to notice how jealous I felt of the love she gave that child.” (14)
Thoughts: A continuation of Beckett’s examination of the perils of ambitious leadership, but where Dark Eden grips with sensawunda setting and character self-deceptions, Mother of Eden manipulates with a plot about the bad bad guys versus the good good guys. Fueled by provocative feminist and Marxist themes, it’s enough to cause fist-clenching and teeth-gritting, but, counter-intuitively, the inordinately self-aware nature of the characters fosters a lack of narrative maturity from the first page (making Dark Eden all the more impressive for how it disguises its clearly YA elements).
Possible side-effects: Audiobook version may cause double adjective speaking. Your internal voice will become annoying annoying.
Rewriting the Edenic mantra: “We are here. We are here here.” Right?
Save the UK Authors Telethon: This is the the third setting of total darkness I’ve read from new novels in the UK in the past year. Perhaps there is a need for a Vitamin D Care Package Drive for UK-based authors? (Dark Universe (1961) is still the best of perpetual darkness SF, by the way.)
A meta-feather: “It hadn’t changed a thing. Such people’s lives were richer, easier because of the House system. And in turn, the House system existed only because such kind, gentle people kept pledging themselves to it and strengthening it from within. They were all complicit, without exception.” (loc. 4235)
Thoughts: This fantasy novel about fallen angels bound by House loyalty works as a metaphor for imperialism and its covert oppressions. The characters behave as non-heroic people living within an oppressive system: an adaptive approach, rather than reactive, reminiscent of what I most enjoyed about Mieville’s The Scar. Even more interesting, de Bodard subtly subverts the young, innocent beauty trope, which inspires curiosity and uncertainty until the very end. But, because The House of Shattered Wings is about subtle maneuvering, none of it is very captivating, and while the metaphor works well, much of the actual story feels shallow, especially with so much character dialogue and an atmosphere that feels more like a hop-on-hop-off Parisian bus tour.
Prerequisite reading: However, de Bodard is clearly aware of the challenge she brought on herself to depict a delicately balanced society of adaptive response, especially considering this essay she wrote about the reality of heroism under colonialism. Additionally, one review from The Guardian places it in the “Children’s Books” section, which puts the novel in a different light, though I’m not sure younger folks would have patience for the lack of adventure.
Needs moar satanism: This being my own weird holdover from my goth days, but for a book about fallen angels, I was hoping for some blasphemous invective, but even the Satan stand-in is a delicate fellow.
Ian McDonald: Luna: New Moon, Gollancz
The lunar atmosphere: ‘I’m a Corta. We don’t do democracy’ (57).
Thoughts: Much like de Bodard’s novel, I enjoyed picking apart the themes of McDonald’s critical platform more than than the actual story. In this case, Luna is an answer to the awful The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, as criticism of anarchic capitalism in general, but for readers who have already moved on from “warring clans” fiction, the story itself is quite dull.
Self-reflection: Do I just prefer McDonald when he’s writing about real third world cultures (and the criticism it sparks, too), or do his dealings with near-er-future settings just feel more intriguing. Perhaps a dalliance in near-er-future… I dunno, Russia, should be next?
Justina Robson: Glorious Angels, Gollancz
The blurb that should have been: It has alzabos in it.
A flavor crystal: (The actual blurb that seems corny but is actually tongue-in-cheek funny once you figure out what she’s doing.) “Tralane Huntigore. Heiress of an ancient but defunct line of mages. Eccentric, erratic, renowned as a scientist, in the prime of her beauty at thirty-eight, mother of two daughters, the one slight, fair and scholarly the other dark, fierce and curved like a violin.” (7)
Thoughts: This novel is the most motherfucking odd, banally strange thing I’ve ever read. Foreigner meets Gilmore Girls– Cherryh’s Foreigner, not the band Foreigner, well, yeah, go ahead and add them because it does have that bourgeois bohemian rockin’ mom flavor that I am just way too cool to let myself like– with an added bit of erotica. I hated this for the first fifty pages, then it got a little one-handed so that made things interesting, but then more of the Gilmore Girls dialogue kicked in, but then the aliens are something like Gene Wolfe’s alzabos…
A cure for my ambivalence: In some ways, this is a feminist parody of space fantasy and its can-do heroes, in other ways, this is an earnest recasting with feminist wish fulfillment, but it’s also a provocative examination of instinct versus intellect in human behavior. It would be a stronger novel had it started halfway in because the first 250 pages are weighed down with characterization setups that could be revelatory if unfolded more discriminately later on. Many of the awkward plot contrivances that plague quest-y, diplomatic SF are present here, but I think Robson is just being cheeky about it.
Possible side effects: Nagging transference toward one’s own feminist divorcée mother and younger sister. Flashbacks to that time Mom put a coffee table together by herself and she shouted “I am woman, hear me roar!” in front of my friends and it was so embarrassing…
Man blindness: Every male figure has a weird name with at least one ‘Z’ in it, which hampers differentiation, much like any television show that casts two attractive men with the same hair color. (Or is this just my problem? I cannot tell pretty boys apart!) If Robson did this on purpose, she’s a genius for it.
Spicy advice: If you get bogged down in the early chapters, there’s an interesting interlude around page 50. You’re welcome.
So, who actually won?
The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard!
Who should have won?
This list wasn’t as infectious as last year’s BSFA Best Novel list, but they were all fun to dissect.
Glorious Angels wasn’t completely up my alley, but it’s the most deserving of the five, simply for being, as Robson puts it, “its own odd thing,” and most of my hang ups are because it too closely resembles the nuclear
coven family of my formative years. There’s no doubt I enjoyed Europe at Midnight the most, but I live in the alternate universe where Hutchinson already won the BSFA for Europe in Autumn last year. (And Bête won the Clarke, The Race won the Nebula, and The Girl in the Road won the Hugo.) (And Ann Coulter got on the Hugo ballot thanks to the Vapid Dog slate for best Conservative SF. Remember that? That was crazy.)