The 2015 BSFA Best Novel Rundown: My Thoughts

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

EuropeatMidnightSummary: Near-future Europe is all bordered up, but strangers are still slipping in! Tomorrow’s news, delivered today.

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

MotherofEdenSummary: 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.)

 

Aliette de Bodard: The House of Shattered Wings, Gollancz

HouseofShatteredWingsSummary: Post- Great (magickal) War Paris is populated by warring magickal Houses, but not all House members feel at home.

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

Luna1Summary: Life on the moon is harsh. So is unchecked capitalism.

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

Glorious AngelsThe blurb that never was: Foreigner meets Gilmore Girls.

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.)

 

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23 thoughts on “The 2015 BSFA Best Novel Rundown: My Thoughts

  1. Warstub says:

    Just for the record: My cat doesn’t react to catnip.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have yet to read both Glorious Angels and Dark Eden but I read the other three. I have to say that I really deeply disliked Bodard’s book, I have written a pretty annoyed review that I haven’t posted yet because I want to soften it a little but I am still to irritated to do so.
    So yeah, I wasn’t very happy when I saw that House of Shattered Wings won even if I was expected it to… I don’t know if I will read Mother of Eden soon since I have not read dark Eden but I really want to give a try to Glorious Angels!

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    • I look forward to your review… I’m no stranger to needing distance in order to soften my words.

      Glorious Angels feels like a thin novel that exists only as a structure to support genre commentary, kind of like the work of Gene Wolfe and M John Harrison, but without so much of the manipulative gaming and misdirection. It doesn’t seem like a widely read book, and it could bother a lot of people. Robson writes like she doesn’t give a shit, which reminds me of Joanna Russ, and I kind of love her for that.

      The Eden books are much more likable, but that’s a huge chunk of reading to get through. I went the audio route on them and the actors were really good.

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  3. I’ve just read the Europe books, and loved them. Every page a pleasure. I’ve also read Glorious Angels, which on balance I enjoyed, but I certainly couldn’t say every page was a pleasure. I almost gave up several times, but glad I stuck with it.

    Of the others Luna was the only one I intended to read, but now Shattered Wings has won the BFSA, maybe it will entice me to read it. Maybe. Your assessment doesn’t fill me with wonder and longing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Same here on Glorious Angels. I had to reread a lot of it. I kept confusing Borze and Mahzd, and sometimes Mahzd went by his last name and I thought that was an entirely different person. I haven’t had that much trouble with a book since Book of the New Sun.

    I forgot to add that I really thought Luna was going to win this year.

    I know you sometimes review children’s books, so maybe if you approach Shattered Wings from that perspective you will find more to appreciate.

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  5. Jesse says:

    What do you get as member of the BSFAs?

    Like

    • The perception of cosmic love and goodwill from other fans of British SF.

      And a subscription to Vector, a pretty nice publication (although I’m about to bash it a little in an upcoming post– just an article I think is weird) and a subscription to Focus, a magazine about writing, which I haven’t paid much attention to– nothing really jumps out at me from the Table of Contents.

      And they did just send a nice booklet of full prints and excerpts of all of the nominated works for this year. Which arrived the day after the awards ceremony, haha, but that’s my fault for living in the US.

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      • liminalt says:

        I’d be interested to know which article in Vector you thought was weird. There’s usually more than one in my humble opinion 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think you’re right about that, now that you mention it. I’m talking specifically about… well, maybe I’m crazy. I thought there was an in-depth article about Robert Sawyer’s The Terminal Experiment, but now I can’t find it. Do you recall seeing that?

          But yeah, flipping through the copy in my hands, there’s a many-paged article about Mieville’s book-in-every-genre goal. As if that’s not already been discussed to death. As if no other writer has ever hopped genres before. Boring.

          Liked by 1 person

          • liminalt says:

            Hmmm, no I don’t recall it and can’t find it either. Maybe it’s in a back issue somewhere. I read the Mieville one, well, skimmed it, as I like his books, and I do find them pretty fresh and original, but talk about splitting hairs. People get very attached to labels, and yes, crossing genres is hardly new.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Found it! The Summer 2015 issue of Vector. An article about SF as myth as demonstrated by analyzing the works of Robert J Sawyer. Can’t imagine anyone taking his work that seriously.

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  6. Great rundown. I’ve read three of the books there and I can’t agree more with Mother of Eden. It wasn’t subtle at all, was it? I adored the themes of the first book, but I kind of wish I had stopped there. It was interesting to see what became of Eden, but it was a very different book.

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  7. Rabindranauth says:

    I’ve been waiting to read this post since I saw them announce the BSFA winner! I actually expected you to question de Bodard’s win. The fact that you really didn’t means I’m really going to have to read her book, even though the phrase ‘fallen angel’ in regard to a book always seems to trigger my lizard brain. Also, somehow not surprised to find out you were Goth!

    Like

    • Very good point. De Bodard’s win didn’t surprise me at all, so I guess that’s why I’m resigned about it. BSFA has favored commercial fiction during the past two years I’ve been paying attention, and de Bodard’s was the 2nd most commercial of the choices (Luna being the most commercial). Plus, BSFA hosted an interview with de Bodard just weeks ago, and she was the only nominee who got that treatment… so it just makes sense that she won.

      Plus, I admire what she was trying to do with the book, even if I was mostly bored with it. I guess I’m just growing up, getting out of the pouty reader seat and into the detached observer seat.

      Like

  8. Megan liked five-eighths of the nominees. Musta been an exceptional year.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. […] the BSFA Awards happened and I gave my take. I was asked why I didn’t question or criticize de Bodard’s win, which was expected of me, […]

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  10. […] it similar to the experience of reading The Book of the New Sun, Viriconium, and, more recently, Glorious Angels. Deep, patient reading is […]

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