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Locus All-Centuries Poll short fiction results

Locus posted the short fiction results to its poll a couple of days ago and the results are… not entirely unexpected. Americocentric. A little more diverse in terms of race and gender than the novel results, but not by that much. And yes, pretty much exclusively Anglophone. But let’s see how my choices did…

20th Century SF/F Novella
22 – 1 ‘Great Work of Time’, John Crowley (1989)
6 – 2 ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’, Gene Wolfe (1972)
51 – 3 ‘Forgiveness Day’, Ursula K Le Guin (1994)
0 – 4 ‘Equator’, Brian W Aldiss (1958)
72 – 5 ‘Green Mars’, Kim Stanley Robinson (1985)
83 – 6 ‘Marrow’, Robert Reed (1997)
0 – 7 ‘Secrets’, Ian Watson (1997)
1 – 8 ‘Story of Your Life’, Ted Chiang (1998)
71 – 9 ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, Richard Cowper (1976)
10

Well, I picked the number one novella, although I had it down at number eight. A single Aldiss novella barely made the top fifty – so much for his sixty-year career (though I will admit ‘Equator’ is not generally seen as one of his career highlights; I still love it, however.) A single Ian Watson novelette made it to number 117 – so there’s another British author who has been cruelly neglected.

Instead, the actual top twenty had Chiang, old favourites like Heinlein and Simak and John W Campbell and Sturgeon and Lovecraft, and six women (including US middle-aged fan favourite Connie Willis). Most, surprisingly, are science fiction, rather than fantasy.

20th Century SF/F Novelette
108 – 1 ‘The Barbie Murders’, John Varley (1978)
170 – 2 ‘Beauty and the Opéra or the Phantom Beast’, Suzy McKee Charnas (1996)
0 – 3 ‘The Time-Tombs’, JG Ballard (1963)
73 – 4 ‘A Little Something For Us Tempunauts’, Philip K Dick (1974)
157 – 5 ‘Black Air’, Kim Stanley Robinson (1983)
0 – 6 ‘The Last Days of Shandakor’, Leigh Brackett (1952)
100 – 7 ‘No Woman Born’, CL Moore (1944)
0 – 8 ‘FOAM’, Brian W Aldiss (1991)
44 – 9 ‘Swarm’, Bruce Sterling (1982)
0 – 10 ‘Housecall’, Terry Dowling (1986)

A few more zeros here, meaning no one selected those choices as their number one. My highest placer is Bruce Sterling at 44, and I thought that was my most commercial pick. I should have instead listed ‘The View From Venus: A Case Study’ by Karen Joy Fowler, which, er, no one picked at all.

The actual top twenty has the execrable ‘Nightfall’ at number two. Kill it with fire. And another Asimov at number four. Plus Harlan Ellison (it’s harder to know which to despise more, the man or his fiction). Three women, although Tiptree is selected twice. Samuel Delany sneaks in at number sixteen. All twenty novelettes are by Americans (the first Brit appears at 41).

20th Century SF/F Short Story
56 – 1 ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill Side’, James Tiptree Jr. (1972)
25 – 2 ‘Air Raid’, John Varley (1977)
0 – 3 ‘Forward Echoes (AKA Identifying the Object)’, Gwyneth Jones (1990)
213 – 4 ‘The Lake of Tuonela’, Keith Roberts (1973)
0 – 5 ‘The Road To Jerusalem’, Mary Gentle (1991)
0 – 6 ‘A Map of the Mines of Barnath’, Sean Williams (1995)
0 – 7 ‘The Brains Of Rats’, Michael Blumlein (1986)
22 – 8 ‘Aye, And Gomorrah’, Samuel R Delany (1967)
276 – 9 ‘A Gift From The Culture’, Iain M Banks (1987)
101 – 10 ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, William Gibson (1981)

I wasn’t expecting to have many popular choices in this category, but not a single one of mine made it into the top twenty. Delany came highest at 22, and then Varley at 25. And they’re popular works of sf. I got four zeroes.

The actual results featured Ellison (3), Heinlein (2), Clarke (3), Asimov, Bradbury (2)… It’s Dead White Male time. (Except Ellison isn’t dead, of course.) Four women. JG Ballard’s highest placing is 47, which is dismaying. Looking at the results, I see a lot of stories that are repeatedly anthologised. Well, there you go…

21st Century SF/F Novella
59 – 1 ‘Arkfall’, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2008)
0 – 2 ‘My Death’, Lisa Tuttle (2004)
6 – 3 ‘Diamond Dogs’, Alastair Reynolds (2001)
0 – 4 ‘Dangerous Space’, Kelley Eskridge (2007)
0 – 5 ‘A Writer’s Life’, Eric Brown (2001)

I’ve read two of the novellas which made the top ten in this category. One of them was the Reynolds. I was surprised Carolyn Ives Gilman didn’t get zero, but then it was originally published in Asimov’s. Two of the others were original novellas from PS Publishing, so no surprise with the zeroes there…

21st Century SF/F Novelette
2 – 1 ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’, Ted Chiang (2007)
66 – 2 ‘Divining Light’, Ted Kosmatka (2008)
3
4
5

I freely admit to being crap at this category. Not only is the novelette a completely useless category and should be roundly expunged from, well, everything, but I’ve not read enough long short fiction published this century. Still, my number one choice made number two. Still, Chiang… (On the other hand, he also made the number one spot.)

As it is, the top ten are all genre darlings – Chiang, Link, Gaiman, Stross, Miéville, Bacigalupi…

21st Century SF/F Short Story

I was so rubbish at this one, I couldn’t think of a single story to nominate. If I had chosen the story I remembered after the deadline, ‘The Avatar of Background Noise’, Toiya Kristen Finley, it would have come… nowhere. No one picked it. Instead, we got ten relatively recent award winners, with a couple of outliers – Le Guin and Swanwick.

We can thus conclude that all worthwhile science fiction and fantasy short fiction is written by a group of about thirty people, over half of whom are dead. Of course, this is a consequence of the small number of voters, most of whom probably fit a fairly similar profile. I’m not sure how useful an exercise that makes the poll, though as a guideline for changing a reader’s approach to the genre it offers a possible blueprint. You know, don’t read the writers in the top twenties for each category, read other ones instead, ones you may not have come across before. Diversify your diet of genre fiction. Add some diversity to it.

And finally, I just have to say something about the amazingly stupid remark made in the comment thread on the results page:

“If there was more women and minorities that cared enough to vote in this poll, then there would have been more females and minorities on the list. you cannot blame others for it.”

Poor grammar aside, it’s a remarkably dumb thing to say. Because of course only women and minorities nominate women and minorities. And women only vote for women, just as minorities only vote for minorities. Someone take away Maddog’s computer, he’s clearly too stupid to use it properly.


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The Novel Poll results are in

… and oh dear. Well, that’s a little embarrassing. The results for the novels for the Locus All-Centuries Poll are in – see here. The best science fiction novel of the twentieth century is apparently Frank Herbert’s Dune, the best fantasy novel of the twentieth century is The Lord of the Rings, the best sf novel of the twenty-first century is John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, and the best fantasy novel of the twenty-first century is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

These results only show that most people confuse popularity with quality. I love Dune and I’ve read it many times, but it’s not a very well-written book. In fact, Herbert’s prose rarely rises above the embarrassingly bad. The Lord of the Rings is the giant elephant in the fantasy room, and it’s about time fantasy got over it. The less said about the twenty-first century novel choices, the better. I’ve read neither, I have no intention of reading them, they are not books I’d ever consider would merit the description “best”.

Unsurprisingly, my own choices did woefully badly. Only one actually made it onto a list – Watership Down at number ten on the 20th Century Fantasy Novel. For the record, here are the actual positions of my choices, where 0 (zero) means the book was not chosen as number one on a list by anyone.

20th Century SF Novel
221 – 1 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993)
206 – 2 Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1975)
16 – 3 The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
283 – 4 Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
0 – 5 Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968)
349 – 6 Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000)
0 – 7 Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981)
35 – 8 Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)
0 – 9 Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990)
76 – 10 The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)

20th Century Fantasy Novel
229 – 1 Aegypt, John Crowley (1987)
265 – 2 In Viriconium, M John Harrison (1982)
236 – 3 Rats & Gargoyles, Mary Gentle (1990)
34 – 4 Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock (1984)
0 – 5 Lens of the World, RA McAvoy (1990)
10 – 6 Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972)
102 – 7 The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman (1995)
62 – 8 Tehanu, Ursula K Le Guin (1990)
18 – 9 The Book Of The New Sun, Gene Wolfe (1983)
0 – 10 The Grail of Hearts, Susan Shwartz (1992)

21st Century SF Novel
14 – 1 Light, M John Harrison (2002)
67 – 2 Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004)
0 – 3 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007)
0 – 4 Alanya to Alanya, L Timmel Duchamp (2005)
0 – 5 The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009)

21st Century Fantasy Novel
0 – 1 Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002)
87 – 2 A Princess of Roumania, Paul Park (2005)
0 – 3 Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley (2005)
155 – 4 Hav, Jan Morris (2006)
0 – 5 Lord of Stone, Keith Brooke (2001)

So there we have it: popularity contest picks most popular novels and calls them “best”. In other words, a total waste of time. I knew going in that some of my choices were reasonably obscure – not totally obscure, as they were published by major publishing houses – but even so I expected some people to recognise their quality. Sadly not. And even my choices for the more popular and better-known authors didn’t even make it into the final top ten or top five. I mean, no halfway-intelligent person can consider Old Man’s War to be a better book than Light. Not, and be taken seriously. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Sf and fantasy aren’t taken seriously. And never will be as long as we pull stupid strokes like the results of this poll.

So, science fiction and fantasy, go and stand in the corner.


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Locus poll adden-doh

So, a day or two after I filled in my selections for the Locus Poll of Polls (see here), I stumbled across this Mind Meld I did back in October 2010 on my perfect short fiction anthology. While most of the TOC made it into my categories for the polls, some didn’t and I wish I’d managed to remember them. The missing ones were:

‘That Only a Mother’, Judith Merrill (short story, 1948)
I went for ‘No Woman Born’ by CL Moore instead. I’d have to reread both to decide which of the two I should have chosen. It might have been both.

‘The Sword of Rhiannon’, Leigh Brackett (novel, 1949)
This is apparently a novel, so it doesn’t even belong in a short fiction anthology. Whoops. I picked Brackett’s ‘The Last Days of Shandrakor’ for my 20th Century SF/F Novelette category.

‘A Woman Naked’, Christopher Priest (short story, 1974)
I did think about including this one, but I had more than ten choices for my 20th Century SF/F Short Story category. Even though some turned out to be novelettes, I still had to say no to a couple of titles. Incidentally, I wrote a guest post on this story on Gav Reads – see here.

‘The View from Venus: A Case Study’, Karen Joy Fowler (novelette, 1986)
I considered this one too, but I thought it was a short story and I was over-subscribed in that category. But I’ve just looked on isfdb.org and it’s down as a novelette. So I should have included it in that category, probably in place of the Sterling or the Dowling.

‘In Saturn Time’, William Barton (short story, 1995)
Like the Priest, I considered this, but had no free space in the category.

‘Beside the Sea’, Keith Brooke (short story, 1995)
I’d forgotten about this one, but I suspect it wouldn’t have made the cut anyway. Though it is an excellent short story.

‘The Avatar of Background Noise’, Toiya Kristen Finley (short story, 2006)
I wish I’d remembered this one. I left my 21st Century SF/F Short Story category blank, but I’d have included this one if I’d remembered it. Argh.

I only managed nine in the 20th Century SF/F Novella category, two in the 21st Century SF/F Novelette, and none in 21st Century SF/F Short Story. I think I need to read more short fiction from the first decade of this century. It’s not like I’m prevented from doing so – I have a huge pile of Interzones, a shelf full of Postscripts, and a whole bunch of other magazines and anthologies…

So, I think, as a resolution for 2013, I shall work towards putting together a short fiction best of the year, as I do every year for books, films and albums. That should encourage me to read more short stories. I’ll not differentiate between short story, novelette or novella – they’ll all be munged together into one list. Nor will I work overly hard at reading as much as possible. If a story doesn’t grab me within the first 500 to 1,000 words, I’ll not bother finishing it. I’ll stick to the venues I usually frequent, though if someone recommends a story published elsewhere I’ll give it a go. Hopefully, by the end of the year I’ll have enough to choose from to list the five best. I’ll even be able to pick stories to nominate for the BSFA Award. (hint, hint.)


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The humungous Locus poll and my picks for it

I hate polls; polls are stupid things. Picking the best fiction with a popularity contest? Fail. But I had a bash at it anyway. Not that my choices are likely to appear in the final top ten in any category, or cause anything but the tiniest amount of skew in the results. But it was sort of fun as an intellectual exercise.

Picking out the novels was easy enough, but the short fiction categories were hard, especially the 21st century ones. Some stories stay with you for years afterwards, but they’re few and far between. And numbers alone – plus the fact I don’t read every piece of short fiction as it’s published – means I probably encountered few memorable stories during the first decade of this century.

Anyway, for what it’s worth here are my picks:

20th Century SF Novel
1 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993)
2 Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1975)
3 The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
4 Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
5 Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968)
6 Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000)
7 Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981)
8 Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)
9 Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990)
10 The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)

20th Century Fantasy Novel
1 Aegypt, John Crowley (1987)
2 In Viriconium, M John Harrison (1982)
3 Rats & Gargoyles, Mary Gentle (1990)
4 Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock (1984)
5 Lens of the World, RA McAvoy (1990)
6 Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972)
7 The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman (1995)
8 Tehanu, Ursula K Le Guin (1990)
9 The Book Of The New Sun, Gene Wolfe (1983)
10 The Grail of Hearts, Susan Shwartz (1992)

20th Century SF/F Novella
1 ‘Great Work of Time’, John Crowley (1989)
2 ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’, Gene Wolfe (1972)
3 ‘Forgiveness Day’, Ursula K Le Guin (1994)
4 ‘Equator’, Brian W Aldiss (1958)
5 ‘Green Mars’, Kim Stanley Robinson (1985)
6 ‘Marrow’, Robert Reed (1997)
7 ‘Secrets’, Ian Watson (1997)
8 ‘Story of Your Life’, Ted Chiang (1998)
9 ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, Richard Cowper (1976)
10

20th Century SF/F Novelette
1 ‘The Barbie Murders’, John Varley (1978)
2 ‘Beauty and the Opéra or the Phantom Beast’, Suzy McKee Charnas (1996)
3 ‘The Time-Tombs’, JG Ballard (1963)
4 ‘A Little Something For Us Tempunauts’, Philip K Dick (1974)
5 ‘Black Air’, Kim Stanley Robinson (1983)
6 ‘The Last Days of Shandakor’, Leigh Brackett (1952)
7 ‘No Woman Born’, CL Moore (1944)
8 ‘FOAM’, Brian W Aldiss (1991)
9 ‘Swarm’, Bruce Sterling (1982)
10 ‘Housecall’, Terry Dowling (1986)

20th Century SF/F Short Story
1 ‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill Side’, James Tiptree Jr. (1972)
2 ‘Air Raid’, John Varley (1977)
3 ‘Forward Echoes (AKA Identifying the Object)’, Gwyneth Jones (1990)
4 ‘The Lake of Tuonela’, Keith Roberts (1973)
5 ‘The Road To Jerusalem’, Mary Gentle (1991)
6 ‘A Map of the Mines of Barnath’, Sean Williams (1995)
7 ‘The Brains Of Rats’, Michael Blumlein (1986)
8 ‘Aye, And Gomorrah’, Samuel R Delany (1967)
9 ‘A Gift From The Culture’, Iain M Banks (1987)
10 ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, William Gibson (1981)

21st Century SF Novel
1 Light, M John Harrison (2002)
2 Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004)
3 Ascent, Jed Mercurio (2007)
4 Alanya to Alanya, L Timmel Duchamp (2005)
5 The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009)

21st Century Fantasy Novel
1 Evening’s Empire, David Herter (2002)
2 A Princess of Roumania, Paul Park (2005)
3 Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley (2005)
4 Hav, Jan Morris (2006)
5 Lord of Stone, Keith Brooke (2001)

21st Century SF/F Novella
1 ‘Arkfall’, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2008)
2 ‘My Death’, Lisa Tuttle (2004)
3 ‘Diamond Dogs’, Alastair Reynolds (2001)
4 ‘Dangerous Space’, Kelley Eskridge (2007)
5 ‘A Writer’s Life’, Eric Brown (2001)

21st Century SF/F Novelette
1 ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’, Ted Chiang (2007)
2 ‘Divining Light’, Ted Kosmatka (2008)
3
4
5

21st Century SF/F Short Story
1
2
3
4
5

Well, the same names crop up in most lists, but that’s because I think those writers are amongst the most interesting in genre fiction. I did trawl through the lists of suggested titles provided by Locus, but there were few novels or stories I liked or thought especially good – in fact, many of choices above don’t appear on any of their lists. I’ve not read enough 21st century short fiction to pick the five best. I managed it with a handful of novellas and novelettes, but short stories?

(No doubt I’ll think of possible titles the moment I hit the “Publish” button on this post…)

And let me once more ask what on earth is the use of the novelette? It’s an entirely arbitrary and useless category. Anything bigger than a short story but smaller than a novel is a novella. The only places where novelette is used as a category is in the Big Three genre magazines and US genre awards. And it seems to me it only exists so the big friendly and incestuous club of US genre writers have an excuse to give each other yet another award. Get rid of it, please.


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Toward working definitions of science fiction and fantasy

I’ve mentioned these thoughts in passing in other posts, but I decided it was time to put them together and see what happens. I have said in the past that science fiction makes explicit the wonder in the physical universe – see here; yes, with an equation too – but perhaps that’s also true of fantasy. Maybe instead of the horrible “speculative fiction”, or the equally awful “strange fiction”, we should use the term “wondrous fiction”. Though I believe Yes beat me to it.

Unfortunately, “wf” is a pretty naff acronym, especially if you use it as one and not an initialism. Would it be “wif” or “wuf”? “I am a wuf writer.” Ugh. Would bad wondrous fiction be known as “wiffy”? Um, and “wifi” has already been taken. Ah well, perhaps not.

However, it strikes me there are two defining loci for science fiction and fantasy. One is wonder, the other is agency. And while wonder identifies both genres, agency differentiates them:-

fantasy – stories in which agency, or power over the natural world, is given by authorial fiat to things, including human beings, which in the real world do not have such agency or power, or do not exist.

science fiction – stories in which agency, or power over the physical universe, is given by human beings – systematically – to things, including human beings, which in the real world do not have such agency or power, or do not exist.

No doubt everyone will now immediately think of exceptions which disprove these definitions. That seems to be the way this sort of thing works…


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5 tropes science fiction and fantasy should really stop using

These speak for themselves, I think.

1. rape as lazy characterisation
You want to show your villain is a Bad Man, so you have him rape a woman. You want your fluffy princess to become a feisty amazon, so you have someone rape her. No no no no no no no. Do not treat women like this, not even in fiction. And when Mr Fantasy Author responds, “that’s what it was like in the Middle Ages, you moron”, but also quite happily replies with “it’s a made-up fantasy land, you moron” when the accuracy of his Middle English has been questioned, then I would suggest that Mr Fantasy Author is the real moron. If you’re going to make shit up, don’t make up regressive sexist shit.

2. the lone gunman
Thousands have died, perhaps millions, and it’s all the fault of one man (it’s almost always a man). He deliberately gave the order, or pressed the button, that resulted in all those deaths. He’s a monster, and he acted in a vacuum, according to motives of his own. He’s not part of a political or religious movement, he’s not the general of a conquering army. He is the lone gunman, the lone psycho. Like the corporate executive, in a Hugo-shortlisted space opera, who hires gangsters to seal the exits of an asteroid city with a population of 1.5 million, and then subjects them to a fate worse than death by infecting them with an alien virus… just to see what will happen. If your plot depends on one person acting like an inhuman monster, you need to rethink your plot.

3. post-catastrophe man is an animal
Thirty years ago, we were waiting for them to drop the big one and then we’d all be scrabbling for survival among the radioactive ruins. Now it’s more likely that climate crash, or nation-state failure, will do for us. Either way, our current way of life will be toast. So, of course, once this happens the men will all run rampant, rape all the women, steal everything, and kill anyone they don’t like the look of. This, at least, is what fiction tells us. We will not try and rebuild our communities, we will not recognise that cooperation increases our chances of survival. It’s every man for himself, and the women are chattel. Of course, our present ruling classes want us to believe this – they need law and order to maintain their rule, so they want us to believe that without law and order we will turn into brainless animals. In Davide Longo’s The Last Man Standing, a middle-aged couple break into the protagonist’s house and steal all his food and clothing. Regressive, but relatively plausible. They also shit all over his furniture. Why? Why would anyone stealing food to survive also shit on their victim’s furniture? If you have characters in your post-apocalypse novel raping women and shitting on beds, do “select all”, followed by “delete”.

4. the tart with a heart
It’s not just that it’s a horrible cliché centuries past its sell-by date. Think what it says about your invented world. If prostitution exists, or even flourishes, then it is not an equal society. It is patriarchal. And that makes it sexist. Is the human race – one half of it, at least – doomed to be sexist until the heat death of the universe? Biological apologists are no better than creationists. Leave regressive crap like this where it belongs – in religious books.

5. artificial people are not people
Humanity finally manages to create a race of artificial human beings. And promptly enslaves them. No no no no no no no no no. If they’re human, they’re human. They will have the same rights as everyone else. We did the slavery thing centuries ago, it was wrong and we know it was wrong… so why would we do it again? This goes for AIs too. If it’s sentient, it’s not a tool. And if you should find yourself writing a sex slave character, take your manuscript and burn it. And do not write another word until you know better.

ETA: I have added “as lazy characterisation” to the first point as it was rightly pointed out to me that it originally read as though I felt rape should never appear in fiction, when it was my intention that its use as lazy shorthand characterisation should be avoided. Rape should be written about, and as a man I am not in a position to say otherwise. I apologise for any confusion, and take to heart everything written by Kari Sperring in her response here.


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A fine fantasy

I remember reading Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Halfway Human back in 1998, thinking it very good, and then being somewhat disappointed when no further novels appeared from her. I later discovered she’d had a number of short stories published – chiefly in F&SF – and even a novella, ‘Arkfall’ (now available from Phoenix Pick here). There are also a pair of chapbooks from Aqueduct Press.

Last year, I learnt Gilman would have a new fantasy novel published by ChiZine Publications. I am not, it has to be said, a huge fan of fantasy. Too many strike me as too similar. Ripping off a different culture for the background, or implementing a new magic system, is not enough. But the description of Isles of the Forsaken seemed to me it might appeal. So I pre-ordered a copy.

I have now read it. And I was not disappointed.

The Inning Empire has just won a years-long war, and has decided to turn its attention to its colonial possessions, the Forsaken Isles. The empire is a lexarchy, which means it is ruled entirely by its Courts and legal system. Despite this, it’s not especially enlightened – in fact, the Innings as a race are arrogant and racist, and their colonial policies reflect this.

Harg Ismol is an Adaina, the lesser of the two races which inhabit the Forsaken Isles. The others, the Torna, are the dominant race and administer the islands in the name of the Innings. Also relevant are the Lashnura, or Grey Folk, semi-magical healers who can take away the pain and injuries of the islanders. The Innings do not understand this relationship, imagining the voluntary empathic bondage the Grey Folk undergo is little more than slavery. Harg had a good war, and rose to the rank of captain, the only Adaina to do so. Though he is offered the command of the Native Navy by Admiral Corbin Talley, head of the Inning Navy, he turns it down and returns home to Yora, an island in the South Chain of the Forsakens.

At which point, things start to go horribly wrong.

Isles of the Forsaken moves smoothly from a story about a disaffected hero returning home from war into a story about an archipelago-wide rebellion. This is driven by veterans having seen the rest of the empire, and by the Innings’ desire to finally “sort out” the islands. Harg is, of course, caught up in this, if not partly instrumental. Also important is Nathaway Talley, the youngest son of the Inning Chief Justice (and brother of Corbin), who is on Yora because he wants to introduce the Adaina to the benefits of Inning law. And there is also Spaeth, who was created as a companion by Yora’s lone Lashnura, but has yet to take on her healing responsibilites.

There are, however, one or two set-pieces in the book which feel a little contrived. Harg’s first run-in with the Tornan authorities, for example, seems a bit too well-designed to put him on the path the plot demands. Which is not to say Harg is not a well-rounded character. He’s a reluctant hero – while acknowledging that he’s best-placed, and has the necessary skills, to lead the islanders’ fight, he doesn’t want the responsibility of leading them into a war they would probably lose. And which would doubtless result in bloody reprisals. Further, there is an island myth about a leader, the Ison, who appears in times of need to lead the islanders to victory. Harg doesn’t believe he is the Ison, nor does he want to be him – part of the myth involves a “cleansing” by one of the Lashnura, which Harg refuses to undergo.

Nathaway’s transformation from idealistic naïf is better-handled, though it takes a while to get going. The Grey Folk, and the mythology which they represent, provide an interesting backdrop to the story, one which becomes increasingly important and relevant as the plot progresses. In parts, this mythology reminded me a little of Le Guin’s Earthsea books, particularly when Spaeth takes Nathaway to the “circles”, where the opposing balances which “rule” the islands manifest. The character of Tiarch, the Tornan governer of the Forsaken Islands, struck me as the sort of character Gwyneth Jones would write.

One section of the story which stands out takes place when Spaeth and Nathaway escape from Admiral Talley’s custody. They flee into the sewers beneath the city, but soon get lost and, somehow, cross over into another “circle”. This is one not even Spaeth recognises. It manifests as a series of mezzanine floors about a great well many many levels deep. Each level contains vast rooms in which are stored books and scrolls and other forms of document. The section is genuinely creepy, and the writing – which is good throughout the novel – is especially effective at getting this across.

Isles of the Forsaken is a post-colonial fantasy. Though the Inning Empire won its war, and is governed by what we would consider a fair and impartial system, the story’s sympathies plainly lie with the Forsaken Islanders. Of course, the Innings are far from the noble people their technology and political system would suggest. Nor are they the only ones who are racist – the Torna consider the Adaina to be nothing more than feckless and ignorant peasants. There are different ways of life on display in Isles of the Forsaken, and its ignorance about these among and between each group which is partly the fuel which drives the plot. The Innings’ lexarchy also comes under scrutiny. Theoretically an impartial and impersonal system with no real leadership, it is in practice dominated by the Talley family, and Corbin’s campaign in the Forsaken Islands is partly phrased as a launchpad for a bid for power by him back in the Inning homeland.

I read Isles of the Forsaken pretty much in two sittings. It may only be 312 pages long – definitely a point in its favour, given that it is a fantasy – but even so, I’ve not read many books in recent years which have dragged me into their story and kept me there quite so effectively. I’ve already pre-ordered the sequel, Ison of the Isles.


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The agency model of genre

The Ancient Greeks attempted to explain the world about them by applying human agency to it. Why does the sun cross the sky? Because some bloke in a chariot is pulling it. And since such feats required abilities above and beyond those normally attributable to humans, so those who performed them were deemed gods. Over time, the use of these gods as explanations became a narrative and so accreted history, politics, romance, symbolism, etc. But they still didn’t really explain what caused the sun to rise and set.

And so for fantasy. It does not seek to explain, it applies agency to something which does not, in the real world, possess it. Sometimes that agency cannot be wielded by humans – the supernatural, demons, gods and demi-gods. Or it gives humans agency over things not normally open to their use, via magic systems or supernatural talents. And those magic systems may be as structured and fractal as the laws of physics.

Science fiction, however, assumes the real world is explainable. The sun crosses the sky because the earth is turning, and the earth turns due to the action of its core. The universe operates according to a structure of interlocking principles and rules, which are not only parsable but fractal.

The worlds in science fiction stories are implicitly reachable, either by traversing time or space or both. This is not true for fantasy worlds. Yes, there are those where people from our world find themselves in the world of the story – The Chronicles of Narnia, The Fionavar Tapestry, or The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, for example – but those are not journeys, they are magic portals. To some extent, it might be argued that similar travel to alternate dimensions, worlds or histories in science fiction might well treat such methods as magic portals, but the possibility of an explanation still underlies it. More than that, it is driven by an element of a rule-set which underlies the entire universe. The same cannot be said of fantasy.

That, I think, is the fundamental difference between science fiction and fantasy. That is why they are different modes of fiction, for all that they may share similar trappings or often use a shared toolkit. In sf, the universe is a rational and impersonal place, which operates independently of, and with no regard for, those who inhabit it (though they may engineer it for their own uses). In fantasy, everything has motivation because everything has some degree of agency, and the world exists for the benefit of its inhabitants. Their existence is part of the same act of creation which created the world. Without inhabitants, there would be no world. And everything in it is open to use by at least some of the inhabitants.

By the same token, neither genre is a subset of the other. Though they may be lumped together for marketing purposes and because the fanbases have traditionally overlapped, they have entirely different histories. The first science fiction came from electronics magazines in the 1920s; the first fantasies are a great deal older, perhaps even as old as civilisation itself. The current situation is an accident of the creative and production process for fantasy and science fiction. This doesn’t mean, of course, that they two should be sundered. Each benefits from its supposed relationship to the other. But there is a distinction, and to discuss either, or both, without recognising that benefits neither.


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Why there’s nothing fantastic about science fiction

We all like our genre labels, even if we argue over their provenance – literary genre, marketing category, or whatever it is we are pointing at. But people have a natural tendency to categorise things, to seek out patterns, in order to make things more manageable. It helps no one to insist that there is no such thing as genre, that all literature is one big amorphous field in which authors play with a selection of tools. Not only does this fail to recognise the nature of those tools, the author’s intent, or the reader’s response, it hampers discussion and confuses matters.

Genre exists. Deal with it.

There are also those who like to lump science fiction and fantasy together as a single genre. Certainly, they can both be found in the same part of a book shop. They call this “speculative fiction”. But sf and fantasy have as much in common as… sf and mainstream fiction, say, or fantasy and crime fiction; than they have in common with each other. Sf and fantasy and crime, for example, share a reliance on plot; or, sf and fantasy can be as mimetic as literary fiction.

In fact, other than the (not obligatory) use of invented worlds, sf and fantasy have very little in common. And there are mainstream novels which use invented locales – such as South Riding, Barchester, Wetherton or Kings Markham. But then, all literature is speculative, all literature is imaginative – but that doesn’t make all literature the same.

Even distinctions between “science fiction” and “category science fiction” are facile. The latter is what some people use to describe books sold as science fiction – the difference, in other words, between an Iain M Banks’ Surface Detail and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The former has “SF” on its spine, and is shelved in the sf and fantasy section of the book shop.

As for science fiction and fantasy belonging to an all-encompassing “speculative fiction” genre… That too is a failure of taxonomy. They are entirely different modes. Science fiction is, at heart, modernist. It may be plot-dependent, which much modernist literature is not, but its modern form was certainly created as a means of explaining an ever-changing industrialised world. It even began in an electronics magazine! Sf’s self-reflective nature – i.e., “a genre in conversation with itself” – is also a characteristic of modernist fiction. As is the gradual shift from a chiefly utopian mode to a dystopian one.

Fantasy displays none of these characteristics. It is not always plot-dependent, though epic/high fantasy (i.e., secondary world fantasies) tends to rely heavily on either the quest or hero’s journey templates. It does not seek to explain the world, but to lend it further mystery; its worlds are not open to explanation. It is neither utopian nor dystopian, but always returns to the status quo. It is not self-reflective, though over the decades it has built up a large toolbox of conventions and tropes.

Without genres, we cannot discuss literature intelligently. Without taxonomy, we cannot know what we are talking about. As marketing categories, sf and fantasy serve a purpose for readers and purchases and fans. But sf and fantasy as definable (however nebulously) modes of fiction provides the context we need to engage and comment on fictions displaying genre characteristics.


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Awards! Huh, what are they good for?

So the Hugo results are in and… ho-hum. The Hugo Award for The Nicest Person Who Happened To Have A Novel Published In The Preceding Year went to Connie Willis for a novel so bloated it had to be published in two volumes. But that’s okay, because the nice people in charge of the award fixed it for both of them to be considered as one book on the ballot. We’ll not mention the fact that the book is riddled with historical inaccuracies – I mean, having the Jubilee Line open during World War II? Wtf? That’s an epic research fail.

On the good news front, the whale rape story didn’t win the best novelette category. But it still got shortlisted, which is shameful. Ted Chiang won the best novella because, well, he would, wouldn’t he? The only time he doesn’t get shortlisted is when he withdraws his stories from consideration. He’s good, but he doesn’t shit gold and it’s about time the Hugo voters recognised that. The short story category was especially weak this year, and the award went to the current VP of the SFWA. This may be a coincidence. It probably is.

As for the rest of categories… I don’t understand the purpose of the two editor awards, or the fan writer and fanzine ones. As for the dramatic presentation awards, well, both movies and televisions have their own awards and they spend a lot more money on them than the Hugo does. Best Related Book? Why not just have Best Work of Criticism? And drop the Best Graphic Story too. Most of the ones that get nominated aren’t science fiction anyway.

In fact, why not limit the Hugos to actual, well, science fiction? Fantasy has its own awards. Let them hand them out to their nice people. Keep the Hugos for sf only. Written sf, and writings about sf. And give it to works, not people – no matter how nice they are.

(With apologies to Edwin Starr.)