Reviews of BSFA Nominees

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British SF Association Nominees 2003

NOVEL

  • The Separation, Christopher Priest (Scribner UK)
  • Castles Made of Sand, Gwyneth Jones (Gollancz)
  • Effendi: The Second Arabesk, Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Earthlight)
  • Light, M. John Harrison (Gollancz)
  • The Scar, China Miéville (Macmillan; Del Rey)
    This was the book I really wanted to read, and it lived up to my expectations in every way. Last year's Perdido Street Station was one of the best books I'd read in quite some time, one that, unusually, lived up to its advance billing. This tangential sequel, set in the same universe but only indirectly related, had a lot to overcome, but managed quite well. Mieville stuns you on every page with his descriptions of the planet of Bas-Lag, a place you'd never want to live in, but endlessly fascinating in all its details, filled with desultory characters, weird science, and weirder denizens, from the mosquito people to the vampir to the deep-sea dwelling avanc, plus pirates, power-mad rulers, a floating city made out of old ships lashed together, a rend in the fabric of spacetime in the middle of the ocean, you name it. The plot is less horror-oriented than Perdido Street Station, but some of the things that happen are no less horrific. Mieville's prose is endlessly spun out in a web of intricate sentences, but never bogs down or loses its narrative drive. For all the description and wordsmithing, Mieville is relentlessly plot-oriented, making this book unusual for works of this length in its high percentage of actual story over mere window-dressing. There's even some fairly weighty ideas to be wrestled with here, as various characters grapple with free will, the overtones of a downtrodden society rising up against the dominant part of civilization, it goes on and on. Bellis, the main character of the book, is ostensibly the hero, but for the most part fails in the heroic things she tries to do. If there's one quibble, its the amount of hyperbole given whenever someone has a revelation about what's going on or comes to some new understanding, if only because it happens fairly often, particularly as the book winds down, but it only draw attention to itself when weighed against the impact of the book as a whole on just about every level. Maybe not for everybody, but this is the one to beat.
  • The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson (Bantam)
    This is Robinson channeling James Michener, and boy is it a slog. The longest book on the list, it's also the most disjointed, consisting of quite a few individual stories with different characters taking place over a several hundred year span of an alternate history, where 99% of western Europe was wiped out by the bubonic plague and the oriental and middle eastern countries rose to ascendancy in their place. I'm not a fan of alternate history to begin with, since it's not really science fiction, more of just a thought experiment, the whole point of which is to look at how things would turn out differently were history tweaked in a certain way. The premise of this book is far more than a tweak, however, such that you have basically an entirely different group of civilizations developing, going to war with each other, and because it's not based in real history there's not much of a feeling of telling a story that has some significance to those of us living in the current reality. If alternate history is to have a purpose, it should be to make us look at our own history in a different way, beyond just "wouldn't it be neat if...". The latter part of the book, though, seems content to just show how muslim or chinese scientists end up discovering the things that would've been discovered by western civilization had it survived, and because you know what those discoveries are it's not that interesting. Even Michener at his best ties it all together, gives you a sense of what it is to have a place in whatever gestalt worldview he's been wallowing in, but I just didn't get that here. Robinson has never been known to be plot-driven, his Mars books unfold in near-realtime, it seems, but they're given more space and fewer years to cover. This book contains a few good stories, and has been gushed over by a lot of people, and is at a disadvantage for me because I don't subscribe to the cult of Harry Turtledove, and is too much of a snoozer to dwell on.
  • SHORT FICTION

  • Coraline, Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins)
    I just can't subscribe to the cult of the personality that envelops Neil Gaiman, I was away from comics the whole time Sandman was going on and by the time I got back to it his other big series, Books of Magic, was being written by someone else and was completely incomprehensible. Last year's "American Gods" was good, rambled a bit, at the end seemed not exactly sure what it was trying to prove, and wasn't nearly as compelling or as finely wrought as "Perdido Street Station", but it won hands down anyway. But this book has much less lofty ambitions, being a children's story (provided you don't mind creeping your children out) about a little girl who has to save her parents from the unsavory characters that exist on the other side of the brick wall that separates her flat from the one next door. Young Girl Saves Parents is also the plot of "Spirited Away" (and is a standard anime trope), and if there's a moral here its a somewhat half-hearted reference to "you don't really want to be given everything you say you want". This book wasn't exactly a best seller in the general YA market, but seems to have plenty of supporters within fandom, and is probably the story to beat in this category, but while there's nothing wrong with it there wasn't enough really going for it to think of it as a future classic. The surrogate parents on the other side of the wall are suitably creepy, they're given some motivation and some differences of opinion, there are a few other characters that need to be rescued along the way, the final battle is followed by a relatively routine surprise standoff at the very end, which makes use of the plot device dutifully mentioned in the first chapter. The illustrations look like they were done in about five minutes (I'm not much a fan of Dave McKean's surrealist artwork, I'm afraid), and the story provides enough disturbing visual images of its own that if I read this to my seven year old she wouldn't be able to sleep for a week. Worth reading, but I don't have enough other stories of this type to compare it against to say whether its a top contender, but taken in the context of its competition in this category it comes up short.
  • "Five British Dinosaurs", Michael Swanwick (Interzone #177 Mar 2002)
    "If Lions Could Speak", Paul Park (Interzone #177 Mar 2002)
    "Router", Charles Stross (Asimov's Sep 2002)
    "Singleton", Greg Egan (Interzone #176 Feb 2002)
    "Voice of Steel", Sean McMullen (Sci Fiction 08.21.02)