Reviews of BSFA Nominees

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British SF Association Nominees 2004

NOVEL

  • Absolution Gap, Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz)
    This book is ostensibly the end of a trilogy that was really four books and wasn't really marketed as a series to begin with, but shares so many locations and characters that if it's not a series I don't know what else you'd call it. Reynolds is in top form, starting with three parallel stories each taking place at a different point in time, but all managing to come together at the end. The usual mix of gothic space opera and interpersonal vendettas comes to a head here as we see characters like Clavain and Remontoire from previous books, plunged into another last stand against the Inhibitors and their quest to destroy humanity. The action ends up centering around a moon called Hela, where a religion has sprung up around the occasional disappearance of its planet, Haldora. Huge moving cathedrals circumnavigate the moon in lockstep with the planet in order to bear witness to the next occurrence of this event. Reynolds is able to take this huge canvas of interstellar war and focus on a handful of characters and the roles they play, sometimes unwittingly, in the proceedings. His florid prose slows the pace down most of the time, but when there is some action the tone shifts accordingly, unlike many British novels. I finally got to meet him a few weeks ago and he seems so normal, it's hard to imagine all this stuff going on in his head. This book and the others are densely written for this kind of a story (in comparison to say the Williams & Dix series that is vaguely similar and much more straightforward), and for all that happens in the books, in this one particularly Reynolds has to summarize huge chunks of plot in a few pages each in order to keep the story moving forward. Long enough as it is, it could easily have been twice the size, and for his restraint we should be thankful. He's created a future classic with these four books and is now on to other things for the time being, but what we are left with is plenty to keep coming back to for the forseeable future.
  • Felaheen: The Third Arabesk, Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Earthlight)
  • Maul, Tricia Sullivan (Orbit)
  • Midnight Lamp, Gwyneth Jones (Gollancz)
  • Natural History, Justina Robson (Macmillan)
    An ambitious novel with a lot to do and not a lot of pages to do it, this is probably the toughest slog in this category in spite of its relative brevity. Robson extrapolates a future so far out (in both senses of the phrase) it's difficult to figure out what's going on sometimes, what with the conflict between regular humans and basically an engineered servant class called the Forged, one of which is a sentient interstellar craft who has discovered the first evidence of an alien race. The distinction between the humans and their Forged counterparts isn't always easy to keep track of, and the book jumps around from chapter to chapter between different threads that may or may not have anything to do with each other, keeping the reader somewhat off balance and potentially confused. Robson seems primarily interested in the Big Questions involved in the interaction between what are now basically two species and how they will react and/or learn from this new discovery. At the times when the narrative lapses into a more earthbound, near-future setting Robson's prose style is quite immediate and compelling. One of the Forged characters is able to transfer his consciousness into a normal human, and his encounters with the first group of thugs he meets out in the real world is the most lucid part of the book. The meta-human space-faring chapters are less so, with more of the standard British monotone, as the characters tend to talk on a lot about Stuff (which is the name they come up with for the material the alien artifact is made of) and other stuff, without a whole lot of plot. Robson shows a lot of imagination, her prose is suitably inventive, such that a huge dose of physics lingo doesn't seem that out of place, I think the characters just needed more definition and the book needs a stronger sense of place. But I'm thinking that a second reading would probably fill in many of the gaps and make the book on the whole a worthwhile exercise.
  • Pattern Recognition, William Gibson (Viking)
  • SHORT FICTION

    "Birth Days", Geoff Ryman (Interzone #188 Apr 2003)
    Dear Abbey, Terry Bisson (PS Publishing)
    "Entangled Eyes Are Smiling", John Meaney (Interzone #190 Jul/Aug 2003)
    "Nightfall", Charles Stross (Asimov's Apr 2003)
    Not to be confused with the Asimov version, this "Nightfall" features a woman named Amber who is awakened from cold sleep and told that millions of years have passed and she is needed to fight an alien menace that threatens to destroy everything. I haven't read the original Nightfall in a long time, but I suspect that the similarities, if there are any, end there. Stross is back in the same universe as his previous nominees "Lobsters" and "Router", and this one is all about how to outfox the aliens and whether the intelligence that woke up Amber and her cat Pierre are legit or not. In usually Stross fashion, there's a ton of throwaway references to ideas that would make stories themselves, the pace is set at such a high pitch compounded with all the techno-speak that it takes a couple of readings to sort out what's going on, which as it turns out isn't really a whole lot, but it's generally entertaining along the way and throws in a few barbs about corporations, past and future, for good measure, as the aliens really traffic in humans as a type of currency. More focused than some of his earlier work, Stross continues to improve and amaze at the same time.
    The Wolves in the Walls, Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean (Bloomsbury Children's Books)