Reviews of BSFA Nominees

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British SF Association Nominees 2006

NOVEL

  • 9Tail Fox, Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Gollancz)
  • Accelerando, Charles Stross (Orbit)
    The SF encyclopedia would call this a "fixup", a series of linked stories originally published separately, with maybe some new material to help patch it all together. The patching is minimal here, this is an assemblage of the geeked-out new-ideas-in-every-sentence stories with which Stross made a name for himself a scant five years ago. While his previous novels, actually written later than most of this, are able to take a comparatively leisured pace and tell a story with a beginning, middle and end, this book has no such pretensions and throws information at the reader at such a breakneck pace it is frankly offputting after awhile. Somewhere in here is a linear narrative, albeit with several large jumps forward in time, chronicling the exploits of future techno-nerd Manfred Macx and his descendants, in their never-ending quest to achieve, conquer and transcend the technological singularity predicted by Vernor Vinge, what Stross calls "the rapture of the nerds". The book cannot possibly be digested in one reading. Even having read a few of the installments in their originally published form (three of which were Hugo nominees in other categories), there's just too many ideas and too much going on to attempt to explain what Stross is on about. Apparently there are these aliens out there that look like lobsters, although they look like that just to give us something to relate to. They have something to do with a series of intergalactic "routers", portals in space that can cover vast distances in a heartbeat. As mankind is overtaken by the collective processing power of its computers, civilization starts to morph if not break down altogether. The inner planets are being consumed for raw materials, manufacturing so-called Matroshka systems, basically nested dyson spheres around the sun. There's some sort of pivotal election that will decide the fate of the human race. You could spend the rest of your life trying to make sense of this book. The basic story is easy to spot, it's not a difficult read per se, but you know as you're reading it that you're missing a lot, while at the same time being sort of annoyed that there is so much to take in all at once. Maddening, diffuse, probably brilliant, Doctorow's cover blurb says it all, "Makes hallucinogens obsolete."
  • Air, Geoff Ryman (Gollancz)
  • Learning the World, Ken MacLeod (Orbit)
    After a string of increasingly incomprehensible books that focused too much on politics at the expense of everything else, MacLeod's entry this year is something of a throwback, a first contact story, or as the subtitle says, "a scientific romance". In the future everyone has weird names, from the main human viewpoint character, the young girl Atomic Discourse Gale, to the generation ship she lives in, called "But the Sky, My Lady, the Sky". Atomic maintains a blog where she divulges information to her fellow pilgrims on strange signals coming from the same star system they're heading to colonize. This turns out to be the first encounter with another intelligent species, dubbed the Alien Space Bats, who have their own civilization and are aware that some unusual object is heading their way.

    Things take a turn late in the book as the starship pulls up nearby to start their colonization process and the politics ramp up. The space-bat society makes use of a lower caste drone class, which are inadvertently uplifted by scientific nano-tech unknowingly released by the ship. This causes some unrest down on the planet, while back at the ship, Atomic and her pals born on the ship are old enough now to be considered indepedent colonists in their own right, but those who have been there from the beginning have their own ideas about what to do in this situation, and there's a certain amount of double-crossing. MacLeod seems most interested in the inevitable conflict that arises when any two cultures first meet, not even so much between the cultures as within each culture independently. He captures well the arrogant, young-person attitude of Atomic, and the two main space-bat characters, Kwarive and Darwin, are amusingly congenial in translation, presumably they don't sound quite so human in their own language, but MacLeod prefers to give them easily relatable emotions, motivations and interactions, they even think of themselves as human.

    If there's anything to gripe about here, it's that in the end it all seems a bit thin, which can be said of other MacLeod books I've read. The story is much easier to follow than usual to be sure, so it makes for an entertaining read, but to some degree that serves to shortchange the amount of space to devote to the political and sociological implications that would seem to be the motivation behind the story. In the last chapter, years later, a sort of begrudging sharing of information has been worked out but the two races basically leave each other alone, which is probably the most likely outcome. It's interesting that subsequent MacLeod books have not gotten nominations, this may be the closest he's come to writing something both accessible and popular. There are always lots of ideas in his books, but they tend to suffer more from what gets left out than what gets put in.

  • Living Next Door to the God of Love, Justina Robson (Macmillan)
  • SHORT FICTION

    "Bears Discover Smut" -- Michael Bishop (SciFiction, 26 October)
    "Bird Songs at Eventide" -- Nina Allan (Interzone #199)
    "Guadalupe and Hieronymus Bosch" -- Rudy Rucker (Interzone #200)
    "I, Robot" -- Cory Doctorow (Infinite Matrix, 15 February)
    This story is part homage to, part refutation of its namesake (the Asimov collection, not the original Eando Binder story, or the Will Smith movie). Doctorow perfectly captures the tone of an old-fashioned sf story, replete with the stilted dialog and noirish rapid-fire crime-fighting prose, but the similarities end there. The author says he wrote this in response to Ray Bradbury's whining over Michael Moore's coopting of the title "Fahrenheit 451" for his movie "Fahrenheit 9/11". The idea is that many of the classic sf stories promote their premise against a backdrop of a well-meaning but totalitarian state, and Doctorow's intent is to try to depict what that would really be like, what kind of a society would there need to be for all the robots in the country to be made by one company. There's a healthy dose of current events to extrapolate from, where the US is the benevolent dictatorship, and the protagonist, Arturo, is a cop who has at his disposal any number of bugging, surveillance and tracking devices, including robot cops, to help him fight crime. When his daughter goes missing after skipping school, he puts the usual methods into play, but hits a snag when the robots he's dispatched stop responding. What he ends up falling into is an elaborate plot spearheaded by his ex-wife, who represents the country that has been at war with them for years, using their own brand of robot that doesn't subscribe to Asimov's three laws. Arturo is too entrenched in the system to bring himself to change sides easily, but by the end of story he's not too sure where his loyalties lie. Doctorow doesn't dwell on either the politics or the technology as much as you might think, you can take this story at face value and still be justifiably entertained. The robots are present throughout the story but are really just part of the fabric of the world that he's proposing, merely another tool in the government's basket of things utilized to keep us all safe from one another.
    "Imagine" -- Edward Morries (Interzone #200)
    "Magic for Beginners" -- Kelly Link (Magic For Beginners; also F&SF, September)
    There is no magic in this story, or if there is, it's more of the Clarkeian variety that is indistinguishable from technology. And who are the beginners in question? Link doesn't answer that either, so while the title may set up a standard fantasy milieu, what she delivers is anything but, rather a hodgepodge of disparate ideas thrown together to keep the reader guessing from beginning to end. The story mostly follows a group of five teenagers (told from the perspective of someone who knows them but who never interacts with anyone in the story). One of them, Jeremy, is taking a trip to Las Vegas with his mother, who just inherited a phone booth and a drive-up wedding chapel from an aunt. His father is a writer and a kleptomaniac, who feels guilty after writing a fictional story featuring his son that ends up killing him off. Jeremy and his friends are all obsessed with a tv show called "The Library", which features an ongoing set of characters like a soap opera, but you never know when it's going to be on, or who any of the actors are playing any of the parts. They are starting to wonder if maybe the show is really happening. The story seems to set up the idea of an infinite regression, hinting that the teenagers may either be fictional themselves, or else playing out their own tv show without realizing it. Jeremy can even talk to the Library's recently deceased hero, Fox, or someone who purports to be him, by calling that phone booth in Vegas that now belongs to them. There's a lot going on in here, Link expertly weaves a spell through all the various events and characters that has you totally off kilter without being willfully obtuse, as though there really is a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this, but she's not telling. The story doesn't provide enough clues to draw obvious conclusions, but leaves you feeling intrigued rather than annoyed, or else with your head spinning too much to notice.
    "Soft Apocalypse" -- Will McIntosh (Interzone #200)
    "Two Dreams on Trains" -- Elizabeth Bear (Strange Horizons, 3 January)