Tag Archives: Lavie Tidhar

SF & Fantasy need to stop being so damn eager to please

“It just seems to me that, from Ballard to Herbert, SF was on a mission to invent and explore unknown fresh new psychologies. It was a fascinating, daunting task. We were on to something- and we lost the nerve to do it.”

There’s nothing less interesting than something which only exists to please you. And sometimes things of this kind aren’t just dull, but radically off putting and even offensive. Because something that only aims to please is by its nature manipulative, maybe even exploitative. It’s only trying to please you because it wants something from you. And if the thing it wants is money. Well that’s the most boring and offensive thing of all.

The quote at the head of this post was left by my friend Jim Worrad on a Facebook thread sparked by the idea that that Ursula Le Guin would not be published as a debut author today. Jim’s quote really sums up what I’ve felt festering inside for the last few days since publishing my latest Weird Things column on Le Guin’s new selected stories The Real and the Unreal. Thinking about Le Guin’s writing I really found myself wondering why there are so few writers in the fantasy genre producing work of the kind of quality – creatively, intellectually, technically – that Le Guin has produced throughout her career.

Clearly there are some. Lavie Tidhar scooped a World Fantasy Award for his novella Osama today – a book so original and challenging I dedicated a whole column to it back in October 2011. I could list a fair crop of other writers creating high quality fantasy writing, many of them World Fantasy award winners or nominees. Of all the genre awards it is the most consistently focussed on rewarding quality in fantasy fiction.

I’m going to guess that many, many SF & Fantasy readers will be less than pleased by the experience of reading Osama. It is a novel that goes out of its way to challenge its readers. If I was to pin one quality to Lavie’s writing as a whole it would be that. Tidhar is a steampunk author who hates steampunk, and an SF writer who hates SF. But this is exactly why many, many readers of SF & Fantasy enjoy Lavie’s writing. Because they believe that SF & Fantasy are supposed to be original and challenging, not just desperate attempts to please a nebulous mainstream audience.

Many of the current batch of bestsellers, particularly in Epic Fantasy, read exactly like calculated, desperate attempts to please some platonic ideal of a fantasy readership. Brandon Sanderson’s novels read like they were written by a committee of marketing executives, which from the author who sailed Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time franchise home is hardly surprising. Trudi Canavan’s books are basically Mary Sue coming of age fantasies. Pat Rothfuss novels are like post-modern simulacra of of fantasy novels, a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a fantasy novel. Steven Erikson’s Malazan series are well described role playing source books with a feint stab at character that misses more often than not.

SF & Fantasy have a self-destructive tendency to behave like eager to please employees at a new job. You want a five part magical quest story with a singing sword? YOU GOT IT! You want a steampunk romance with zeppelins and robot armies? YOU GOT IT! You want a poorly disgusied sex fantasy / power trip? YOU GOT IT! You want a violent mysoginistic romp with some rape and torture scenes? YOU GOT IT! In short order the strategy of giving people what they want conforms to the law of diminishing returns, because actually people don’t know what they want. If they did, they wouldn’t need artists to give it to them. Do you expect to just get what you want from a doctor? Or a teacher? Or a parent? Or a friend? Then why would you carry that expectation in to the deep and complex relationship an author has with a reader?

SF & Fantasy are, in the words of my friend Jim Worrad, on to a good thing. I say that in present tense because I think we’re still far from losing it all together. It’s made the artform that is SF & Fantasy storytelling one of the most powerful in contemporary culture. But SF & Fantasy don’t thrive on being eager to please. They thrive on being challenging. On being original. On describing both reality and unreality in ever more innovative and beautiful ways. So let’s please carry on doing just that.

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British Fantasy Awards 2012 Results

The British Fantasy Awards have been announced. I was happy to be invited to be a judge this year. It was fun, and I got to read a bunch of good books. or re-read in many cases! Here are the winners:

Best Novel (Fantasy): Jo Walton’s Among Others

Best Novel (Horror): Adam Nevill’s The Ritual

Best Novella: Lavie Tidhar’s Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God

Best Anthology: The Weird (edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer)

Best Collection: Robert Shearman’s Everyone’s Just So, So Special

Best Short Story: Angela Slatter’s “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter”

Best Independent Press: Chomu Press

Film: Midnight in Paris

Best Comic: Locke and Key

Best Non-Fiction: Grant Morrison’s Supergods

Best Newcomer: Kameron Hurley

As they have only just been announced there’s been limited chances for response. The Pornokitsch reviews blog make a valid observation about the lack of winners ‘in the room’ at the award ceremony. Perhaps a more relevant critique when one thinks about the controversy surrounding last year’s awards. A controversy which I responded to at the time with a suggestion for a unified SF/F award in the UK.

It’s worth noting that none of these issues were in the mandate of either judges of BFS voters to consider. We set out to award the best fantasy in each category, and I feel very happy we achieved that.

No doubt there will be further debate about the role of both the British Fantasy Awards and their relationship to other awards in the field. As previously noted, the internet has made the SF community much more interconnected across international and genre boundaries. It has changed the role both of fan societies and awards. I’d love to know what people think awards in the field generally need to achieve and how we get there from here.

Why we must reward intelligent fantastic literature

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to direct your attention to the shortlist for the Kitschies, the annual awards organised by the folks at the Pornokitsch blog, which is quickly establishing itself as one of the two or three most relevant awards in fantastic literature. And the nominated novels are:

  • The Enterprise of Death by Jesse Bullington (Orbit)
  • Embassytown by China Miéville (Tor)
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd (Walker Books)
  • The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (Sandstone)
  • Osama: A Novel by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

There are two additional categories for best debut and best cover, information here, both strong shortlists but I want to focus attention here on the best novel category. Because not only is this a strong shortlist, but an important one for fantastic literature, because it really asks the question of how seriously we take ourselves, or expect to be taken by others.

This has not been a good year for SF awards. The Hugo and Nebulas both came under criticism for shortlists primarily determined by partisan fan factions rather than quality writing, and the British Fantasy Society awards literally collapsed under the weight of their own nepotism. Earlier comments on this issue lead me in to a protracted argument with John Scalzi through the medium of Twitter. John didn’t seem to think having awards shortlists full of bad books was a problem because, you know, quality is just a subjective issue and people have different tastes and any suggestion that more than a few of these books were were incredibly lightweight was ‘kvetching’.

So the Kitschies shortlist leaps out as actually doing that thing that awards should do, which is awarding the best work in their field. And in those terms I doubt there will be a stronger shortlist in any award for fantastic literature this year.

Jesse Bullington’s work came to prominence after an unusual call for attention through Jeff Vandermeer, and his two novels to date have established him as one of the most talented prose writers out there, shaping incredibly dark worlds of deep moral uncertainty. The Testament of Jessie Lamb became one of the few works of science fiction ever to pick up a Booker prize longlist nomination in 2011. Embassytown is a novel I’ve already heaped praise upon in The Guardian for its treatment of radical political themes through the lens of SF metaphor. Osama : A Novel has placed Lavie Tidhar in the top rank of todays SF writers for its intelligent and complex examination of post-911 politics, filtered through a Philip K Dick influenced alternative reality. But much as I like these books, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd is quite simply a masterpiece, continuing Ness’s powerful exploration of themes of violence and male identity, and probably deserves to win any award shortlist it finds itself on this year.

In different ways all of the books on this shortlist demonstrate what it is that is truly great in fantastic literature. They are all great books by any definition. Books with heart and soul, and also with meaning. Books we can find insight in, and learn about what it is to be human, even in a world as weird and strange as our own, and which use the metaphors of fantastic literature to create that insight. They are intelligent works of fantastic literature, that deserve to be recognised and rewarded as such.

Fantastic literature is a broad church. Many of the congregation are there for a bit zombie apocalypse or steampunk adventure. And that’s OK. Really it is. A world where every novel had the intellectual heft of Mieville would be a hard one to enjoy. Absolutely true. But when it comes to awards, are we really doing ourselves justice by lauding popcorn novels with major prizes? I’m going to fully enjoy John Carter of Mars when it hits our screens, but I would be profoundly disappointed if it took the Oscar for best movie or the Palm d’Or. And I would start to take those awards less seriously, then ignore them all together, if films without any substance won them often. Awards stand or fall on the basis of the quality they reward. Some of SFs major awards may be falling by that measure. But it seems new awards are there to replace them.

Murky Contents

The citents of Murky Depth #6 have been confirmed. Look out for this in December, featuring my story Horizon.

Issue #6 cover art: Jason Beam
Contents:-
The Last Marriane Alan Frackleton [Art: James Fletcher]
All I Want For Christmas Christian Carter-Stephenson [Mark Chilcott]
Are You Lonesome Tonight Alan James Roll [Nancy Farmer]
Between Hanson and Hendrix Brian Ross [Candra Hope]
Alms For Oblivion Christopher Morris [Jackson Gebien]
Horizon Damien G. Walter [Ian Jones]
Xmas Love Story Lavie Tidhar [Thomas Tuke]
The Third Time David J Howe [Brian Troll]
Best In Class Jonathan Gillespie [Paul Drummond]
Hellhound Luke Cooper [Luke Cooper]
Ghoul Is My Copilot Julio Alegria [Mark Bell]
The Head Of Saint Mark Sophy Adani [Ed Norden]
The Factory James Johnson [Toma Pakalnyte]
Interview with Jason Beam