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Yesterday was this year's BSFA/SFF AGM/event day, Looking Upwards. It was a very good day; I managed to catch up, at least briefly, with almost all the people I wanted to catch up with, and the talks and panels were largely good. Some brief notes:
  • Ian McDonald gave a brief history of the life cycle of a movement in sf (which went something like, origins -> core text -> manifesto -> theme anthology -> wannabes -> poor imitations -> rediscovery fifteen years later as 'retro'), and then discussed some of his reservations about the Mundane SF manifesto. Fun talk.

  • The SFF panel was on 'Is Science Writing the New SF?', with Francis Spufford, Oliver Morton, fjm and major_clanger chairing. This was a very interesting discussion, but wandered quite a long way off the original topic. Much of the time focused on what you might call the philosophy of science education; whether children are being taught to reason for themselves, whether that's sufficient, that sort of thing. I'm glad that pmcmurray took up the issue of children doing or not doing 'hands-on' science in the home these days (growing crystals, dismantling wirelesses, generally messing about in the kitchen, that sort of thing) and pointed out that if they're not doing that, they are playing with computers and computer software. I think this is an obvious parallel, and it's been going on for a while, to the point where in terms of childhood experiences directing adult interests, I think the infotech-heavy sf of, say, Charles Stross is the present-day equivalent of the rocket- and space-adventure-heavy sf of the golden age.

  • karen_traviss gave an enjoyable talk on approaching writing as a business, rather than (or at least as much) as an art form. Very entertaining, and at times mind-bogglingly practical and pragmatic; and I really must get around to reading City of Pearl at some point.

  • The last panel of the day was the BSFA panel 'Best of British', with hh fishlifter, Steve Jeffries, Ian McDonald, myself, and Paul Billinger chairing. I was nervous about this beforehand (having agreed to be on it, I realised that I don't actually think myself knowledgeable enough about British sf to be confident picking potential Bests; The Affirmation and Stand on Zanzibar have gone on my list of Things I Should Try To Read Before Worldcon) but it seemed to go well enough in the end (pace the usual disclaimer about my public speaking abilities). I think if there was a problem with it, it's perhaps that it didn't offer much scope for debate; the trouble with discussing The Best is that you're going to nod along with most people's choices and think that yeah, actually, they've got a point.

So yes, good day. Thanks to all those who organised it.
Agree pretty much 100% with that assessment. I'm not surprised that you felt nervous about appearing on that last panel; I'd have been daunted in your place. I sat there in the audience trying to think of who I'd nominate and failing miserably. I also sat there thinking, "haven't read that", "haven't read him" etc - it's amazing just how little of my reading has been British SF until the last couple of years. Bob Shaw is pretty much the only one mentioned that I have more than 2 or 3 books by [hides head in shame].

Like you, I must try to read The Affirmation and Stand on Zanzibar before Worldcon; the former is already in my Fishlifteresque to-read pile and is fairly short - might get round to it whereas SoZ is 660 pages - virtually no chance at my reading speed.

Although it wasn't explicitly stated that we talking SF and excluding fantasy, I assume that as no one mentioned JRRT or Moorcock, that this is the case.

On a tangent, the BSFA really must decide whether it's ignoring fantasy or not; it's getting confusing. Susanna Clarke, after all, has written only fantasy AFAIK, and she's guest at the next BSFA meeting next week (27th, same day as the Observer HHGTTG previews [bah, will have to miss HHGTTG]). Here we have awards that seem to ignore fantasy. Hmm.

One last comment on the Best of British - the design of the leaflet is crap. By naming certain books/authors/films/TV programmes and not others and by putting a box next to their name, it is encouraging people to to vote for one of the named choices. I know there's a box for other, but it's not clear enough. It needs to be a simple 4 box sheet with a list of possibilities underneath if that is considered necessary.
As I understand it, the BSFA remit covers science fiction and fantasy, but these awards are specifically for science fiction. Otherwise, yeah, Susanna Clarke would be strong contender for Best Newcomer.
I'd recommend that you read The Prestige before you read The Affirmation. The Affirmation is interesting, but the main character is an arse and the plot is all over the place. The Glamour is also better than The Affirmation but not on the same level as The Prestige.

I'd say more about the book but that would give stuff away. It's basically about the feud between two magicians at the turn of the 20th century, and how it spills over into the present day.
Ah, but I own The Affirmation already, whereas I would have to go and buy The Prestige.
Ah, but I own The Affirmation already, whereas I would have to go and buy The Prestige.

And when has that ever stopped you before? ;)
The mundane SF manifesto is interesting, and you can get a lot out of it - I recently read The Golden Age, which was marvellous and fell entirely into this category.

I don't think all SF should be forced to fit into it, by any means, but I do occasionally get annoyed when I pick up some scientifiction and discover that it has ghosts, psychics and all sorts of other fluffiness in it. Not that I object to a good fantasy story - but when I'm expecting scientifiction it gets in the way.
This is more or less my take, so I was a bit surprised by the general hostility there was to it in the room. Yes, it's not written in the friendliest of styles, but when you get down to it it's basically just a call for more character-based hard sf, and I can't really object to that. I think greengolux explained it well, talking about how starting with a set of limitations might help to frame and direct the author's intentions for a story, even if they end up breaking or discarding the limitations in the end.

McDonald also argued that following the mundane manifesto would rob sf of its resonance, and ability to tell mythic-type stories; there's perhaps some truth to that, but I'm not sure I agree. Just look at Air, after all.
I don't know if you've read The Golden Age, but it's the very definition of mythic SF, and it's set entirely inside the solar system and using what I consider to be generally possible tech.
I haven't, no; I've heard distinctly mixed things about it though. Plus, I couldn't work out exactly how many books it was--three? Two? Did they do that thing of splittingit down the middle?
Originally it was going to be two books (The Golden Age and The Phoenix Exultant), but it ended up with a third one (The Golden Transcendence) - presumably because the second one ended up too long.

The first one is my favourite SF book in a long while - full of both amazing ideas and character-driven plot. I seem to recall that you're not a big fan of violence, and this is actually almost entirely violence free, so that might be a boost for you.
I don't mind someone sitting down and deciding to write a story which fits into the criteria decided for mundane SF, as Geneva said, and thinking about why they have FTL travel, and aliens, and time travel, and whether it's actually good for the story or whether you're relying on them as an easy thing to write about. I just don't really see the need to formally state that you renounce all these things, when you can just go ahead and write the thing anyway without using them. I agree with McDonald that if it's good SF, it's good SF, regardless of whether you set out to write it to a set of restrictive rules or not, and most of the good SF I've been reading recently hasn't included any of the tropes mundane SF rejects.

I wasn't much taken with the bit where they declared that books which "tick all the boxes" on the manifesto but don't declare themselves to be mundane aren't mundane, because it seems a bit silly.

Anyway, the website seems a bit dead and hasn't been updated since 2003, and no one could come up with an author who has signed up to this manifesto other than Geoff Ryman. Although apparently Anton Chkhov would if he weren't dead.
I just don't really see the need to formally state that you renounce all these things, when you can just go ahead and write the thing anyway without using them.

I'm guessing the primary reason is just that standing up and talking about it is the best way to get other people talking about it. If you want to encourage other people to follow a particular approach, you have to point out that the approach exist.

Much of the manifesto seems pretty clearly tongue in cheek to me.
Well, explicitly following a manifesto might attract people who were looking for that kind of thing.

If you were looking for hard SF then it might well attract you.
<< I really must get around to reading City of Pearl at some point. >>

Damn right you should...and you never even said hi!
It's nearing the top of the pile, honest. Of course, the pile seems to keep growing. It's one of the problems with being a reader. ;-)

And I'm terrible at introducing myself to people--sorry!
<< It's one of the problems with being a reader. ;-) >>

Give it up, son. No good comes of reading. Just keep buying the books...
No good comes of reading.

Bite your tongue! Reading is holy...Don't mak me send my minions after you...
I agree. As long as I don't have to be the one doing it: I encourage it in everyone else. :-)

Now you sound like my husband....

I don't quite understand that stand but I can live with it. :)
Don't worry, I'm now fully outed as a non-reading writer. I know I'm deviant. And I can outrun the peasants chasing me with burning torches and pitchforks...
And I can outrun the peasants chasing me with burning torches and pitchforks...

Hmm, don't the peasants find their actions short-sighted and counter-productive? Or have you never stopped running long enough to chat? ;)
<< Or have you never stopped running long enough to chat? >>

I tried a few times and it hurt. So now I just keep running.
And I'm terrible at introducing myself to people--sorry!

...and at remembering someone you have been introduced to ;-)
The last panel of the day was the BSFA panel 'Best of British'

Is there a web presence for this? If not, can you remind me of the categories and the suggested suggestions?
No web presence yet that I know of. The categories are:

- best novel
- best film
- best newcomer (since 2000)
- best tv
- order of merit

Pick one in each category. I'm not typing up all the possibles given in the flyer because (a) there are lots of them and (b) there are lots that aren't included.
best newcomer (since 2000)

To clarify: this is first novel in 2000 or later, not first publication?
First novel
In that case my votes are:

best novel: Use Of Weapons by Iain M. Banks
best film: Brazil
best newcomer (since 2000): Alastair Reynolds
best tv: Red Dwarf
order of merit: JG Ballard

Very male and only slightly less white.
So what were some of McDonald's reservations about Mundane SF?
See this discussion; partly he just doesn't think it's necessary (he recognised that his work fit most of the requirements, but didn't think it was useful to describe it as mundane), partly he thought it could be actively damaging (restricting to the imagination, that sort of thing).