The Seattle Books

Final picks, not quite in line with the poll:

Cold Magic by Kate Elliott
Independent People by Haldor Laxness
The Islanders by Christopher Priest
The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood

I might even try to blog about them, he said optimistically.

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Seattle Reading

Time for another business trip poll, since as [profile] ninebelow points out they have become more or less traditional. This time the trip is to Seattle, and I have three days of work followed by two and a half days of holiday (so recommendations for things to do are also welcome). There's one definite book which I haven't bothered putting in the poll, which is Independent People by Halldor Laxness, since I promised Vicky I would read it by Easter. Other than that the field is wide open...

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BSFA awards still open!

(Next month I will post about something unrelated to the BSFA awards, I swear. Maybe even later this month.)

So for reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, the BSFA awards have extended their nomination period until tomorrow (Thursday) at 22.00 GMT. And they have added an online nomination form, so BSFA members can go here to submit nominations (or continue to send them to awards@bsfa.co.uk).

Neil Williamson writes here about why, if you are a member, you should nominate:

As an Eastercon attendee for nearly 18 years, and BSFA member for most of that, I’ve voted on the shortlist many times, but I have to admit to being less consistent in nominating works I thought were worthy. Like many people I suppose that’s because I never considered my reading wide enough to make reasonable comparative judgements. And like many more I assumed that the great reading membership of the BSFA were nominating in their droves anyway, so my contribution could hardly be noticed, could it?

Well, yes, it could. I don’t know how many nominations are received for the BSFA awards, but I’ve got a very strong feeling that many more people wait until the shortlist is announced before troubling to get involved in the process than have a sit down and think about nominating the books and stories they read and like during the previous year. And that’s important because (and I didn’t actually know this until a year or so ago) the shortlist is comprised purely of the five works in each category that garner the most nominations. That’s important because the nominations are usually spread across a large number of works, which means that every single nomination is statistically significant…which means that an individual nomination for any given piece of work could make the difference between it appearing on the shortlist or not.

This is true for an award like the Hugos more often than you'd think; it's absolutely true for the BSFA awards, which has a smaller pool of nominators. And you don't have to have read everything. If you've read something and you think it's excellent, you should nominate it. The ballots are meant to be the wisdom of the crowd.

The current list of nominations received is here. If you fancy some last minute reading, lots of the non fiction and short fiction [1] is available online; or you could browse the nominated artwork and see if you think anything stands out. But if you're a member, please consider nominating, and making the awards as strong and representative as possible.

[1] If you're in the mood for a short story, may I recommend "After Birth" by Kameron Hurley? It's set in the same world as God's War, but is different enough in tone and focus that it stands well alone, I think; and it's rather nicely done.

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BSFA awards correction

So it seems I jumped the gun on the eligibility front this morning: the BSFA have posted a clarification about ebook eligibility:

Q) If the novel category is for UK publication only, what about X which is available internationally as an e-book?

A) We are looking at first UK publications only for the Novel category. These will be:
a) A UK print publication, published for the first time in 2011; or
b) Published as an ebook that is available in the UK for the first time in 2011 and doesn’t have a print edition.

We will of course check any and all suggestions out, but the titles will only have one shot at the award no matter what.

So, God's War not eligible after all. An ebook-only novel would be, however.

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BSFA award nominations reminder

Attention BSFA members! Don't forget that your award nominations are due by the end of this week (by "midnight on Friday", to be precise). There's a list of what has been nominated so far here; the five works in each category with the most nominations will go forward to the final ballot. Send your nominations to awards@bsfa.co.uk.

If you are a BSFA member who has read and enjoyed God's War by Kameron Hurley, you may also be interested to learn that awards administrator Donna Scott has ruled that its availability in electronic form from Webscriptions makes it eligible for the Best Novel award. I will certainly be nominating it! If you're a BSFA member who hasn't read it, you still have a week! And if you're not a BSFA member and haven't read it, well, read it anyway.

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In-Flight Reading

I promised Martin I'd post a poll when the Strange Horizons fund drive finished, and since it now has (successfully, hooray!), here we go. I'm off on my business travels again this week, first to Belgrade, then to Brussels; and I'm on a reading-new-stuff kick. What should I take with me? I'll have two four-hour flights plus a Eurostar journey to get through, and probably some reading time in the evenings as well.

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Fund drive update

Further to my earlier post -- a huge thank-you to everyone who's posted today, or said they will post this week! We've had a good day, fund drive-wise; I've been rounding up posts at the SH blog as promised, in four batches so far: one, two, three, four. Or if you want specific posts, some of my favourites are by Matt Denault, Sarah Kanning, and Maria Deira.

P.S. New prizes this week include Nick Harkaway's next novel, an anthology of Mexican sf, a classic novel by Suzee McKee Charnas, Lydia Millet's new eco-fantasy YA, and more. We've had a good day, but there's still some way to go to hit the target, so please do consider donating!

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Strange Horizons Fund Drive

This year has been whistling past at a frightening rate, and a large part of why is Strange Horizons: and now I can't quite believe it's fund drive time again, but it is. SH, as most of you reading this will remember, is staffed entirely by unpaid volunteers, and primarily funded by reader donations, which means that every year, at about this time of year, we ask you to consider giving us some money. So that's what this post is about. It's also about asking you to spread the word, because with only a couple of weeks left to run, we have currently raised 26% of our goal.

So if you've been meaning to donate, now's the time to do it; and if you've been meaning to post about the fund drive, today's the day! We really appreciate people spreading the word about the fund drive. If you do, be sure to point out that everyone who donates gets entered into our prize draw -- prizes this year include signed books by Ursula Le Guin and L. Timmel Duchamp, artwork by Alastair Reynolds, a complete set of the Twelve Planets series from Twelfth Planet Press, and an awful lot more -- but even better, if you think people should support us, please tell them why: link to your favourite stories or reviews or poems or articles or columns.

What has the magazine been doing this year?

What are we doing next? Our big ongoing project is upgrading and revamping our website, which we're in the middle of right now (it takes a long time to check eleven years' worth of content when you're moving to a new system). We'd like to raise our rates in other departments, although that's obviously dependent on this fund drive being a success. But mostly we'd like to keep working at our stated goal: "In the twenty-first century, speculative fiction must be a global, inclusive tradition. We aim to showcase work that challenges us and delights us, by new and established writers from diverse backgrounds and with diverse concerns."

It's up to you to decide how well we're doing at that, of course. But if you like what you've been reading at Strange Horizons, and can afford to donate, please do consider sending some money our way. And if you do put up a post about us, let me know! I'll be collecting links on the blog all day. Thanks.

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God's War

Round one. This is how it starts: "Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert": and then we're in the book. I think those fifteen words are a great first sentence primarily for their economy, for the terseness which is successfully challenging for at least one reader, and yet which manages to begin to sketch a world, a situation, a character, and most importantly, a tone. It's fair warning: God's War means it. God's War will make us think and feel. The straight-faced intensity does just occasionally become parodic, but is sustained well enough that the following two hundred and eighty-five pages feel like a promise fulfilled: they are invigorating. They are also complex, full of intersections, and tricky to decompose and retell in a review.

Round two. The world is Umayma, megayears away in light and time, and deeply lived in. A dry world, for the most part, with two suns but few stars in the night sky; home to a handful of nations of the People of the Book, each of which has drifted more or less from the Abrahamic faiths of our present, two of which are engaged in a longtime grinding conflict that has come to define them. Their lands are places of sand and gravel, big angry skies, bugs (see below) and melted ruins. In the blue corner, we have Nasheen, which is where we start with Nyx (see below), who is tracking a not-too-great boxer named Jaks to get to her brother, a deserter: "Boys either came home at forty or came home in a bag. No exceptions" (8). This is, we learn, her job as a bel dame, because Nasheen has been for 250 years a matriarchal monarchy that breeds its men for the eternal but never-seen (by us) front. We might already have noticed that the men in the first chapter of God's War are dead, sexual toys, or literally emasculated, and the women are everyone else, from Nyx's geneticist sister to the bouncers to the black-market dealer who sells Nyx out. Later in the novel we travel to the red corner, Chenja, whose oppressions are almost conventionally patriarchal, complete with polygamy; and in the second chapter we meet Rhys, a devout Chenjan runaway and would-be magician (see below) who falls into Nyx's orbit while experiencing extreme cognitive dissonance. (Hurley manages the tricky feat of making Rhys a man with provincial views but a good character, at least for my money.) Clustered around the ring are other nations, each with their own religious and political specificities: Tirhan, which may be the most egalitarian of the countries, but whose inhabitants profit from both sides of the Nasheenian-Chenjan war as arms dealers; Ras Tieg, which is water-rich but nearly heretical; Mhoria, which is unconventionally patriarchal, and home to many shifters (see below). Most of these have representatives in the book. The accretion of cultural detail is constant, and constantly nuanced by a series of distinctive viewpoints; the world as a whole is a marvel.

Round three. It shouldn't be a surprise that an interesting world breeds interesting people, but interesting people are always surprising. God's War is about a woman (see below) and about a world (see above), but the negotiations between those two things are mediated by a supporting cast whose variegated heritage allows them to tick just about every diversity box going without contrivance. Eight years and about forty pages after being sold out, Nyx has been into prison and out again, lost her bel dame license and put together a bounty hunter's team: Rhys; plus the pale gay half-breed Ras Tiegan comms expert Taite, nervous that he's about to be drafted to the front for Nasheen; plus the big Mhorian shapshifter Khos, who spends a lot of time in brothels; plus Anneke, the small wiry Nasheenian almost as dark-skinned as a Chenjan, who likes guns. (She's perhaps the least-developed character, but no less entertaining for that.) This team -- they feel like colleagues -- enrich the novel. Most of them get a meaningful number of pages as our viewpoint without feeling used up by the experience. Around them are others, of whom the most interesting is probably Taite's pregnant sister Inaya, who ends up with Nyx's team somewhat reluctantly, while the most significant may be Nasheen's Queen, who finds Nyx a useful player to put in the ring, setting her on the trail of a vanished offworlder who may (of course) hold the key to ending the war, and creating the conditions for Hurley's cast to bounce off each other in creative and entertaining ways.

Round four. Nyxnissa so Dasheem is God's War's alpha (see above) and omega (last line: "Nyx went on"). Farmer's daughter, dyslexic, veteran, bisexual, bounty hunter, force of nature, woman of Nasheen. What others think about her: "She was coarse and foul-mouthed and godless" (72, Rhys); "The world could burn around her [...] and she would get up after the fire and walk barefoot over the charred soil in search of clean water, a weapon, a purpose" (231, Khos); "She tended to believe that every conversation involving strong emotion was full of words and resolutions that were not meant, as if he were a raving drunk" (146, Rhys again). What she says about herself: "I believe in myself. That's enough" (60). What I say about her: clearly enough an entry into the tradition of self-made and self-reliant female heroes, in the mould of Alyx or Sarah Connor, say, or Monza Murcatto (from Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold, the hyper-cynical politics of which make an interesting contrast to those of God's War); inheritor of certain traits traditionally coded masculine (she's the strong silent type); not very emotionally useful; both supported and problematised by her context (see below) in a way that many of her ancestors are not. And an awful lot of fun to watch in action.

Round five. In a blog post for the British Library, Gwyneth Jones recently wrote: "Adventure fantasy may be the characteristic content of sf, but the project of imagining the ideal future is never far away." One way to describe God's War is to say that it's the best sort of supporting evidence for this argument. The "adventure" aspect of the novel is relatively straightforward, in that the plot is linear and has its share of thrills and spills and bad guys, albeit embedded in a more textured setting (see above) than is usually the case. Considering God's War as fantasy is more complex, and not just because of the magicians (see below). To single out one axis of fantasy, and one country, Nasheen is not a utopia (their reproductive practices, for instance, will challenge many), nor is it experienced as such by its inhabitants (it is a war economy, with plenty of poverty); but there are things it does well that our world does badly, in a way that puts God's War in dialogue with the tradition of feminist utopian writing. We are encouraged to take joy in the freedoms of the women of Nasheen, in their power and diversity. They "didn't grow up looking for husbands," we're told. "They grew up looking for honor and glory" (64). In fact it is, I think, hard to read God's War and not be confronted by the fact that Nasheen enables many thousands of women to live lives with an automatic belief in their identity and strength (of any kind) that our world would like to deny to as many as possible. (And the most radical move in the novel may be that Nyx, in all her radical confidence, is created in a context in which she is not exceptional.) But in Nasheen this has not come for free. Rhys is beaten when he walks the streets alone; his interaction with Nyx makes it quite clear both of them have been denied the tools to develop a healthy romantic relationship with a member of the opposite sex by their society; and he is justified, I think, in referring to Nasheen's conscription of its men as "the genocide of a gender" (207). None of this justifies his belief that "Nasheenian women had forgotten their place in the order of things" (19); but it suggests that the tragedy of Nasheen is that it aspires to be Omelas.

Round six. Fantasy again (see above), in the form of the ubiquitous bugs of Umayma -- seemingly adapted to every tool-like roll, from lights to engines to weapons to surgery -- and the magicians who control them (and may have had a hand in making the world, millennia ago), and shifters who can become animals; these things lend God's War a distinct and estranging flavour. Yet God's War is also science fiction, in that this paradigm is given a technological gloss, having to do with pheromones, apparently, and reprogramming insects "at the cellular level" (93), and who knows what quantum trickery when it comes to shapeshifters. (All we know is that they need to eat a lot of protein.) This may seem to risk overloading a novel already loaded with texture of other kinds (see above), but I'd argue the messy biotechnology is part of what gives coherence to the whole -- narratively, as it turns out, but also aesthetically. The playful weirdness of Umayma's technoculture goes hand in hand with the inventiveness of its political culture: the existence of the decades-long front, for instance, which remains off-stage except briefly in memory, becomes somehow mythic, rather than improbable. And the brashness of bugtech sits well with the brutal directness of the narrative voice. God's War is a book that wants to get in your face (see below).

Final round. In the end, it comes back to the ring, to Nyx and Jaks, and to boxing.
Most people who watch a fight think it's all about the muscle: hitting harder, moving faster. And, yeah, sometimes it looked that way. But telling somebody that you won a fight by hitting harder and more often was like telling somebody that the way you kept from drowning was by moving your arms and legs.

Once two fighters knew how to fight, they stood pretty even. What made one win and the other fall wasn't about blood or sinew or sweat. It was about will. (264)

As in the ring, so outside it. Umayman governments are entities for control more than they are entities for liberation, and they work because they are meant. They inspire belief, and believers -- and submission as part of that belief -- none more so than Nasheen and Chenja. None more so than Nyx, whose team believe in her (see above), who endures (see above). And as in the ring, so for God's War, whose characters argue with the beliefs around them (some of which I've barely touched on here), and which means to remind us to argue with the beliefs we breathe: which knows that the best adventure fantasies are about more than hitting harder and moving faster, that they have to mean every word. In the process of executing this notion God's War occasionally creaks -- if the novel has a weakness it's that the plot is a touch mechanical at times -- but it is never dull, because it is always passionate. And give me that over cool control, this day, to remind me it could be otherwise. Give me this fight.

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