Sunday, 28 September 2014

Thoughts on Judging the British Fantasy Awards

So I mentioned last week that I was one of the three judges for this year's British Fantasy Award for best short fiction, and mentioned too that while I felt the result we came to was a definite win, whereby an excellent story gamboled off with the prize - that being Signs of the Times by Carole Johnstone, as published in Black Static #33 - there were also a few hurdles and moments of doubt along the way.

For instance, I'd by fibbing if I didn't say that I found the initial shortlist disappointing.  Not because there was anything wrong with the stories put forward but because the list seemed symptomatic of failings I'd noted before in regards to the British Fantasy Awards: too much emphasis on Horror over Fantasy, too many small press markets, too many British markets and - the one that personally galled me most - too many low or non-paying markets.

Before I upset anyone unduly, I should put all of that into some kind of perspective.  I've nothing against Horror as a genre, I've written enough of it, and I don't even object to it straying into what's nominally a Fantasy award so long as there's a reasonable balance.  I've certainly nothing against the British small press, nor against British publishing, having had three novels and a chapbook out from UK publishers both large and small.  Non-paying markets, admittedly, I have a certain theoretical disagreement with, but I'm ready to concede that there are exceptions that make the publishing landscape a better place.  My point isn't that these things are bad in and of themselves, it's that put all together they don't do much to represent the current state of Fantasy publishing.  The small press unquestionably produces some superb work, but so do the many professional magazines out there - markets like Clarkesworld, Shimmer and Apex, to pick a few - and a list that included none of them felt blinkered.  To fall back on a word I've used on this subject before, the initial shortlist felt like provincialism; a British Fantasy Award that was all too close to actually, literally, being a British Fantasy Award.

And there ends the grumbling portion of this post.  Because while, if I remember correctly, there was a time not so long ago when the winning story would have been selected from that initial short list, that time is now past.  These days, the judges (I seem to remember a time when there weren't those either, but honestly it's hard to tell if I'm just making this stuff up) can add a couple of stories of their  mutually-agreed choosing, and what we decided to do - this not being a terribly difficult decision - was to add in the next two runners-up.

Honestly, it sounds like such a small thing, but it made all the difference.  Suddenly there was a better balance of genres, a better balance of markets, of writers ... and what made it most satisfying was that it also felt completely in the spirit of the award.  We weren't overruling the voters, just widening their selection a little.  And now we had seven stories to choose from, and somehow that list of seven felt in every way stronger than the original list of five.

That said, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that Signs of the Times, our eventual winner, did come from the original short list.  Or that the story that everyone agreed was its closest contender was one of the two that we added.  Take from that what you will, but to me it says that things worked out nicely; that the combination of a membership ballot and a jury decision can yield both a strong shortlist and a solid result.

Is that to say the current situation is perfect?  Not entirely.  Regardless of the quality of the story itself, I personally feel that a story that appeared in a British Fantasy Society publication shouldn't have been eligible; for me that harks back too closely to the British Fantasy Awards of old.  Part of me feels, too, that putting novelettes and chapbooks up against shorter stories published in magazines is unfair to both, though I'm not one hundred percent sure why or what the answer would be.  I certainly don't think there's a need for British Fantasy Award for best novelette, but perhaps the current length bracket is a touch too broad.  And of course the greatest limitation on the British Fantasy Awards continues to be the membership size of the British Fantasy Society; with such a relatively small voter pool, there are always bound to be some curious nominations and results.

But you know what?  Awards don't have to be perfect.  And, as I touched on last week, nor can they be, because perfection lays awfully far outside of their purview.  What awards can do is make sure that things that are awesome get recognition they might not otherwise have done.  And, in my wholly biased opinion, that's exactly what happened - not only with the one I had a hand in judging but with this year's awards in general.  So, while I wouldn't mind seeing a little more tightening of the rules - seriously, BFS-published stories should not be getting nominated for BFS-issued awards - I'm really glad that things appear to be on the right track, and here's hoping that this year was an indication of what we can expect to see from the British Fantasy Award in the future.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Thoughts on the British Fantasy Awards

I've been thinking a bit about awards lately.

And barely two weeks ago I was attending the ceremony for the British Fantasy Awards, in the  slightly professional capacity of having been one of the judges.  Now I've been pretty damning about the British Fantasy Awards in the past, specifically right here, and I stand by what I said then: the 2011 awards were a train wreck, not even only for the reasons that found their way as far as the national press, and the 2012 awards were only better in that they didn't produce any obvious and massive embarrassments.  But in the end that's only the difference between being attacked by an angry bear and an angry dog, and I'm one of those people who would rather not be attacked by any enraged carnivorous quadruped, thankyouverymuch.

Wait.  That metaphor got out from under me.

So, hey.  I've been thinking a bit about awards.  What I've been thinking, in a nutshell, is that awards are both inherently stupid and inherently useful.  In the absence of god or a godlike supercomputer, it's absurd to suggest that any body could judge the thousands upon thousands of novels, short stories, films, comic books, anthologies or microwave ovens brought into existence in any given year and declare meaningfully that one of them is the best.  However awards are also inherently fun, in the way that any fundamentally arbitrary competition can be fun.  And when it comes to genre fiction they're handy for drawing fringe readers into the camp and guiding those of us with limited time on our hands.  So in that sense, any award that represents a broad consensus and rewards works with widely acknowledged merit - a best novel award that goes to a book that the majority of people would consider amongst the best works of that year, for example - has pretty much done its job.

Which brings me back to the British Fantasy Awards, which in the past have had a habit of failing conspicuously to do that thing I just described.  In a nutshell, the problem was that they'd tended to represent the specific interests of the organization of which they were a part, or perhaps even rather just a percentage of that membership, whilst in so doing showing a startling lack of attention to what was going on in the wider world.  I think the word I'm looking for is provincialism ... although to take an example I brought up a couple of years back, calling a situation whereby three out of five nominees for an award are the same person who also happens to be a significant figure in the body behind the award provincialism is being awfully damn polite.

Thus it was that when Stephen Theaker approached me to ask if I'd like to judge the British Fantasy Award for best short story I was somewhat hesitant.  But Stephen is a mate and he's still accepted more of my work than any other editor, and there was a malicious little voice in the back of my brain pointing out that if it all turned out to be yet another horrid shambles then I could at least snark about it here on the blog.  Because I won't lie to you, when I'm mean about stuff I get about a thousand times as many hits.

Which makes this post just slightly frustrating to write, for, while I had some doubts in the early days - which I'll come back to next week - I've got to admit that on the whole I think we came up with a thoroughly solid result.  An excellent story walked off with the prize, one I hope most people would recognize the inherent quality of, and I'm happy to call that a win.  And, (this being the point I suppose I've been working towards throughout this whole post), that goes for all of this year's British Fantasy Awards as well.  There were a few eccentric nominations, but a little eccentricity shows character rather than, say, craziness or ignorance or nepotism.  A lot of good work was nominated.  A lot of good work walked away with prizes.  Nothing stood out as being egregiously stupid.  For the first time in my experience, the British Fantasy Awards actually felt like something worthwhile, sensible and internationally meaningful.  Which, given the state of play a mere couple of years ago, is nothing short of a miracle.

Okay.  That'll do for the moment.  If only because all this positivism is surely losing me readers even as we speak.  Next week I'll get to what it was actually like judging a British Fantasy Award, and perhaps suggest some refinements to the criteria and process that I think might help smooth off a couple of remaining rough edges.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Research Corner #7: Random Research

Well not random as such, it's just that I've reached a point now where I have so many novels in the works - at this point, four that I'm actively working on - that my research reading is bouncing between topics considerably more than it was at the beginning of the year.  This is actually proving to be a lot more fun, since you can only read so much about the First World War before your faith in humanity starts to flag; but it's also also a bit confusing, for reasons that will probably become apparent.  I seem to have accidentally stumbled across the literary equivalent of late night channel swapping...

Crossing the Line by Christian Plowman

 Having never read a great deal of True Crime before, I suddenly found myself tearing through quite a lot of it as research for current novel and my first attempt at writing (non-True) Crime, The Bad Neighbour.  Out of everything I read this was one of my favourites, in that the writer-protagonist wasn't a complete asshat - from my limited experience, this being a definite thing when it comes to True Crime.  (For which, see below.)

Plowman's definitely a capable storyteller, with a sense of humour and a good grasp of language, and if that sounds like faint praise then trust me, for this particular sub-genre it's pretty much declaring him to be the next Shakespeare. The experiences he relates were not perhaps that exceptional given the line of work he was in - undercover policing of one sort and another - but his outsider-looking-in focus is definitely the right way to bring this sort of material to life.  Plowman manages to keep things both interesting and suitably horrifying, and as with so many of these books, make you kind of resent the police - watch as your taxes are squandered in horrifying quantities to little noticeable effect! - whilst also being really glad that it's them and not you.

The Defence of the Realm by Christopher Andrew

If there's one thing I've never had much desire to read it was a history of MI5, so I approached this one with trepidation.  Misguided trepidation as it turned out, for the sections I read turned out to be an intriguing, in-depth, warts-and-all take on a vital part of British history and, more interestingly, a distinctively slanted interpretation of that period.  Given their particular concerns, the burgeoning MI5 didn't view the First World War through quite the same eyes as everyone else did, and as such their approach, for better or worse, was quite different.

I don't know exactly what access Andrew had but he certainly seems to know his stuff, and he does a great job of introducing the major personalities and then plunging the reader into their murky affairs.  There's a constant, fun vibe of being made party to something you probably shouldn't be hearing this much about, and also a solid sense of just what this kind of organization does and why and how it can go both right and drastically wrong.  Given that this was supposed to be research I couldn't justify reading beyond the end of WW1, which took me to about page one hundred out of six hundred ... it's a hefty tome.  But what I got through was a fascinating read, and I hope I find an excuse to finish it one of these days.

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

I based a lot of my To End All Wars protagonist Rafael Forrester on Siegfried Sassoon, whose journals were a huge influence on my early research.  But with all respect to Sassoon, if I'd read Graves first then it would have been him that I picked; in fact, given that I came to to Goodbye to All That too late for it to have a significant influence, it's uncanny how much Forrester feels modeled on Graves.  If only because Graves, with the advantage of writing long after the event, is a heck of a lot more open about his private life and particularly his sexuality.

At any rate, this is pretty much a glorious biography.  Graves is sharp, witty, self-effacing, endlessly entertaining, and always writing with a clear sense of what was vital about the times that he witnessed.  Where the first volume of Sassoon's biography was something of a slog for me, as a reader with less than no interest in fox hunting, Graves is pretty much brilliant from the get-go.  In short, a great read this, especially if you have even the faintest interest in the history and personalities of the first decades of the twentieth century.

The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer

I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't know a great deal about Gandhi before I read this.  And I haven't read a great number of biographies, so that when I say this is the best one I've read, I suppose you have to take that with a pinch of salt.  Nevertheless it is, and as such I recommend it wholeheartedly.  Gandhi was an astonishing individual, a truly unique, extraordinary, revolutionary figure of the kind that comes along perhaps once in a generation, if that.  He was also - and I say this with no intended disrespect, not to mention a healthy dose of understatement - kind of crazy.  And perhaps the main reason that this is a great biography is that it embraces both of those extremes, without ignoring the middle ground whereby Gandhi was a human being with the usual human concerns and frailties.  Fischer has no qualms about portraying Gandhi as a saint, nor about showing the occasions when his eccentricities did harm, as they often did, particularly to his own family.  But by the end it's hard not love and mourn the man, and to be saddened at the thought of the world we might be living if only he had been listened to a little more.
Running With the Firm by James Bannon

Ostensibly a book about an undercover cop masquerading as a football hooligan, Running With the Firm soon starts to look like the precise opposite: Bannon hints that he could have gone either way, and it seems more luck than judgement that he ended up at least nominally on the right side of the law.  Whatever the case, he sure does love pretending to be a hooligan, and doesn't seem greatly bothered by who gets hurt along the way.  What follows is a lot about Bannon's own life and thoughts and feelings and a largely insightless account into football hooliganism, (hooligans are just normally people, basically, except that they really like football and kicking the crap out of each other on a weekend), backed up with a whole lot of self-justification, whereby Bannon tries to convince that he was just doing his job, or else that it wasn't a job worth doing in the first place, but at any rate he's definitely a good guy.

By his own limited definition that's probably true, but by anyone else's maybe less so, and by the end I was really glad not to have to spend any more time in his company.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

FantasyCon 2014

I had some significant doubts about going to this year's FantasyCon.  After all, my reaction to FantasyCon 2012 and to last year's World Fantasy were a long ways from positive.  I went this year because it couldn't have been a whole lot closer without being in my back garden and because I knew that Lee Harris, my Angry Robot editor, had taken over organizing duties.  Taking those things together, I figured I'd give it one more go for old times' sake and then, if it did turn out to be another horrible shambles, feel good about the fact that I'd never have to go again.

One small gripe: this cost £8.25.  £8.25!
Given what a fantastic three days I had, it feels a little odd to be saying all this.  It's perhaps too much to claim that FantasyCon 2014 wiped out the memory of all the lousy FantasyCon's I've been to, but what I can't forget I can at least now forgive.  And I say this as someone who's just read through his posts about those last two and confirmed that practically every single complaint I had was addressed to a greater or lesser degree.  A nice venue?  Check.  Panel equity and an harassment policy in place?  Check.  More choice of things to do?  Some actual discussion of Fantasy, instead of the overriding emphasis on Horror that's dogged previous years?  The British Fantasy Awards not being a gigantic train-wreck?  Check, check, check.  It was my favourite Con of the year thus far.  I am already looking forward to the next one.  Check checkity check.

So at this point I should probably talk about what I actually did, right?  That's what people do in these posts.  Only I've been finding it awfully hard to piece together.  And not because of the drinking, either (although, yes, there was a modicum of that.)  No, this time around it's because I just talked to so many damn people that I've literally spend the last couple of days trying to piece it all together and still completely failed.  I have never talked to so many people in the space of three days in my life, or for that matter made as many new friends.  And, thinking about it, that right there is a good summing up of why I had such an awesome weekend.  It's also the reason that I think I'm going to avoid a blow-by-blow account; it wouldn't be terribly interesting for anyone but me and I'd hope that everyone I met had a fair idea of how much I enjoyed talking to them.  But here are a few highlights:

Being introduced to real ales by Ian Sales on the Friday night, and then on the Saturday, having dinner in a rather good Turkish restaurant with Ian and Kev McVeigh, discussing Werner Herzog movies and swapping recipes.  Geeking out with Pat Kelleher about World War One history.  Hanging out with Andy Knighton and Charlotte Bond, who I met on the Friday night and then seemed to end up spending about half the weekend with - and rightly so!  Catching up, for not as long as I'd have liked, with Stephen Theaker.  (Stephen, I hope you change your mind about coming next year!)  Signing a whole ton of copies of Crown Thief, most of them on the freebie table but a couple because people actually tracked me down.  My panel, of course, which seemed to go very well indeed - thanks to fellow panelists Joanne Harris, Kim Lakin-Smith, Frances Hardinge and Libby McGugan, and particularly to panel moderator James Barclay, who did a sterling job.  (Also Joanne Harris is completely awesome at drawing pirates, who knew?)  Chilling in the bar on Sunday before the BFS awards with Mhairi Simpson and Sammy Smith and friends.  Getting a lift back with the wonderful Justina Robson and getting to chat about writing stuff instead of stressing over catching a replacement bus.

But writing it all up like that, I'm pretty sure that's only a fraction of the good stuff, and certainly only a portion of the brilliant people I got talking to.  Now if FantasyCon 2015 can only replicate all that with a hotel bar where I can get a drink without mortgaging my house then I'm a convert for life...

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

My FantasyCon 2014 Schedule, Such As It Is

I'm not doing a great deal of official stuff at Fantasycon this year, but then not a great deal is still more than I've been invited to do for the last couple of years, so gift horses and dental inspection and all that.  Anyway, I'm on precisely the one panel and it is:

12.00 Noon, Saturday 6th – Gentleman Thieves, Loveable Pirates and Sexy Tricksters*

Gentlemen Thieves, Loveable Pirates and Sexy Tricksters. Why are untrustworthy characters and criminals among SFF’s most beloved characters?  Does sympathy for the underdog shade into idealizing predators?

James Barclay (m), Joanne Harris, Kim Lakin-Smith, Frances Hardinge, Libby McGuigan, David Tallerman

Which if there was ever a panel topic that was written for me then it's that one right there.

Besides that I have no idea what I'll be doing, which is quite exciting, thinking about it.  At any rate I'll be about for the entire Convention, what with it being pretty much on my doorstep.  And I'll certainly be staying for the BFS Awards on Sunday afternoon, since I was one of the judges for the Best Short Story award, and having never been an awards judge before it stands to reason that I've never been to an awards ceremony where I was one of the judges either.

Beyond that, it looks like a pretty interesting program this year, so I'll do my best to avoid my usual practice of spending the entire weekend hanging around in the bar.  But hey, no promises...

* The last time I looked at the program that lost one was down as 'sex tricksters', which is a whole 'nother thing altogether.  Since I really don't want to be on a panel talking about loveable pirates and sex tricksters, I'm choosing to assume it was a typo.