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I'm delighted to announce that my SF story 'Insider Art', which appeared in Abyss & Apex 58, has been nominated for the British Science Fiction Association's Awards for 2016, in the Shorter Fiction category (details here). If you're a BSFA member and would like to read this story before considering whether to vote for it, you can find it at http://www.abyssapexzine.com/2016/03/insider-art/

Second round voting by BSFA members closes on 31 January.

Needless to say, there are many fine works on all the longlists, some of them by big names in SF. So to see one of my stories keeping such illustrious company is rather special.

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I should begin by stating that I regard the BSFA Award short fiction shortlist for 2010 as a particularly strong set; much better than last year's. There are only four entries, but each deserves its place on the list.

Before I go any further, I'd better declare my allegiances: Aliette de Bodard (The Shipmaker) is one of my friends on LiveJournal; and I shared a beer or two with Neil Williamson (Arrhythmia) in Glasgow during a recent publicity event for Music for Another World, the anthology in which his story was originally published. In addition, I was one of the BSFA members who nominated Neil's story for the award. I nominated other stories too, but they didn't make the shortlist.

So, having finished reading the BSFA's timely compilation of the four shortlisted stories, what do I make of them now?

On re-reading, Nina Allan's story (Flying in the Face of God) strikes me as the least successful of the quartet. The story presents the transformation of a female astronaut, Rachel, into a semi-mummified form designed to survive the rigours of long duration spaceflight. The Kushnev drain's effects on Rachel are strikingly portrayed, but the story's real strength is in depicting the impact of Rachel's transformation on her family and friends. The human aspects of the story are very well handled and deliver considerable emotional impact. Where the story falls short, in my view, is in its world-building. As described, the effects of climate change would seem to place the events of the story at least twenty years from now, similarly the advances in Alzheimer's treatment that temporarily benefit Rachel's mother. Yet the setting of this story has a present-day feel; indeed, sometimes it's redolent of the recent past. There's a reference to a slam-door train carriage -- a type that surely could not be reintroduced into service for Health & Safety reasons. The astronauts are referred to as "fliers" -- terminology that I found jarringly archaic, and which bears little relationship to the tasks performed by real astronauts. The Aurora space programme is described in unconvincing terms, such as a sabotaged rocket. Mention is made of "fliers being subjected to attacks on the London Underground. Also, despite the notionally near future setting, the characters interact exactly as they would do today. Would there really by no changes twenty (or so) years from now? That this inconsistent world-building does not undermine the story's emotional power is a testament to the strength of Nina Allan's writing and the potency of the story's concept, but it does mean that this this is the one story on the shortlist that I can't consider voting for. It's a shame, because this could have been a perfect story.

In my view, Aliette de Bodard's story, The Shipmaker, integrates its ideation, plot, character development and world-building aspects considerably better than Nina Allan's. That it forms a part of de Bodard's ever-expanding and richly detailed Xuyan universe is undoubtedly an advantage in that respect. Strangely though, before I began re-reading this immersive and involving tale of a woman, Dac Kien, who designs and builds organic spaceships that are to be integrated with new-born minds, I found myself unable to recall the ending. And when I reached it for the second time, I felt a renewed sense of disappointment. Don't get me wrong, the climax of the story emerges logically from the set-up and the character interactions; the outcome is inevitable without being predictable. It's what follows the climax that disappointed me. In fact, my problem lies with the story's final sentence, which attempts to project Kien's perspective on events into her personal future. I found this a rather clumsy device, which (presumably) for reasons of concision tells rather than shows. While this is not a fatal flaw in what is, in my view, a very fine story, it did slightly dilute the story's emotional force. And it is the reason the ending didn't "stick" in my mind on first reading.

The Things, by Peter Watts, is the one story on the shortlist that I didn't read on original publication. Needless to say, I've rectified that omission since -- twice. What can I say about it that doesn't give the plot away? Not much, to be frank, other than that I regard The Things as heady stuff: a tour de force; brilliantly conceived, thought-provoking, powerfully written and exciting to read. The last line is nightmarish, reminding us that the story's source material is as much horror as SF. But that's my one problem with this story:  it's a brilliantly accomplished inversion of a previously published...work. In terms of technical accomplishment and impact on this reader, The Things might be the best story on the shortlist, but should the BSFA award go to a derivative work? Granted, a precedent has been set, many years ago, by Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships (an authorised sequel to The Time Machine), which won several awards, including the BSFA for best novel. But still, I'm not at all sure I wish to encourage this kind of reworking, however ingenious this particular example.

And despite the originality of its conception and the excellence of its story-telling, I also have a problem with Neil Williamson's Arrhythmia. Yes, even though I nominated it for the award! Let's be clear: I love this story. It's a flawlessly presented coming-of-age tale that conflates the Day-Glo, spike-haired, one-two-three-four attack of punk music with the perennially deadening, four-square rhythms of life and work in a factory town.  Neil Williamson has done a wonderful job of infusing his tale with folk music and industrial rhythms. But is Arrhythmia actually SF? I pondered this issue before nominating the story, and a second reading has left me feeling no more secure. The story does have a dystopian feel, yet there is nothing in the lovingly recorded details of 1970s life, either in the factory or the narrator's home, that I regard as genuinely speculative. Yet on re-reading, the story continues to feel like SF. It's as if George Orwell's 1984 had featured an overweening factory boss rather than Big Brother -- with songs, of course. Perhaps it's best regarded as SF by association.

So, after much head-scratching, I've definitely eliminated one story from my ballot, and probably another on the grounds that it's "derivative work". That leaves me trying to choose between a story that has a slightly muffed ending and another that arguably isn't really SF at all (but which I nominated).

Hmm, tricky!

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