In the Wake of the British Boom: The 72nd World Science Fiction Convention

By Martin PettoSeptember 1, 2014

In the Wake of the British Boom: The 72nd World Science Fiction Convention

ON SUNDAY, 17 August, I toasted the memory of Iain Banks next to a chair made of human bones. Single malt, of course.

Banks was born in 1954 and published 27 novels over his career, alongside a short story collection and Raw Spirit, a tour of Scotland's distilleries. His unparalleled dual career as a writer of science fiction, published with the middle initial M (for Menzies), and of literary fiction, published without, made him one of the most popular and critically acclaimed British authors of the last thirty years.

It has been an interesting journey. When his gothic first novel, The Wasp Factory, was published in 1984, The Irish Times called it "a work of unparalleled depravity"; it is now taught in British schools. Other non-M work has ranged from much loved family sagas (The Crow Road, later adapted by the BBC) to political thrillers (Complicity, made into a film starring Jonny Lee Miller but re-titled Retribution in the US) to slipstream (The Bridge, perhaps his single finest novel). Alongside these, he also published The Culture series of utopian post-scarcity space operas, credited with reinvigorating what was seen as a conservative, obsolete subgenre.

Banks was due to be a guest of honor at Loncon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, but in April 2013 he announced that he had terminal cancer. He died suddenly just two months later. Walking round the Excel Centre in London’s Docklands, however, his presence could still be felt amongst the 8,000 attendees. As well as the bone chair from Use Of Weapons where I raised my flask, the exhibition hall also contained a wasp factory, made by artist Tessa Farmer, and a bottle of every whiskey mentioned in Raw Spirit. Over a dozen panels discussed his work and the weekend also saw an epic attempt to design and play Azad, the centrepiece of his 1988 novel Player Of Games.

Banks’s death also crystalizes the passing of a particular moment in science fiction: the British boom. As Andrew M Butler mention in his recent review of Painkillers by Simon Ings, the end of the last century represented a resurgence of British SF of which Banks was at the forefront. Butler's essay "Thirteen Ways Of Looking At The British Boom" in Science Fiction Studies goes into further detail, but it is clear that boom has turn to bust in recent years. I took part in a recent symposium at Strange Horizons which struggled to find a unifying thread through the last ten years of British speculative publishing. And this is reflected in this year's Hugos.

The World Science Fiction Society has been presenting the Hugo Awards for best science fiction or fantasy, voted for by members of Worldcon, since 1953. When Worldcon was last in held in the UK, in Glasgow in 2005, the entire shortlist of the Best Novel award was British: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (the eventual winner), River Of Gods by Ian McDonald, Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross, Iron Council by China Miéville and, yes, The Algebraist by Banks himself (although, perhaps surprisingly, this has his only nomination for the award).

This year the sole British nominee was Neptune's Brood by Stross. Scroll through the short fiction categories (Best Short Story, Best Novella and Best Novelette, a special made up category only used by the Hugos) and once again the only British nominee is Stross for his novella "Equoid", part of his Laundry series of Lovecraftian spy thrillers. This is less of a surprise: he has been nominated 15 times and won twice. Born in England, resident in Scotland, Stross has cultivated a large American fanbase through the internet and has an unusually Transatlantic publishing history which may account for some of his success.

Nor was it a surprise to see Parasite by Mira Grant on the Best Novel shortlist. Grant is a pseudonym of the American author Seanan McGuire who last year alone received five nominations. In fact, the only thing that stopped her receiving nominations in all four fiction categories in 2013 was the fact only three stories made the 5% nominations threshold for Best Short Story; McGuire was fourth (and seventh, eighth and tenth). Parasite marks her fourth consecutive nomination for Best Novel. Hugo voters know what they like.

They also like what they are told to like. Not one but two of the nominees this year were the direct result of lobbying campaigns. Firstly, – the independent online offshoot of the publishers Tor – spotted that the 14 books series, The Wheel Of Time, was technically eligible for Best Novel. Since this was begun with The Eye Of The World by Robert Jordan in 1990 and completed by Brandon Sanderson with A Memory Of Light in 2013, you would have thought that it was abundantly clear that this was not, in fact, a novel. You should never bet against the Hugo electorate containing the easily influenced, however, and the series was duly nominated.

Things got more serious when Tor, the publishers of the series, decided to include all the books in the voter pack, a recent tradition in which members are given electronic copies of the nominated material to inform their vote. Since a supporting membership only costs $40, this represented a bargain to fans of the series; Tor announced its inclusion on 1 April and by the end of the month supporting membership had almost doubled from 1,164 to 2,119. (In a further twist, The Wheel Of Time is published by Orbit in the UK. As part of Hachette, their attitude to ebooks is rather different and they refused to include Neptune's Brood and Parasite in the voter pack. You have to imagine they were thrilled Tor gave one of their biggest properties away for free.)

Secondly. Larry Correia went one better and straight out told people to vote for his novel, Warbound, the third volume of his ludicrously named Grimnoir Chronicles series. He missed the ballot by 17 votes last year and he was damn sure he was going to get on this year. Not only that, he wanted his friends to get on the ballot too and successfully set out an entire fiction slate: "The Butcher of Khardov" by Dan Wells, "The Chaplain’s Legacy" and "The Exchange Officers" by Brad Torgersen and "Opera Vita Aeterna" by Vox Day. (He even asked people to nominate the terrible webcomic Schlock Mercenary for Best Graphic Story, despite the fact it wasn't even eligible. It still received the second most nominations.) Logrolling has been poisoning the Hugos for years but this took it to a new level.

When Banks started writing, the political split in science fiction could be crudely described as leftwing British SF versus rightwing American SF. The new divide is something much closer to the traditional US culture war of Liberal versus Conservative but played out internationally. Correia writes for Baen Books, essentially the Tea Party of SF publishing; Torgersen's stories both appeared in the decrepit magazine Analog, the GOP; Day – AKA Theodore Beale – is right out there in Freeper territory with his naked racism. Liberalism, on the other hand, is represented by online magazines such as Apex, Strange Horizons, and, the latter of which received five nominations across the fiction categories.

To an extent, this culture clash started before the nominations were even finished when Jonathan Ross was announced as the host of the awards. Ross is Britain’s most popular broadcaster and a high profile fan (his wife, Jane Goldman, even won a Hugo for her screenplay of Stardust) so this was a huge coup for the convention. But he’s also a divisive figure who revels in being controversial and his unilateral appointment led to a very public argument amongst the organizing committee that quickly spread to the whole of fandom and ultimately led to him standing down. Many of the complaints against Ross were overblown and I think he would have acquitted himself well as host, but I’m proud to be part of a culture that demands higher standards than the rest of society, that genuinely cares about being safe and inclusive (even if it is fails to achieve these aims just as regularly as everyone else). In the event, the ceremony was hosted by two authors who are longstanding members of the British scene, Justina Robson and Geoff Ryman. Straight white males were side-lined and the focus remained on those receiving rather than giving the awards. A kerfuffle that made the front pages of the British papers was forgotten.

The awards themselves were a victory for common sense but not exactly a triumph for art. Everything Corriea campaigned for lost and lost badly (Vox Day was beaten into last place by No Award), cleaned up in every short fiction category and only one white man won in an individual category. This all prompted much congratulatory backslapping but whilst it is pleasing that the genre is not entirely politically insane, the state of the art on this showing is not particularly robust.

That one white man was Stross and whilst "Equoid" was the least worst of the novellas, it was still far too long to support its fun but throwaway conceit that unicorns are very nasty pieces of work indeed. Stross has made some hugely important contributions to SF, but he is also trapped on the treadmill of production that has replaced life as a midlist author. "Equoid" is a classic example of the shift in genre publishing to trying to get paid by the inch.

A Best Novelette win for "The Lady Astronaut Of Mars" by Mary Robinette Kowal was probably always on the cards since it garnered a lot of sympathy when it was incorrectly disqualified last year. But it was always going to be Hugos crack since Kowal unerringly locks onto the twin voter vices of nostalgia and sentimentality (which explains how Mike Resnick has somehow been nominated 36 times for the awards). Referencing Ray Bradbury and Frank Baum, it trades on this rather than the shaky story Kowal has actually managed to write.

This longstanding weakness amongst the electorate is also on display in the rather better "The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere" by John Chu. Undoubtedly sweet but also rather sappy, it is a coming out story which is deepened by the fact this is a world where rain clouds appear above you when you lie.

The best story in this category – in fact, the best across all the shortlists - was "Selkie Stories Are For Losers" by Sofia Samatar so I was pleased she had the consolation of winning the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer. But it was striking that the only two other shortlisted stories with any real interest in writing - "Wakulla Springs" by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klage and "If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love" by Rachel Swirsky – contained no speculative fiction elements at all, making them technically ineligible for the award. The SF community is clearly starved and will grab what sustenance it can.

This was confirmed at the conclusion of the two hour award ceremony when, to my great relief, The Wheel Of Time was comprehensively defeated by Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. A debut novel by an American author, it has been rapturously received and, with the Hugo, becomes the first novel ever to win every single major SF award. The novel is notable for using the pronoun "she" to describe men and women as the narrator comes from a society that does not distinguish between genders, a surprisingly effective bit of subversion. But in other ways it is a more conservative book: the first volume of a space opera trilogy that follows in the footsteps of the Banks of twenty years ago but lacks any of his wit. With all this extravagant praise so early in her career and already locked into a publishing strait jacket of sequelitis, I do wonder how Leckie will evolve.

Perhaps the greatest hope for the future doesn’t come from the fiction awards at all and is instead present in those nominees for the Best Fanzine category who sat together at the front of ceremony under the modest title of Team Awesome: Ana Grilo and Thea James of The Booksmugglers, Anne C Perry and Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch and Aidan Moher of A Dribble Of Ink. Far from the mimeographed zines of yore, these are international online publishing empires which provide a platform for a vast range of diverse material. Ultimately Moher won the award but it really did feel like a team victory and was celebrated as such by a group of passionate, glamorous, boisterous comrades passing round a flask of whiskey. Banks would have approved.


Martin Petto lives in London and is the reviews editor for the British Science Fiction Association.

LARB Contributor

Martin Petto lives in London and is the reviews editor for the
British Science Fiction Association. He also regularly reviews for
Strange Horizons and other venues under the name Martin Lewis.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!