Whither the British SF boom?

Around the turn of the Millennium and for a couple of years into the Bush era, it seemed that British science fiction was were most of the interesting writers were coming from, so much so that people were seriously speaking of a British sf boom, overshadowing their pale and inward looking American cousins. A decade later and people are writing gloomy articles about the British sf bust and how much of the earlier promise of British science fiction seems to have been lost. Now I remember being excited for and convinced that this boom was happening at the time, but looking back on it I wonder. Was there ever a true British SF Boom or was it all smoke and mirrors conjured from China Miéville’s instinct for self promotion and J. K Rowling’s runaway and unexpected success with Harry Potter?

The latter is of course the most important, getting millions of children, young and not so young adults to read fantasy, inspiring a legion of now twentysomething readers to read and write fantasy and science fiction themselves. Rowling’s impact on the existing sf and fantasy scene in the UK seems more limited though: published by Bloomsbury, as far removed from a genre publisher as you can get. The same goes, to a lesser extent to writers like Philip Pullmann and Jasper Fforde, new, popular, but with limited (direct) impact on the science fiction genre.

Instead the dominant figure of Turn of the Millennium UK science fiction was China Miéville: young, politically engaged, erudite, sexy. He became the voice of a new, Guardian acceptable form of science fiction, a generation of writers that also included e.g. Justina Robson, Adam Roberts, Liz Williams and Alastair Reynolds, who all had their debut novels around 2000. In that regard you could say that there was a boom of new, interesting writers, one that for once had recognition in mainstream media.

Similarly, the case Andrew M. Butler made for the boom back in 2003, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the British Boom, which took a longer term view, has some merit. But the weak point in it remains that it counts several generations of British writers as part of the boom, everybody from M. John Harrison to Gwyneth Jones and Charlie Stross, many of which were writers who’d been writing for years or decades like Harrison and Jones or, who’d like Stross, might have been British but were clearly focused on the American market.

Looking back then, in my opinion the boom was largely the result of a benificial media climate, open to the appeal of fantasy and science fiction due to the success of Rowling, Pullmann, Fforde and Jeff Noon with mainstream readers, as exploited by media friendly writers like Miéville. This exaggerated what was a normal cyclical upturn in new published writers. The good news is, if there wasn’t really a boom, there can’t be a bust either, just the absence of media attention and buzz…

And yet the participants in the latest Coode Street Podcast do seem somewhat pessimistic about the current state of British SF and I have to agree with them somewhat. There are a lot of interesting things happening in science fiction, but it seems to come from outside the UK at the moment. What’s really galling to me is the lack of attention to female sf writers in the UK as opposed to elsewhere. N. K. Jemisin, Kameron Hurley, Ann Leckie, Karen lord, Aliette de Bodard: all non-UK writers broken through in the last few years, joining others like Nalo Hopkinson or Elizabeth Bear. Meanwhile British authors like Gwyneth Jones, who is easily as important a sf writer as any of the Baxter-McAuley-Banks generation and who started publishing at roughly the same time a decade or so earlier [1], has to self publish the latest novel in her best known series.

Justina Robson, Liz Williams, Tricia Sullivan, Pat Cadigan, Mary Gentle, to a certain extent, all British female authors who should’ve had the same success as writers like Ken MacLeod, Charlie Stross, Adam Roberts, John Meaney etc, but never quite seem to have gotten the same support of their publishers. It’s this lack that I’m more and more convinced is why British SF is going through a bust, because only the male writers are left in the Serious Science Fiction ghetto and they’re not enough to sustain the hights of the boom.

[1]: Thanks Ian!

Your Happening World (September 18th through September 22nd)

  • Black Men Need To Support Black Feminism | Media Diversified – Being a black man over the past couple of weeks has been interesting, as it always is. I’ve stood in solidarity with the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri – both virtually and in a march at Notting Hill Carnival. There is a long history of black women leading movements for change and the most inspiring occurrence to come out of the recent protests has been the support black men have received from black women. However with that, it revealed a harsh reality, we aren’t always there for black women.
  • The Most Feminist Moments in Sci-fi History — The Cut
  • For women, heart attacks look different – and so do heart health outcomes – The study also found that women often fail to realize that they are having a heart attack – and so do doctors. This is because heart attack symptoms in women can be different than they are in men. The symptoms we most commonly associate with a heart attack, like pain in the left arm and tightness in the chest, don’t always occur in women. The study found that 42% of women who have heart attacks never experience the “classic heart attack symptom” of tightness or pain in the chest. Instead, they may develop pain in the back or jaw, light-headedness, nausea, vomiting and shortness of breath.
  • Don’t be like Jennifer Lawrence, girls – it’s bad for your health – Fleet Street Fox – 3am & Mirror Online – There’s only one way women can avoid the stuff every woman on Earth has to deal with daily
  • Sultana’s Dream — Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein – Sultana's Dream was originally published in The Indian Ladies' Magazine, Madras, 1905, in English. This edition is transcribed from Sultana's dream; and Padmarag: two feminist utopias by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain; translated with an introduction by Barnita Bagchi. New Delhi (India) : Penguin, 2005.

So much for the inevitable truth of the market

Vox Day has been talking smack about John Scalzi and his sales again, you know the schtick: “nobody really likes him the real proof of a good writer is how well he sells all a conspiracy he’s on the bestseller list people like Larry Correira sell much better blah blah blah”. Funny thing that, according to John Walker in a comment at File 770:

Well, according to Bookscan Larry’s sales are in freefall. His first mm pb book sold some 51,000 copies, but that was back in 2009, which was an entire different publishing world, then. His latest book in mass market? 3500 copies, at best. He seems to be trading on past success,but honestly most of his books (and his compatriots) are selling poorly. Hoyt’s latest? 200 copies. Freer’s? 600 copies. If anything a lot of this is just knee-jerking on their part, and suggestive that perhaps they should figure out why their sales are plummeting, instead of picking on others for their misfortunes.


Worse, as Nick Mamatas shows in comments at James Nicoll’s, Sarah Hoyt isn’t doing well either, downright awful in fact:

231 copies for a book released in July by a mainstream publisher, by an author with a number of series and award nominations, and whose blog posts receive 100s of comments, is a big problem. But it doesn’t appear to be far from wrong, given the other available information.

The only possible conclusion you can draw from this is that all the rightwingers who like to hang around at Day’s, at Hoyt’s, like to talk a lot and give it all that with their circlejerks about how nobody likes all those politically correct gamma authors and it’s only the effeminate critics at whatever the latest target of their ire is who pretend they are popular, seem damn reluctant to acually, you know, buy the books of the authors that they supposedly support.

Rightwingers are moochers. They only wage culture war if it’s free or if they can get wingnut welfare for it, but actually spending money? Never.

Your Happening World (September 10th through September 16th)

Otherbound — Corinne Duyvis

Cover of Otherbound

Corinne Duyvis
387 pages
published in 2014

It was thanks to The SKiffy and Fanty Show that I got to know about Dutch author Corinne Duyvis and her début novel Otherbound, when they had an interview with her about her book. This interview intrigued me enough to buy the ebook and start reading it immediately, because Duyvis was saying smart things about diversity and disability; it also helped that in the Dutch SF round table was raving about this book. And they were right to. This is a smart, well written fantasy novel with a clever, original idea at the heart of it that deserves to be a huge success.

Nolan would be just a normal high school kid, where it not for his crippling epileptic seizures. Amara is a servant girl, her only job to keep the fugitive princess Cilla safe, functioning as the lightning rod for the princess’ curse. Any drop of her blood spilled will attract the world’s vengeance on her, so instead Amara has to draw the curse to her, because she has a healing power that will allow the curse to do its worst and still leave her alive. As a side effect of her “gift”, Nolan was dragged into her world, her mind, seeing and experiencing Amara’s life every time he closes his eyes, every time he blinks. So when Cilla’s protector and Amara’s overseer, Jorn, punishes Amara for her neglicence by thrusting her arms into a fire, Nolan feels the pain alongside her. It’s this what’s really behind his epilepsy, this loss of control as he’s sucked into Amara’s world and can’t pay attention to his own.

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Fly along in my beautiful balloon

So a couple of weeks ago my brother and his family went on holiday to the Belgian Ardennes and took my mother with them for a long weekend, during which they went to a ballooning festival. That got my mum to talk about how she wanted to do that someday, which my sister in law (more or less; it’s complicated) remembered. So when she found somebody offering a ticket for such a balloon flight cheap online, she didn’t hesitate but talk that guy into giving the ticket to her for just a bouquet of flowers and some pictures from the flight. She’s awesome like that; her skill at social enginering would be scary if used for evil.

To cut a long story short, mum wanted somebody to go along with her, nobody else in the family wanted to or dared to, so I got to go along. Having to buy my own ticket even. But it was worth it and it was brilliant flying over the Dutch countryside on a perfect evening, live tweeting the whole thing.

ImagiCon revisited

A couple of days ago I blogged about ImagiCon and their payment system. Now the chairwoman has responded:

We’re sorry to hear that you’d rather not make use of Paylogic. We’ve opted for this system, because, as a starting convention, it’s downright impossible (not to mention quite expensive) to create and maintain our own system for digital tickets. We chose Paylogic because it’s one of the most reliable systems and even though people have to register/log in to buy a ticket, we can assure you that you will NOT receive any unwanted mailings from Paylogic or from our convention. The data they ask is used by us so we have a statistical overview of the public that attends our convention. It serves no other purpose.

I could quibble with this explenation — other cons have managed to handle their own registration– but I like and appreciate that the con took the time to respond to my complaint. It’s a fair point and though I’m still likely to buy my own ticket at the door, even if it’s slightly more expensive (16 vs 20 euros), it has put most of my fears at rest. The only real point that remains is the obligatory reporting of gender in the form, with neither the possibility to opt out nor an option other than male or female. There should at least have been an option for unknown/undeclared/other.

The Mirror Empire — Kameron Hurley

Cover of The Mirror Empire

The Mirror Empire
Kameron Hurley
540 pages
published in 2014

Kameron Hurley’s debut novel Gods War had an impact many other writers would envy her for, only equalled by the buzz generated by Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice last year. It wasn’t just an accomplished debut novel, it also helped revitalise science fiction at a time when it started to grow a bit stale again. Expectations are therefore high for Hurley’s new novel, The Mirror Empire, the first in a new series and the first fantasy novel she has published. Would it be as good and inventive as her previous series, would she be as good at writing fantasy as science fiction?

Halfway through Mirror Empire I finally realised what it reminded me off: Steven Erikson’s Malazan series. Not so much in setting or plot, but rather in complexity and willingness of both authors to throw all sorts of interesting ideas into their novels, ideas you may not expect in what at first glance seems to be a standard epic fantasy series. Where they differ is that Hurley is much better at inclueing the reader about who all these people are and how everything fits together, where Erikson had a magnificent disdain for the reading, leaving them to sink or swim on their own. Hurley is … more forgiving but still requires you to pay attention. This is not a novel to read with your brain in standby.

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Why not have a Eurovision Science Fiction Contest?

Over at Europa SF, Dutch writer and critic Peter Kaptein explores the possibility of a pan-European organisation/movement for the fantastic in its broadest form:

We are not just writers

I do not believe in an European Writers Association. I don’t believe in a movement that focuses on only one aspect of our branch of art.

I do believe in an European Speculative Arts Association (or European Fantastika Creators or European Creators of Fantastika Association as it might be called).

Because we are more than just writers. We are also scholars, movie makers, animators, comic book artists, illustrators, sculptors, street artists, musicians, theatre makers and festival organizers.

We should not cut off the many possibilities for collaboration that can propel European SF, Fantasy and Horror to creative heights far beyond what the American and British market have reached until now.

What Kaptein is proposing is a way to structure and strengthen the ties between the various national science fiction/fantasy scenes throughout Europe without necessarily assimilating them into the Anglo-American juggernaut. What we have currently is that each country is influenced by what happens in English language science fiction, be it movies, novels, computer games or whatever, that a few writers and other creators get translated and assimilated, but that cross pollination between local European scenes is rare: both Belgian and Bulgarian writers are influenced by the American or British writers they read, but they don’t influence each other.

At the same time, while the Anglo-American science fiction world is becoming more open to outside influences, it’s still a process in which selected writers “break through” and become part of that world, but there isn’t yet a systemic interchange of ideas and influences, certainly not on any basis of equality. Projects like Clarkesworld’s Chinese science fiction translation project help a bit, but aren’t nearly enough to redress the balance.

So it makes sense to look for ways in which we can create a truly international, pan-European form of science fiction, where Polish writers are read in France and are inspired by the work of artists from Spain who in turn admire the radical works of Croatian film makers. How to go about this though? Do we need some sort of international organisation, something akin to an European SFWA but broader, as Kaptein is looking for?

Perhaps. There’s already the European Science Fiction Society, which organises Eurocons and the European science fiction awards, but that’s more rooted in fandom; it’s mission could be extended if the will is there. Perhaps we need a more European way of recognising worthwhile authors and other creators in foreign languages, perhaps we need a Eurovision Science Fiction Contest instead. Imagine having e.g. short stories from every country in Europe compete with each other, voted on by fans all over the continent. Wouldn’t it be great to discover Polish or Romanian authors that way?

Ironically, in whatever way we want to strengthen and create a truly pan-European science fiction scene, we will remain dependent on English in order for Dutch fans to be able to communicate with e.g. Greek ones (or indeed, considering both Kaptein and I are Dutch, each other). Like it or not, English is and will remain the lingua franca of the speculative fiction community. Not there’s anything wrong with that, as long as we non-native speakers also get a chance to have our say…