Side Effects

A Lifetime of Science Fiction

The Gernsback decision - 2011 edition
It's amazing how the world focus on this simple, annual list of nominations and awards (the world of genre, of course - it's hardly CNN material), considering how narrow and diminute the number of real, concerned voters is - a little more than a thousand, this year. Given such a wide fan base around the planet, and the tens of thousands of stories written in several languages, it seems a big responsibility for such a small group to nominate what is considered to be the best genre fiction of the previous year. After all, will they hold the same quality criteria as you? Do they agree with your definition of 'science fiction'? Is your novel/writer among the nominees? - Of course, a (very) good argument can be made on why you didn't vote as well...

They're really questions without practical answers, since the logistics and effort of setting up a world award are too complex to overcome with the small means literary awards usually have. Who'd sponsor it? Who'd manage it? Language is a real barrier, and beyond language, let's face it, different people will have different opinions on what kind of fiction should be held in higher regard. A way to solve it could be to award the best stories by country/language first, and than, from this smaller lot, choose the "world best" - but how can you ensure fairness among such diversity? And will it agree more with your definition of 'science fiction'?

The truth is that, by the end of the day, having an award such as the Hugo - or any other - has a positive effect on the genre. It gets people talking, debating, reading, being interested. It's always important, first, to set some standards so that they can be followed or contested.

After a number of years aiming its little eyes at Fantasy fiction, the Hugo award has been showing, in recent years, a healthy (from my side of the pool) lean towards scientific rationality. This year, however, it's become a strange mix - in which texts about zombies (Feed) compete with a near future vision of a non-Western land (The Dervish House), time travel classic tropes (Blackout / All Clear), military space opera with all the traditional devices (Cryoburn) and a feminist fantasy with hints of Ursula Le Guin (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms).

The dominant themes of the current science and fantasy fiction stories published in the English language seem to be all here (not considering the vampire spectrum with its own audience and which seems to finally be declining). It's an eerie and surprising lot, almost as if chosen by a process of all-inclusive politically correct mandatory representation... (There's nothing wrong in being all-inclusive, except, of course, when it speaks higher than individual performances.) Given such diversity, it is hard to bet on a winning horse, and everything will now depend on the tastes of the WorldCon members, the only ones allowed to place a vote on the final ballot.

What can you do? Read all the nominated novels, short stories and essays because some of them, if not all, will be among the set of best fiction published in 2010. Afterward, informed, you can decide for yourself, or better yet, carry on reading other stories.

After all, literary awards are just a bonus. The real win is that science fiction carries on being written and published. A win for both the author and the reader.

PS - probably for the first time ever, a 2nd generation Portuguese has been nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer: Larry Correia. Strangely but gladly, Portuguese science fiction is thriving in other lands and other languages.

Space:1999 is back
Sort of. This is a big part of my childhood. I grew up with these stories, these adventures, never for one minute stopping to think if it made any sense that an explosion on the moon would send it hurling through space... And at such a speed that they'd cross galaxies in the span of a single week-interval. And that everybody they met would speak English and look human. And of course, that oxygen doesn't run out, nor supplies...

Here's a convention that seems to try and recapture this spirit. With Catherine Schell, whose Maya character was absolutely beautiful back then (and it still is, it still is...)


The Balla(r)ds of Europe
An interesting, if sadly unambitious, entry about American vs European SF (distinctions, etc). It should be noted that German SF does not speak for the whole of European SF. The truth is: nobody really does - nobody has the full picture... (there might be the odd fellow that speaks all the languages and has read most of the books but, as Fermi once asked, where is s/he?)

Coming back to that article, and since that blogger is Canadian, I wondered briefly if Canadian SF was included in his unspoken definition of American SF. And if it was, whether that also included French Canadian SF. And if not, why.

A thought that has just occurred to me it that the SF experience in Canada - being a multi-language, multi-cultural country with a foot in America and another in the Commonwealth - is aptly suited to help us understand the distinctions (if there are any) between the different international approaches to our genre. Or at least, more suited than the European experience might be.

In fact, I'm not even sure whether we should shelve Canadian SF in the American or International SF sections. Or if we should split it between both.

Considering of course that there is such a creature as "international sf" - since its existence is yet to be fully proved, in my opinion. If we're not just trying to find misleading geographic patterns in what are really the usual differences one normally finds among any set of writers... 

What do you think?

This season’s highlight on the Portuguese SF
This season’s highlight on the Portuguese SF must be the publication of what we hope is the first article by Nuno Fonseca for the World SF blog, thus kicking off the Portuguese-speaking contribution to the general debate on the legitimacy of an international SF.

The fundamental question that arises from Nuno’s take is that a (literary) criticism about the state of a World SF done on a full stomach is substantially different from a criticism that has to crawl into the other people’s bins and live on crumbs.

By criticism we refer to the set of international authors complaining that there are not enough women to write SF or enough people of colour or of alternative sexualities - arguments which, I confess, always leave a hint of defending a particular, very personal condition, more than reflecting a generalized condition of the genre as they purport to be. On the other hand, I do not belong to any of these alleged conditions of exclusion nor do I live in a country where conflicts of race are socially dominant, so my opinion may be unfair. But in essence, it’s not as if we were still living in the 1950s, as if we hadn’t already gotten rid of a set of damaging social and cultural prejudices (so much that someone holding prejudices becomes a target for prejudice) – and by ignoring this change, the exclusion argument risks becoming stale and repetitive.

Perhaps in the end the real issue is about wishing a shift on the themes addressed by SF - say, from a technological vision of the future into a mystical vision – that will make SF closer to the cultural heart of the complaining person. It is natural that, as an example, the perspective of the all-American-hero not only has little to say to an Eastern citizen but, to a large extent, will be seen as offensive in a region formerly colonized by the West.

And yet, as well Nuno points out, that complaint is still done on a full stomach, because one of the benefits of colonization has been the legacy of English – as was the Latin here in the Iberian Peninsula (yes, Western Europe was once a colonized place - by the Romans...). It’s a legacy that allows authors to express themselves more easily in the global lingua franca, that helps them read and be read and, of course, engage in a debate with a fair amount of easiness, without the hassle of translation.

Admittedly, those crumbs we receive are full of nutrients - after all, our country has equal access to all works published in the Anglophone world - and, thanks to technology, there is now a true democracy that allows anyone to engage in those global debates.

However, when it comes to fiction, it is impossible to reflect national concerns without the arduous process of writing, publishing and reviewing. Completing the circle, as I have had the opportunity to defend in other forums, is essential for the development of our genre – of any genre, really. If the situation of writing and publishing in Portugal is, as Nuno argues, a handicapped situation, I contend that the process of reviewing the published works is even more critical.

Most national works appear and disappear from the shelves without a minimal notice from readers. Apart from considerations that I might have as an author, I see dozens of historical novels by new authors (to take on a fast growing genre in Portugal) pass by the bookstores without learning anything about the quality or the themes these books discuss; I have no idea which centuries the authors tend to explore more and which is the level of their historical accuracy. Would I enjoy some of them? Do some of them present innovative literary approaches to the sanctity that we, as a nation, regard our History? Are some of them rebellious? There’s no hint on their covers – since a cover only intends to sell. Unfortunately the few existing literary magazines tend to be too anxious to please both reader and publishers and cautiously step away from any review that might be too “academic”.

On the other hand, addressing my concerns as a SF&F author and long-time fan, I know only too well the pattern of dropping a book on the market and see it quickly sink into the bottom of its murky waters. I can’t say I’ve only had bad experiences – the 2007 Portuguese and Brazilian anthology of original short-stories I've edited, Por Universos Nunca Dantes Navegados, for example, had an unusual, beneficial, series of online reviews. However, this is not a consistent and sustained situation, and it’s common that new publications will receive only a minimum set of reviews or even no comments at all. Just consider the number of online magazine editions that our country has had in the last few years against the number of short fiction blog entries about them…

Without this mirror that allows us to understand whether we are fat and ugly or whether we are in fact rising supermodels, it is difficult to prune the weeds and allow the genre to develop.

Comments may arise concerning the separation of paranormal romance and Tolkien-inspired heroic fantasy from the more generic definition of the genre. It's normal to make such comments, however I contend that this separation should exist and Nuno did well to evidence it. A bit like birds that move away from the nest - or rather like a spin-off from the original species - these literary movements have a big presence in the marketplace and enough followers and creators to make them autonomous and be appreciated outside the SF&F context.

If these sub-genres are intrinsically diversified in order to survive, only time will tell. The rule is the same for any species: only from continuous innovation and cross-pollination of issues and concerns will this sub-genres continue to hold the interest of their followers – since these followers will grow, will take on other, more adult, concerns, and will begin to depart from the original books, looking upon those as a fancy from their youth.

The sad truth is that a genre will not always grow at the same speed as its readers...

Full list of honorable mentions for Best Horror of the Year is now online
Rising from the ashes of dear departed Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, here's the full list of stories, for your perusal. In a not too distant future, we can only hope that just by typing the story title a link to the story itself (or to a shop that would provide it in ebook format) would be automatically generated, so that you didn't have to track down all the magazines one by one (oh, but the joy of chasing for old books and periodicals in dusty bookstores!...)

Brief comment on Portuguese SF
On the wake of a couple of posts on the subject of International Science Fiction (by International meaning non-US) over by the very informative blog SF Signal, Luis Rodrigues, of Fantastic Metropolis fame, has sent a brief but very enlightening comment (last item on the page) about the present status of the genre in Portugal. This, of course, will not sparkle your enthusiasm of what has been done in this country - nor will it steer you towards understanding whether there's such a thing as a Portuguese/Iberian SF - but it'll leave you informed, I hope.

For a full explanation of the Portuguese language status you should also read Jacques Bercia's report on Brazilian SF.

Gathering reports about what is happening in the genre all over the world is one of the few literary sports that the SF community likes to practice, but usually with little or no consequence. This time around I felt compelled to write down my feelings and opinions about the use and need of an International Science Fiction, and whether's we're not actually kindly fooling ourselves with such distinction, which I posted in my Portuguese blog. A couple of other Portuguese SF bloggers have followed me into the discussion, and I'll try to publish all of those here, in English, in the near future. You might be interested to join me.

What sets Portuguese SF apart
(This is a rough translation of an article about Portuguese SF that I published online 5 years ago. It was sparked by an email interview with a French journalist.)

Question: what do you think sets Portuguese Sf apart from other SF?

The theme that Portuguese science fiction most dwells upon must be History. If there is a thing that a Portuguese person knows about is its country's history. We perspire it so much as a culture that it's hard not to look upon it as a telling sign of the nation's current uneasiness with its international low-key status. It's just an opinion, of course, and as such, it should be supported by other evidence; but its existence does cause some attrition in the development of the culture: still in our modern days, it doesn't sound right in calling the ship's captain Felgueiras, and not John MacDonald.

Such uneasiness is heightened by this simple fact: Portuguese writers are not scientists by training, and much less by profession. The closest example must be that of a writer who used to be a MD (João Aniceto). Hard sf - being the speculative fiction that uses the tools of the hard sciences, mathematics, physics and such - is practically non-existent (I can't think of any book or story that uses a new and bold scientific idea as a plot device - you won't find a Greg Egan or any of the Killing B's so far).

Even Portuguese History as a plot device for speculative fiction - which usually means alternate history - is fairly recent. Some years ago, on the 20th-something anniversary of the 1974 revolution that overthrew the fascist regime, there were a couple of novels about what would have happened if the revolutionary forces hadn't come through. They were badly written and poor in their historical analysis, or heavy-handed in the presentation of the alternate facts. Nevertheless, someone had finally done it.

José Saramago would "almost" make its own (unwilling?) contribution to the AH canon, with his book, The History of the Siege of Lisbon. One of the stories in this novel is about the conquest of Lisbon by King Henriques from the Muslim hold, and what might have happened if the crusaders in his army, who in actual History were essential to the victory, had said no to him. The story is actually very interesting and the depiction of that kind of life very graphic... but Saramago doesn't carry his assumption to the end, he backs away from it, and instead we see that most of the crusaders (but not all) end up turning their minds and engaging into battle. So that all ends up happening as it did... not the best food-for-thought for the average sf reader...

The myth of King Sebastian (more on it here) is finally addressed by Maria Moura-Botto in O Regresso de D. Sebastião (The Return of King Sebastian). An interesting novel.

Alternate History written in Portuguese is usually best done by the Brazilian author Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro. "Ética da Traição" ("Ethics of Treason") - also published in France - is a novella from the Portuguese-Brazilian anthology of the 90's: O Atlântico Tem Duas Margens (The Atlantic Ocean Has Two Shores) that tells the story of a Brazil which has lost the War with Paraguay and has been split into two independent states, one of which, the Guarani Republic, became the largest country in South-America. Meanwhile, a Brazilian scientist has discovered a means to travel back in time and help in the defeat of Paraguay. That would place Brazil in the history path that ends up in our own present world, but the scientist doesn't go through with it - he understands that Brazilians would have a harsher, poorer way of life in this timeline. A very interesting, political, well-written story. And it's not the only one he has on alternate Brazils. (see also)

Going back to the statement about the absence of hard science in national sf, the lack of strong scientific plots doesn't mean that, even as laymen or researchers, the writers completely ignore science elements and ideas from their stories - most of them are borrowed from English-written sf, since its ideas have been sufficiently digested for an audience of non-scientists. Such is the case of nanotechnology, that João Barreiros uses in the short stories of his Toy Hunter collection, of Daniel Tércio (the novel Stone of Lucifer ), and even some of my own stories (just for reference).

Troubles with aliens
A disturbing video that takes place in Lisbon, Portugal. In it you can see the metal platform of the Tagus suspension bridge melting under an alien heat beam. The image doesn't let you see the beam or the ship hovering above the water but it's a daunting sight. After that, another ship started to blow up some small boats anchored on the river. The people were so shocked they didn't even react with panic or other signs of fear.

Saturday night, too many drinks on the side... even teenage aliens with wheels (or hoverdrives in this case) behave badly...

Of Eurocons and short stories and English...
This is the only (that I know of) full review of an anthology that should have received more attention (and also support in its making) that it did. The intention was good and the execution phenomenal, but as the editor points out not having had the support of English native professional translators or writers that would help streamline the final text did open the way for problems in the translation.

Anyway, Jonathan Cowie was kind enough to say the following of my collaboration:

Appendix to an Unknown Work by Luis Filipe Silva (Portugal). In the future fragmented records are discovered that suggests a past covert and coordinated attempt to takeover society might have taken place, but then again the 'records' could just be a fictional story? Actually I found this to be a very engaging tale once I had struggled through the translation.

Thanks for your comments and for not having given up :)

I went back to reading it and the translation is really below par - to be honest, the style in the original was purposefully dry and dense, that didn't help, I'm sure. I'll need to send it back to a proper English speaker and have a new go at it.

In a year that saw the edition of Jim Morrow's wonderful anthology, it was good to see that the Europeans can put together a similar project as well.
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Juno in June
In the end, Juno left me more with a sense of indifference, of not really caring about what was going to happen in the movie, than anything else. From all that I had read and watched about it, I had expected my reaction to be very different. Juno, the teenage single mother who let herself become pregnant the night she seduced the boy she secretly loved (and should we expect they were supposed to think of protection first?), for all her attitude and her young age, is always presented as a bright kid with a supporting family that we know will land on her feet at the end, so I've never felt her as being in danger, emotional or otherwise. Even Mark, the married 38-year-old guy who still wanted to be a rock star and get back to a younger time, and be able to engage in life story different from that of being a responsible, mature adult with a wife that doesn't understand him, even him could have been an entry point into the movie for me - but he wasn't. Surprisingly enough, it was the lost, wanting, sad look on Jennifer Gardner's face (in her best role so far, a kind of acting that I honestly didn't think she had in her) that made the movie real, it was her normal, uninteresting character that provided the movie balance to stay afloat. She never has any of the great lines that almost everyone else has and she's certainly portrayed as the person more at odds to what Juno (both protagonist and the movie) represents. Her bland, suffering "Vanessa" is lost in a sea of funny, emotionally balanced characters that don't judge Juno's choices and never tell her what to do (just like real life, right?), and as such, she is the closest thing to reality that this fairy tale story, so brilliantly hiding what it really is, has. It wasn't the great movie everyone said it would be, but it had some hilarious lines, good acting, and one of the best soundtracks of recent times. Can't beat that on a sunday afternoon.
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