Reading the BSFA Awards: 1970 – “The Jagged Orbit” by John Brunner

The British Science Fiction Awards often highlight books that don’t even make it onto awards lists dominated by American authors. I hoped it would help round out my reading a bit, and haven’t been disappointed!

The Jagged Orbit by John Brunner

John Brunner is a gift. He’s written a ton of science fiction that avoids being predictive in intent while also somehow being hauntingly, disturbingly accurate in its visions of the future. The Jagged Orbit is his look at racial tensions, and it won the British Science Fiction Association Award for best novel in 1970. (It also got a Nebula nomination.)

At first, the novel is not an easy read. No, scratch that–the novel never becomes an easy read, but it’s for different reasons throughout. The format makes it somewhat difficult. There are 100 chapters, some are composed of just a fragment of a word. There is a large cast of characters who seem quite unconnected at the beginning. Later, these characters do get thrust together, but I’m still not sure I caught exactly how things got resolved–or if they were resolved. And, I’m unconvinced that that matters.

The Jagged Orbit is much more about the journey than it is about the individual plot points or resolutions. Yes, there is a plot–racial tensions in the United States have ballooned and there is a group making money off selling money to everyone based on the fear over the same. A “spoolpigeon” named Matthew is trying desperately to hold on to his job while also paying for his wife’s place at an asylum, which he is obligated to do–the debt piles up if he tries to do differently. His job is a kind of talk show/investigative journalist combo. Other characters thrust the reader in the middle of various conflicts, in questions about psychadelic drugs, about trances and meditation, and more. The novel fits nicely into the New Wave sci-fi.

But it’s at least a bit more than the sum of its parts. It’s hard to judge the comments about race and racism in a novel written more than 50 years ago. Are some of Brunner’s use of terms and language in poor taste? Maybe. But is Brunner using those in order to show the absurdity of racism? Sometimes. What the book does best, though, is hold up a mirror to the reader today. It forces the reader to ask: what are you contributing to this mess–this world we’ve all got to live in? And for that, I recommend this novel.

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Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Reading the BSFA Awards: 2021- “The Animals in that Country” by Laura Jean McKay

The British Science Fiction Awards often highlight books that don’t even make it onto awards lists dominated by American authors. I hoped it would help round out my reading a bit, and haven’t been disappointed!

The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay

The Animals in that Country won the 2021 BSFA Award, but wasn’t on a shortlist for the Hugo, Nebula, or Locus for best novel. It’s another example of the BSFA Award giving a different look than the other major speculative fiction awards.

I was skeptical going in to this one, to be honest. Literary science fiction is very hit or miss for me, and often seems to suffer from the authors having a kind of disdain for “genre fiction” that shows up in weird ways in their works. The cover was kind of off-putting to me as well. The expression on the taxidermized (I learned a new word!) goat’s face is a weird mix of seriousness with maybe a hint of stern, while the young woman examining it looks confused and perhaps put off.

The contents of the novel itself doesn’t match any of these expectations. The story follows Jean, a grandma with an alcohol problem who works at an Australian zoo giving tours. She’s trying to take care of her granddaughter, Kimberly, while also navigating the expectations and hopes she has for her own life. If you told me based on the cover of this novel I’d be delighted by an extremely sardonic, liquor-downing grandma who gives wildlife tours for fun and enjoys the occasional sex on the side with another zookeeper, I’d have told you to your face that you’re a liar. But here we are.

Jean is a delightful narrative voice to read, even as she goes off on tangents about conspiracy theories she finds and immediately believes on Reddit and other sites and comments on current events like someone who’s gone deep down the rabbit hole of believing literally any conspiracy possible. I honestly still don’t know how McKay manages to make this work because all of this is a character I have a kind of aversion to on paper, but McKay makes her personable and even sympathetic. It’s probably the relentless dark humor that got to me. Jean doesn’t pull punches, and she just comments on things without a thought.

There’s a plot about a pandemic, too. I didn’t think I’d like that aspect, but the pandemic lets people understand animals, and vice versa. I saw some readers saying this made the story creepy and even “horror,” but I didn’t get that vibe at all. Maybe it’s because of Jean’s tone throughout the novel, or the interludes of biting flies attacking her and getting slaughtered by her hands before one finally gets into her ear and says something like “This is nice” because it’s warm and safe, but I never was even worried in the novel. It was just a comfort read, despite sometimes graphic awfulness.

The only complaint I have about the novel is the ending. It just felt extremely abrupt. Huge spoilers here, obviously: the government just zooms in, vaccinates everyone, and Jean can’t hear animals anymore, losing her connection to the dingo that she’d forged throughout the novel thus far. It’s so sudden and accompanied by the idea of “going back to normal.” I don’t really know what point is being made with it. It just… ends.

The Animals in that Country is a great read that once again has a very different feel from other major speculative fiction award nominees. I enjoyed it immensely, though I’m still kinda bummed about the ending.

All Amazon Links are Affiliates

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Sci-Fi Hub: Vintage Sci-Fi, Hugo Awards, British SF Awards, and more!

Here, I’ve collected my links to all the various series of reviews (and other hubs) related to science fiction. Here, you can explore vintage science fiction, Star Wars related novels, recent works that I enjoyed enough to review, many Award winners and my own opinions on which should have won, Babylon 5, and more! Some are links to other Hubs (like the Babylon 5 Hub) so you can use this post as your launching point for many, many reviews of books, television shows, and movies. 

Contemporary Science Fiction Reviews 

“Space Unicorn Blues” and “The Stars Now Unclaimed” – Two Recent Debut Science Fiction Novels Worth Noting– I highlight two science fiction works that I read recently and adored. There’s a space unicorn! There are Stars… that aren’t claimed! 

A Masterpiece of Science Fiction: “Days” by James Lovegrove– It’s pretty rare that a book nails the feel of reality so well while also painting a thin layer of unreality over it. Lovegrove’s simply phenomenal acerbic critique of unfettered capitalism is set within a Gigastore, and it just gets better from there. It helped keep me sane during peak shopping season. 

“Gate Crashers” and “Space Opera” – Two wild first contact novels– I love when things get goofy, though I have to be in the mood for it. Each of these hit me in the right mood, and they’re gloriously witty science fiction reading. 

A Stunning Epic – “Empire of Silence” by Christopher Ruocchio– Books get compared to each other all the time–it’s a way for fans to easily recommend works to others. Here, the book is often compared to Dune, and it’s one of those rare times the comparison sticks. Ruocchio’s worldbuilding is as complex and epic as that comparison demands, though he takes it in a different direction. The good news is it’s a series and Ruocchio continues to reliably deliver them! 

“The Guns Above” by Robyn Bennis- A Steampunk Delight– Steampunk is one of my favorite subgenres, but I find it’s rare that I find books in that subgenre that I enjoy. I don’t know if it’s that my taste is off, or that maybe I just like the genre due to video games, but that’s what it is. Anyway, I adored this book by Robyn Bennis. It had great characters, superb action, and steampunk goodness.

Remembering Ben Bova (1932-2020)– Bova’s passing impacted me deeply when I read about it. I’d been reading his books for more than 20 years, and his impact on my life as a reader went back into my childhood. I wrote a bit about my own journey reading his novels and the impact they had on me.

Vintage Sci-Fi

I read and review individual Vintage Science Fiction Novels

The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg– I can’t stop thinking about this haunting road trip horror/fantasy novel.

The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker– A haunting, poignant look at time travel that is a must-read for sci-fi fans.  

The Haunted Stars by Edmond Hamilton– I’m a sucker for space archaeology, and this book with shades of red scare, Star Trek, and more drew me in.

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold– The start of the Vorkorsigan Saga is a rip-roaring adventure that I love even after multiple reads.

Cobra by Timothy Zahn- A surprisingly thoughtful look at combat, PTSD, and more.

The Squares of the City by John Brunner- A novel I adored but probably didn’t understand as a child has even more meaning when reading it as an adult. And what could have been a gimmick is actually a fun way to organize a book. 

Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov- Asimov can (kind of) write characters! I enjoyed this one pretty well. 

Past Master by R.A. Lafferty- One of those novels that makes you sit back and think on every page. It’s a phenomenal read that has a central plot with a surprising premise. 

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing by Kate Wilhelm- A surprising, quiet novel that will keep you thinking long after you finish it. Certainly one of the more surprising Hugo winners. 

The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg- What if the same problems facing time travel also faced predictions of the future? Silverberg twists the time travel formula by… not time traveling. 

Dragonflight by Anne McAffrey- The worldbuilding of McAffrey shines as the major star in this novel of science fantasy

“The Dead Lady of Clown Town” by Cordwainer Smith- Love as Resistance– I wrote a post about how a short story from Cordwainer Smith shows how activism can work through love. 

Two “First Contact” series you should read (and probably haven’t)–  I wrote introductions to a pair of series that relate the first contact of humanity to various aliens. I think you should read both of these series! 

“We the Underpeople” by Cordwainer Smith– Actually a review of a modern collection of Smith’s stories and the novel Norstrilia. This post actually predates my “Vintage Sci-Fi” post format, and I’m hoping to eventually update it. For now, enjoy this review of this spectacular collection.

Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg– what is it like to experience loss? I found this to be the heart of this thoughtful novel from Silverberg.

My Read-Through of the Hugos

These posts are a series in which I read through and review every single Hugo Award Winner and Nominee. I also pick my own winner out of the batch, which doesn’t always align. 

1953– There’s only one book, so is it a surprise that I picked it for my winner?

1954- No winner for Best Novel.

1955– This year’s winner is widely considered the worst book to ever win a Hugo. 

1956– Red scare of the best kind.

1957- No Winner for Best Novel.

1958– Only once choice again, but this one was great.

1959– A few contenders, but I picked one that got me thinking.

1960– How could anyone have picked anything but space pirates? I mean really.

1961– The voters got it right on a fantastic novel this year.

1962– The rise of Heinlein. Also, Plato’s Cave.

1963– I dusted off a classic here. (Sorry.)

1964– Easy to pick a winner this go-round.

1965– The voters were perhaps most wrong this year of all the years so far. My goodness, they voted for a yawner over an intense, wild classic.

1966– It’s not fair that these other books had to compete against Dune, because there were some good’ns. 

1967– I cried a lot over my choice of winner here.

1968– Space poetry written by Zelazny. 

1969– I get hooked on Lafferty.

1970– Not the strongest year, but it does feature an all-time classic.

1971– A strong demonstration of why I choose to read lists, as I discover a mostly-forgotten classic!

1972– Yet another year Silverberg should have won the Hugo.

1973– Guess who should have won this year? Yep, and this may have been the biggest miss on SIlverberg so far. 

1974– Honestly I thought this year was a pretty mediocre year. My winner didn’t even break into the “A” grade range.

1975– One of the most singular, fantastic science fiction books of all time won this year’s award. It’s a strong batch, overall.

1976– A weaker year, but I had one fun, hilarious read stand out from the pack.

2020– A fantastic mix of genres and authors, and the first year I’m officially a Hugo voter!

Lodestar Award for Best YA Book

2021– While the lineup is great, I believe there is one clear winner, and it’s a fantasy novel steeped in African lore.

Reading the British Science Fiction Association Awards

I randomly pick some BSFA Winners to read and review. 

The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod (2008)– This book was essentially written for me. I love it so so much. 

The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay (2021)– I found this to be a timely romp that is simultaneously humorous and horrifying. It was a hugely different and entertaining read.

Indie Fiction

These reviews are largely of indie or self-published books that I thought were worth your attention.

Indie April Highlight: “The Sword of Kaigen” by M.L. Wang– Need some steampunk wuxia in your life? Have I got a book for you!

Indie April Highlight: “Awaken Online: Catharsis” by Travis Bagwell– My introduction to LitRPG happened through this thrilling combination of gaming, AI, and real life. 

Indie Highlight: “The Wings of War” by Bryce O’Connor and “The Ixan Prophecies” by Scott Bartlett– I review a pair of indie works that will give you your money’s worth. 

The Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC) Hub– All of my posts related to the indie, self-published science fiction contest are here.

TV

“Invincible” – Getting Hooked on a new superhero show (Episode 1)– Superheroes are all the rage but this first episode blew up my expectations in a big way.

Star Trek posts (I have not yet created a Hub for Star Trek)- I’ve reviewed many episodes of Star Trek TNG and DS9, and this link will let you explore those.

Babylon 5 Hub– My links to all my reviews related to the world of Babylon 5. I started with the television show and plan to work through all the novels and comics as well. 

Other Hubs

Horus Heresy and Warhammer/40K Hub– All my reviews related to Warhammer/40K/Horus Heresy fiction can be found here. Read grimdark to your heart’s content!

Babylon 5 Hub– My links to all my reviews related to the world of Babylon 5. I started with the television show and plan to work through all the novels and comics as well. 

Star Wars Hub– Reviews of many Star Wars: Expanded Universe novels are here, along with a few reviews of the new “canon” novels.

Star Trek posts (I have not yet created a Hub for Star Trek)- I’ve reviewed many episodes of Star Trek TNG and DS9, and this link will let you explore those.

The Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC) Hub– Want more indie sci-fi? Check out my hub for this exciting contest collecting all my posts related to these self-published science fiction books.

“The Night Sessions” by Ken MacLeod – Reading the British Science Fiction Association Awards – 2008

I continue to search for ways to expand my sci-fi/fantasy reading, and decided that alongside my Hugo Award list I’d start reading the winners of the British Science Fiction Association Award. I’m not reading them in any particular order, just as whatever strikes my fancy.

The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

I cannot adequately describe how much I adored this book. It basically has everything that I love mashed into one fantastic plot. There are robots/AI, there is a murder mystery in a sci-fi setting, there are deep explorations of faith and religion, alongside questions of church/state relations. MacLeod demonstrates surprising insight and understanding of creationist movements as well, such that I, with my background as a young earth creationist (now a theistic evolutionist/evolutionary creationist, depending on which terminology you prefer), was totally engrossed from the get-go. MacLeod wrote a book with some insanely niche interest focus to it, but that niche happens to be basically me, and 100% me. And I could not put this down.

The plot is fantastic. It is engrossing. It starts off with a murder of a priest, and this is a problem because Earth has had some massive religious wars (The Faith Wars, of which it seems 9/11 was just the beginning) that has led to some radically different ways of dealing with religion generally in different countries. Where we are in this book, Edinburgh, Scotland, the way it is dealt with is by keeping intense separation of church and state, such that people’s religious backgrounds aren’t really even allowed to be referenced in official government inquiries (which leads to some awkward discussions about people’s titles and what they mean as our detective hero and AI bot pal go about their investigation).

We follow Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson as he investigates these murders. He’s a deep character, with antipathy towards religion–especially fundamentalism–while also carrying his own shame from how he helped brutally suppress religion during the Faith Wars. It is this latter aspect that truly adds to the complexity of character as well as the complexity of the plot. Some may see the premise of this book and dismiss it as an anti-religious propaganda piece. Others might actually see the premise and go the other way. But what MacLeod does here is balances these two extremes of anti- and pro-religion and shows how it is ideology, the type of ideology that matters. When religion is bent to extremism that leads to violence, that is a terrible thing. But the violence of the Nation State is itself a damaging, harmful thing. The complexity is woven throughout the fabric of a plot that is never compromised for the sake of an agenda.

There is so much happening in this book, and MacLeod shows immense talent for both breadth and depth of intensely important topics. The book ultimately plays out as a condemnation of fundamentalism of any sort–whether religious or not–and does so in ways that are intensely, deeply human despite sometimes playing out through AI controlled robots. Throughout the work there are questions related to creationism, church-state relations, and the deep psychological harm that can be done by violent acts–even ones that one believes were justified. The Night Sessions is a superb work that stands as one of my all-time favorites. I very highly recommend it.

SDG.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Read along as I read every Hugo Award winner and nominee! Sci-fi/fantasy is the name of the game.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.