Monday, February 10, 2020

BSFA Awards Shortlist 2019

... is out!

I like literary awards for loads of reasons, one of which is that they raise similar questions to AI and automation: Can you design and implement a procedure that will reliably replicate human judgment? You run the program again and again, and sometimes it appears to work, and sometimes it's a bit dodgy, and sometimes it's so dodgy you consider tweaking the code. (See note). In fact, it's probably time we had literary awards judged by AI. I will fully get on that.

Also, I like the way they are a democracy cosplay.

Also, I like the way they make so many people incredibly grouchy.

Including me. Comparing longlist with shortlist, I'm personally a little disappointed not to see Sandra Newman's The Heavens and Tim Maughan's Infinite Detail up for Best Novel. Zen Cho would have been great too.

Other minor kvetches? Well, no shade to the brilliant work of the shortlisted artists, it feels a slight shame that the BSFA Award for Best Artwork has once again effectively become the BSFA Award for Best Cover, after a just slightly more varied selection last year. I pledged 50 superdelegates to Cedric Mizero's A New Life in the Village exhibition and 50 superduperdelegates to SinJin Li Studios' Productive Futures conference ephemera (notably an insanely gorgeous booklet, but also name badges sporting symbols later revealed to assign each conference-goer to a science fictional profession and class status: this was a conference with worldbuilding), but no dice.

One of the nice and slightly precarious things about the BSFA Awards specifically is that they don't boundary-police too much, but despite technically allowing any genre fiction authored anywhere in the world -- there is no hard design rule, for example, that prevents the British Science Fiction Association Awards from being completed flooded one year by US-authored epic fantasy -- they do keep a focus on what you might roughly flail your arms at and designate "British SF."  Still, in recent years Best Novel has included the likes of Yoon Ha Lee, Ann Leckie, Tricia Sullivan, Aliette de Bodard, and Nnedi Okorafor, and in Brexit year especially, it might have felt better to have a shortlist that wasn't so Very Very UK?

But like I say, these are nano-kvetches and overall -- looks like a seriously strong list! I've not read many of them or anything, but, you know, I Know the authors' Work. A bit of a mix of big publishers and smaller indie stuff is also a plus. I feel like BSFA Awards have a kind of Iowa and New Hampshire energy to them. Not bellweathers exactly, but at least an upward spurt of force that might propel something unusual into the swirling weather of the Nebulas and Hugos. Well done algorithm and the horde of human hearts that execute it.

The Non-Fiction category is a weird one, since it's so often comparing across different forms and modes. One big glitch: a piece I wrote for Big Echo, about Star Trek and work, slipped onto the Non-Fiction shortlist, among proper big books with squillions of hours of research and labour embedded in them.

Also maybe kind of interesting: the Shorter Fiction category is dominated by novellas. Why??? IS THE SHORT STORY DEAD???

Note: Except it's weird, because most of the circuitry this 'AI' is running on is actually made out of human judgments in the first place, only these are a different set of judgments from the set of judgments it's endeavouring to simulate. I.e. the judgment it is attempting to simulate is something like, "What is the best eligible book?" Whereas key judgments which actually operationalise the simulation include things like, "What system shall we use to tally up the votes? What stages shall we have? How shall we time things? Is this particular borderline work eligible in the first place?" And, "Shall I join the BSFA? Shall I vote? Shall I vote for this thing by my friend? Shall I vote for this thing I haven't read but which is by an author whose work I admire?" So related judgments, but different. Also, of course, not just judgments but also plenty of work, in particular the work of BSFA Award Administrator Clare Boothby.

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