Book awards! and a rant!

in Reviews, Musings

The Carl Brandon Society presented the winners of their 2008 and 2009 awards last week, and I’ve added them to my reading list.

They give out two awards, the Parallax award, “given to works of speculative fiction created by a self-identified person of color,” and the Kindred award, “given to any work of speculative fiction dealing with issues of race and ethnicity; nominees may be of any racial or ethnic group.”

2008’s Parallax award was given to Vandana Singh’s novella Distances which…actually isn’t on my reading list, because my library doesn’t have it and it’s not available as an ebook that I’ve been able to find, but my library does have The Year’s Best SF 14, with a different novella by Singh. I have some trouble with multi-author short story collections, but I think if I try reading just the stories by people who are not white/not American, I could manage to blog about those.

The 2008 Kindred award went to Tananarive Due for her novella “Ghost Summer” from the anthology The Ancestors. Another collection, but this time it’s just three novellas. Horror is not really my genre, but I’m not entirely sure what distinguishes “horror” from “fantasy stories where scary things happen” which I’ve read plenty of and enjoy when it’s done well. So, Due’s My Soul to Keep is also on my list.

The 2009 awards both went to young adult books, which makes me extra happy, since YA SF books are my favorite all around. The Parallax winner is Hiromi Goto’s Half World, which I am really excited to read. The plot summaries I’ve read remind me of the Abhorsen books by Garth Nix, which are wonderful.

And the last award went to Liar by Justine Larbalestier. I actually got the audiobook for Liar from the library months ago (I make extensive use of Overdrive Media’s audiobook collection), but I was only maybe a third of the way through it when my ipod disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and I just didn’t have the heart to finish it. I think I’ll try again with the printed book instead.

Speaking of YA fiction, the 2010 Printz award was also announced recently, and I’d just started reading Ship Breaker when I heard that it won. I’m afraid I don’t have very strong feelings about the book - I liked it, but I didn’t love it the way I thought I would, given the hype and the award. It does have a quite believably diverse cast, though the story deals a lot more with class issues than race. It’s the class issues that have led me to mention it at all, actually, because people keep describing it as “dystopian” or “post-apocalyptic,” which irritates me.

The premise is: a few hundred years from now, most of the resources we take for granted now like oil and many metals, have been depleted to the point where it’s necessary to scavenge them from the garbage our society is leaving behind. Nailer Lopez lives on the beaches of Louisiana and works as a ship breaker, taking apart the wrecks of old oil tankers for what oil and valuable scrap metal remain. But his life changes completely when he finds a brand-new clipper ship owned by a very wealthy girl, Nita, wrecked on a nearby beach.

Now, Nailer’s life is hard. Ship-breaking is nasty, dangerous work. And Bacigalupi’s world has certainly changed from ours - aside from the resource scarcity, the sea level has risen high enough to drown New Orleans and other coastal cities, and massive super-storms are common. But these are all just extrapolations from current trends. The main reason Nailer’s life is so bad is because he’s poor and has an awful job. There was no single massive cataclysmic event to destroy the way of life we comfortable Americans know - which is what is commonly meant by apocalypse, there’s no evidence of a rigid and authoritarian society that makes life terrible for everyone under its rule - which is what dystopia usually means. In fact, we see more than a little evidence that a lot of people live much better lives than Nailer’s, beyond his beach. And uh, maybe a lot of people in the publishing and journalism industries don’t know this, but there are a lot of poor people doing terrible, dangerous work in the world right now. I mean, 60 Minutes did a program on e-waste recycling in China that isn’t that far off from what Nailer does. Surely people in the publishing industry watch 60 minutes. Is China post-apocalyptic? Well, not that I’ve noticed. I’m sure you could find people who argue that China is a dystopia, but I think the reality there is rather more complex. Plus, dystopia is a literary device. Real places are not dystopias any more than they are utopias (Except maybe North Korea). Anyway it’s not like China is the only place in the world with poor people doing dirty and dangerous work.

Basically, If the story had been told from Nita’s point of view, no one would bother calling the book post-apocalyptic or dystopian, since her life was pretty darn comfortable. As are the lives of most of the people who work for her father’s company. Probably the world of Ship Breaker doesn’t have a much higher proportion of poor and desperate people than the one we live in now, or who exist invisibly around the edges of your average non-apocalyptic science-fictional story. The difference with this book is that some of the very poorest live in the U.S., and that Bacigalupi chose to make them the center of his story. I leave you to draw your own conclusions as to the significance of the fact that so many people have taken this to mean that the world of Ship Breaker is basically terrible for everyone, everywhere. Well, aside from the fact that dystopian and post-apocalyptic futures are hot stuff in YA literature right now. It’s always fun to blame marketing, but I don’t think that’s the only problem here.