Final Judge's Report

The Final Judge for 2019 was Digby Ricci, who has graced our annual dinners with his memorable speeches many, many times in recent decades.

I would like to begin by thanking Nova for inviting me to judge the science-fiction entries. The task was rather daunting, and, at times, difficult, but, in the end, I can say that I enjoyed it immensely, and, as I constantly point out to my sci-fi-loving friends, I have come a long way for a philistine-- as far as this genre is concerned! What follows are some general observations and criticisms, and, then, in true Oscars fashion, the top three entries will be listed….

It would be a cliché for me to assert that the science-fiction umbrella has become very expansive indeed. What are mockingly called “swords and sorcery” works have long been included in the genre, and my 1996 claim (in Probe , nogal!) that 2001: A Space Odyssey was not really science fiction, but a “philosophical meditation in space” – those were my salad days, when I was green in judgement! – would be scornfully answered by the riposte: “That is exactly what science fiction should be, and what all excellent science fiction is!” Indeed, these days, I feel certain that most science-fiction devotees would nod approvingly at the definition of the genre provided in the Sixth Edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature (wonderfully edited by Margaret Drabble). This volume’s relevant entry declares that science fiction deals with utopianism, dystopianism, cosmological and sociological speculation, horror, and the paranormal. The entry continues: “Perhaps the best broad definition of SF is to say that it is a series of mythologies of power, whether it be the power to travel through time or space, or to enter the thoughts of another, or to overcome death or the ineluctable process of evolutionary forces.” Well, there we have it, or much of it, I think you would all agree….

I was confronted by many and extremely varied “mythologies of power” in the 2019 contest. I was immediately struck by how very allusive the stories were. The great Harold Bloom writes of “enriching allusion” as a vital ingredient of successful poetry, but it is important, I think, to remember that the allusiveness must be enriching, and that pastiche must not move inadvertently into parody (intentional parody is another matter altogether!), or plummet into bathos. In the tales I judged, there were echoes of Game of Thrones, of Le Guin, or Philip Pullman, of Blade Runner, of Back to the Future, of Alien, and of King’s Carrie. Some of these echoes were very effective indeed. Others became rather clod-hopping and the narratives lapsed into self-parody. A highly sexed, tongue-in-cheek Mickey Spillane pastiche is most enjoyable for a while, but becomes rather heavy going when it is accompanied by too detailed cosmological, political, and technological explanation. This observation brings me to another key point. Too much exposition never works. It is always a good idea to imitate Le Guin (“The king was pregnant…”), who wears her explanatory gifts with grace and subtlety, allowing narrative to reveal startling differences from our world, our time, our genders, rather than inserting chunks of authorial hectoring. That didactic command so beloved by teachers of creative writing does apply to all narratives: “Show! Don’t tell!”

Register should also be consistent: a sudden shift to comedy can be skilful or just plain odd. A very fine piece of alternative /inverted-society writing – an apiary/matriarchy in which men are despised, even oppressed – moved towards a rather limp conclusion, because the author could not resist too glib a comic inversion: the “matronise”- him joke is not as Wildean as its creator believes! The “Carrie’ imitation, “Danny Boy”, was, on the whole, touching and disturbing, but it lapsed into climactic sentimentality: a fault which King would certainly have avoided (see the conclusion of The Shining and the conclusion of Salem’s Lot). “The Kitchen” was a very witty parody of Mills and Boonian writing, which injected strangeness into the most conventional descriptions, situations, and longings: “You can never take her to your beaches or your Disneyland!” was charming and sad and funny! Apt register must be maintained, and abrupt stylistic shifts must be carefully managed.

The Strunk-and-White purist within me forces me to comment on grammatical errors. Typos are another matter –we all make them! – but care should be taken to avoid the inadvertent ambiguity that results from the misplacing of “only” in sentences, and one must eliminate the setting-teeth-on-edge clumsiness of using “like”, when “as if” is required. Using “gotten” in settings in which an elevated, pseudo-Medieval quality is desired is unfortunate. Indeed, I would never use “gotten”, except in appropriate dialogue! A little warning too about graphic violence and raunchy sex. Teachers , of course, know nothing about either – we make tea, not love! -- but we do know that, when it comes to gore and to pneumatic bliss, less is usually more!

Now for the winners. The winner is “The Void”, a frightening and bleak union of spiritual and physical horror, and a very disturbing speculation on the flesh/spirit dichotomy. The echoes of Pullman were subtle and apt, and both description and dialogue were authentic and restrained. At times, agony was a little slaveringly emphasized (see my previous point!), but this was haunting writing: really chilling and moving.

Second place is shared by “Don’t Look back” and “Into the Molten Sea”. “Don’t Look Back” is a humorous and profound defamiliarization of a world we take for granted, and a critique of humanity's arrogance. I have already directed some criticism at its abrupt and not-witty-enough ending, but it is a very fine story, nevertheless. “Into The Molten Sea” is a moving assertion that compassion is the essence of humanity, as opposed to robotic skill, and the world of floating and falling islands, and great, fire-proof birds (well almost heat-proof!) was captured with imaginative power. This story had a very skilful, throwaway concluding sentence.

I am not a copping-out wuss, but third place is also shared by “The Kitchen” and “ A Proof of Worth”. “The Kitchen”’s merits I have already praised. It is cleverly parodic, and has effective echoes of the original “Back to The Future”. It is, however, a little too long: too much of a good thing at times. ‘A Proof of Worth” offers a very authentic “swords and sorcery” world, and shows a real flair for exciting narrative. The battle against the dragons is genuinely frightening, and the story is also a tale of self-discovery, increasing insight, and the journey to maturity. The different lessons for the young and the old are poignantly explored. I loved the idea of the “scenes of forgetting”. Fourth Place: “Danny Boy”. Fifth Place: “The Poacher”: too many lashings of gore, but I liked the return to the apocalyptic meteor. Sixth Place: “Causation”: often very effective, but an over-egged pudding of a story: dark humour,; a denunciation of scientific experimentation; philosophical speculation. I liked; “Human flaws are there to limit and challenge one’s soul during its earthly journey”. Seventh Place: “Latent images”: witty, certainly –especially the ending!—but too much exposition. The Biblical link is very skilful. Eighth Place: “The Righteous One”. More Raymond Chandler elements, and fewer Mickey Spillane and B Western elements, were needed. Some cleverly laconic dialogue, but the echo of “Seven” was too crass, and the story was over-loaded with explanation.

There it is! Thank you, once more. Strength to your quills, pens, keyboards, and tablets. To adapt Oscar Wilde, don’t shoot the judge! He is doing his best.