JUDGE’S REPORT: BLAIZE KAYE
May 2017 Competition : Science Fiction
When approaching evaluating SFF short stories, it’s important to remember that it’s as open a genre as one could hope for. We can write about anything, and in any way we please. As Geoff Ryman has said, we have no settled aesthetic.
On the one hand, this makes SFF exciting. We have, and should have, no clear idea about the genre’s future trajectory. By now it’s almost passe to point to the blurring of the boundaries between genre and literary fiction, although that doesn’t make it any less real or exciting.
On the other hand, an awareness that there’s no settled aesthetic makes judging a competition challenging. As a reader of SFF, I have a very particular taste, very much on the “literary” side of the genre. I like quiet stories about loss, death, and memory (I highly recommend John Crowley’s short story “Snow”, which has a healthy dose of all three of these).
Having no settled aesthetic and having multiple perspectives and acknowledging individual tastes doesn’t mean that there are no standards, though. And so I hope that in my judging I’ve managed to focus on what more or less “fixed” standards there are (although I acknowledge that all standards are fluid and provisional).
What are these “standards”?
Firstly, there is the overall quality of the prose. This covers everything from objective issues (spelling, grammar) through to the poetic dimensions of the sentence level. How does a sentence read. Is any of the prose awkward? Is there any accidental rhyme? In the surrounding paragraph have you repeated words in an unconscious way (conscious repetition is a powerful technique, but if words are repeated unconsciously it can make the prose awkward).
Secondly, are the characters consistent, are they believable, does it feel as if there’s “somebody home”? Building characters doesn’t have to be about generating long lists about how they look, their favourite foods, where they went to school, and so on. These details help, but what’s most important is that it feels that there’s a consistency in the character’s actions. That they’re appropriately motivated, and so on.
Thirdly, and finally, is the world consistent, is it interesting. Most often it’s this third aspect that differentiates SFF from other forms of fiction.
In SFF we put psychologically plausible characters in speculative worlds and see what they do.
What I found when reading the pieces was that almost no-one had trouble with the first point. Almost all the pieces were solidly written, with some of them having moments of genuine brilliance.
The third criterion, the worldbuilding, wasn’t particularly problematic for most of the entries either, which was interesting given how little space there was to develop a world. So great work on that point too.
It was on the second point, the character building, where I thought the pieces had the most trouble.
The setup was roughly “your character has been given something dangerous and illegal, what now?” And in most of the cases where the character chooses to keep the dangerous/illegal object I found myself asking why? Their decisions seemed under motivated, and therefore unconvincing. I have a feeling that this was partly a function of the prompt for the competition being so detailed.
Beyond some minor quibbles, though, the SAWC did a marvellous job this year. It’s a good time to be writing SFF in South Africa, and it’s clear we have some mighty fine writers in the Circle.
Congratulations to all, and thanks again for giving me the opportunity to read some great SFF.