Donna Scott is a multi-talented young woman who I had the pleasure of meeting through Eastercon a few years ago. A stand-up comedian and successful fiction writer – endorsed by the likes of Alan Moore – Donna is also an established editor and Chair of the BSFA (the British Science Fiction Association) since June 2013.
FB: As a comedian, are you also then a fan of humorous SF & Fantasy writers? Any favourites?
DS: Absolutely! And it seems that I am always bumping into people who like to read funny SF if they read SF at all, but as a sub-genre there’s only a very small pool of published writers to pick from. Like a lot of fans, I got to love Douglas Adams first, but because I was only a small child at the time, I became a fan of the TV series first, which I gather is the least cool out of the radio plays/book/TV options for getting into his stuff. Oh… forgot about the film. Okay, the second least cool option. Out of all the formats, the books remain my favourite. They are the hoopiest.
Then there was the fantastic Terry Pratchett, whose books I was introduced to by my best friend, and then in turn I passed the love for them to my little brother. I read everything on my friend’s shelf and whatever I could get from the library (and would occasionally walk out with a Craig Shaw Gardner because of the similarity in covers… which I liked, but the humour was never quite as sharp as Terry’s). Occasionally, with the deft use of WD40 and pliers, I would manage to crank open my purse and buy those books from a shop with actual money, they were that good.
Then my bro and I both got into the Red Dwarf series and we loved reading the Grant/Naylor books for a while. I highly recommend Better Than Life.
Not so long back, I was at a convention, attending an ‘Ask the Editor’ panel, and someone in the audience boldly asked if they were open to looking at a manuscript from new writer for humorous SF. The chap was swiftly put down in no uncertain terms. Apparently, the aforementioned writers have written so many of these sorts of books that there will not be a need for any more of them for quite some considerable time. They have cornered the market, and beyond the extreme fandom for a few names that are writing prolifically in this genre it gets a bit ‘niche’. What’s more the editor in question included Tom Holt in that summary, even though he’s more comedy-horror. So no chance at all! Don’t you think that’s a bit of a shame?
Anyway, they’ve just let one more writer in the exclusive group of comedy-SF writers now, and that’s Mitch Benn. His stories about the girl Terra and her alien stepdad are rather fun, with great appeal for young adult readers.
If comedy-horror is more your thing, check out the anthology Dead Funny edited by Johnny Mains and Robin Ince – filled to the brim with comedians at their goriest, this is well worth a peruse. Something about screams and giggles, but they do go well together…
FB: The BSFA is an established part of British Science Fiction, a household name for both writers and readers of the genre. Do you feel that SF is no longer just a niche of the literary society?
DS: I certainly think the BSFA has a lot of respect within fandom. We are well-meaning types who have a love of science fiction at heart and just want to do our best to promote and celebrate the genre. SF certainly isn’t niche: it’s very mainstream, and encompasses all sorts, from escapist fun to high literature. But that doesn’t mean our work is done; nor is overt SF readily accepted by some of the loftier echelons of the literary establishment. I recently wrote in the BSFA newsletter about how the Man Booker Prize, which is viewed by many as our main literary prize in the UK, has recently changed its entry criteria to exclude genre imprints and small presses. Whilst it is still technically possible for a work with science fictional elements to make it to their shortlist, they’ve made it jolly difficult for most genre writers to get there, simply because of who they are published by.
However, it’s great that we have so many genre awards to celebrate our best writing, and as I’ve been making my way through the recent shortlists for the BSFA Awards and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, I’ve been really impressed by the newer writers coming through. Last year’s cream of the crop was just absolutely fantastic. If it’s niche, it’s my niche, and that of a lot of other people. The more voices there are talking about really good books, the better, so as long as we keep doing just that, the genre will be fine.
FB: In your time as Chair of the BSFA, what has been your most memorable moment?
DS: I’m just coming up to my second anniversary as Chair, and most of the work behind the scenes probably won’t sound very exciting to readers: mostly panicking about magazine deadlines. But I loved this year’s BSFA Awards Ceremony. Gareth L. Powell was our MC, and he looked dapper in his tux. It all seemed to go remarkably well… of course that was all a beautiful act. We had been plagued by all sorts of technical issues right up to the last second, but we got the correct number of presenters, the presentation was all set with the right words on it, and we handed out all the trophies without any issues. That, to me, was an example of how it can all go brilliantly with the right amount of failure, panic, enthusiasm and teamwork.
FB: If you were suddenly given an unlimited budget for the next BSFA event, where would you have it and what would we see there?
DS: Unlimited you say? Well, I’m sure with no limits whatsoever, we could clone ourselves H G Wells, Mary Shelley and Brian Cox (just so we can have a spare) to host a party on the Moon with boogie robots and lasers.
…actually, I’m not sure that sounds very ‘us’. But it would be great to be able to do more of what we do with our publications and events, and to extend this to reach out to schools or take part in mainstream literary festivals, recommending authors and helping them reach wider audiences. With organic growth, we can probably do more of the things like this that our members want. And of course, we’re very open to people coming to us and saying, “My town needs a BSFA event, and I’m happy to help with that if you want to do something here, because I know a great venue.” That sort of thing is music to our ears.
FB: The BSFA organises many events and, of course, the BSFA Awards. How important is it for a national body to have such a busy schedule and what is its impact on the SF community and society at large?
DS: It’s true, we’re getting busier! And absolutely, we need to keep up the momentum. It’s very important for a national body to be able to do things on a national level. When we only had events in London, that wasn’t great. We still have much more to do. I’m looking to hold an event later in the year in the Midlands, but that will be in collaboration with the venue, which is run by SF enthusiasts, rather than another SF body like our meetings in the North.
This year, I took part in an event at Northampton’s Guildhall for International Women’s Day, and to me that day was a success because I got to speak to so many women about books and their love of reading. Many women didn’t think they read genre, but I had a big pile of books by female science fiction writers, and as they began spotting some of their favourite writers in the pile, like Margaret Attwood, several women realised they probably did. And then there were the other books by women that they might not have seen in reviews or in the local bookshops that I could recommend. One woman basically then told me I had to organise an SF event in the town, because she had been to a Newcon convention and the last one was four years ago, and she really wanted something like that to come back. Whilst I shan’t be doing anything on that scale, I am trying my best to listen to the public, here, hence there will be an event later in the year.
FB: One of the up and coming events is the joint mini-convention between the Science Fiction Foundation (SFF) and the BSFA at the Imperial College of Science. Can you tell us more about the event?
DS: This is a mini-convention, which we are holding in Imperial College, London, in conjunction with the Science Fiction Foundation. The event is totally free to attend and is open to the public, you don’t need to be a member of either society to attend.
One of our guests is the awesome Pat Cadigan, who won the Arthur C. Clarke Award twice, and is the only person to have done so. She also won a Hugo in 2013 for her short story, “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi”, which is going to be the topic of a discussion panel.
The second guest is the fantastic Brian Aldiss, whose Helliconia novels have received BSFA Award nominations and prizes, and who was in fact President of the BSFA in 1960.
The two societies hold their AGMs in the middle of the day, and you do need to be member to vote in those, but many attendees choose this time to go and mingle in the bar.
So, if you fancy coming along, you’re very welcome. It’s on from 10am until 5pm, and you can find more details here.
FB: Is there a history of healthy competition between the two bodies, as far as you know, or do you find that members of one society will also likely join the other?
DS: The BSFA and the SFF have the love of SF at their core, but do quite different things, the SFF being more about the academic and educational side of things, which we do a bit of, but not so much. I’m not saying we’re low-brow; we’re not all about the spaceships and explosions, although spaceships and explosions are cool. As it happens, a couple of the committee members for us are also part of the SFF’s. There’s a lot of love – and SF – to share.