Queering SFF

Queering SFF: The Lambda Awards, Present and Past

The Lambda Awards are the predominant award for queer literature across all genres, including speculative fiction—so of course I want to talk about them as a whole and their impact as I perceive it in the SFF universe. The actual awards this year take place on Thursday the 27th of May and will be covered by our lovely Nina Lourie, but I’m going to give you a little history and discussion beforehand.

The Lambda Awards have been recognizing speculative fiction for years, though from 1989 to 1993 the mystery and sci-fi categories were paired together. In 1993, the category became sci-fi and fantasy, but divided between their intended audience (gay men’s books or lesbian books). The next year, 1994, the categories combined, and in 2001 “horror” was added to the eligibility: now there’s just queer sci-fi/fantasy/horror (spec-fic of all varieties). Since 1994 the award has been given for the best queer SFF by writers of any gender and for audience of any gender. The fun part about these awards is that they often draw in books from small presses that otherwise wouldn’t get as much attention, let alone the kind of representation on chain bookstore shelves that allows an author to gain the popularity needed for many SFF awards that don’t concern themselves with issues of gender and sexuality.

For a complete list of the winners for this category, there’s a handy Wikipedia article that has them all assembled in a table. You can also check out the official site, but each year is listed separately and lists all of the awards, not just the SFF one. It’s a lot to scroll through.

The last five years have seen a lean toward small press books for the winners, even when books by big-name authors published by Tor or Bantam Spectra, etc., have been nominated. Alyson Books makes a good showing in nominees and winners, but there’s one thing I never noticed before—of the big-name publishers, Tor shows up the most. In 2007, three of the five nominees were published by Tor. There are a few Bantam nominees scattered throughout, but nowhere near as many. Obviously, I am a fan of Tor, as I am writing here and stuff, but it’s interesting to see how many queer SFF books they’ve published that were nominated for this award. (Then again, they are the ones hosting the Queering SFF posts, so maybe I should have seen that coming.) Since the beginning of the award, Tor books have won 7 times, more than any other publisher. (Alyson, by my count, is second place.) Tor has nothing on the table this year, but I’m still pleased that they’ve been publishing quality queer SFF for years, and it seemed like something cool to point out.

I feel like the variety and availability of queer SFF has increased in recent years—I know I see more in stock at the big chain bookstores than I used to. Awards like the Lambda help increase SFF readership, in my opinion, because they are not a purely speculative fiction award. They’re a queer literature award, from memoir to poetry to anthologies. The readers of the memoirs might not usually pick up an SFF novel, but I suspect that a book receiving the same award might have a bigger chance of being picked up. You know, the “I’ll give it a try, but I probably won’t like it” method of introducing someone to SFF. Bringing more and more people into the spec-fic fandom is awesome. And, the proverbial blade can cut both ways—SFF readers checking out the award for their category may become interested in some of the other categories and branch out to reading more queer literature as a whole. I love multi-genre awards, really; they bring people together. Debate over nominees and guessing who will win an award? One of the best parts of being a fan.

So, what is on the table this year, then? Five nominees:

* Centuries Ago and Very Fast, by Rebecca Ore (Aqueduct Press)
* Fist of the Spider Woman, by Amber Dawn (Arsenal Pulp Press)
* In the Closet, Under the Bed, by Lee Thomas (Dark Scribe Press)
* Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam/Spectra Books)
* Pumpkin Teeth, by Tom Cardamone (Lethe Press)

My favorite of these is Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest. If I could only pick one word to describe it, I would choose “gorgeous.” The writing is absolutely fantastic. It’s one of the most immersive and detailed things I’ve read in recent years—Valente has a way with description that can make you weep, be it out of artistic jealousy or just sheer appreciation. Her characters are also a lovely mess, and I say that meaning it in the best way: they are damaged, mad, strange people. Those are my favorite kind. The fluidity of sex and relationships in Palimpsest is another thing that makes it my choice for winner—it’s not about being gay, or straight, it’s about the places sex occupies for people and the purposes it can serve, as well as the drastic negatives that result from tangling your lives together, erotically and otherwise. And, speaking of erotic, the book has remarkably scorching sex scenes that flow so perfectly into that plot that I never once stopped to say “hey, why do I need to see this?” Because you really do always need to see it, and it’s done well. Sex is the means of transmission and travel to the other world, and so our four leads have to engage in a lot of it, ranging from romantic to clinical encounters between all combinations of genders.

The hallucinatory beauty and danger of the other world in Palimpsest takes over as the most charged part of the story, though, not the sex. The weight of sorrow and personality behind the narrating characters is like a blow, sometimes, too. Juggling four distinct narrators is a mammoth challenge and one Valente rises to without a flinch. I really love this book, to tell you the truth. It’s a slow read in the way that very detailed, intricate books are slow reads—you want to absorb every moment that you can, as richly and fully as you can.

I admit that I haven’t yet managed to read all of the nominees, though I plan on getting to them, but I can’t imagine anything overtaking the experience of reading Palimpsest. (Interestingly enough, it’s also up for the Hugo for Best Novel this year—I can’t say this definitively, but I don’t recall ever seeing a book nominated for both Lambda and Hugo before. Sign of the growing, changing, more open times? While I’m going for The Windup Girl as my Hugo favorite, Palimpsest is certainly deserving of the award if it wins.) I might be wrong, though.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see who wins once the illustrious Nina comes back and tells us all about it, won’t we?

Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.


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