May 27 2010 10:14am

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.

Mark R. Kelly
1. Mark R. Kelly
>> I don’t recall ever seeing a book nominated for both Lambda and Hugo before.

I checked -- Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang was, in 1992 (see That's the only one.
Noneo Yourbusiness
2. Longtimefan
Just a comment of support. It is really nice to see someone as well spoken as yourself so involved in bringing literature of a different sensibility closer to the forefront.

You have been quite the busy poster this last week with the Graphic Novel nominations and this posting as well.

It is just terrific and it is so nice to see all that was keeping your plate full being served out for others to enjoy.

Still looking forward to your X-files re-watch.

Thanks for being a voice even if I do not say it on every post. :)
Brit Mandelo
3. BritMandelo
@Mark R. Kelly

Aha! Thanks for the fix. (I was a wee thing in 1992, heh.) I can also totally see that book deserving both nominations.


Thanks! That makes me feel really good. Fuzzy and giggly, even. (We're working on X-Files stuff, but aren't sure what we're doing quite yet. Something at the least.)
Mark R. Kelly
4. Steve Berman
I think it would have been a bit nice and more useful if you had covered all the finalists and not just your favorite--objectivity is valued. You overlook how lovers of queer spec fic can use the finalists as a reading guide.
Brit Mandelo
5. BritMandelo
@Steve Berman

I apologize that it didn't satisfy. I hadn't had the chance to read all of the nominees before the awards night, so I thought it was fairer to only talk about my favorite instead of talking about half of the nominees and ignoring the rest. (Next year, I'll have better forward planning and it won't be last minute, so I'll do a full review instead of a partial.)
Mark R. Kelly
6. Steve Berman
I don't understand how something can be your favorite if you have not read the rest. And I'm disappointed you don't even seem interested reading the other finalists AFTER the award has been won... what does that say to people who read this?
Brit Mandelo
7. BritMandelo
@Steve Berman

"I admit that I haven’t yet managed to read all of the nominees, though I plan on getting to them,..."

I'm not sure how you're coming to these conclusions, but they aren't based on anything in the post. I do plan on reading all of the books, as I said. (Edited to add: the ones I haven't read yet are actually on order; I'm currently waiting for them, if that helps. It's likely I'll review one or more separately in the Queering SFF series.) I also specifically commented on how these multigenre nominee lists can introduce readers to more books, a.k.a. a reading list.

As for how I knew it would be my pick--have you never read a book that blew you away so thoroughly that you didn't know how anything could be better? That was my experience with Palimpsest. That is just my experience, not anyone else's. I made no attempt to say that it was an objective opinion. It's entirely subjective, as are more or less every single one of the reviews I've written here.

I'm sorry that you didn't get what you needed out of this post. Again, next year I will have advanced warning that I'll be covering these awards, and will have a chance to prepare thoroughly.
Mark R. Kelly
8. Vince Liaguno
Hi, Brit --

I appreciated the history of this Lambda Literary Award category presented here, and it's always nice to see queer speculative fiction getting its due. Thanks for shining the spotlight a bit here.

In the interest of balance, I would echo some of Mr. Berman's sentiments about what I see as the sloppiness of your post in relation to declaring a "favorite" out of a nominee list when, as you fully own, you haven't yet read all of the other nominees. Although you do qualify your remarks later in the post, I think a stronger edit of this post may have circumvented said sloppiness.

Subsequent to this declaration of a favorite from the list, there is an implied disrespect to the other nominated works when you discuss how "Debate over nominees and guessing who will win an award" is "one of the best parts of being a fan" -- and then follow that up with no actual debate or discussion, only your enthusiasm for one of the books. It's not really an issue of your post "satisfying"; it's an issue of not delivering what you implied the post would. Namely, "debate" and discussion. As Mr. Berman suggests, having a "favorite" implies that you are choosing such from within a group of similar subjects with which you would need to be familiar in order to actually make a comparison.

In our enthusiasm for coverage like this about queer speculative fiction, we can't overlook the need for that coverage to adhere to solid journalistic principles that include balance and research.

Apologies for the criticism in an otherwise positive, pro-LGBT speculative fiction post, but it just comes across a bit shoddy. That said, I'll look forward to a future post in which some discussion of the other nominees takes place.

And thanks again for the excellent history of this particular Lammy category.
Mark R. Kelly
9. Rob Gates
While it's interesting on some level to follow the Lammies - I was a judge for a few years - to think of them as an honest reflection of the best the genre has to offer regarding LGBT content is naive at best. The Lammies are great at what they're intended for - promoting LGBT press publications - and I support them wholeheartedly because of that. But they generally pay attention to what comes out of "mainstream" publishing in limited fashion (and this isn't the right forum to talk about some of the political/structural flaws in their nominating and judging system that are tied to that).

The Lammies are really in no way the "predominant award" for LGBT speculative fiction. For that you'd likely want to pay attention to the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards and perhaps the Golden Crown Literary Society award lists which tend to involve more input from people who read and understand the genre.

- Rob Gates
Brit Mandelo
10. BritMandelo
@Vince Liaguno

Honestly, I agreed Wednesday morning to do this. And had to turn it in Wednesday night. So--while I understand the criticism completely, and I agree with it, it was this or nothing. That's the problem. I would rather have talked about what I could than say nothing at all, but I see in retrospect that nothing at all might have been better. Next year will be a full review, as I've said, because I'll have some warning and will be able to actually get all of the books on time. I'm sorry.
Mark R. Kelly
11. Vince Liaguno
@ Britt, No harm/no foul. I can appreciate the good intentions. Thanks for taking the time to consider my thoughts and respond. Bright side: You just gained another reader of your blog(!).

@ Rob, admittedly, I'm not familiar with the Golden Crown Literary Society awards...but will now check that out. Thanks for that.

As far as the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards, I've tried dealing with the folks who administer it on several occasions to submit copies of my company's Bram Stoker Award-winning queer/horror anthology UNSPEAKABLE HORROR: FROM THE SHADOWS OF THE CLOSET (first time ever in the sponsoring org's 22-year history that an expressly LGBT-themed antho had won) and never even got the courtesy of a response to at least a half dozen emails. It would appear that they never completed their 2009 program, with no finalists or winners in either the short fiction or "Other Work" categories even listed. Not sure how viable that one is anymore.
Lucas Huntington
12. L.P.Huntington
Hey Brit!
I am coming into this conversation a bit late.
But today I was thinking about queer SF/F and remembered your coverage of it here on Tor.
I love that you are covering things like the Lambda Literary Awards, and your various "Queering SFF" posts. So, kind of echoing Longtimefan's post up above. I am really thrilled to see this sort of niche genre being treated with respect and exposure for new potential readers.
So, if I haven't said it before, thanks for posting. I too look forward to your posts, even if I don't comment on them all or even have anything insightful to say.
Don't feel bad about not having read all of the books up for the award you blogged about, either. Unless you are voting on who wins the award, I don't see what the big deal is.
Brandon Wood
13. brad21088
I don't read all that much fantasy (most of the reading I do is non-fiction; I know, I'm boring) but it never ceases to amaze me how few non-heterosexual characters pop up, or that issues of sexuality are generally brushed under the table. Really, fantasy authors? You're fine with dragons and monsters, but a happy homosexual couple is pushing it too far? It just seems strange that the worlds fantasy authors create are can be so rich and full, so different from our own world, with no mention of a Christian-like religion, yet homosexuality is never spoken of. It doesn't really bother me, but I do find it strange.

I know, odd of me to bring this up in a post that mentions great queer SFF, but it popped into my head so figured I'd share!
Cassandra Farrin
14. welovetea
Hey Brit,

Love that you wrote about the Lammies! I have mixed feelings about Palimpsest myself, in spite of its lush prose. I guess my taste is less for the surreal, even though I can appreciate her work as an artist. Nobody can blame her of breaking the "show don't tell" rule! I find _The Female Man_ also somewhat distracting for an obliquely related reason. When you have a novel influenced by postmodern ideas, it can get so damn frustrating to read, and as much as I appreciate pushing the limits (what's queering about if not following the imposition of limits to it's natural conclusions?) I often feel as though I'm experiencing the novel world as through a pane of glass. That's not an experience I crave as a reader. I loved Yeine from _The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms_ so I know it's possible to surprise and delight and challenge while still experimenting. Maybe that just reflects a bias of mine toward coherence in narrative. I guess when it comes to queer writing, we've always got to have in mind multiple, conflicting readers, so we just have to plunge through each experiment and see how it's received, and keep writing.

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