Monday, May 06, 2019

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

When Marlon James announced that his next project would be an African-set, epic fantasy trilogy, I have to admit that my reaction was skepticism. I first encountered James when I read his second novel, The Book of Night Women (2009), which used heady language and uncompromising descriptions of violence to address the physical and psychological impact of slavery on its victims. It marked James out as an author to follow. But I've been a genre fan for a while, and I've seen too many authors come from the outside—from literary fiction, or from outside of fantasy—and get heralded as the ones who are going to save epic fantasy from itself. Especially in the current moment, in which there are so many authors testing the boundaries of what epic fantasy can do—people like Sofia Samatar, Kai Ashante Wilson, Jeannette Ng, K. Arsenault Rivera—I wasn't really certain what James, with all his skill, could bring to the table.

On the other hand, one obvious answer to that question could be found simply in the project's description. As much as epic fantasy has been changing and growing over the last decade or so, there still isn't a lot of it that is set in African or African-derived settings. The fact that James had taken the publicity and cachet that came with winning the Booker (for A Brief History of Seven Killings, in 2014) and announced his intention to write an "African Game of Thrones" (a description which he has, in subsequent interviews, demurred from a little) felt remarkable in its own right. It hasn't been that long since such a project would have been unimaginable, much less with the publicity and prestige launch that Black Leopard, Red Wolf has received. So maybe, I thought to myself, my skepticism might more accurately be described as cynicism? Maybe a gifted writer with a different perspective can bring something new to the form?

It turns out, I was both right and wrong to be skeptical. James clearly knows his stuff. Black Leopard, Red Wolf has many distinctive traits and pleasures, but in terms of the story it tells, it does exactly what the capsule description of "African-set epic fantasy" seems to promise. It is set in a quasi-medieval, fantasized Africa, where nations and city-states (probably fictionalized versions of real entities that I don't recognize) grapple for power even as currents of magic and horror influence and are influenced by geopolitical turmoil. It even opens with the traditional fantasy-world map, which marks out the various polities in its setting, each, as we will learn when we visit them, with its own distinct customs, social organization, and culture.

Into this setting, Black Leopard, Red Wolf injects a quest narrative, in which a ragtag crew of misfits with various magical powers and sad backstories face perils, monsters, and double-crosses before realizing that they have become embroiled in a plot that affects the highest reaches of their society. There are some obvious Tolkien references—at one point, the band of nine travelers is referred to as a "fellowship", and a sequence in which they debate whether to go around or through a dense forest where, one of them insists, they will meet monsters and mind-altering magic is a blatant reference to the passage of Mirkwood in The Hobbit.

James clearly includes these references in order to confound the obvious associations they have for fantasy readers—the characters' fellowship is riven by conflict and long-simmering enmity; the novel's Gandalf figure, the witch Sogolon, is revealed as manipulative, monomaniacal, and ultimately misguided; the magical, Rivendell-like city where everyone lives in beautiful platforms at the top of trees turns out to be a classist dystopia, ruled by an egomaniacal queen and powered by an army of brainwashed slaves. But, perhaps because the world of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is more often its own creation than a reflection of anyone else's worldbuilding, the story set in it defaults to the familiar templates of the genre more often than it reacts against them. The novel ends up feeling like a very familiar sword and sorcery adventure, albeit one with a setting that is still uncommon in the genre. It's left to the reader to decide whether the resulting work is more conventional or more groundbreaking.

One thing that James definitely does differently from many other epic fantasy authors is how he structures the novel. In its early chapters, in which we are introduced to Tracker, our otherwise nameless narrator and protagonist whose preternatural sense of smell can track people and objects across continents, the narrative jumps in time, elides important information, stands still for long stretches, and most of all uses Tracker's own ingrained resistance to being made part of anyone else's story to stave off anything resembling a narrative. The novel is framed by interludes in which Tracker tells his tale to an inquisitor as part of an investigation into a crime whose full contours we won't understand until its end. As the inquisitor writes,
The Tracker's account continues to perplex even those of uncommon mind. He travels deep in strange lands, as if telling tales to children at night, or reciting nightmares to the fetish priest for Ifa divination. ... He goes into the sight, smell, and taste of one memory, with perfect recall of the smell in the crack of one man's buttocks, or the perfume of Malakal virgins in bedchambers coming out of windows he walked underneath, or the sight of the glorious sunlight marking the slow change of seasons. But of spaces between moons, a year, three years, he says nothing.
This is James's way of acknowledging the skip-start nature of these early parts of the novel, the way he resists kicking off his story in a way that can make the reading experience a frustrating one, but which also, as the quote observes, recalls traditional storytelling methods far more than commercial epic fantasy. (Gautam Bhatia, in his review of Black Leopard, Red Wolf in Strange Horizons, argues that it is this storytelling mode that sets the novel apart from its genre and makes it distinctly African.) In the novel's first hundred pages, Tracker runs away from an unhappy home, stumbles upon his ancestral village, learns a bunch of family secrets, including the fact that he is expected to take up a blood feud that has already claimed several generations in his family, runs away again, becomes the quasi-guardian of a group of children who have been abandoned or sold by their families because of superstitions about various birth defects, and meets Leopard, a beast who can change into a man (or perhaps vice versa) who becomes his first true friend. It's only in the final pages of the opening segment that something resembling a standard fantasy plot rears its head, when, after a separation of some years during which Tracker plies his gift to locate lost treasures, absconded wives, and abandoning husbands, he and Leopard meet again. The latter recruits him for a mission to rescue a child who has been kidnapped and made to serve a group of supernatural monsters.

Another distinctive trait of the novel is Tracker himself, a sour, confrontational type of person always ready with a smart-aleck reply. "Like, I like. Dislike, I love. Disgust, I can feel. Loathing, I can grab in the palm of my hand and squeeze. And hatred, I can live in hatred for days", Tracker explains of himself. And indeed, he spends much of the novel's early chapters delaying the plot's beginning because he hates the idea of being under anyone's command, of being part of a group or accepting anyone's mission. That there is a great, gaping wail of pain and loneliness at the center of all this oppositional behavior should come as no surprise to anyone—from a very early point in the novel, Tracker's adopts as a catchphrase the saying "nobody loves no one", which should really tell you all you need to know about him. But this doesn't make him a particularly original character, nor does it allay the frustration of watching him pick pointless fights that end up preventing the actual story from happening.

(Another issue with Tracker is the fact that he has serious problems with women, and particularly women with authority and power. That he is called out on this attitude by several characters, that the accusation of misogyny clearly bothers him even as he can't entirely refute it, and that he even seems to make some progress towards a more healthy approach in the book's final chapters, are indications that James has given his protagonist this character trait with deliberate intent. But this still means that we spend some six hundred pages in the head of a man who views any woman with power as an enemy and seeks to undermine her. In addition, the novel's plot can't seem to avoid validating Tracker's attitude—most of the women he interacts with do end up being villains, and almost all of them are dead, defeated, or outsmarted by the end of the book.)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf takes a more conventional shape in its middle segment, after Tracker gets sufficiently over himself to allow the quest to start. Joining a band of travelers that includes a witch, a giant, and one of his oldest enemies, he traverses the book's fantasy-world map in search of the missing child. (Oddly enough, it's in these chapters that Leopard disappears for what feels like a very weird and underexplained reason; perhaps this will be elaborated on in the sequels, which are supposed to cover the novel's events from a different character's point of view.) These chapters deploy a lot of classic epic fantasy tropes while also making tremendous use of the novel's African setting and James's research into it. We travel to walled cities, dusty archives, mysterious forests where giant spiders roam, and a network of magical doors that transport people instantaneously across the novel's fantasy map.

Through it all, James's rich, sometimes overheated language gives the novel a personality all its own, while also sometimes making it a bit of a slog. He's great at capturing the sense of a place—the conformity and legalism of the city of Kongor, or the stratified walled city of Malakal, where concentric walls divide the social classes from one another. He's equally good at inventing fantasy monsters (or repurposing them from African folklore) to haunt, attack, and viciously kill members of the party. But all that richness can come to feel overbearing, even in the more straightforward chapters of the novel's middle segments in which the plot proceeds in a fairly orderly manner.

It's also in these chapters that the novel introduces its first genuinely likable character, the prefect Mossi. A guardian of the peace in Kongor, where the missing child was kidnapped, he starts out investigating Tracker and eventually joins the mission after the villain's tendrils turn out to have infested his police department. He is almost immediately positioned as Tracker's potential love interest, and James's handling of their burgeoning romance is affecting if a bit on the predictable side. What's more important is how Mossi brings Tracker out of himself, forcing him to acknowledge his failings and try to work on them, and encouraging him to reach out to others and own his feelings when he experiences loss and grief. (The fact that Tracker is gay is introduced with little fanfare very early in the novel, and what's mainly interesting about it is how different communities in the novel's setting have various attitudes towards homosexuality and other forms of queerness, from total acceptance to violent persecution.)

The only problem with Mossi is that he is so perfect and so nice that one very quickly starts gaming out when his inevitable death will happen. And that, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with Black Leopard, Red Wolf as a whole. The only things that are surprising about this novel are the worldbuilding details that draw on a cultural and folklore tradition that most epic fantasy doesn't look to. And while that's something to be celebrated, it doesn't make the novel as a whole particularly gripping.

While reading, I found myself thinking of Samatar's The Winged Histories (2016), which also draws strongly on core epic fantasy tropes like lost princes, hardened warrior women, and mysterious monsters, but uses them to poke at the genre's conventions and say interesting things about history, legend, and imperialism. The contrast feels even more striking given that Samatar and James both deploy the same plot point—apparently taken from a real Ghanian social convention—in which the king is traditionally succeeded by his sister's son, and imagine a disruption of the social order when one king decides to establish his own dynasty.

Wilson's Sorcerer of the Wildeeps (2015) is another work to which I found myself comparing this novel, and here the similarities are even more profound. Like Black Leopard, Red Wolf, it depicts a doomed, passionate gay romance set against an epic fantasy backdrop, plays a lot of games with dialect that challenge readers' assumptions about what epic fantasy characters are "supposed" to sound like, and revels in overheated descriptions of squelchy, bloody battles with fantasy monsters. And in every case, it does these things to much greater effect as both a piece of storytelling and an investigation of the genre. So much of what James has done in this novel has been done better, and more effectively (not to mention at a shorter length) by other authors.

On the other hand, maybe this is me blaming James for writing the book he wanted to write, not the one I wanted to read. There is, however, a moment at the end of Black Leopard, Red Wolf where it feels like the book and I might be looking for the same thing. The tale of the quest for the missing child has concluded, but the novel still has at least a hundred pages left to go. And we still haven't learned why Tracker is being subjected to interrogation in the framing story. When he starts the next chapter of his story, he is a hardened man, even more detached from his emotions than he was at the beginning of the book. It's not hard to guess what has happened—think, basically, of the most banal motivation one can give a male character in an epic fantasy tale—but what's interesting is the suggestion of the shape James is about to give his story. Throughout the novel there have been hints of a greater struggle happening out of Tracker's and our view—a looming war, a succession struggle, public disputes over the continued role of slavery, warnings of danger coming from the west. But in its final chapters, instead of plugging into these currents and turning Tracker into a player in a wider narrative, the novel instead has him turn inwards, rejecting any allegiance except to his quest for vengeance, any consideration except his own grief and pain.

So, in its final pages, Black Leopard, Red Wolf becomes something that one doesn't tend to see in epic fantasy. Not a battle between good and evil, not a rollicking adventure in which mercenaries face off against horrors for little more than a payday, and not a Game of Thrones-esque geopolitical struggle. It is, instead, the story of a character, the tale of a broken man who, for a short time, was able to overcome his flaws and make a decent life for himself, and then lost it all. The novel's opening line—"The child is dead. There is nothing left to say."—reminds us that Tracker's quest will fail, and the rest of the story is merely elaborating on what that failure means and how it came about. That could be an interesting thing to do within the confines of this genre, reminding us that its characters are people, that their suffering isn't simply plot fodder, and that some wounds can't be healed with redemptive violence.

But of course, there are two more volumes to come in this trilogy, and it seems unlikely that Tracker will not appear in them, and thus that this is the end of his story. I suspect that I won't understand James's project with this story—and with this genre—until I've read all three volumes of the trilogy, and to be honest, based on my experience reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf, I'm not sure I feel very motivated to continue with it. I wish I had a stronger sense, coming out of this novel, of what it was trying to accomplish with this story, and whether its aims are something that is of interest to me.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Avengers: Endgame

About a week ago, critic Todd VanDerWerff published an interesting article about spoiler culture and how it has changed, and been changed by corporate interests. His argument—which I find indisputable—is that companies have started using spoiler-mania as a way of drumming up enthusiasm for their products, creating the impression that you must watch a movie or a TV episode immediately, or risk losing all enjoyment from it through spoilers. What's particularly odd about this phenomenon, as VanDerWerff observes, is that it's often deployed to talk up works that aren't particularly spoilable—no major plot twists, no sudden betrayals or revelations, just the normal progression of story—to the point where even anodyne reactions like "there's a great fight scene!" or "I liked it" are perceived as something that can ruin your viewing experience. And that, ultimately, is what these works become. Not a story, not a chapter in a narrative, but an experience.

It's obvious why VanDerWerff published his essay last week, just days before the release of Avengers: Endgame, which is being billed as the concluding chapter of what is now apparently called the Infinity Saga (I am never calling it that, FYI). For weeks now, news stories have been coming out about the lengths to which directors Joe and Anthony Russo went to prevent plot details from the movie from leaking out, down to withholding the full script from most of the cast, and even giving some actors pages that only contained their lines, and only a few hours before shooting[1]. If you're like me, and you thought Avengers: Infinity War was, to quote myself, "barely even a movie", this probably wasn't the most enticing news. You probably went into Endgame thinking of it as the sort of experience you just want to get through.

Which turns out to be unfair, because Endgame might just be the least experience-esque of the Avengers movies. To be clear, I'm not saying that it is a great, or even particularly good, movie. Quality-wise, Endgame is... nice. It's better than most Avengers movies, maybe even better than the first (though I'm going to have to think about that, and I suspect I'll end up ranking it lower), but that still leaves it in the lower tiers of MCU movies. But it is by far the most plot-oriented of the team-ups—this is, for example, one of only a handful of MCU films to have a middle act. There are a lot of problems with it, including major plot holes, mishandled themes, an unwieldy running time, a deeply problematic ending, and one character death that is unbelievably misjudged. But unlike every other Avengers movie, Endgame doesn't feel like an excuse to spend tons of money to recreate the thrill of pounding your action figures together. You go into this movie expecting an experience, and instead you get a story.

One might argue we should have seen this coming. Infinity War was a relentless slog with too many characters and plotlines, but it left the MCU in the perfect position to tell an interesting story in its sequel. Not only are there fewer characters to keep track of[2], but for the first time, an Avengers film doesn't turn on destruction, on smashing big things into other, bigger things, but on finding a way to repair what has been broken. Perhaps the cleverest thing that Endgame does—and it is, I want to stress, quite shocking to me that I am using the word "clever" in the context of any MCU movie's plot—is to immediately get out of the way the most obvious response to Thanos erasing half the life in the universe. The solution that we all immediately thought of—steal the gauntlet from Thanos and use it to bring everyone back and defeat him—is prevented because Thanos predicted it, and used the gauntlet to rob the infinity stones of their power[3]. All that's left for the Avengers to do is fulfill Tony's promise to Loki from the first team-up film, killing Thanos in a completely insufficient act of revenge, after which they go home.

Flash-forward five years, and our heroes, nursing their grief and guilt, have mostly settled into post-snap lives. Some of these are genuinely affecting—Steve is working as a counselor for the still-shellshocked survivors; Natasha is coordinating intergalactic peacekeeping with the help of Nebula, Rocket, Okoye, Captain Marvel, and Rhodey while barely holding it together over the loss of friends and the weight of the responsibility on her shoulders; and Tony, having had a breakdown after his failure to defeat Thanos, has achieved a measure of peace, starting a family with Pepper and decisively putting the task of saving the world behind him. Others are gags that work to greater or lesser degrees—I was genuinely charmed by Professor Hulk, a midpoint between Banner and the smashier version of the Hulk who is surprisingly chill and happy-go-lucky; but I could have lived with a great deal less of depressed Thor, who has grown an epic beer belly and spends most of his days playing video games with some of his Thor: Ragnarok pals. And some are simply inexplicable—I don't think anyone, including quite possibly Jeremy Renner himself, was clamoring for a major Hawkeye subplot in which he becomes a vigilante who roams the world, murdering criminals who had the temerity to survive the snap while his family perished.[4]

Into this new normal erupts Scott Lang, who has finally emerged from the quantum zone where he ended up stuck at the end of Ant-Man and the Wasp. Scott believes that he traveled through time, and that the same technology can be used to steal the infinity stones from the past and create a new gauntlet that could undo Thanos's snap. There follow some getting-the-band-back-together shenanigans, and some handwaving about the particular form of time travel the film has invented and its implications—the latter probably doesn't entirely hold together but also doesn't feel worth investigating. In general, these scenes embody the strengths and weaknesses of the movie. On the one hand, this is a much looser effort than previous Avengers films, and the extra breathing room does the story and characters good—watching everyone brainstorm the places in time where the infinity stones can be snatched is the most fun and most natural these characters have felt together since the party scene in Age of Ultron. But on the other hand, the impossibly high stakes, and the audience's awareness that for some of these characters, this is going to be the final adventure, give writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely permission to be sloppy. Endgame is overlong to the point of self-indulgence, and while we might forgive the film the desire to spend more time than it absolutely needs with characters who are about to be sent off, a lot of that extraneous runtime is instead expended on increasingly unfunny jokes about Thor's weight, or Hawkeye's journey into darkness.

All of this, however, is in service of getting us to what is clearly the film's heart (and yet another reason why the spoiler-mania surrounding it is absurd, because it should have been one of the film's main marketing points), a journey back through the Avengers' greatest hits, as our heroes travel back in time to events in Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thor: The Dark World in order to grab the infinity stones. This is such an established story beat that there's probably a TV Tropes page for it, and it's kind of exciting watching the MCU reach for this type of storytelling—as if we were watching proper science fiction. But the execution is of variable quality. I've already made my views on the Thor subplot known, so the fact that his journey back to his least successful movie is designed to let his mother give him a pep talk about being himself and reaching for his inner goodness and heroism (in other words, the exact same character arc he's had three times already) did very little for me. On the other hand, I enjoyed some of the scenes in the background of Avengers, particularly a completely over-it Steve brawling with his earlier, more stuffed-shirt self. The joke about Professor Hulk having to pretend to be regular Hulk, and half-heartedly smashing things while complaining that it seems gratuitous, was also delightful. And since the Guardians movies have never given either character enough room to be a real person, it was good to see a more evolved, more confident Nebula trying to talk a Gamora who is still under Thanos's thumb into rebellion.

But this sequence also includes the film's absolute nadir, and what I truly believe is the most misbegotten storytelling choice in all the MCU. Anyone who remembers Infinity War will have already pricked up their ears during the planning sessions of the infinity stone heist, wondering what our heroes were planning to do about the pesky requirement to sacrifice a life in order to gain the soul stone. It's a reasonably smart decision to dispatch Clint and Natasha on that mission—the two Avengers who have the fewest immediate personal connections except with one another—and it comes as no surprise when they get into a fight over which one of them gets to sacrifice themselves.[5] But the thing is, who in their right mind would want Natasha to win (or rather lose) that fight?  Natasha is a founding Avenger, one of the MCU's most magnetic characters, and oh yeah, one of only a handful of female MCU headliners. Clint is... Clint. It would be one thing for Natasha to die saving the world. But to save Hawkeye?

And look, even if you're not as down on Hawkeye as I am, surely it's obvious how creepy and wrong everything about this scene is. To go back to the place where, a year ago, Gamora was sacrificed, and recreate that sequence, right down to the disturbingly romanticized image of Natasha's broken body—it filled me with disgust. I think it's clear that Endgame intends for there to be a contrast between the two deaths—Gamora is murdered in the pursuit of a goal she vehemently opposes; Natasha sacrifices herself in order to save her friend and the universe. But like so much else about this perennially mishandled character, the writing isn't there to support it. I don't think anyone involved in making Infinity War understood how viscerally disturbing Gamora's death was, especially for women in the audience—to be murdered by your abuser in what he claims to be proof of his love, and to have the universe itself validate that proof by giving him what he wants in exchange. Not enough work is done to differentiate Natasha's death from that earlier one. Like so much else that has been tried with the character since Age of Ultron, there's a solid idea there on paper that becomes horrifying in the execution because no one involved (except maybe the actress) really understands how any of these tropes play when they're applied to a female character. And the fact that unlike Gamora, there isn't even a woman left to mourn Natasha only drives home how much she has been instrumentalized for the sake of her male counterparts, and how little room was left for her own humanity.[6]

That bit of unpleasantness done away with, however, the Avengers return to the present with the infinity stones. And then Endgame does a second genuinely clever thing: the Avengers' plan works. They complete the gauntlet (along the way revealing that it takes great strength to activate and that anyone who isn't Thor or the Hulk would probably die from it; which seems pretty random, but, again, whatever) and with a snap of the finger everyone who was dusted by Thanos's snap is returned to existence. Only then does the shit hit the fan—Thanos of 2014, having discovered the time traveling Nebula and replaced her with his own, loyal version, has traveled to 2023 to attack our heroes, take the completed gauntlet from them, and start the whole thing all over again. And just as our heroes think that all is lost, a million portals open, as Stephen Strange teleports all the heroes who have been returned to existence, as well as the Wakandan army, the surviving Asgardians, the monks of Kamar-Taj, and Captain Marvel herself, to kick Thanos's ass.

And look, I'm not made of stone. It is genuinely moving when literally every superpowered person we've ever met in the MCU shows up to save the day. It's even more moving when Thanos nevertheless gains hold of the gauntlet and is about to destroy the whole universe with it, so Tony Stark grabs it from him and uses it to dust Thanos and his army at the cost of his own life, completing the self-sacrifice he attempted in Avengers. And this is the point where you have to decide what kind of fan you are, what kind of viewer you are. Taken on its own terms, this is a perfectly serviceable ending. It has grandeur, stakes, consequences. There are elegiac farewells and bittersweet partings. There is the promise of a bright future. It's a very appropriate chapter ending for the MCU and its eleven-year, 22-film project.  You could just leave it at that.

But if you're like me, you won't. At some point—maybe the next day, maybe on the way home from the movie theater, maybe even in the moment it happens—you'll have to wonder: wait, this was it? Isn't the way the Avengers defeat Thanos in Endgame basically identical to the way they lost to him in Infinity War, except with better logistics the second time around? And isn't logistics what Stephen Strange, who had the time stone and the ability to teleport people in Infinity War, would be perfect at? Wasn't this entire adventure just an awfully roundabout way of getting to a place where two beloved characters had to die in order to achieve something that was apparently just as achievable last year, before all this pain and suffering happened?

Once you start asking those questions, it's hard to stop. The fact is, once the gauntlet is assembled and in our heroes' hands, the film faces massive ethical and practical dilemmas that it is neither equipped to, nor particularly interested in, addressing. Why should the gauntlet only be used to resurrect those who vanished in the snap, for example? When Thor travels to his past and meets his mother hours before she's due to die in The Dark World, Rocket dissuades him from saving her by arguing that Frigga is "really dead", while the people who disappeared in the snap are only "sort of dead". Is that sort of hair-splitting really something we're comfortable with? What makes the people Thanos caused to crumble into dust more deserving of life than the ones he simply murdered, like Drax's family, Gamora's people, or the Asgardians? And even if you accept that you can't cancel every tragic death in history, what about the people who died as a result of the snap? As everyone pointed out after Infinity War, the consequences of suddenly removing half the people in the universe (or, as later statements from Marvel had it, half the biomass—so, animals, plants, insects, bacteria, etc.) would be a catastrophe almost equal to the snap itself. People would die in the millions, maybe even billions, from accidents, starvation, industrial collapse, wars, refugee crises, suicide. How do our heroes justify not bringing any of them back?

And finally, what about the consequences of simply restoring everyone removed by the snap, to a world that has only just figured out how to feed, supply, and house the people it has left? Wouldn't the result, once again, be accidents[7], starvation, industrial collapse, wars, refugee crises, and probably also suicides, of people overcome by the cruelty and capriciousness of the ridiculous universe they live in? Obviously, a better use of the gauntlet would be to cancel out the last five years (which we know is possible because that's how Thanos was able to get the mind stone even after Wanda killed Vision to destroy it at the end of Infinity War). But that entire realm of possibilities is closed off by Tony, who doesn't want his daughter to be wished out of existence. Which is a sympathetic motivation, obviously, but not one that should be accepted without any discussion, as the film does.

When I wrote about Infinity War, I complained that its ending, in which the heroes fail with horrifying consequences, was clearly little more than sequel bait. The whole thing, including the deaths that took place in it, was obviously going to be rolled back in the next chapter. I wasn't alone in making that prediction, and I have to wonder if Markus and McFeely anticipated those criticisms, because they have clearly worked hard to make sure that the method they came up with to undo Thanos's evil leaves noticeable consequences on the world. It's just that those consequences are much greater, and more horrific, than the film is willing to acknowledge. The world that the Avengers "save" is possibly even more broken than it was before, and the note of triumph that concludes Endgame can only feel earned if you ignore that.[8] It only takes a bit of craning past the frame the film imposes, with its elegiac, extremely well-attended funeral for Tony Stark, to wonder whether the entire exercise wasn't more about salving our heroes' wounded pride than actually doing the most good.

Does this make Endgame a bad movie? I have no idea. I think we all know that going forward, the MCU isn't going to acknowledge any of the inherent problems with the film's ending, or even the trauma that the world endured during those five years that everyone was missing. Hell, it's kind of doubtful whether it's even going to come up that half the world is five years younger than they should be—how is it that all of Peter Parker's schoolfriends appear to be the same age in the Spider-Man: Far From Home trailer, for example? It is possible to simply roll with what the film wants us to believe, not ask too many questions, and accept that most of it won't matter in the long run. I just think that maybe the MCU, and these characters, deserved better. When Infinity War ended, I just wanted to forget its existence and pretend that none of the team-up movies were real. But Endgame is something else. It's probably the best version of what an Avengers movie can be. And even that turns out to be silly, sloppily written, and to require massive amount of suspension of disbelief. Is it really too much to hope that Marvel stops debasing its characters and stories with events that can never live up to the MCU's individual pieces?[9]



[1] I can't decide if it's a testament to how well the impeccably cast roster of MCU stars know their characters that the film doesn't feel as cobbled-together and emotionally incoherent as this approach would seem to guarantee, or if it's a sign of how little the acting or dialogue matter to making these movies, and especially the more action-oriented team-ups, work.

[2] Though, as Samira Nadkarni points out, this also makes Endgame one of the whitest, most male-dominated MCU movies in some time.

[3] In other words, the resolution of a very similar storyline in the second season of DC's Legends of Tomorrow. Which I mention mainly because it gives me the opportunity to say that Legends has been firing on all cylinders for several seasons now and is a ton of fun. Also, that the DC superhero shows usually do a much better job of superhero team-ups featuring interesting plots, coherent character arcs, and palpable stakes than the Avengers movies.

[4] This is apparently a comics storyline, but in the context of the film, not nearly enough time is spent addressing the fact that Hawkeye has apparently become such a vicious murderer that Rhodey and Natasha start to seriously consider taking him out. When he inevitably rejoins the fold, his murderous past is barely brought up again, as if it were little more than a costume, an excuse for Hawkeye to get tattoos and an undercut. And, to quote Samira again, it feels very telling that this walk on the dark side involves Hawkeye traveling to Japan to kill non-white people.

[5] I'm not sure this is how the soul stone works, but whatever. Also, remember how the leitmotif of Infinity War was "we don't trade lives", in stark contrast with Thanos, who did sacrifice a woman he claimed to love as a daughter in order to achieve his monstrous goals, and everyone assumed that that difference was going to be crucial to how our heroes would defeat him? I guess we're just not doing that anymore.

[6] But hey, later in the movie there's a scene of the surviving female MCU heroines surrounding Captain Marvel as she prepares to fight Thanos, so girl power! This type of empty-calorie signaling is rather typical of Endgame, which has also been patting itself on the back for a scene in which a nameless one-off character mentions that he dates men, even as it features two exchanges—one between Nebula and Gamora, another between Sam and Steve—that basically amount to "as we both know, you're straight".

[7] Remember all those cars and planes crashing in the final minutes of Infinity War? Now imagine the people who disappeared from those vehicles reappearing, in the middle of highways, or 30,000 feet in the air.

[8] As does Steve's decision to take a well-earned rest and spend his life in the past, reuiniting with Peggy Carter. I am, however, mostly pleased by this development, because I've been predicting it for months, but I imagine the Steve/Bucky shippers must be royally pissed.

[9] Yes.  Yes it is.

Friday, April 05, 2019

A Political History of the Future: A People's Future of the United States, edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams, at Lawyers, Guns & Money

After a few months off, my series A Political History of the Future is back at Lawyers, Guns & Money.  My first column of 2019 discusses Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams's anthology A People's Future of the United States, in which some of the top names in genre writing are invited to imagine the future of America.
In his introduction to A People's Future (excerpted in The Paris Review) [LaValle] writes about his feeling that America is being poisoned by the stories it tells itself about itself, and of the need for different kinds of stories if it’s to imagine and bring forth a different kind of future. As its title suggests, LaValle offers up A People's Future as an homage to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (1980 and subsequent editions), which was itself an attempt to change the American narrative. LaValle and Adams have assembled a roster of some the hottest names in genre, people like N.K. Jemisin and Charlie Jane Anders whose writing has always been strongly political and inflected by the issues of the day, and charged them with imagining America's future along lines that acknowledge its current problems.
The results veer in a lot of different directions, and as I write in the piece the story I ended up liking the best was the one that actually felt the most rooted in the present.  But it's still a worthwhile read if, like me, you want your science fiction to address the many burning political issues we're faced with.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Review: Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman, at Strange Horizons

My first Strange Horizons review of 2019 looks at Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman, a near-future-set novel of science and research in the vein of Gwyneth Jones's Life.  As I write in the review, Schulman covers a wide range of subjects, but while each is fascinating in its own right, she struggles to tie them all together into a single theme.
In the appendix to her fourth novel, Theory of Bastards, Audrey Schulman lists the many scholarly works she consulted in the course of her writing. These cover a wide range of subjects, from the lives and communities of great apes, to the study of flint-knapping, to research into pain and the medical community's attitude towards it. It's an eclectic bunch of topics that epitomizes both the novel's charms and its frustrations. Theory of Bastards is about so many fascinating things that one can't help being carried along by them (and by Schulman's gift for dramatizing these subjects and fitting them into her story's framework). But eventually one comes to wonder what the novel itself is trying to say with all its erudition. This is a question that becomes even more pressing when Theory of Bastards reinvents itself halfway through, becoming something completely different than what it started as.
Despite this scattershot quality (and despite the sudden lurch into post-apocalypse in its second half), Theory of Bastards is worth looking out for, especially if you're interested in the too-small category of books about female scientists, about women's struggles with the medical establishment, and about women whom reviewers tend to dub "unlikable".

Monday, March 25, 2019

Us

There's a scene about halfway into Jordan Peele's Get Out that to me sums up the genius and horror of that movie. It's wordless, and begins with a series of seemingly disconnected images: a crowd seated before a gazebo; a photograph of Daniel Kaluuya as the film's lead, Chris; Bradley Whitford, as the genial father of Chris's girlfriend, making strange hand gestures; people in the crowd holding up bingo cards. Then the camera pulls out, and the disparate pieces come together in a startling crash. Whitford is auctioning Chris off to a crowd of fellow white people. Later in the movie we'll learn more about what this will entail and why this abominable practice continues, but it's in this moment that Get Out spells out its terms, establishing stakes and villains, as well as its wicked, take-no-prisoners sense of humor.

There is no moment in Peele's follow-up to Get Out, Us, that delivers the same sense of revelation with a similar elegance. If Get Out was an arrow aimed straight for the heart, Us is firing in all directions. This doesn't make it a bad filmit is, in fact, a rich and heady stew, anchored by a stunning double performance from Lupita Nyong'o. But it does make it messy, in a way that a director who wasn't riding high off a genre-defining success like Get Out probably wouldn't be able to get away with. I found myself thinking that Us might have worked better as a miniseries, not only to give its various storylines and characters room to breathe, but so that it could do more work to spin out and elaborate on the various symbols and recurring images it keeps dropping into the narrative. What is the significance of Hands Across America, for example? What does Jeremiah 11:11 mean? What's with all the rabbits?

You can see this tendency in the way the film takes its time getting started, layering one prequel scene over another. First we get a title card informing us that beneath America lie thousands of miles of tunnels, some of unknown purpose. Then we watch a string of commercials on an old-fashioned TV (in whose screen is reflected a young black girl), including one for the 1986 anti-poverty project Hands Across America. Then we see the same girl (Madison Curry) at a fairground on the Santa Cruz boardwalk with her parents. She wanders onto the beach and into a hall of mirrors, where she encounters what appears to be her double, and the screen smashes to black. Then the opening credits run as the camera slowly pulls out from a wall lined with cages containing rabbits. It's only after all this that we arrive in the present, following a family car driving towards Santa Cruz for a summer vacation. Each of these non-sequitur moments introduces an image or recurring motif that eagle-eyed viewers will have to look out for once the story proper gets started, though the roster still isn't complete. The devilishly sharp fabric shears that have become the film's calling card in its promotional materials, for example, aren't introduced until the end of the first act.

With such a weight of symbolism, there's a strong temptationespecially for people like myself, who tend to approach pop culture in an analytical wayto try to "solve" Us. But the truth is, for every explanation I can come up with for the film's oddball worldbuilding, there will be half a dozen others just as compelling and worth thinking about. And even my best ideas about the movie fail to account for all of its details and evocative imagery. While I was writing this review, I came across a twitter thread in which the incomparable critics Samira Nadkarni and Aishwarya Subramanian were lamenting their inability to get to the bottom of the rich symbolism in the novels of Helen Oyeyemi, and it strikes me that Us, and perhaps Peele's filmmaking in general, possess the same quality. Like Oyeyemi, Peele has an approach to horror that focuses less on chills and affect and more on weirdness, which is in turn underpinned by a keen intelligence and a sharp political awareness. Like Oyeyemi's novels, what Peele has produced in Us works less because of one's ability to read it "correctly" as because of its overall effect. What follows, therefore, isn't meant to be a definitive reading, but a record of my immediate reactions to the filmwhich may mature and develop as I get more distance from it.

The family in the car are the Wilsons: mother Adelaide (Nyong'o), who is confirmed as the little girl from the prologue scene with a flashback that reveals that in the wake of her unspecified ordeal she was diagnosed with PTSD, father Gabe (Winston Duke), teenager Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and pre-teen Jason (Evan Alex). They've arrived at a vacation house that used to belong to Adelaide's mother, but quickly reveal that in all their years of staying there, Adelaide has never allowed her husband or children to go to the nearby beach. Even when she agrees to make an exception, Adelaide is anxious, and nearly has a breakdown when Jason wanders off for a few minutes. Later she confides to Gabe about her experiences, but neither he nor we are able to understand what frightened her so much about her encounter. That conversation is cut short by the arrival of the Tethered, a family of doubles of our heroes, clad in red jumpsuits, armed with the aforementioned scissors, who quickly overpower the Wilsons.

Adelaide's double (referred to in the credits as Red, though she is never named in the film even though the other doubles all have names; this will turn out to be significant) explains, in the first of several monologues, that she and Adelaide have been linked since birth. She married her husband not because she loved him but because he was Gabe's double. Her children are doubles of Adelaide's children, though like their parents they are strange and sinister, characterized by alarming tics and perverse pleasures. While the Wilsons have lived lives of comfort and safety, the Tethered have been relegated underground, forced to suffer and do without, and driven mad by their deprivation. Now they want to sever their connection, cutting through the Wilsons' flesh to do it. When the family escape to the home of nearby friends, they find the same carnage there, and the TV news eventually reveal that the same uprising has occurred throughout the country.

In other words, Us is a film about the violent rise of the (literal) underclass. This is a trope that tends to have a racialized undertone, as does the home invasion genre that Us initially presents itself aseven when their villains are white, both are rooted in the anxieties of white society over the danger posed by an oppressed but ever-present non-white population. When the first trailer for Us dropped, many people commented on the significance of not only centering the film around a black family, but placing them in this genre, in which people who look like them are often the villains or nonexistent.

In the actual film, race feels a great deal less important than class. Or, to put it more precisely, it's the intersection of the two that feels like the film's ultimate focus, the fact that the Wilsons are not just a black family but one that is safely ensconced within the American upper-middle class. The early scenes in the movie do a lot to stress the family's financial and emotional securitynot only the fact that they have a nice car, a nice summer house, and can afford to go on nice vacations, but that these are familiar environs to them, where they are part of the community. And yet Us also subtly reinforces the sense that the Wilsons are out of place.

It's notable, for example, that outside of the flashbacks to Adelaide's past, the Wilsons are the only black people in the movie. When the scope of the Tethered's attack becomes clear, the only other victims we see are white. This includes the Wilsons' friends and neighbors, Kitty and Josh Tyler (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) and their twin daughters. From our first glimpse of them, it's clear that these are not very impressive peopleKitty complains that she could have made something of her life if she hadn't gotten pregnant, and Josh wastes no opportunity for douchy behavior. And yet the Wilsons, particularly Gabewhom Duke plays with a deliberately exaggerated nerdiness, pitching his voice into the nasal range and constantly readjusting his glassesare clearly in a semi-friendly competition with them, openly envying their boat, their car, and their smart house. There's a constant tension between the Wilsons naturally belonging in this world of affluence and security, and their need to prove that they belong by living up to the example of people like the Tylers.

Throughout the film, there are hints of the Wilsons' conflicted relationship with blackness. When the Tethered appear in the Wilsons' driveway, Gabe tries to drive them off by adopting a tough-guy, "street" persona that not even he seems to believe in, but which he clearly thinks of as the universally understood signal not to mess with him. Adelaide, meanwhile, immediately calls 911. In the context of this story, she's obviously right to do so, but it seems clear that the film is calling back to the multiple instances we've seen documented in recent years of black people having the police called on them, simply for going about their lives.

It's a context that changes the Tethered's claims against the Wilsons, moving them from the general to the specific. "You could have taken me with you", Red says to Adelaide of their childhood meeting. When we get to see the underground lives of the Tethered, they are a perverted, wordless parody of the kind of affluence the Wilsons take for granted. In one of the film's tour de force scenes, we rewatch young Adelaide's trip through the fairground as it was reflected in the underworld. Above ground, Adelaide's father wins her a t-shirt, smiling warmly as he presents it to her. In the underworld, his smile is a deranged leer, a shadow play bereft of triumph or happiness. He is performing a staple of middle class respectabilitya father gifting his child with something she doesn't need but nevertheless wantswith nothing to back it up. The Tethered describe themselves as linked to their doubles, but what shows up on screen feels more like a cargo cult. Just as Gabe keeps trying to keep up with the Tylers in the hopes of becoming them (regardless of whether they are actually worth emulating), the Tethered are imitating all of us, including the Wilsons, hoping that by mimicking the forms of capitalism they can gain a foothold in it. Until, that is, they decide simply to take it.

It's interesting, in fact, to observe how the Wilsons' relationship with their doubles differs from that of anyone else we see. The Tylers are murdered within minutes of their doubles invading their home. But the Wilsons are toyed with, in ways that leave them avenues for escape and resistance. The film ascribes this to a particular sadism on Red's part"we want to take our time" she tells Adelaide during their first meeting. But the film also implies that there is something special about the Wilsons, perhaps their liminal status conferring upon them some degree of protection. It's notable how little tension there is over whether the entire family will survive, even though in a film with so many main characters you'd expect at least one to buy it in order to establish proper horror bona fides (despite trailers that seemed to promise otherwise, Us isn't a very scary film; its horror is more existential than visceral, and there is in fact very little viscera on display). Even Gabe, whom we'd normally expect to dienot only because that's the role husbands and fathers are usually relegated to in family survival stories, but because he is so clearly unsuited to the new, apocalyptic reality established by the Tethered uprisingmakes it to the end, and not as a newly minted badass. He never fully accepts the irrevocable loss of normalcy that has occurred around him, and even towards the end of the film he keeps trying to play by the old rules. "You don't get to make decisions anymore!" Adelaide snaps at him when he suggests holing up in a Tylers' house, waiting for help that clearly isn't coming. And yet he lives.

The reason Gabe livesthe reason the entire Wilson family livesis Adelaide. In a film with the theme of doubling, you'd naturally expect confused identity to eventually crop up. As the family kept being separated and reunited in their scrambles to escape the Tethered, I was constantly on my toes for a switcheroo, for one of them to be killed and replaced by their double. It turns out, this has already happened. The reason we never find out Red's name is that her name is Adelaide. This is also the reason why she's the only Tethered who can talk, and the one who possesses enough shreds of sanity to come up with the plan to rise above ground and take over. It's the reason why Adelaide had PTSDnot from a single traumatic incident, but from a young lifetime of abuse and deprivation. The woman we've been rooting for it the little girl Adelaide met in the hall of mirrors, who kidnapped her double, imprisoned her in the tunnels, and took her place.

It's a revelation that comes in the film's final minutes, and I found myself wishing that the film had given it more time to percolate, for its implications to be considered (for that matter, it might have been interesting if we had gotten a sense that Adelaide has always known what she is, as opposed to the implication that she had suppressed this knowledge until the events of the film trigger her memories). On the one hand, there is the obvious point that there is no meaningful difference between ordinary people and the TetheredAdelaide has lived a normal, respectable life above ground, while Red was driven to the same madness and violence as her compatriots who were born in the tunnels. This is a common trope of stories about a sinister Otherno matter how much the narrative and characters insist otherwise, there never seems to be any meaningful difference between humans and Cylons, or replicants, or Hosts. The "us" of the film's titlewhich conjures immediate associations of us vs. themis in fact a way of reminding us that the enemy is indistinguishable from ourselves, and that we're only defining them as the enemy because it serves our purposes.

At the same time, it's impossible to avoid the implication that the Wilsons survive because Adelaide came from underground. Because her legacy of trauma and abuse has lingered with her despite the privileged life she stole and then built for herself. The fact that it is her children, but not her husband, who take up their mother's attitude, who fight for their lives with determination and ruthlessness, suggests that Adelaide has passed along her unease and anxiety despite not being consciously aware of them. This is seen as both a good and bad thing. At the end of the movie, we're not certain whether Adelaide is a monster. By which I mean, not a monster from horror movies, an Other who can be killed without remorse, but a human monster, the sort of person who takes what they want and then kills the person they stole from when they show up to proclaim their injury. In the film's final moments, Jason, who has witnessed Adelaide's final triumph over Red, regards her with suspicion. He isn't sure what she is, not because he thinks there's been a switch, but because he's starting to realize that he never knew her at all.

There's a lot more to Us than I've written here, and in fact I worry that by summing up my reading of the film I have reduced it something far less strange and baggy than it actually is. There is, for example, the fact that Red's plan includes, after the Tethered have killed their doubles, creating a giant human chain in homage to Hands Across America, whose significance escapes me entirely (others have written compellingly about this device). There are the rabbits that hop freely in the tunnel where the Tethered live (one of them is rescued by Jasonperhaps suggesting that in him and his generation lies the possibility of rapprochement with the Tethered?). And Red's explanation for the existence of the Tethered, which brings up government experimentation and control, feels at once deeply significant and completely beside the point. This is, as I said at the beginning of this review, a messy film, and any attempt to solve it will inevitably leave things out and miss important details. But that is also the film's genius. There is no artist in Hollywood who is doing the kind of things Peele is doing (well, maybe Donald Glover), and if what he delivers isn't always as sharp and instantly comprehensible as Get Out, it is also never less than fascinating.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The 2019 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Novel, Series, and Campbell Categories

As the Hugo nominating period winds to a close, I find myself a bit out of sorts with this final batch of categories.  For one thing, I was hoping to read Rachel Hartman's Tess of the Road before the nominating period ended, so that I could consider it for the Lodestar award for YA novels.  For another, I'm even more than confused than usual about Campbell eligibility--the Writertopia site remains an invaluable resource, but this year they've also linked to Rocket Stack Rank's list of eligible short fiction writers.  On the other hand, this year I actually have things to nominate in the best series category, which I hadn't thought would happen since I don't usually read more than the first volume of any series.

Previous posts in this series:


Best Novel:

  • The Breath of the Sun by Isaac R. Fellman (review) - In my review of The Breath of the Sun I compared it to Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria, and one of the reasons for that is that it has the same quality of broadening our understanding of what fantasy can do and how it can show us its world.  Fellman's mountain-climbing narrative touches on magic, religion, history, and technology.  It is a Nabokovian conversation between its author and her intended reader, the person to whom she is trying to explain her past.  But it is also a meditation on extreme pursuits, and what they mean and symbolize to different people.  It's a rich, hard-to-pin-down novel that is, despite the comparisons I found myself reaching for, unlike just about anything else I've read.

    (Note: I reviewed The Breath of the Sun using Fellman's previous name and pronoun.  As he's written on twitter, he has contacted the Hugo administrators and informed them about the change in his circumstances, and they will consider nominations under both his current and former name as referring to the same person.)

  • The Overstory by Richard Powers (review) - The genius of this novel--and the reason it deserves to be nominated for a Hugo despite being published and discussed as a mainstream work--is how it makes us see our own world as an alien planet.  How it makes us understand an alien species that we walk past every day and give very little thought to.  Powers constructs an alternate history of Earth as seen through the eyes of trees, and that history is, unsurprisingly, one of loss and calamity.  The conceptual shift is essential to The Overstory's environmental project.  By opening our eyes to the notion that the creatures we share our planet with are not dumb and senseless, and that even plants deserve consideration as equal participants in our environment, the novel leaves us space to imagine a different way of living--one of the core aims of science fiction.

Best Series:

  • The Fractured Europe Sequence by Dave Hutchinson - I haven't quite finished Europe at Dawn, the concluding (?) volume of Hutchinson's strange, China-Miéville-meets-John-le-Carré spy saga.  But whatever those final chapters deliver, the work as a whole is one of the most distinctive, unusual series to come out of science fiction in years.  Hutchinson's near-future Europe is fragmented into hundreds of independent polities, and his main characters make their living by flouting the constantly-shifting borders to transport goods and people.  Into that relatively-comprehensible world, Hutchinson introduces an entirely new spin on the concepts of "border" and "territory", in the form of a European player that exists in its own pocket universe, and whose agents are trying to manipulate the existing world order.  Coupled with some top-notch spy antics and winning characters, the result is one of the most unusual SF works of the last decade.

  • The Centennal Cycle by Malka Older - As I observed in my write-up of State Tectonics, no series did more to inspire A Political History of the Future than Older's thought-provoking meditation on how democracy and news media might change.  The Centennal Cycle does something that science fiction should always be interested in and doesn't do nearly enough of--poke at the core assumptions of how we order our society and ask whether they could be changed, and if so, what might happen.  Older's "micro-democracy", in which political parties both nationalistic, ideological, and corporate vie for non-contiguous territory all over the world, and all news is vetted and fact-checked by a central authority, is neither a utopia nor a dystopia, but simply different.  More importantly, it allows Older to ask questions about what we want from democracy and how it may be failing to achieve those goals, which feels like a vitally important question in the current moment.

Campbell Award for Best New Writer:

  • Isaac R. Fellman - With The Breath of the Sun, Fellman delivered one of the most remarkable debuts of the last few years, immediately staking a claim as a major new voice in fantasy who could push the genre in fascinating new directions.  First year of eligibility.

  • Jeannette Ng - I nominated Ng last year for her remarkable, utterly unique debut Under the Pendulum Sun, and she remains more than worthy of this nomination.  Pendulum was a weird, Gothic novel about fairies, religion, and finding your identity in the most unexpected places.  It took elements that I had never thought to see combined in a work of fiction and fused them together almost effortlessly.  I can't wait to see what Ng does next.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Rivers Solomon - Another author who is being nominated again on the strength of a remarkable debut novel.  Solomon's An Unkindness of Ghosts poked holes not only in the generation ship trope but in the prevailing assumption of a lot of SF, that things like prejudice and white supremacy will simply get better with time.  It created a challenging setting, and placed within it remarkable characters set on an exhilarating adventure.  It's been great watching Solomon spend 2018 exploring new opportunities, and I'm looking forward to reading The Deep, their collaboration with Clipping. Second year of eligibility.

  • Emma Törzs - It's actually a little unusual for me to nominate so many novelists in this category, so I'm glad to have encountered Törzs's short fiction, which is certainly worth highlighting.  "From the Root" in Lightspeed is not only unusual for dealing with female reproduction, but has a winning, inquisitive female lead.  And "Like a River Loves the Sky" in Uncanny has an unusual heroine and a refreshing focus on friendship that is not (and doesn't need to be) anything more.  First year of eligibility.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The 2019 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Publishing and Fan Categories

With only a few days left to nominate for the Hugos, we come to our third batch of categories.  One thing they all have in common is that they I tend to nominate the same things here each year.  Partly this is a function of the limitations of my perspective (I don't always, for example, have time to follow a new short fiction venue that might make it onto the semiprozine ballot), but partly it's a way of recognizing people and organizations that have been doing great work for years, without nearly enough recognition.  (Another thing this group of categories has in common?  It's also the one where I tend to leave more categories blank: once again, I won't be nominating in the best editor, best fancast, or best fanzine categories.)

Previous posts in this series:

Best Semiprozine

  • GigaNotoSaurus - this little magazine that could continued plugging away in 2018, publishing one story per month and finding interesting new voices to highlight.  It featured one of my favorite stories of the year, Adrian Simmons's "The Wait is Longer Than You Think", and in fact it's unusual for there not to be at least one GigaNotoSaurus story on my short fiction ballot.  Which, when you consider they only publish twelve pieces a year, is an impressive hit rate.

  • Strange Horizons - Are you aware that Strange Horizons has never won a Hugo?  Isn't it time we changed that?  This fantastic magazine has been around for nearly two decades, publishing boundary-pushing fiction and non-fiction, and providing platforms for pieces that simply wouldn't have a home anywhere else on the internet.  Who else would have published Erin Horáková's "Erin Groans", a book-length essay about obscure Gormenghast adaptations that is both delightful and enlightening?  The magazine also publishes an ongoing project, 100 African Writers of SFF, that explores the continent and its regions to find the speculative work being created there, and its sister magazine, Samovar, publishes fiction in translation.  And this is all happening with an all-volunteer staff.  Strange Horizons gets nominated every year, and always ends up an also-ran.  Let's make 2019 the year we finally give them a Hugo.

  • Uncanny - This relatively new magazine had another strong year in 2018.  Their fiction department ran an interesting project in the middle of the year, in which several authors wrote stories about present-day dinosaurs, which produced some very strong pieces.  But I was more strongly struck by the fiction department's focus on featuring stories with disabled protagonists, which dealt with their struggles to deal with a world that doesn't value them and doesn't make the space that will allow them to participate and contribute to society.  It's an important topic, and it's good to see editors exercising their judgment to promote discussions of it.

Best Professional Artist:

  • Tracy J. Lee - Lee is a commercial artist with a wide-ranging portfolio, but in the last year she illustrated several genre-related projects.  Chiefly, she designed the GIF animations for Wired's The Future of Work series, which featured short stories by several writers about the changing face of labor.

  • Paul Lewin - Lewin draws amazing Afrofuturist illustrations, and in 2018 he came to my attention for his gorgeous covers for the reprint editions of Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.  In a few months we'll also be able to see his cover for The Dark Fantastic, an essay collection by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas.

  • Victo Ngai - I've been nominating Ngai for this award for years, and there's really not much I can add to the praise I've already heaped on her.  If there's a better or more distinctive illustrator working in genre right now, I don't know who they are.  Her most prominent genre-related work in 2018 is the cover for Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology.

  • Del Samatar - I haven't read Monster Portraits, Del and Sofia Samatar's hybrid study of monstrousness, but the pictures I've seen of Del's illustrations for the book are simply stunning.

  • Yuko Shimizu - Shimizu had a great year in 2018.  She continued to create covers for JY Yang's Tensorate novellas, giving them one of the most distinctive (and appealing) looks in the business.  And she single-handedly sold me on Mike Carey's new fantasy comic The Highest House with her dreamy covers.

Best Fan Artist:

  • Vandy Hall - Hall creates strange blown glass and mixed media sculptures of fantasy creatures.  I particularly like her bird-like creatures.

  • Likhain - In 2018, Likhain continued to produce colorful, almost overpowering illustrations that draw on Philippine tradition and folklore to create a completely unique style.

  • Keith Newstead - I became aware of Newstead and his automata through "Erin Groans", which is another reason to reward that article and its author.  His "Gormenghast Castle Automata" is one of the most unusual and remarkable pieces of fan art I've ever seen, a gorgeous approach to the book that captures its core theme of inescapable, repeating patterns perfectly.

  • vacuumslayer - These Alice in Wonderland-ish photo manipulations continue to delight, with a definite political undertone.

Best Fan Writer:

This is exactly the same lineup I nominated last year, so instead of repeating myself too much, I'm just going to highlight some of the great work these writers did in 2018.  And, if a lot of that work happens to have been published at Strange Horizons, maybe that's more proof that it's time to give them a Hugo?
  • Nina Allan - As well as her wonderful blog (where she's been doing a lot of writing about crime and horror fiction recently), Nina continued reviewing for Strange Horizons.  Her review of Jac Jemc's horror novel The Grip of It sent me racing to find a copy of the book, and her thoughts on the miniseries version of Picnic at Hanging Rock, especially as compared to the 1975 movie, were extremely illuminating.

  • Vajra Chandrasekera - Most of Vajra's focus in 2018 seems to have gone to his fiction writing, as well as editing the Strange Horizons fiction department.  But his mega-review of last year's Clarke Award shortlist, "Rupture & Complicity" (part 1 and 2) is a master-class in how to combine reviews of individual works with a panoramic view of the state of the field, and provides an important tool for analyzing the currents running through the genre.

  • Erin Horáková - "Erin Groans", of course, but Erin had a fantastic writing year in 2018.  Some of my favorites of her pieces are her reviews of Paddington 2 and The Worst Witch.

  • Samira Nadkarni - For her monumental, leave-no-stone-unturned review of Venom alone, Samira deserves to be on this list.  And, though it is a 2019 publication, I'd be remiss not to mention her thought-provoking, eyebrow-raising review of the third season of Wynona Earp.