Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review: Snowpiercer

As I say at the beginning of my review of Korean director Bong Joon-Ho's first English-language film, if you're like me then the first thing you ever heard about Snowpiercer was that it was in danger of being chopped down and dumbed down by its distributors for the sake of English-speaking audiences.  And then you were probably incensed, not only because you're fully capable of watching a 125-minute film with a small amount of foreign language dialogue and a moderate gore, and not only because Snowpiercer is one of those rare SF films that is neither a sequel, a remake, or a reboot, but because it's been getting such good reviews abroad and you wanted to see it in all its original, uncut glory.

As I write in my review in Strange Horizons, to go into Snowpiercer with all this in mind is probably to do the film a disservice, because what this knowledge does is take an interesting, well-done, but ultimately thoroughly conventional SF action film and turn into the vanguard of the fight against Hollywood predictability, a burden that it can't really shoulder.  That said, taken on its own terms Snowpiercer is definitely worth a look.  I'm glad that Israeli film distributors brought it here (and I can only hope this bodes well for other intriguing genre projects like Under the Skin and Only Lovers Left Alive), and I certainly recommend seeking it out if it comes to your territory.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Recent Reading Roundup 36

So the good news is that since the beginning of the year I've been reading up a storm, the last vestiges of the reading drought I'd suffered under for nearly two years blowing away.  The bad news is that I'm much more interested in reading books than writing about them, which is why this recent reading roundup only covers a selection of my reading this year, the others having passed too long ago for me to remember what I wanted to say about them.  (Also not discussed here: I've been rereading the Sherlock Holmes canon in publication order, and discussing my reactions on my twitter account.  The ephemeral format feels appropriate to books that I'm only returning to, albeit after fifteen years, not reading for the first time.  But I have storified my progress thus far: A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Valley of Fear.)
  • Saga: Volume 1 and 2 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples - I ended up flaking on Vaughan's Y: The Last Man after one volume, and with that series spanning a dozen or so of the things it seemed easier to pick up his new one than to go back.  Regardless of Y's charms, this was probably the right choice, because Saga has grabbed me in a way that Vaughan's earlier series never did.  Narrated by Hazel, whose birth kicks the story off, it focuses on the efforts of her parents, Alana and Marko, to survive and protect their child.  Soldiers from opposite sides of a centuries-long war, Alana and Marko are on the run from their former armies, multiple bounty hunters, and former friends and family, and the introduction of each of these parties only serves to expand Saga's wide, deranged universe.  Moving back and forth between Marko and Alana's present as they try to adjust to parenthood and stay alive, their past as they meet and fall in love under less than ideal circumstances (Alana was a guard at the hard labor camp where Marko was incarcerated), and subplots involving the various characters pursuing them--a robot prince still reeling from his own experiences on the battlefield, a lovelorn bounty hunter, Marko's former fiancée Gwendolyn--Saga builds its story strand by strand in a way that is a joy to puzzle out.  Along the way, it also drops hints about the history of the story's world and the war that has been tearing it apart, challenging the various characters' belief in its justness while also revealing just how much blood has already been spilled.  What's perhaps most impressive about all this is that for all that Saga is wide-ranging and seems to proliferate characters with almost every issue, there's never a sense that Vaughan and Staples don't know exactly where their story is going and how all its pieces tie together.  I'm very much looking forward to the future issues where they do.

  • Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner - The best reading experiences are the ones that seem to come out of nowhere and sweep you off your feet.  So it was with Swordspoint, a dilapidated, ancient copy of which I found in a used bookstore a few months ago and picked up on the vague recollection of having heard good things about it.  As it turns out, Kushner's slim (barely 250 pages) 1987 debut is a remarkably assured fantasy that lays out a world and its customs in the space of a few pages and then sends half a dozen vivid characters on a collision course with each other in which the stakes are intensely personal--love and honor--and thus the most important thing in the world.  Richard St. Vier is a swordsman, employed by nobles to fight on their behalf in the duels with which they settle their disputes.  His origins are decidedly lower-class, but his skill and role confer upon him some level of privilege--the nobles admire him, though they don't see him as entirely human, and his fellow inhabitants in the rough neighborhood of Riverside embrace him as a mascot, but are also constantly on the lookout for the next up-and-comer who will take Richard's life and his place.  Richard becomes embroiled in political machinations up on the hill, but these are not the cold-blooded clockwork plans we might expect, but instead driven by passions, misunderstandings, and hurt pride.  They end up encompassing Richard's lover Alec, who has his own mysterious past, and nobleman Michael Godwin, who is drawn to the swordsman's life but is too caught up in his upper class upbringing to understand the kind of sacrifice it requires of him.  At the heart of most interactions in Swordspoint is the assumption that only certain people are allowed to feel certain things--that someone like Richard has no honor of his own, only the honor he fights for, and that nobles like Michael aren't driven by feelings like jealousy or fear.  Both of these assumptions turns out to be false, of course, and Kushner is adept at getting at the beating, human heart of every character in the space of a few sentences, of establishing the pettiness or the greatness of spirit that lie just where you least expect them.  The result is a fantasy whose richness stems less from its strange world than from the minute, achingly human detailing of its familiar one.

  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson - It's always a problem, coming to one of the most celebrated books of the year a few months after the buzz for it has reached a feverish crescendo.  You tend to take the things that are good about the book for granted--and Life After Life is very well written (I can't recall the last 600-page book that I breezed through as effortlessly as this one) and handles its central gimmick, the fact that its heroine dies and is then reborn again and again, each time with a subconscious knowledge of the lives she lived before, with impressive aplomb--while searching for a greatness that may not actually exist.  That's not to dismiss the use to which Atkinson puts her reincarnation device, through which she can create both a panoramic picture of English life before and during the world wars, and an intimate portrait of a single family.  The multiple deaths of heroine Ursula have different valences at different points in the novel--when, as a child, she tries with increasing desperation to avoid being exposed to the Spanish flu, her repeated failures, which involve slapsticky measures such as pushing the maid who will expose her down the stairs to prevent her from going out on the town, are darkly funny.  But later, when Ursula keeps being killed in the Blitz, her deaths give the novel a claustrophobic feeling, a sensation of being trapped much like the people in London at the time.  Meanwhile, the longer chapters which follow a single one of Ursula's lives in detail have their own power--in one, she is raped as a teenager and is so consumed by self-loathing (and by the recriminations of her family) that she falls into the clutches of a vicious, controlling abuser.  In another, she falls in love on a pre-war trip to Germany, and finds herself in the Fuhrer's inner circle when the war breaks out.  In a third, she lives safely and unremarkably as a civil servant, dying of a heart attack on a park bench on the day of her retirement.

    But while Life After Life's pieces are well done and occasionally remarkable, I have no idea what to make of its whole.  While reading the novel, I tried to resist the temptation to work out a cosmology governing Ursula's reincarnations, because this is clearly not something that Atkinson is interested in--the novel, for example, opens with Ursula killing Hitler, but this turns out to be a futile, meaningless gesture that has little bearing on the rest of her lives, and if there are rules governing what Ursula can do in each life and how they change in response to her actions in previous iterations, they change so frequently as to be effectively meaningless.  But what that means is that I have no idea what Atkinson was trying to accomplish, and Life After Life's gimmick eventually comes to seem like a way of putting a new gloss on the kind of pre-war social novel that has been written dozens of times before--or in fact, of writing all of those social novels at once, since each of them, taken individually, is familiar and not terribly original.  The farther I get from Life After Life, the more it fades in my mind--neither its individual pieces nor its whole have the power to linger.

  • Longbourn by Jo Baker - I've mostly avoided the vast field of Austen-ian para-literature, but Baker's Pride and Prejudice-below-stairs retelling caught my eye because of one promotional quote: "If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them."  Austen is often criticized for having proto-second wave blind spots.  For caring about the happiness and self-actualization of upper and middle class women without giving a thought to the safety and well-being of lower class ones, and for railing against the stifling lives of women who are not allowed to work without noticing that their lifestyle was enabled by the labor of women who were expected to work, and whose work was undervalued if not invisible.  Making that point by referencing one of the key moments of Pride and Prejudice--Elizabeth walking to Netherfield through muddy fields without a thought for her appearance, thus establishing herself as a "modern" woman--seemed to promise a cutting subversion of the original novel.  But Longbourn, as it turns out, isn't really a retelling of Pride and Prejudice--whose events don't start until more than halfway into the novel, and are never as crucial to the servant characters as Baker's invented plot strands.  Instead, Baker uses Longbourn as the setting for a broader discussion of the life of a Regency servant (which among other things means that her story travels to parts of the house and the town that Austen's characters don't see, or at least don't talk about) and as a launching point for her own plot, which indulges in the kind of flights of melodrama that Austen frequently crooked an eyebrow at in her own writing--hidden parentage, unacknowledged half-siblings, deserting soldiers, despoiled young women.

    The result is very much its own entity, though it does occasionally offer a skewed perspective on the original novel's events--when Mr. Collins visits Longbourn, for example, the servants are anxious to make a good impression because he will one day be their master, and, as opposed to Elizabeth and Jane's disgust with the man, are overjoyed to find that he is kind and easily pleased.  But the main story here belongs to Sarah, the maid of all work, and Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper.  The latter is presented as the real power in Longbourn, working hard to keep things on an even keel both upstairs and downstairs, and shrewdly aware of the dangers facing all of the house's inhabitants--from bad marriages, from cruel masters, from designing men, and from the force of the law.  But where Mrs. Hill accepts the restrictions of the world she lives in and works within them, Sarah is just working them out, and testing them to see where they have give (one of her most interesting observations is that while for a woman like Elizabeth Bennett it would be an impossible scandal to be married with a pregnant belly, a servant like Sarah could get away with it).  In keeping with the Austen template, Longbourn gives Sarah a love story (two, in fact, the first with a freed slave who may be Mr. Bingley's half-brother), which is sweetly and tenderly described.  But it ends up feeling less important than Sarah's exploration of her own power and status.  Going into Longbourn, it's easy to assume that it will be a story about how people like Sarah are exploited and oppressed by people like Elizabeth, and there is much of this in the novel.  But as Sarah comes to understand the marriage game that Elizabeth is playing more clearly, she also realizes her own ability to opt in or out of that system on her own terms, and perhaps to carve out a greater measure of freedom and happiness than Austen's characters get.  It's a bit of a fantasy ending, but as a commentary on Austen's blind spots, it is perhaps even more subversive than a straight-up retelling of Pride and Prejudice would have been.

  • Whose Body? and Clouds of Witnesses by Dorothy L. Sayers - Nearly a decade ago, I read Gaudy Night and then the other novels featuring Harriet Vane, partner and then wife of Sayers's detective Lord Peter Wimsey.  But, perhaps because he was overshadowed by Harriet and her fascinating internal debate about whether she could remain her own person if she gave in to Peter's attentions, I never felt much interest in the solo Wimsey novels, and it's taken me until now to look them up.  The first foray--and the first book published, in 1923--finds Sayers quite obviously puzzling out her genre, with both book and protagonist in constant conversation with, of all things, Sherlock Holmes.  Wimsey references Holmes constantly, and his associate, Scotland Yard detective Parker, is frequently cast in the role of his Watson, with another detective, Sugg, playing the bumbling Lestrade role.  But both Wimsey and Sayers are clearly dissatisfied with the template laid out by Holmes, stressing the limits of Wimsey's abilities in the face of inconveniently messy evidence (meanwhile, Parker is also an investigator in his own right, who sometimes sees things the Wimsey misses).  It's possible that from Sayers's perspective, looking to Holmes as her most obvious antecedent to the extent of feeling the need to argue with him and his stories' conventions made sense.  In 2014, however, it feels like a weirdly old-fashioned preoccupation, though admittedly of a piece with the rest of the novel, whose portrait of post-WWI English society feels very similar to Conan Doyle's late Victorian version.  From the vantage point of Lord Peter, his devoted valet, and his imperious mother the Dowager Duchess of Denver, the earth-shattering changes that occurred after the war might as well not have happened--they're all still at the stage of patting themselves on the back for being OK with Jewish people--and the book's depiction of middle class people is positively caricatured.

    All that said, Whose Body? does raise a crucial question in response to the Holmes model, one that will clearly continue to afflict Wimsey, who unlike the Great Detective can't reconcile his fondness for detective work as a game, a test of his wits, with the life and death stakes of the cases he investigates.  How can he, an amateur, justify involving himself, merely for the sake of his amusement, in cases where the end result of his work will be to send someone to be hanged?  It's an interesting question, and one that the book refuses to resolve with the simple response that Wimsey is hunting down murderers.  An extremely well done scene at the end of the book sees Wimsey seeking out a man he knows to be a killer in order to look him in the eye and understand what he's about to do, and it makes a convincing argument for Sayers's project to complicate and humanize the Holmesian template (this scene also includes a surprisingly accurate, for its period, description of the physiological mechanism of PTSD, from which Wimsey suffers).  For the rest of the book, however, Wimsey is a little too much of a clown, and the novel lingers too long over his upper-class affectations--a minor subplot involves his passion for collecting antique manuscripts, with footnotes describing the exact provenance of his Dante folio--in a way that feels almost defensive (I was reminded of Brideshead Revisited's assumption that, because someone has said half a dozen words against the landed gentry, the whole edifice is obviously about to come crumbling down, and it is therefore time to start penning elegies to the class system).  The mystery itself, meanwhile, is nicely puzzling but also relatively easy to work out--which I suppose is a point in Sayers's favor since she famously believed that mystery authors should "play fair" with their readers.  All in all, then, Whose Body? is clearly a work in progress, but also one that makes a more coherent argument for Wimsey than his supporting role in the Harriet Vane novels had led me to expect.

    If Whose Body? is flawed but promising, however, its follow-up, Clouds of Witnesses, squanders much of its goodwill.  It sees Wimsey rushing to the English countryside after his brother Gerald is accused of murdering their sister Mary's fiancé.  The template here is clearly a country house murder, and Sayers's twist on it is that Wimsey is overwhelmed with conflicting and contradictory evidence, because as it turns out everyone at the house had some secret in their life, and nearly all of them were abroad on the night of the murder, running into each, assuming the worst of each other, and interfering with evidence in order to protect themselves or others.  It's a clever premise, but the execution leaves a great deal to be desired--the novel opens with a chapter-long recitation of the coroner's inquest, and ends with a chapter-long transcription of Gerald's defense attorney's closing arguments, and in between it mainly consists of Peter chasing red herrings in a way that quickly becomes tedious (one bright point is an understated but nicely done romantic subplot involving Parker, which is clearly intended to recall Watson's similar plot strand in The Sign of the Four).  More importantly, if Whose Body? is at least a little coy about its class prejudices, Clouds of Witnesses lays them out in a way that is as bald as it is infuriating.  There are, for example, the chapters devoted to castigating socialism, and particularly Mary's lover, who is exposed as a coward, a fool, and just generally lacking in the sort of grit that naturally noble people like Peter possess.  Even worse is the sub-plot about the battered wife of a local farmer, who lives in genuine fear of her life but whose well-being is considered less important than the fact that her testimony could save her noble lover--at one point Peter even opines that it would be a shame if this woman's husband murdered her, as Gerald would have to live with the guilt of it.  And then there's the fact that the whole novel revolves around Gerald being tried in the House of Lords rather than an ordinary court, which none of the characters find strange or unjust.  I'm still interested in reading the other Wimsey novels, but after Clouds of Witnesses I can see that I'm going to have to steel myself against their prejudices.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

How I Met Your Ending

One of the reasons that I'm not so down on spoilers is that, for someone who consumes pop culture the way I do, they're essentially impossible to avoid.  Online fandom talks a big game about its spoiler-phobia, but if you've ever spent a day on twitter in the wake of a major pop culture event, you know that there's no way not to pick up exactly what happened, even if people haven't said it outright.  For someone like myself, whose geographic location means that I watch things--TV episodes in particular--a minimum of 24 hours after they've originally aired, there are only two options--get spoiled, or cut yourself off the internet completely.  I take the latter approach sometimes, in the cases of big TV events like the finales of Breaking Bad or True Detective.  But for the most part I can't be bothered, and occasionally a Red Wedding will take me by surprise--as in the case of last week's episode of The Good Wife.  And sometimes, there are shows that you just never imagined could be spoiled, which is the case with this week's finale of How I Met Your Mother.  Before I went online yesterday morning, I thought that the finale would merely be going through the motions of an ending already laid out.  The show had already shown us that perennial wife-seeker Ted (Josh Radnor) would meet his future wife and the mother of his children on the platform of the Farhampton train station, after leaving his best friend Barney's (Neil Patrick Harris) wedding to Robin (Cobie Smulders), the woman whom Ted has spent the show's nine-season run alternately dating and pining for.  The final season, which spent several episodes introducing us to the mother (Cristin Milioti) and flashing forward to her life with Ted, had even revealed that their love story would be a bittersweet one, with a flash to ten years in the future in which the mother is terminally ill.  All that was left, it seemed to me, was to fill in the blanks--the mother's name, some more of her and Ted's courtship, and most importantly, the moment in which Ted walks up to her and starts a new chapter in his life.  What could there possibly be to spoil?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.  The first big revelation of the double-length finale, titled "Last Forever," is that Robin and Barney's marriage--which had been the show's prevailing obsession in its final two seasons, the latter taking place entirely over the weekend of their wedding--fell apart after only three years, under the weight of Robin's career demands and Barney's aimlessness.  After the breakup, Robin, who has finally had enough of the show's quasi-incestuous core dynamic, in which she spends most of her social life around her two most significant exes, cuts herself off from the group.  Barney goes back to his horndogging ways and accidentally conceives a child, a daughter whom he proudly proclaims "the love of [his] life."  And then, as predicted, the mother (whose name is revealed to be Tracy) dies, and Ted concludes his story.  But his children, who have been listening patiently for nine season, are unconvinced.  If the story is about how Ted met their mother, they point out, then why was she hardly in it, and why was so much time spent on his relationship with Robin?  It turns out that Ted is telling the story six years after Tracy's death, during which time he and Robin have rekindled their friendship.  His reason for telling the story, the kids argue, is that he's fallen back in love with Robin, and is trying to justify, to himself and his children, the decision to pursue her again.  The series ends by echoing the first season finale, with Ted standing outside Robin's window holding the blue French horn he first stole for her twenty-five years ago, all the way back in the pilot.

The reaction to this twist has been, shall we say, heated.  Various reviewers--Alyssa Rosenberg, Margaret Lyons, James Poniewozik, Linda Holmes, Todd VanDerWerff, Alan Sepinwall--have argued that the finale, and its choice to return to the Ted/Robin endgame, is a betrayal of the show's ideals and the story it had constructed over nine seasons.  Why, they ask, did the show ask us to become so invested in Robin and Barney's romance if they were only ever a stop on the way to Robin's happy ending with Ted?  Why introduce the charming Milioti and the equally wonderful Tracy only to treat her as an obstacle to Ted's real love story?  Sepinwall's post is particularly instructive, as he goes into the mechanics of how series creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas planned out this ending as far back as the second season, working around what he defines as the mistake of announcing, in the pilot, that Robin was not the titular mother.  Ted's final conversation with his children, he notes, was filmed seven years ago, when Bays and Thomas first came up with the ending that they delivered this week.

Sepinwell's argument is that the example of How I Met Your Mother's finale is a point against creators becoming too caught up in a rigid plan for their story that doesn't leave room for unpredictable, organic developments such as Harris and Smulders's chemistry or Milioti's appeal.  But to me--as someone who has problems with the finale but on the whole likes it--the message seems more complex.  The fact is, Bays and Thomas laid out the ending they wanted their story to have seven years ago, and by God, this week they reached that ending.  Can Lost say as much?  Can Battlestar Galactica?  Is there another example of long-form, multi-season serialized television that has so successfully delivered the story it had planned for itself?  Whatever you think of Bays and Thomas's choice of ending, the fact that they managed to get to it, and to do so without cheating--the seeds for Barney and Robin's breakup, for Ted and Robin's lingering feelings for one another, and for Tracy's death, are planted well before the finale--is impressive, and marks How I Met Your Mother out as a unique achievement that deserves to be celebrated and discussed.

All the more so when you consider that Bays and Thomas did this in the face of network interference that would probably make Damon Lindelof or Ron Moore quake in their boots.  As Sepinwall notes, when the original plan was made How I Met Your Mother was a modest success that could reasonably expect to run for perhaps four seasons, but as the show's popularity ballooned its ending kept being pushed back, altering the show's structure and story--most dramatically, a last-minute renewal last year which forced Bays and Thomas, who had already planned to deliver something very like "Last Forever" at the end of the previous season, to come up with the concept of a season-long weekend.  What's more, Bays and Thomas not only got to their planned ending, but did so while maintaining one of the more ambitious structures in series television, a story that constantly jumps backward and forward in time over a period of nearly half a century, that plays with multiple points of view and unreliable narrators, and that constantly sets up stories and recurring characters and themes--slap bets and yellow umbrellas and goats--that the show only rarely failed to pay off.  As someone who loves the television medium and is excited any time a creator expands its horizons, I don't see how you could do anything but cheer at this demonstration of skill and nerve, especially when it comes from something as unfashionable as a multi-camera, laugh-tracked romantic sitcom.

None of this is to say, of course, that How I Met Your Mother doesn't have serious flaws.  Like, I suspect, a lot of the show's fans, I've been ready for it to be done for a long time, as successive seasons lost more and more of the flavor that made the show so delightful and funny in its early days (it's this, I suspect, and not the controversial finale, that will prove the biggest stumbling block for the already-announced spinoff series How I Met Your Dad).  This is a problem for most sitcoms, which tend to have a short half-life--see, for example, the pleasant but inessential fare that Parks and Recreation has been serving up lately--but it's all the more crucial for a show like How I Met Your Mother, which had a predetermined end point.  Going by the timeline established in the finale, Ted's children Penny (Lyndsy Fonseca) and Luke (David Henrie) are 15 and 13 when he sits them down to tell his story in 2030.  The fact that neither of the actors could believably pass for these ages (they were actually 20 and 18 when the scene was shot) is a fairly decisive indication that How I Met Your Mother was never intended to run more than five or six seasons at the outside, and the wheel-spinning with which the extra time was filled--besides being boring in itself--only serves to undermine the characters, and the endings the show gives them.  That Barney insists, after the breakup of his marriage to Robin, that he simply isn't suited to serious relationships would be more believable if there were not, before that marriage, a serious girlfriend and another fiancé, both introduced to mark time before the wedding endgame could be implemented.  Even more importantly, Ted and Robin's constant back and forth ultimately serves to neuter their romance.  By the series's end, they have both announced that they love each other, and then that they no longer feel that way about one another, so many times that the words have lost all meaning, and the decision to put them together feels almost arbitrary.

And yet, if the overlong, meandering path that leads up to "Last Forever" undermines the episode's power, it doesn't completely negate it.  There's a lot to be said against Barney's story in the finale, in which the always-problematic character achieves redemption by having a daughter and then realizing that all women are someone's daughter, at which point he begins berating the same young floozies he had previous preyed upon to "make better choices" (I don't agree with all of Sady Doyle's conclusions about the finale, but she's spot on about the problems with Barney).  But the breakup of his and Robin's marriage feels absolutely true to both characters, who have always been depicted as two people who love each other deeply but have no idea how to be in a relationship.  Unlike uber-couple Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshall (Jason Segel), who can withstand competing career tracks, the pressures of parenting, and even an early-season breakup, Robin and Barney never had the resilience or the selflessness to handle the challenges of a long term relationship, so it's not surprising that the first crisis they face breaks them up.  Would this have been more believable, and more emotionally resonant, if Robin and Barney hadn't already broken up once for largely the same reasons, and if the last two seasons hadn't been dedicated to building up their love story without ever acknowledging the cracks in their foundation?  Absolutely.  But the premise still works, and the actors and writing are good enough that the breakup still stings the second time around.  By the same token, as annoying and Ted and Robin's I-love-you-I-love-you-not game became, their reconnection at the end of the series makes sense.  I can easily see them, in their fifties, having both achieved the conflicting goals that kept them apart--his children, her career--embarking on a late in life romance, and the actual moment at which Ted shows up at Robin's window with the blue French horn is as powerful as anything in the show's history.

None of this, of course, would matter if Tracy were not a vivid character in her own right, and if there's one criticism of the finale that I simply don't get, it is that it treats her like a plot token, a way of getting around the bind that Bays and Thomas trapped themselves in at the end of the pilot.  I think that this would be the case if How I Met Your Mother had ended as originally planned, with "Last Forever" capping the eighth season and Ted meeting Tracy for the first time in the same episode in which her death and his ultimate relationship with Robin were introduced.  But the decision to extend the show, though undeniably driven by purely financial motivations, turns out to have been a godsend.  It gives How I Met Your Mother the time to turn Tracy into a real character, both through her interactions with the rest of the main cast, and through flash-forwards to her and Ted's marriage.  She even gets her own backstory episode, "How Your Mother Met Me," in which we discover that while Ted was desperately searching for the love of his life, Tracy was trying to get over the sudden, early death of hers, and slowly working her way back to being ready for love again (amid the outrage over the finale's twist ending, one point that appears to have been lost is that Ted and Tracy end up with exactly the same romantic trajectories, both experiencing two great loves, the first one cut off by death).  Even her death, as I've said, is laid out before the finale, in the episode "Vesuvius," in which Ted and Tracy go for another weekend getaway that is clearly intended to be their last (I have to wonder if one of the reasons that the finale has aroused outrage is that so many people seemed determined to read "Vesuvius" ambiguously, whereas I thought that it couldn't have made Tracy's impending death any clearer).

As Penny and Luke point out when their father finishes his recitation, the point of How I Met Your Mother's finale was to reveal to us exactly what kind of story the show had been telling, what its purpose was and what it was about.  For several years, I'd happily assumed that the show was about the roundabout way in which Ted made his way to Tracy, when actually it turned out to be the story about Ted and Robin's on-again, off-again love story, which just happens to encompass both of them falling in love with and marrying other people.  I like my story better, but I can't deny that the one Bays and Thomas chose works for their characters and how they constructed the show (and again, I think it's damned impressive that the show can hold off on committing to the kind of story it's telling all the way to its last fifteen minutes without making either of the alternatives unbelievable).  And in a way, their ending feels true to what always seemed to me like the show's most important theme.  In its best moments, How I Met Your Mother was a show about disappointment, about realizing that your life wasn't going to turn out the way you wanted or planned, and that this can be both sad and wonderful.  Ted sees Robin across a crowded room and thinks that he's solved his life's puzzle, when instead he's only discovered a more elusive one.  Barney thinks that Robin will save him and instead finds salvation in a baby.  Lily runs away from Marshall to be an artist but turns out not to have the talent, while Marshall dreams of being an environmental lawyer, and then a judge, but keeps having to defer his dreams.  That Barney and Robin don't work out despite all the time we spent on their love story, or that Ted and Tracy's happiness is so tragically short-lived, returns to that theme of disappointment in a way that is deeply affecting.

To me, revealing that Tracy dies and then Ted and Robin get together--and doing so after a season that made Tracy so very real while she lived--doesn't negate her relationship with Ted.  It doesn't mean that Robin is The One while Tracy isn't.  It means that there's no such thing as The One, or a happy ending that your whole life is leading up to--just happiness and sadness, love and disappointment, for as long as you're around.  At another time in his life, when Tracy was alive or newly dead, Ted might have told the story of how he met his children's mother another way, with Tracy as the star and Robin as a barely-appearing supporting character.  The fact that he's changed, and fallen in love again, doesn't mean that his and Tracy's story ceases to exist, but rather that none of our lives have a single story.  I don't know if that's the message Bays and Thomas intended me to take from their finale, but it's one that I can take from it--because despite being so in control of their story that they knew how it would end seven years ago, no story is ever as rigid as to have exactly the meaning its creators intended, just as no life has just one great love that it is building up to.  Whether they meant to or not, Bays and Thomas have created a romantic comedy that both embraces and rejects the genre's cherished conventions, and for that reason--despite the finale's flaws and the sometimes hard slog leading up to it--I like How I Met Your Mother's ending just fine.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The 2014 Hugo Award: My Hugo Ballot, Best Novel and Campbell Award

With a little over 36 hours left in the Hugo nominating period, we come down to the last two categories on my ballot.  In recent years, I've found the best novel category less and less interesting, partly because I'm not interested in keeping up with novels as they're published (that's a great way to concentrate on a single genre and let all other kinds of books go ignored) so usually don't have an informed opinion when it comes time to make up my ballot.  At the same time, the Campbell award has grown in importance for me, as a reflection of the new voices emerging in the field (usually with short fiction).  So I end up nominating more with an eye towards the genre's (possible) future than on its present--though this year, in at least one cast, I think that they are one and the same.

Previous posts in this series:
Best Novel:
  • A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (my review) - The farther I get from this novel the more special it seems, and the more surprising its assurance for a debut offering.  Already nominated for the Nebula and BSFA, I think that A Stranger in Olondria deserves to add a Hugo nomination to its laurels.

  • Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox (my review) - I've already singled out the story with which I was introduced to Knox's writing, and which acts as a prologue to this novel, in my short fiction post.  Mortal Fire is a very different beast from the story, less mysterious and spooky, but still a very clever variant on its YA tropes, and with an unusual, memorable heroine.

  • The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates - A nomination without a chance of making it to the ballot, I know, but I couldn't let Oates's weird, baggy, Gothic horror pass without a nomination for an award in whose bailiwick it surely lies. 
John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer:
  • Sofia Samatar - It will probably come as no surprise that an author who appears twice on my ballot (three times if you count the fan writer category) should be up for this award.  Samatar has had one of the most triumphant debut years in recent memory, and it seems only right to recognize that with a Campbell nomination.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Carmen Maria Machado - Another person who has appeared several times on my ballot already, with her stories "Inventory" and "Especially Heinous." First year of eligibility.

  • Benjanun Sriduangkaew - I haven't singled out any stories by Sriduangkaew this year, but the pieces by her that I read--stories like "Annex" and "Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade"--showcased an exciting new talent.  First year of eligibility.

  • Tori Truslow - It's a bit rich, nominating someone for the Campbell based on a single story, but when that story has stuck with you as powerfully as Truslow's "Boat in Shadows, Crossing" has done, it makes a great deal of sense.  First year of eligibility.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The 2014 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Media Categories

Continuing on to the media categories, which include some of the most popular categories on the ballot, and also the ones that have become the least interesting to follow.  The problem of the Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form category is well-known.  For years the award has belonged to Doctor Who, which routinely receives three nominations on the ballot, all but ensuring its victory due to the Hugos' preferential voting system (only Joss Whedon proved himself more powerful).  And this year, that preordained victory doesn't even sting that badly.  As exasperated as I've become with Stephen Moffat's stewardship of Doctor Who, his 50th anniversary special, "The Day of the Doctor," was a genuinely good hour of television, employing Moffat's by-now hoary tics in a way that made them seem new and refreshing, playing with and deepening the revamped series's mythology, and making excellent use of its three stars. Add to that the fact that genre TV remains something of a wasteland, and this becomes one of the least urgent categories on the ballot.

In the Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form category, there has for several years been a trend towards rejecting the original concept of the two categories' split (long form=movies; short form=TV episodes) in favor of nominating entire seasons of TV.  This began in 2008 with the first season of Heroes, when the entire fandom was stunned by the realization that television could do comics-style continuity.  That shock obscured the somewhat dubious argument for pitting films and TV seasons against each other on the basis of running time, which has only grown less convincing as novelistic storytelling on TV has gone from a bold new device to something that even the most mundane procedural will sprinkle in.  This year, I'm seeing a lot of voices calling for the nomination of the first season of Orphan Black in this category.  Leaving aside the fact that I'm not as thrilled with the show as the rest of fandom--I think Tatiana Maslany's multiple lead performances are a stunning technical achievement, but her characters are, with a few exceptions, collections of clichés, and the show's handling of its story and themes is shallow and uninteresting--to describe Orphan Black as a single continuous narrative only exposes how meaningless that term has become.  Rather than having a story, with a beginning, middle and end, Orphan Black takes a page from 24's book, throwing increasingly absurd cliffhangers and plot twists at the screen in order to keep its pace racing and obscure the fact that it has no idea where it's going.  I can easily see why fans would want to nominate the season as a single block, because the show's plotting is so beside the point that it doesn't have a single standout episode, but to me that's an argument not to nominate it at all.

This block of categories, in other words, is divided between those have absolutely no hope of throwing up interesting ballots, and those that I don't know enough about to nominate well in.  So this part of my ballot is going to be a little sparse.  As in my previous ballots, I'd be happy to hear suggestions for my remaining nominating slots, though given the time pressure I might not be able to consider some potential nominees.

Previous posts in this series:
Best Related Work:

This is a category in which I've read nothing eligible this year.  So really I'm relying on other voters to put interesting works here and give me an excuse to read them: nominees I'm hoping to see on the ballot include Afrofuturism by Ytasha L. Womack (see Sofia Samatar's review in Strange Horizons), The Riddles of the Hobbit by Adam Roberts (Katherine Farmar's review), and Parabolas of Science Fiction, edited by Brian Atteberry and Veronica Hollinger (Paul Kincaid's review).  I've seen other nominators place essays in this category, but, though that's an approach that's benefited me in the past (essays of mine have been nominated alongside books, encyclopedias, and blogs in the BSFA's non-fiction category), I'm not sure it makes sense.  In recognizing online essays, it seems to me to make more sense to nominate something like SpecFic 12, which collects a large group (though I'm not sure I'll be doing that myself as I am one of the collected reviewers).

Best Graphic Story:
  • Saga, Volume 2, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples - I'm hardly being original here, but Saga genuinely is as fantastic as everyone says it is.  The story of two soldiers in a futuristic, interplanetary war who fall in love and have a baby, it's remarkable for its vivid, funny characters (not just the leads but the huge cast of secondary characters), but even more so for its enormous, varied world, of which we've only seen a little bit in the first two volumes.

  • XKCD: Time by Randall Munroe - I'm indebted to Niall Harrison for pointing out not only Time's eligibility in this category, but how perfectly it suits the idea at its core.  Time is quintessentially SFnal--it tells the story of two explorers figuring out their world and working out the changes affecting it through observation and deduction--and its method of delivery--a single comic panel changing subtly every few hours over the course of months--is the perfect fusion of low and high tech, old and new methods.  That fans of the comic have rallied to discuss, collate, and compile it, providing the less obsessive with a way of viewing the story--this site, for example, will screen the whole thing in sequence, pausing for significant frames--only makes Time a more perfect embodiment of what should be showing up in this category.
Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form
  • Upstream Color, written and directed by Shane Carruth - This might be the only potential Hugo nominee whose absence from the ballot would leave me genuinely upset.  If there was a more exciting, more important SF film in 2013--or in quite a few years preceding it--I'm struggling to remember what it was, and this fact ought be recognized by the award that purports to stand for the genre.  Upstream Color embodies much of what SF filmmaking should be striving for--interesting ideas, a strange but coherent world, a willingness to challenge its audience not only through storytelling but through the film's visuals and sounds.  It is a genuinely important accomplishment, and it deserves much more than a Hugo nomination, but let's at least give it that.  (I wrote some more about the film earlier this year.)

  • Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón - There are arguments for not considering Gravity science fiction--it contains no SFnal technologies or scenarios, its story is actively hostile to space exploration.  But months after seeing the film I'm still stunned by it, and its evocation of space.  For all its flaws--in realism, in the thinness of its plot and characters--Gravity makes a compelling argument for bringing more of the future into our present day storytelling, even in the most mundane of ways, and to me this makes it SFnal.  (Again, some more thoughts about the film are here.)

  • Pacific Rim, directed by Guillermo del Toro, written by Guillermo del Toro and Travis Beacham - There are plenty of strikes against this scrappy, monsters-vs-giant-robots film, including the fact that it loses its way, and its female lead, in its second half.  But Pacific Rim is neither a remake nor a sequel, and unlike other 2013 films who share those attributes like Elysium it's actually trying to be fun, and to create a world.  Not to mention that, for all that she's sidelined, the very existence of that female lead--and of major characters who are not white male Americans--makes Pacific Rim unusual and worth rewarding.

  • An Adventure in Space and Time, directed by Terry McDonough, written by Mark Gatiss - This biopic about the early days of Doctor Who revolves around the stories of Verity Lambert, the BBC's first female producer, and William Hartnell, the man who first plays the Doctor.  Its argument for the show's importance can occasionally be wobbly, but in Hartnell in particular it finds a figure who embodies both the show's appeal and its heartbreaking impermanence.
Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form
  • Utopia, episode 1, directed by Marc Munden, written by Dennis Kelly - Rather predictably, Utopia's conspiracy story ended up devolving into silliness by its first season's end, and though I will be watching the second season it won't be with the same urgency as the first.  But the first episode is still stunning on almost every level--story, visuals, music--and deserves to be recognized.

  • The Five-ish Doctors Reboot, written and directed by Peter Davison - Much as I liked "The Day of the Doctor," it can't be denied that its focus is on the new Doctor Who's mythology, and only secondarily on the show's 50th anniversary.  Peter Davison's loving tribute to the series, in which he, Sylvester McCoy, and Colin Baker, angry over being left out of "Day," try to sneak their way onto the set, is a much more fitting tribute.  Featuring a dizzying array of cameos--from the show's history and elsewhere--this short movie is a funny, irreverent, touching reminder of the how much this show has meant to so many people.

  • The Legend of Korra, "Beginnings, Part 1 and 2," directed by Colin Heck, written by Michael Dante DiMartino (part 1), directed by Ian Graham, written by Tim Hedrick (part 2) - Legend of Korra's second season was an improvement on the first only in the sense that its story was merely incoherent, rather than incoherent and enormously problematic.  But this mid-season two-parter, which features the main cast minimally as Korra sinks into a vision of the origins of the Avatar line, is its own, superior entity.  Beautifully animated by Studio Mir, whose absence from some of the second season's other episodes is sadly noticeable, "Beginnings" both builds on Avatar's existing mythology and expands it into its own cosmology.  The rest of season 2 can't hold a candle to this episode, but it stands on its own as one of the loveliest pieces of genre television in 2013.

  • Gravity Falls, "Dreamscaperers," directed by John Aoshima and Joe Pitt, written by Matt Chapman, Alex Hirsch, and Timothy McKeon - That SF fandom hasn't embraced Gravity Falls, a funny, beautifully animated and often creepy series, is one of the tiny tragedies of the last few years, because this show features more interesting genre mythology, and a more coherent magical world, than a lot of fandom favorites.  "Dreamscaperers" advances the show's mythology considerably when it introduces Bill, a demon who traps the main characters in their dreams in an attempt to steal a bit of crucial information.  It's an episode that embodies the show's part-funny, part-scary sensibility.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The 2014 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Publishing and Fan Categories

My, how the time has flown.  I had honorable intentions of posting new segments of my Hugo ballot every few days, but here we are with less than a week to the nominating deadline and only three categories covered.  Let's continue swiftly, then, to the publishing and fan categories, an easy choice for the next step through my ballot because I won't be bothering with several of them.  As has been pointed out more than once by more than one person, the best editor categories seek to recognize work that is invisible to the readers--and thus to most of the voters.  One editor might do minimal work on an excellent novel or story, while another turns a passable piece into a good one, and I would have no way of knowing which one is which.  I also don't listen to podcasts, so I'll be leaving the Best Fancast category blank as well.  But to the categories I will be filling--unlike the short fiction categories, I have empty slots in several of these, so if you'd like to make suggestions in the comments I'd be happy to see them.

Previous entries in this series:
Best Semiprozine:
  • Strange Horizons - This is as close as I'm going to come to nominating myself, and the reason I can justify it is that Strange Horizons is far more than just my work (which is anyway also the work of dozens of reviewers and several associate editors).  To my mind, it remains one of the best all-around sources for speculative fiction, non-fiction, and reviews.

  • Giganotosaurus - Two of the stories on my short fiction ballot were published in this magazine, which is all the more impressive when you consider that they represent a sixth of the magazine's output in 2013.  Embodying the triumph of quality over quantity, Giganotosaurus is a stripped-down operation that publishes one story a month in the most unassuming format imaginable.  But those stories are always worth reading, and in addition the magazine is to be praised for being a venue for long-form works, publishing at least two novellas in 2013.
Best Fanzine:

This category gives me pause.  The original fanzine format is one that I don't read or participate in, and in recent years the category has become the home of blogs.  I'm all for recognizing how important blogs have become to the conversation surrounding genre, but I'm not sure that every blog suits this category--two-time winner SF Signal, for example, suits my idea of a fanzine because it features multiple forms of content, from news to reviews to essays, and covers books and all forms of media.  I'm less persuaded, however, that single-author blogs belong here, as I've seen several people suggest in their ballot posts.  Nevertheless, I might change my mind, so the list I have here should be considered extra-provisional.
  • SF Mistressworks - This project, begun in 2011 by Ian Sales as a response to the paucity of women in Gollancz's SF Masterworks series, is an excellent resource for people looking for discussion of older, less well known (and sometimes out of print) SF by women.  Featuring reviews of multiple authors by multiple reviewers, it's a great example of the online community coming together to provide a new and vital resource.

  • The Book Smugglers - Excellent group blog covering mostly YA but also other genre works--see for example their excellent recent discussion of Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

  • Ladybusiness - Another group blog that covers a wide range of books and media from an explicitly feminist pespective.

  • Pornokitsch - You have to stand up and respect a blog that has turned its own award into a major media event, and even more so for highlighting art as well as novels.
Best Professional Artist:

This category, as well as the fan artist category, is one that in years past I've tended to ignore for lack of any knowledge about the field.  So I'm grateful to the organizers of the Hugo Award Eligible Art(ists) tumblr for organizing this ambitious and useful project this year, and to the many people who have noted their favorite artists in their Hugo ballots (I'm also grateful to Aidan Moher for collecting these ballots into a handy, single post).
  • Anna & Elena Balbusso - I don't know whether it's possible to nominate a team for this award, but the Balbusso sisters' work is too lovely to ignore.  The piece that most people will probably be familiar with is the illustration for Veronica Schanoes's "Burning Girls" at (and this is a good time to commend the site's editors for commissioning original art to go with each of their stories), but the entire gallery is worth paging through.

  • Sarah Anne Langton - The person who designed the Hodderscape dodo surely deserves recognition, but Langton has also designed several lovely, boldly graphic covers (most recently for SpecFic 13, which is wonderful).

  • Olly Moss - It's a sign of Moss's talent that when I looked through his gallery while compiling this list, I kept stopping to say "wait, he did that piece?"  (It's also a sign of how much attention I pay to art and the people who make it during the year.)  I don't doubt that you've seen Moss's work--his movie posters and infographics--but seeing it all together makes it clear what an impressive body of work it is.

  • Victo Ngai - Ngai has drawn illustrations for several stories, as well as the covers for several Tor novels, and all combine elaborate detailing with bold colors and settings.  I'm particularly fond of his illustration for Jedediah Berry's "A Window or a Small Box," which captures the story's surrealism and its characters' sense of running through a maze.

  • Fiona Staples - I'll have a bit more to say about Staples when I write about the Best Graphic Story category (and maybe whenever I get around to writing up my recent reading), but Saga wouldn't be what it is without her clean but wildly imaginative illustrations, which make the comic's vivid, varied world the delight that it is.
Best Fan Artist:
  • Mandie Manzanano - Manzanano's style--stained glass style illustrations of everything from Disney cartoons to Adventure Time--seems a little twee at first, but it's impeccably done and gorgeous to look at.

  • Autun Purser - The Fantastic Travel Destinations series is precisely what fan art should be--original, irreverent, and of course beautifully done.

  • Angela Rizza - Rizza's gorgeous, meticulously detailed illustrations of fan favorite as diverse as The Lord of the Rings and Breaking Bad are stunning and often quite funny.  I'm particularly fond of her Harry Potter illustrations, which I actually like better than some of the official artwork.

  • Sara Webb - This was one of the names I picked out from Hugo Award Eligible Art(ists).  In a field full of artists producing gorgeous, luminous, lushly colored fantastic landscapes, Webb's stood out.
Best Fan Writer:
  • Nina Allan - On top of being a fantastic writer of fiction, Nina is an exceptional reviewer, thoughtful and insightful and most of all curious about fiction from all walks of life--I can't count the number of books I added to my TBR list because of her reviews.  As well as writing reviews for places like Strange Horizons, Nina blogs at The Spider's House, where she is predictably smart and worth reading.

  • Liz Bourke - Another Strange Horizons reviewer, Liz also blogs at Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and reviews for  In particular, it's worth noting her Sleeps With Monsters series at the latter venue, where she covers books, films, and games from a feminist perspective, and has made me note several names for later reading.

  • Natalie Luhrs - I became aware of Luhrs this year because of her coverage of the SFWA petition brouhaha, which was incisive and to the point.  Her blog, The Radish, is well worth reading.

  • Sofia Samatar - The second time that Sofia appears on this ballot, but by no means the last.  On top of writing excellent reviews for Strange Horizons, Sofia also blogs at kankedort, where she offers her unique perspective on writing, teaching, poetry, and Arabic literature.

  • Genevieve Valentine - I'm not sure that Valentine is eligible in this category because a lot of her writing is for professional venues like The AV Club or The Philadelphia Weekly, but I would be remiss not to mention her fantastic column Intertitles at Strange Horizons (a recent example: her trenchant and necessary discussion of Clarice Starling in light of some of the character choices made by Hannibal), or her wonderfully snarky reviews of trashy fantasy films at her blog.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The 2014 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Short Fiction Categories

I don't think it will come as a shock to regular readers of this blog that the short fiction categories are my favorites on the Hugo ballot, to the extent that I attach to them an importance that is probably completely out of proportion to how most of the voting base thinks of them.  Yes, I know, the best novel category is the only one most people (and especially anyone outside of fandom, or even Worldcon) actually care about, but to me it always seems reductive.  How do you boil down an entire year's worth of genre to five novels, much less a single winner?  The short fiction categories, with their wider perspective (one of the reasons that I have no problem with the invented term "novelette") and lower stakes, give a better snapshot of the field and its interests.  They also reaffirm my belief in the vibrancy and relevance of the genre short fiction scene.  I don't know another genre in which ordinary readers habitually get excited about short stories the way that SFF readers do, and in which those stories are an integral part of the conversation surrounding the genre.  I certainly don't know another genre in which short fiction venues are proliferating--whether it's online venues or original anthologies (often funded by Kickstarters).  Far more than the best novel category, it seems to me, the short fiction categories give us a glimpse of the genre's present state--and of its future--which is why it's so important to me that they represent the richness and diversity of what's being published.

My reading in preparation for this ballot consisted mainly of online venues--partly for reasons of convenience, and partly because I knew that I would publicize my choices and wanted to have easily accessible links to offer anyone who might be interested in sampling my recommendations.  One of the effects of this emphasis is that when I sat down to review the stories that had caught my eye at the end of this process, I found short stories (under 7,500 words) disproportionately represented.  Possibly because of financial considerations, and possibly out of the belief that people reading online have a short attention span, most online fiction falls in this category, with few novelettes and very few novellas published online.  When you take that fact into consideration, however, and take a look at this year's Nebula ballot, it becomes clear that online venues are the future--the short fiction category is all online fiction, which also well represented in the novelette category.  As online venues become secure enough--in their finances and their audience--to publish longer lengths, I expect that we'll see them taking over the entire ballot.

On that note, I'd like to commend the short fiction editors at for leading the charge.  They published more than half a dozen novellas this year, several of very high quality.  Especially with Subterranean magazine, until 2013 the only online venue to regularly publish novellas, closing its doors this year, it's gratifying to see carrying the torch.  At the very other end of the scale is scrappy upstart Giganotosaurus, a bare-bones operation that only publishes one story a month (though often at the novelette and even novella length) but whose ratio of quality to quantity is one of the highest in the field.

Without any further ado, then, my provisional ballot for the 2014 Hugo short fiction categories, sorted by author's surname:

Best Novella:
  • Spin by Nina Allan (TTA Press, nominated for the BSFA award) - Having just got done praising online fiction, my first choice is traditionally published (albeit available for Kindle for a very reasonable price as part of TTA's interesting novellas series).  But Spin really is much too special to let issues of format cloud the discussion.  This retelling of the myth of Arachne builds its alternate world so lightly and so subtly that you hardly even notice it happening until you're standing in a fully realized setting, and the story of its main character--an artist who struggles with the meaning of self-expression, a tangled family history, and the possibility that her talent may be a literal gift of the gods--is moving and thought-provoking.  Spin is a perfect illustration of why the novella is a vital, necessary form.

  • "Martyr's Gem" by C.S.E. Cooney (Giganotosaurus) - Far more traditional, and even a little sappy, is Cooney's tale of love, revenge, and adventure.  A young man from an impoverished family is selected as the husband of a noblewoman who wants him to act as a beard while she pursues her sister's murderer.  What makes this story work is first the world, a post-collapse, quasi-fantastical setting that is complex and interesting, and second the characters, who are all--not just the main lovers but their friends and extended family--drawn with intelligence and compassion.

  • "Wakulla Springs" by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages (, nominated for the Nebula award) - This four-part story centers around the titular location, in the Florida panhandle, where in the 1950s a segregated resort played host to the shooting of several Tarzan films and the underwater scenes of The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Duncan and Klages beautifully capture the setting, with all its natural beauty and social ugliness, and the changes it undergoes throughout the story's four time periods.

  • "One" by Nancy Kress ( - Kress isn't usually my cup of tea, so I was surprised by how moving I found this story, in which a self-involved, self-pitying, misanthropic young man gains total empathy and is nearly destroyed by experience.  Rather than using her premise to teach her protagonist a simple lesson, Kress shows us the full horror of his situation, and slowly follows as he learns to be a better person through his experiences, not via some magical force.

  • "Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU" by Carmen Maria Machado (The American Reader) - Many people have commented on the problems with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and its reliance on lurid violence against women and children, and at first glance that's also what Machado's story seems to be doing, albeit in a particularly funny way.  But soon she creates an entire fantastical world constructed around the show's scaffolding, complete with alternate versions of Benson and Stabler, recurring characters who may or may not be magical, and interludes in which the characters become aware of their fiction nature.  As much its own thing as a commentary on SVU's problems, this is one of the most original and interesting stories I've read this year.
Note: the Machado story is under novella length (17,500 words), but within the 10% margin that allows moving stories between adjacent categories.  To me, it feels like a novella, which is why I'm nominating it here.

Best Novelette:
  • "A Window or a Small Box" by Jedediah Berry ( - Berry's absurdist tale follows a young couple who were kidnapped into a surreal alternate world on their wedding day.  The worldbuilding here is very fine, creating a sense of an unseen logic that lies just under the illogical surface, but the story works because of the main characters and their relationship, which is sweet without being saccharine.

  • "Bit-U-Men" by Maria Dahvana Headley (Lightspeed, originally appeared in The Book of the Dead, edited by Jared Shurin) - In an interesting twist on the mummy story, Headley riffs off the legend of the "mellified man" to imagine a 20th century confectionery magnate using such a mummy--who is, of course, still alive--to sell candy.  The central relationship is between the confectioner's son, his father's secretary, and the mummy, and falls somewhere between romantic and gluttonous.

  • "A House, Drifting Sideways" by Rahul Kanakia (Giganotosaurus) - Kanakia's neo-feudal world, in which economic inequality has run rampant to the point that the very rich are more powerful and more influential than any historical aristocrat, is not a new concept, but the slant of his story makes for some tricky reading.  The heroine, a debutante who buys into the feudal mindset, clashes with her father, who wants to offer workers more rights and freedoms but is, to her mind, selling them to bankers.  It's a scary portrait of, at one and the same time, "let them eat cake"-level privilege, and a clear-eyed take on a world that has gone completely upside down.

  • "Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters" (PDF) by Henry Lien (Asimov's, nominated for the Nebula award) - This funny piece lives and dies with the voice of its narrator, an unrepentantly self-absorbed, spoiled princess who has been sent to the titular school but only cares about a vendetta against a schoolmate.  The over the top teenage narrator's voice is deliberately grating, but works mainly because she doesn't spend the story learning a lesson, and ends it just as selfish and short-sighed as she started it.

  • "Boat in Shadows, Crossing" by Tori Truslow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, nominated for the BSFA award) - I wrote about this story at Strange Horizons, and a year later it is still one of the most interesting stories of 2013.  Truslow's creation of a setting in which words--and the things they signify--don't mean exactly what we think they mean is deft, and the gender-swapping love story she constructs in that world is moving and sweet.
Bubbling Under: (depending on the weather the day I make my final vote, these stories might end up on my ballot instead of some of the ones in the list above)
  • "Two Captains" by Gemma Files (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) - Files's cheerful story, about a pirate captain who captures a wizard and falls in love with him, is uncomfortable precisely because of that cheerfulness.  It tells a rather uncomfortable story in a light, humorous tone that makes it a pleasure to read and yet also not, and only shows its hand in its final paragraphs.

  • "They Shall Salt the Earth With Seeds of Glass" (PDF) by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Asimov's, nominated for the Nebula award) - Johnson's post-apocalyptic story clearly has an agenda--to tell a story about a woman seeking an abortion who isn't swayed by the sudden realization that she wants to keep her baby.  But, leaving aside that that's a worthy agenda, the world of the story is vivid, and the relationship between the heroine and her pregnant sister is compelling.  An interlude in the story's second half with an invading alien who clearly doesn't grasp why the heroine hates and fears him is particularly well done.
Best Short Story:
  • "Let's Take This Viral" by Rich Larson (Lightspeed) - Most of the stories I've selected here have been fantastical, which is as much a reflection on the tastes of online venues' editors as my own.  This piece, a post-singularity SF story set in a hedonistic party future, is an intriguing exception.  The protagonist discovers disease, which to him and his post-human friends is nothing but a fashionable affectation, and it's left to the readers to sense the looming catastrophe that leads us to the story's shocking ending.

  • "The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars" by Yoon Ha Lee (Lightspeed) - Lee's "Effigy Nights" seems to have amassed more awards buzz this year, but I prefer this piece, a worthy addition to the sub-sub-genre of invented, futuristic games with the fate of the galaxy at stake.  The two main characters are nicely drawn, and the trick that one plays on the other in order to achieve her goals and win the much larger game that she's been playing is nicely built up, and fun to work out.

  • "Inventory" by Carmen Maria Machado (Strange Horizons) - This was the first Machado piece I read this year, before the SVU novella, and when I saw that it was both a post-apocalypse story and a list story I groaned.  But Macahdo finds a new angle on the former trope, and executes the latter flawlessly, resulting in a story that is unexpectedly moving.

  • "Selkie Stories are for Losers" by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons, nominated for the Nebula and BSFA award) - If there's a better first line in genre short fiction from last year, I haven't seen it.  The story that follows is pretty damn good too, tying the Selkie myths to a story of parental abandonment, and of young people trying to work out (or escape), their family history.

  • "Sing" by Karin Tidbeck ( - A scientist studying an alien backwater becomes involved with a woman who is the local outcast.  The conflict between the scientist's fascination with, and increasing fondness for, the society he's studying, and his lover's more jaundiced take on it, is really interesting, and the aliens themselves are also really well done.
Bubbling Under:
  • "Never Dreaming (in Four Burns)" by Seth Dickinson (Clarkesworld) - An engineer working on revolutionary spaceship engine design receives a diagnosis of progressive, fatal dementia alongside an invitation to travel to a fantasy world where her illness can be cured--but only by changing the kind of person she is.  A lot has been written about the conflict between the SFnal and fantastical worldview, and this story literalizes it through an interesting, appealing main character.

  • "Difference of Opinion" by Meda Kahn (Strange Horizons) - The angry narrative of a non-neurotypical person in a world that is increasingly compelling her to conform.  This story teeters just on the edge of being preachy, but what pulls it back is the relationship between the narrator and a workplace consultant who is trying help her but doesn't understand her anger.  The currents of distrust and misunderstanding between the two characters, alongside genuine affection, make for an interesting relationship.

  • "A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill" by Elizabeth Knox ( - Nina Allan wrote at greater length about why this opaque, creepy story works so well.  Though slightly overshadowed by the novel to which it acts as a preamble, "Terminal Hill" stands very well on its own, as a pitch-perfect portrait of an oblivious, officious government lawyer stumbling into horror and not even realizing what it is--because his own monstrousness is so great.

  • "Our Daughters" by Sandra McDonald (Apex Magazine) - A nicely creepy story about rape culture and the responses to it, in which the latter end up as terrifying as the former. 

  • "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" by Rachel Swirsky (Apex Magazine, nominated for the Nebula award) - The main reason that this story isn't definitely on my ballot is that I suspect it's a shoe-in without me, and I'd rather give my votes to stories that need them more.  But this is an excellent piece, one that starts out seeming like a silly gimmick and then ends up punching you in the gut with its final revelation.