Friday, August 26, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, August 22-26

Chris Kammerud kicks off this week's reviews with a look at Kristin Livdahl's A Brood of Foxes, the story of a young woman stolen by fairies, whose charms Chris admires while wondering whether its conception of fairy tales is too moralistic for his taste.  Phoebe North has the opposite reaction when she reviews A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness's follow-up to the Chaos Walking trilogy, from an idea by children's author Siobhan Dowd, which she praises for its avoidance of moralizing in favor of a tone of dark fantasy.  Finally, Indrapramit Das looks at Kris Saksnussemm's Enigmatic Pilot, an alternate history steampunk science fiction Western, and finds it an entertaining mess.

59 Minutes Short: Thoughts on The Hour

The timing of The Hour, the BBC's just-concluded prestige series about the early days of British televised news, was always a bit dodgy.  In the wake of the News of the World scandal, how do you tell a story in which journalists are the brave, principled, truth-seeking heroes?  Even if you distinguish between commercial news and publicly-owned organizations like the BBC (which The Hour, set in 1956, would have had trouble doing) and between print and TV journalism (a difference the show never made much of except to note that some of the restrictions on the latter don't apply to the former), the fact remains that to argue against government control of the news only weeks after it was revealed that the present-day UK government is either too scared, too complicit, or too bought to even attempt to prevent the press from committing gross violations of privacy, tormenting the families of murder victims, and, in one particularly memorable case, trying to railroad a suspect in a murder case, is a pretty tall order.  Not impossible, of course.  The Hour could have held up a picture of what journalism should be--perhaps what it once was--as a contrast to what it has become.  To a certain extent, that is what the show tries to do (within limits, of course--the show would have been in the can for weeks or even months before the News of the World scandal broke; on the other hand, that scandal didn't come out of nowhere, and the problems with the British press have been known for a while).  But the concept of journalism The Hour trades in turns out to have so little concern for truth or facts that rather than offer a solution to Britain's media woes, The Hour comes to seem like part of the problem.

Created and written by Abi Morgan, The Hour revolves around the production of the titular show, a first-of-its-kind current events program intended to shake up a TV landscape in which the news panders to the establishment by toeing the party line and focusing on puff pieces.  The key characters are producer Bel Rowley (the always-excellent Romola Garai, whose slow travel through time in her recent TV roles--from the Regency period (Emma) to the late Victorian era (The Crimson Petal and the White) to the mid-50s--gives rise to the hope that she might some day play a contemporary character), scrappy reporter Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw), and smarmy, well-connected anchor Hector Madden (Dominic West).  The conflict between Freddie and Hector--over class (Freddie has had to fight for everything he's achieved in life while Hector, who was born into privilege and married into more of it, has had it handed to him), over intelligence (Freddie's is furious and constantly questioning, while former sports presenter Hector is amiably clueless about current events), over what journalism is (Hector describes himself as "too polite" to ask the tough questions, while Freddie is dying for a shot at the anchor's chair), and over Bel, who just wants to put a successful show together, but is nevertheless drawn to both men--have led nearly every reviewer writing about the show to draw a comparison between it and the 1987 film Broadcast News.  To that strand, however, The Hour adds--and quickly prioritizes--a Cold War espionage story, as Freddie is approached by Ruth Elms, with whose aristocratic family he stayed during the war.  After dropping several dark hints about the recent murder of an academic, Ruth herself dies under suspicious circumstances, leaving Freddie to unravel a conspiracy that turns out to involve both Soviet spies and British intelligence, and to be strongly connected to the rapidly evolving Suez Crisis.

The Hour takes a long time weaving these two plotlines together, and until it does the disconnect between their tones is one of its many problems.  Others include the sidelining of Bel into a dreadful romantic quadrangle with Hector, Freddie, and Hector's wife, and the positioning of Freddie as a hero despite the fact that he is smug and self-centered, thinking nothing of sabotaging the show he's allegedly dreamed of working on his whole career because Hector is the one in front of the camera, or of ignoring his duties while he pursues the true cause of Ruth's death for personal reasons.  Most importantly, The Hour is characterized by a lamentable lack of respect for its viewers' intelligence.  Billed and marketed as the British Mad Men, The Hour is one of those rare occasions where the American show is more subtle and less prone to baldly stating its arguments.  Bel--a high-ranking professional woman in 1956--has to have it pointed out to her that having an affair with her married anchor might be detrimental to her career.  The forces of government interference are represented by the mustache-twirling apparatchnik McCain, who shows up every episode to act evil and oily--and make misogynistic comments to Bel, just in case we'd missed how evil and oily he is--in order to drive home the point that government interference in the news is bad. 

The tendency to baldly and inelegantly lay all its cards on the table comes to a head in The Hour's final episode, and especially in its last twenty minutes, which depict the show-within-a-show's final installment, after which it is yanked off the air for speaking unacceptable truths.  It's in this story that we also get a full sense of how hollow The Hour's idea of what constitutes good journalism is.  For several episodes, Bel has been trying to find a way to suggest on the air that there has been an illegal collusion between Britain, France and Israel to attack Egypt and regain British control of the Suez Canal.  The reason she can't do so is because of a law that prevents news programs from discussing any issue raised in parliament for 14 days after that discussion.  This is, obviously, a terrible law and one can't help but sympathize with the characters for trying to get around it.  Bel's solution is to suggest the theory of collusion in a satirical sketch, a decision the show depicts as clever and bold, especially as it's done against the orders of her boss, Clarence Fendley (Anton Lesser).  The problem here is that there is actually a much more compelling reason for Bel to relegate the suggestion of collusion to a satirical sketch rather than a news segment, one that is as relevant today as it was in 1956--she hasn't got a shred of proof.  At no point do we see Bel doing any of the journalistic work that would actually demonstrate that Britain planned and involved itself in an illegal war (nor does she delegate that task to others; even Anna Chancellor's Lix Storm, the only Hour staffer who behaves in any way like a journalist, doesn't drum up concrete support for the collusion theory, even though this would have been thick on the ground).  Instead, the show relies on our present-day knowledge that collusion occurred--and on our outrage over the gag rule--to get around the fact that no one on Bel's team is actually doing their job as a journalist, and that they are all perfectly happy to present supposition as fact.

Things actually get worse when Freddie gets his moment on the air, tying up the Ruth Elms investigation by bringing her father to be interviewed on The Hour.  At this point, Freddie has discovered the following things: that the murdered academic, Peter Darrall, was an MI6 agent who used Ruth as part of a plot to assassinate Colonel Nasser and drive a stake in Egyptian nationalism before the Suez Crisis erupted; that that plot failed, in part, because Darrall was also a Soviet agent, which is why he was killed; that Ruth was murdered because of her knowledge of this plot.  Freddie can prove some of this, and Lord Elms can corroborate a lot of it.  But when Freddie finally gets Lord Elms on the air, all the man will do is make vague, insinuating statements, calling the government liars and murderers.  The show even seems aware that something is going awry, because Freddie keeps trying to steer Lord Elms towards a more specific discussion of his daughter, to no effect, until the program is pulled from the air and he and Bel are fired.  But after that point, both the characters and the tone of the show act as though there's been some great triumph here.  To repeat: Freddie is sitting on one of the biggest stories of any journalist's career, a story that he can, to a certain extent, prove.  But when given a platform, all he does is let a grief-stricken old man rant and rave for six minutes.  And this is supposed to be the face of brave, principled journalism.

In fairness, this is exactly what Clarence says to Freddie in what is only the longest of several "let's talk about what just happened and deliver the moral of the show" scenes that close out the season.  He chastises Freddie for putting sentiment ahead of his journalistic integrity, prioritizing the story of Ruth's murder (which, let's remember, Freddie hasn't actually broken) over the bigger issue of the British government having ordered the assassination of a foreign leader in order to preserve its financial interests abroad.  Why, Clarence asks, didn't Freddie run the assassination story?  Leaving aside for a moment the fact that Freddie has only been told that proof of the assassination plot exists and hasn't seen it himself--if Bel can insinuate collusion with no evidence, Freddie can certainly assert that there was an assassination plot with only flimsy evidence--this is actually a valid and important question.  Freddie's answer is that it would be irresponsible to destabilize the government in the middle of a war, and it's a good thing that Clarence's response to this is to throw a tantrum, because that provided me with the vicarious outlet that kept me from throwing something heavy against the wall.  How can you make a statement like this--surely one of the core questions of journalism--as if it were a matter of course and plainly obvious to any reasonable person, ten minutes before your season ends?  That question is what The Hour should have been about--where is the line between necessary dissent and treason?  Where does a journalist's higher loyalty lie--with the truth, or with the nation?  These are not simple questions.  They do not have simple answers.  And in the situation presented by The Hour, in which the nation is embroiled in an illegal war, Freddie's answer is by no means the obvious one.

If The Hour were not so determined to make Freddie into an uncomplicated hero, it might still have salvaged some meaning out of this exchange, and out of Clarence's entirely accurate criticism of him.  But it's at this point that Freddie realizes what has, quite frankly, been obvious since the middle of the season--that Clarence is also a Soviet agent, and that he fed Freddie the assassination story in an attempt to destabilize not just the government but the entire British political system.  So the one person who calls Freddie's journalistic practices into question, who criticizes his choices to prioritize the personal over the political, and to back down, at the last minute, from telling the awful truth, turns out to be a bad guy, someone who actually bears out McCain's argument that journalists who won't shut up when they're told to are disloyal, unpatriotic, and possibly enemies of the state.  When Freddie asks Clarence how he could have betrayed his country--and especially to an empire far more destructive than the British one--Clarence simply replies that before shows like The Hour came along, spying was the only way he could express dissent.  The smug, self-congratulatory moral of the show--also stated earlier by Lord Elms, who muses to Freddie that he might have saved Ruth from being led astray by Darrall if only he'd spoken to her about the issues of the day--is that in order to preserve democracy (and keep our young people from being led astray by Communists), we must have shows like The Hour.  But the concept of journalism embodied by The Hour--both the show and the show-within-the-show--is so hollow that this moral is made meaningless.

Free speech and the ability to express dissent are necessary for the preservation of a democracy.  But the news isn't just about freedom of speech, and its job isn't simply to express dissent.  It's to report the facts, ask questions and pursue the answers.  A willingness to dissent is a necessary condition for a functional press, but not a sufficient one.  The Hour doesn't see this.  Its idea of great journalism is driven entirely by emotion--by Freddie's anger over Ruth's death, or Bel's determination to say what she wants to, gag rule be damned--and wholly unconcerned with proof, with evidence, and with journalistic standards.  That's not journalism.  That's tabloid culture.  That, not to put too fine a point on it, is The News of the World--who cares if I can prove it, I'm going to say it anyway.  In the guise of showing us how Proper Journalists should behave--and while borrowing respectability from its period setting and its 20/20 hindsight--The Hour enshrines precisely the sort of behavior that is destroying journalism and endangering democracy.  I don't know which would be worse--that Abi Morgan and her team meant to say that good journalism is about the freedom to speak, not about having something substantial to say, or that they may genuinely not be able to tell the difference.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

B-Movie Summer

The end of summer is almost upon us, but before it arrives, let's pause for a moment to acknowledge something truly unexpected: the movies this year have been good.  I'm sure I'm not the only one who's gotten used to checking her brain at the door of the movie theater between May and September, to the extent that Thor, one of the silly season's earliest harbingers, was able to win me over with little more than charismatic actors and a few funny scenes.  Had I known what was coming, I would have been a lot less forgiving.  Sure, we've had our Green Lanterns, our Transformers 3s, our Cowboys and Alienses, but alongside those turkeys the summer of 2011 has also delivered a crop of solidly entertaining, well-crafted action flicks that a thinking person can enjoy without hating themselves in the morning.  What makes this whole thing even more surprising is how implausible all of these successes are.  X-Men: First Class is the fifth film in a never-too-great series that went sour in its third installment.  Nobody had any business expecting good things from this film, but despite its many flaws, it has turned out to be the most thought-provoking comic book movie since The Dark Knight, and a lot of fun to boot.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 is a film whose very title inspires ennui, especially if you've suffered through the previous seven overstuffed, lifeless chapters.  But the film itself works so well and is so engaging that it retroactively validates the entire series preceding it.  Somehow, in the magical summer of 2011, the more unappealing a film seems on paper, the better it works on the screen.

Take Captain America: The First Avenger, for example.  Stacked against it are: that Marvel has been churning out superhero films at a rate of one or two a year and that that haste and factory line mentality have told in the final products; that all of these films are but preambles to next year's Avengers movie; that the film's period setting only seems to emphasize its role in getting its particular playing piece to its correct position on the board; that Chris Evans didn't exactly endear himself to audiences the last time he played a superhero; and most of all, that this is Captain America we're talking about, a character whose very name suggests an offputtingly cheesy and jingoistic ethos.  Some of these potential pitfalls do manifest in the movie.  The villain of the piece is so obviously there purely to get both Captain America and an important McGuffin where they need to be for the Avengers story that even a scenery-chewing Hugo Weaving and some impressive CGI that turns his face into a red skull can't make a memorable presence out of him, while the plot is barely even there.  But that hardly seems important when you realize how deftly Captain America deals with the problems inherent in its title character.  Even more than X-Men: First Class, the decision to set the film in the past (in both cases, the period when the respective comics were created) serves Captain America well.  It allows the film to avoid the jokey, ironic tone with which most present-set superhero films try to defuse their vague but unmistakable embarrassment at the story they're telling.  By laying its scene during the second World War, decades before the age of irony, Captain America is free to be earnest.

That earnestness is embodied in a surprisingly low-key Evans, who plays Steve Rogers, a 90 pound weakling with a champion's heart, with a steadfastness that short-circuits the unease we might feel at the Captain America concept.  We may not believe in America as the kind of force for good that Captain America embodies, whose moral authority to make right in the world he mirrors, but it's very easy to believe that Steve believes in it, to sympathize with that belief, and to believe in him because of it.  The film contrasts that idealism with the realism of the people around Steve.  The recruiting station doctors repeatedly classify him as 4F because of a host of illnesses and infirmities.  His best friend Bucky (Kings's Sebastian Stan, who very nearly walks away with the film), who has been saving Steve's chivalrous but skinny ass from bullies since they were kids, can't imagine how his friend will fare against the Nazis.  Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, who does walk away with the film), the head of the experimental unit that finally recruits Steve as a test subject for a supersoldier program, views him as nothing but a proof of concept, a stepping stone towards creating a supercharged army; when the experiment succeeds but the technology to augment other soldiers is lost, he dismisses Steve as irrelevant--one soldier, no matter how powerful and determined, can't change the course of the war.  The best use to which the US army can put its supersoldier is as a propaganda tool, as the Captain America moniker and costume are invented as part of Steve's bond-selling tour.

Unlike most origin story films, Captain America isn't concerned with doubt and self-discovery.  Steve starts the film knowing, despite the entirely reasonable arguments of everyone around him, that he can contribute and that it is therefore his duty to do so, and the film is mainly concerned with showing us how, when given the chance and a dose of fantastical, comic book "science," he proves himself right.  This can have the effect of flattening his character, which unlike his body doesn't change over the course of the film.  But that changelessness is also the source of Steve's appeal.  It drives home the point that it is his character, not his muscles, that makes Steve heroic.  Even after he becomes a musclebound Übermensch, he remains as thoughtful, soft-spoken, self-deprecating and utterly determined as he was when he was a sickly twig, and besides the fact that it is very refreshing to see a superhero character who doesn't default to the quip-happy, irreverent and irresponsible type we've grown accustomed to and maybe a little weary of, these qualities sell Steve's heroism in a way that other superhero films simply haven't.  "Hero" is a word that gets bandied about a little too often in popular culture and the public discourse, but what it originally meant was someone who was fundamentally different from ordinary people--more determined, less selfish, less bothered by the minutiae of everyday life.  A lot of superhero stories try to bring their heroes down to earth, and with good reason, but the ubiquity of this approach can leave one wondering why you'd ever root for this person, and why they deserve superpowers (it's arguably the greatest strength of the Iron Man films that they lean into this question and in fact ask it outright).  In Steve Rogers, Captain America gives as a definitive, and ultimately entirely convincing, answer to this question.  What's interesting and compelling about the film--despite the stock villain and forgettable plot--is watching all the characters around Steve come to that conclusion along with us.

As impressive as Captain America, X-Men, and Harry Potter's triumphs over the odds have been this summer, if there's one film that wins, hands down, the title of most unexpected and pleasant surprise, it must be Rise of the Planet of the ApesHarry Potter, the X-Men films, and the various Marvel comic book movies, after all, are series that have only been disappointing and underwhelming audiences since the turn of the century.  The Planet of the Apes movies have been delivering diminishing returns for decades, and that includes one ill-advised attempted reboot already that, unbeknownst to us at the time, heralded the decline of a once prominent artist.  As many positive reviews of the film as I read, I just couldn't make myself believe that it was actually as good as the reviewers claimed.  Which was a lucky thing, because Rise is not as good as all that--though everything having to do with the apes is very good, the human characters, and their half of the story, are flat and cliché-ridden.

You see this most prominently in the film's villains--the ones who try to curtail scientist Will Rodman's (James Franco) attempts to create a cure for Alzheimer's, and the ones who abuse Ceasar, the test subject Will rescues and adopts after his project is shut down, whose intelligence has been vastly accelerated by Will's drug.  Will's boss (David Oyelowo) is a stereotypical evil Big Pharma executive who treasures the bottom line and doesn't give a damn about saving lives.  The manager of the ape sanctuary where Will is forced to place Ceasar after the ape, defending Will's senile father from an irate neighbor, is declared dangerous, and his son (Brian Cox and Tom Felton) cheerfully abuse their charges, feeding them swill, encouraging them to fight, and tormenting them with fire-hoses and electric shockers.  Perhaps most egregious is Will's neighbor (David Hewlett) whose entirely reasonable anger at what he perceives as Will's dangerous, untrained pet trying to "play" with his children, and later when Will's father wrecks his car, is expressed in such extreme ways that he comes across, as Jonathan McCalmont says in his review, as a psychotic.  Even more problematic than the villain characters, however, is the film's treatment of Will.  Over the course of Rise, Will ignores all the rules of medical ethics in order to save his father, unwittingly creates a new species, raises a member of that species as his son but fails him in every possible way, and brings about the destruction of the human race.  He's a character whose grand ambitions are outstripped only by the magnitude of the catastrophes, both personal and global, that he causes.  And yet the character as written is entirely blank, only rarely showing any emotional response to the consequences of his actions, perhaps because he's entirely blind to them.  Will could have been a magnificent tragic character, a modern-day Victor Frankenstein, whose shortsightedness and selfishness the audience could marvel at.  But the film isn't interested in him as a human being, only as an engine for the plot's events.

Will's flatness, however, helps to draw attention to Rise of the Planet of the Apes's actual main character, Ceasar.  The second half of the film downplays Will's presence in order to show us Ceasar's experiences in the ape sanctuary, where he first encounters fellow apes, and hatches a plan to uplift them and escape into the wild.  The CGI and motion capture work are stunning, but they're also in the service of a meaty character arc--the radicalization of a super-intelligent ape.  Raised by humans, Ceasar sees himself as one, though even before he leaves Will's home we see him begin to question his place within it--the restrictions placed upon his movements, the unthinking assumption of outsiders that he is a pet, the dark history of his creation of which Will has told him only few self-serving details.  In the sanctuary, confronted with Will's abandonment and the cruelty of his keepers, Ceasar begins to see himself as part of an underclass, and to plan a rebellion.  The beats of this story, a classic prison narrative with undertones of racial prejudice, are in their own way as hackneyed as the film's construction of its villains, but the material and the performance are powerful enough that in the Ceasar-focused portions of Rise this predictability matters less and even works in the film's favor by making Ceasar and the other apes more sympathetic and recognizable despite their inhumanity.  It helps, of course, that this half of the film is also more action-heavy, as Ceasar first establishes his place in the sanctuary/prison hierarchy, then engineers a mass breakout and a mad dash to the wilderness, and that all of these scenes are tense and pulse-pounding, but at its core the film works because it gets us so thoroughly on the apes' side.  It's interesting, in fact, to compare Rise with X-Men: First Class, another film about a persecuted underclass trying, on the one hand, to live among humans, and on other hand, to fight them.  Rise cops out at the very end when it reveals that the apes aren't the direct cause of humanity's demise, but the sympathy it extends to the underclass and to its anger over its mistreatment is heartening.

So what happened this summer?  More importantly, what lessons--beyond obvious ones like "don't be dumb"--can be learned from it and hopefully applied to future films?  If I allow myself a moment of starry-eyed optimism, I'd like to believe that the summer of 2011 shows us a Hollywood that has finally figured out how to make remake- and sequel-mania work for it rather than against it.  If there's one quality that the successful B-movies of 2011 have in common, it's that they have a strong sense of what they are, what kind of world they're set in, and what kind of story they're trying to tell--even, in the case of X-Men and Captain America, to the extent of telling a period story.  If you manage to convey that sense to the audience--if you preserve your story's uniqueness instead of watering it down by trying to be just like everyone else--they will respond, and you can use your inevitable sequels and prequels to explore and deepen that sense.  I don't want to say that plot doesn't matter--though none of the films I enjoyed this summer had particularly strong or coherent plots--but it may come second to the integrity of the film's world and characters.  This summer's films possessed that integrity.  Here's hoping they're not just a blip.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The 2011 Hugo Awards: The Winners

Well, here we are again.  That day in late summer when SF fandom blearily pries open its sleep-glued eyes after a long and dimly-remembered evening, and looks dizzily about itself to see just how bad the damage is.  Ladies and gentlemen, the Hugo awards.
  • In a brave but probably doomed attempt to wring something positive out Connie Willis's Blackout/All Clear having been deemed the best genre novel of 2010, let me use that victory as a launching point for an intriguing question: is this the very worst best novel decision ever made by the Hugo voters?  You could argue, I suppose, that Willis's victory over what must be admitted was an uninspiring ballot is nothing to her 1993 win (shared with Vernor Vinge for A Fire Upon the Deep) for Doomsday Book, over both Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars and Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang.  On the other hand, Doomsday Book is well-regarded by a lot of people who are not me, whereas Blackout/All Clear has been poorly received even by some of Willis's fans.  Not to mention that nearly every reviewer who actually lives in the country where Blackout/All Clear takes place has taken it to task for its wildly inaccurate representations of that country and its history, and for treating that history as a theme park ride.  And, of course, there's the fact that by treating the book's two separately published volumes as a single work and awarding them the genre's highest honor, SF fandom has essentially turned to the publisher who sold them a $50 book and said "thank you, sir, may I have another?"  In other words, Blackout/All Clear's win not only rewards bad writing, it rewards cultural appropriation and exploitative business practices.  It definitely has my vote for the worst best novel Hugo choice ever.

  • On to the other fiction categories.  Ted Chiang's The Lifecycle of Software Objects is one of his lesser works (praising with faint damns, but still), and I would have preferred to see the Best Novella Hugo go to Rachel Swirsky.  Nevertheless, there's something to be thankful for in the fact that Chiang seems to have transitioned into that club of perennial Hugo favorites who are all but guaranteed a nomination and a win whenever they deign to publish (president: C. Willis): it means that there's at least one fiction category whose winner the fannish community has no reason to feel ashamed of.  I wish I could say the same for novelette and short story.  It's tempting to feel grateful that Eric James Stone's "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" doesn't have a Hugo to sit beside its Nebula (one wonders what role the outrage over the Nebula win played in denying Stone a Hugo), but let's not allow that to obscure the fact that Allen M. Steele's "The Emperor of Mars" is the kind of sentimental, backwards-looking, name-dropping pap that has been clogging up the award's works for too much of the last decade.  There's been a lot of work in the last few years to broaden the Hugo nominator and voter base, and it seems to have worked, but when a story like "The Emperor of Mars" wins the award, it just seems as if no matter how much you increase the voting base, you'll still end up with people who would rather look to the past than the future.  In short story, Mary Robinette Kowal picks up her first fiction Hugo, after winning the Campbell in 2008 and being nominated for "Evil Robot Monkey" in 2009, and thus cements my bewilderment at the popularity of her writing.  Short story was a weak category this year, but there were better stories on it than Kowal's.

  • Not content with the opportunities for stats geekery afforded by the nomination and voting breakdowns, Niall Harrison and Liz Batty have been checking how close the Hugo winners of the last decade came to failing the No Award test (at least 50% of the ballots must rank the winner above No Award).  Blackout/All Clear's No Award score is 11.5%, making it the third most controversial win in the last ten years, following Robert J. Sawyer's Hominids in 2003 (19%), and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2005 (14.7%).  The only other winner to score above 10% is The Yiddish Policemen's Union (10.2%).

  • Now on to the official stats geekery: like last year and unlike 2009, when most categories were won outright in the first round of vote-counting, several of this year's categories switched winners as votes were redistributed.  What's particularly interesting is that in most of these categories the switch occurs in the last or next to last round of redistribution.  The impression that forms is of very distinct voting blocs.  Randall Munroe, for example, had an impressive lead in Best Fan Artist all the way to the last round of counting.  So did Locus in the Best Semiprozine category, but when Lightspeed's votes were redistributed, less than a quarter of them went to Locus, putting Lightspeed's sister magazine Clarkesworld, whose former editor Sean Wallace now edits Lightspeed, in first place.  Mira Grant's Feed was in the lead for Best Novel until the votes for Cryoburn were redistributed--62 of them went to Feed and 146 to Blackout/All Clear, putting Willis in the lead as The Dervish House's votes split evenly between the two remaining contenders. 

  • Of course, the best known voting bloc in the Hugos is the Who contingent, who have turned the Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form category into the least interesting of the night.  What is interesting, however, is how the votes break down.  "Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury" started in first place and held that position until the third round of counting--not, in itself, a particularly encouraging statement about either the category or the state of genre television.  Meanwhile, the highest-ranked Who episode was actually "Vincent and the Doctor"--a more deserving winner than "The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang."  Regardless of which of the nominees won, the entire voting fandom should hang its head in shame over the fact that The Lost Thing has an Oscar, but not a Hugo.

  • The news from the Worldcon business meeting is all about the changes to the various publication categories, and there's been no word about whether the Best Graphic Story will live to embarrass us another year.  Phil and Kaja Foglio, whose Girl Genius has just won the award for the third year running, have announced that they will decline a fourth nomination.  Which is nice of them, but as I said last year when Patrick Nielsen Hayden made the same announcement about Best Editor, Long Form (which he acted upon this year), it shouldn't be the responsibility of the nominees to maintain the respectability of the award.  Best Graphic Story was a good idea, but if the same work has won the category in every year of its existence, then it is clearly not working, and it is long past time it was retired.

  • Not much to say about the nominations, except that three more votes to either Tobias Buckell's "A Jar of Goodwill" or Maureen McHugh's "The Naturalist" would have knocked Eric James Stone out of the novelette category, so that's a what if that will surely haunt us.  There's little else beneath the cutoff point of most categories that makes me cringe at the thought of it missing a nomination--either 2010 just wasn't a very good year for genre, or Hugo nominators aren't finding the good stuff.

  • In conclusion, I think this best sums up my reaction to this year's Hugo awards.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, August 15-19

Sofia Samatar makes her Strange Horizons debut this week with a fascinating review of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud's collection A Life on Paper, a volume that seeks to introduce this much-lauded French author to the English-reading public.  Niall Harrison looks at another literary zombie novel, Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, which he argues is unique for combining the horror of post-apocalyptic zombie stories with the rarer strand of zombie romance.  Finally, Matt Hilliard is of two minds about Brent Hayward's The Fecund's Melancholy Daughter, impressed by its technical achievements but wondering about the whole they amount to.

This week also sees the latest entry in John Clute's column Scores.  This month, John takes a look at two urban fantasy anthologies in the slim hope of finding stories in them that actually talk about the urban setting.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, August 8-12

This week on Strange Horizons: Matthew Cheney takes a look at Tor's reprint of Melissa Scott's cyberpunk novel Trouble and Her Friends and is underwhelemed, particularly by the way the novel's future has been overtaken.  Marina Berlin has mixed feelings about Paul Kearney's Corvus, which impresses her with its alternate history Roman military setting and battle scenes but disappoints in its handling of characters and the more unsavory aspects of its period.  Rhiannon Lassiter looks at The Age of Odin, and finds its Norse gods brought to life characters and little too familiar and down to earth.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, August 1-5

Kicking off August's reviews is Dan Hartland's take on God's War by Kameron Hurley, which Dan, with a few reservations, is very impressed by.  Katherine Farmar makes her Strange Horizons debut with a review of the Haikasoru book Mardock Scramble, by Tow Ubukata, which she finds rather exhausting, full of great ideas and moments but on the whole a bit of an assault on the senses.  Hallie O'Donovan rounds out the week with a review of Franny Billingsley's Chime, a YA novel which Hallie compares to the work of Diana Wynne Jones and Frances Hardinge.