Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games

To get the boring stuff out of the way first: The Huger Games is a good movie.  Tense, fast-paced, and riveting, its nearly two and a half hour running time passes effortlessly and with a white-knuckle intensity that leaves one feeling almost breathless when the credits roll.  Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as Katniss Everdeen, the girl forced to compete for her life in a gladiatorial contest with twenty three other children, including one who is in love with her, crafting a character who is both heroic and overwhelmed, savvy and naive.  The film's world, a future America called Panem in which a hedonistic, wealthy capitol lords over the dirt poor districts that produce its food, goods, and energy, is a perfect blend of the familiar, the futuristic, and the backwards--Katniss's home, district 12, looks and feels in many ways like a Depression-era mining town, but with enough touches or modernity to make it believable as a backwater of a futuristic empire, and the capitol is opulent in ways that are both enticing and strange.  A strong cast, with standout performances from Woody Harrelson as Katniss's alcoholic mentor Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks as the vapid but strangely affectionate capitol representative Effie, help to bring that world to life.  It is, in short, an excellent evening's entertainment.

Now to the more interesting discussion: I watched The Hunger Games with my brother, who hasn't read Suzanne Collins's book, and where I found the film excellent he was sorely disappointed.  Katniss had it too easy, he complained, the plot never forcing her to compromise herself in order to survive, and never asking her to kill anyone who hasn't been heavily signposted as evil (and even then, quite rarely).  This is, of course, exactly the complaint I made after reading the book, and the film indeed does nothing to address it.  On the contrary, it plays up the bloodlust of "Career" tribute Cato (Alexander Ludwig), who has been training for the games since childhood and volunteered for them rather than being chosen in a lottery like the other contestants, and the sweet innocence of district 11 tribute Rue (Amandla Stenberg), whom Katniss adopts as a surrogate for the beloved younger sister whose place she took in the games, and whose death justifies Katniss's first kill.  The sequence in which Katniss first bonds with Rue, then avenges and mourns her death, which concludes with her laying out Rue's body and strewing it with flowers, is one of the weakest in the film, because so blatantly--and insultingly--manipulative.  (Also, the fact that both Rue and her fellow district 11 tribute, who later saves Katniss's life in Rue's honor and is then killed by Cato, are black while Katniss is white adds an extra layer of discomfort to this subplot.)

Having read the book, however, and having learned to expect a certain slavish fidelity whenever Hollywood tries to leverage a popular book's fanbase into a new blockbuster film series, I went into The Hunger Games expecting it to repeat the book's manipulations.  Which left me more able to appreciate the ways in which the film does deviate from the book, and address--if incompletely--some of its problems.  First and foremost, the film is forced to lose Katniss's first person narrative, which some fans might view as an impediment but is, to my mind, all to the good.  First person narratives are fashionable in YA right now (I've even heard some YA authors complain that they've had trouble selling books in the third person), but in a novel as rooted in complex, painful history as The Hunger Games, the narrator is often drowned out by the infodumps they are required to deliver.  The film lets Katniss breathe, moving through her world as someone who already knows it while people around her--mainly the games' administrators and commentators--explain its rules to the audience.  An even bigger problem with Katniss's voice is that Collins presents her as a blunt, uncomplicated person who is uncomfortable with her own emotions and has trouble understanding others', then uses her as our viewpoint on a world whose inhabitants are a great deal more subtle and sophisticated.  Another author could have shown us things through Katniss's eyes that Katniss misses or misconstrues, but Collins doesn't seem to have been up to the task.  Instead, she endows Katniss with a selective knowingness that seems to have more to do with the demands of the plot than with the character's organic growth.  Katniss is oblivious one moment, and psychologically astute the next, with no discernible reason for her shifts between the two states.

By stepping out of Katniss's limited perspective, and even depicting scenes in which she is not present, the film is able to preserve Katnis's naiveté while showing us the more complex world that she is only beginning to discover.  Even better, it allows her to grow and learn from her experiences in the capitol.  When Katniss is first selected for the games, she is combative and headstrong, because those are the skills that have served her well as her family's breadwinner.  Both Haymitch and her stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) explain to her that winning the games is less a matter of martial skill and more of being able to win over an audience, and over the course of the film we see Katniss slowly learn, and then master, that skill.  She goes from hanging back from the crowd when she and fellow district 12 tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) arrive in the capitol, to gingerly courting the audience by showing off her dress and talking about her sister in a pre-game interview, to gamely parroting the party line in a post-game interview, playing the role of star-crossed lover, through which she and Peeta were able to win the game jointly, to the hilt.

Another advantage that stepping away from Katniss's point of view confers on the film is that it forces the filmmakers to play up the book's most interesting aspect, its take on the games as reality TV taken to its illogical conclusion.  So much of the details of the film's plot are explained to us through the interviews and commentary that are being broadcast across Panem that we become viewers of the Hunger Games, which, through those scenes of commentary, emerge less as Katniss and Peeta's traumatic, life-changing experience and more as a longstanding sporting tradition, in which the current batch of tributes are but the latest participants.  References to previous games and victories, and comparisons of the events in the current games with those of previous years, not only have the effect of making the film's world seem more real and more layered, but reinforce the sense that the games are entertainment, and that the high stakes that the characters feel are nothing but an evening's amusement to those watching them.

It is perhaps for this reason that the one place in which moving away from Katniss's point of view hobbles the film is the love story between her and Peeta.  In the book, Katniss is thrown not only by her own confused feelings but by the fact that her life depends on being able to successfully perform infatuation, but the film doesn't bring across the complexity of her feelings.  Her romance with Peeta in the games arena feels rushed and unconvincing, and though this is at least in part a problem with the transition from page to screen--Peeta is probably the most shortchanged of the film's major characters--given the importance of performance, and especially the performance of romance, to the story, this failing can't help but reflect on The Hunger Games as a whole.  It's possible that the film intends for us to conclude that Katniss and Peeta's romance is purely a play for the audience's sympathy, though this is to simplify the book's version of the relationship quite considerably.  What I think, however, is that the film actually expects us to think the opposite, and take the romance as wholly genuine.  And therein lies the problem, as a story that emphasizes the falseness of everything that Katniss does and says expects us to accpet unquestioningly that this one behavior is genuine.

This, even more than the manipulative way in which it guides Katniss through the games without compromising her, is the core problem of The Hunger Games, book and film--and both are rooted in the same unwillingness on Collins's part to take real risks with her characters or her story.  The film presents us with a scenario whose artificiality it trumpets at every turn, and then expects us to selectively accept parts of that scenario as genuine.  Nor is this expectation of selective credulity limited to the love story between Katniss and Peeta.  In the film, as in the book, Katniss is the heavy favorite to win the games, both among the people who know her and the ones she meets in the capitol.  In the book, this feels like the natural conclusion to be drawn given Katniss's courage and skills (and, of course, the fact that she is the protagonist), but what the film emphasizes is that, as far as the characters in the story are concerned, the reason that Katniss is tipped to win is the fact that she's captured the public imagination--by volunteering to take her sister's place she's put herself at the center of a heroic narrative, and the people watching at home want that narrative to end satisfyingly.  One of the most interesting deviations the film makes from the book is Cato's final scene.  Where in the book he's triumphant all the way to the moment that Katniss vanquishes him, in the film he's despairing.  "I'm already dead," he says.  "I didn't realize it at first but now I do."  It's a puzzling line--Cato is close to winning to game--until one reads it as Cato's realization that, like so many reality contestants before him, he's been cast as the story's villain, someone the audience enjoys but doesn't want to see win.  And if Cato's villainy is, at least in part, a story imposed upon him, what does that say about Katniss's heroism?

It's a question that the film doesn't seem interested in addressing.  Much like her romance with Peeta, Katniss's heroism is something it expects us to accept as genuine, even though both are more complicated.  What's missing here, I think--what could have defused the sense that The Hunger Games is trying to have its cake and eat it too, to decry the violence and artificiality of the games, but also to revel in them as a meaningful contest of skill and courage--was some sense of the games' audience.  Not the people who manage the games, nor the ones, like Katniss's friends and family, who have a direct stake in them, but the ones who consume them as entertainment, for whom the story of Peeta and Katniss's doomed love and triumph against the odds is the best show on TV.  The equivalent, in the other words, of the bored security guards following the story in The Truman Show.  The bread and circuses reference in Panem's name almost requires that such people exist, but we never see them.  Instead, the people of the districts watch the games in solemn silence (giving way to riots in district 11 after Rue's death) while in the capitol they are a cause for celebration, which among other things feels unrealistically stark--surely there would be people in the capitol who recognize the games' barbarism, and people in the districts who enjoy rooting for their favorites and against the districts they dislike.  To show us such an audience would have been to make it clear that the games are a show, and that their artificiality infects everything that occurs in and around them--Peeta and Katniss's love story, and Katniss's heroism, included.  But this, I think, would have been a great deal more cynical than the film is willing to be, and the fans are willing to tolerate.

In the end, though it addresses many of my problems with the book, and though it is such a massively entertaining film, The Hunger Games can't--or possibly won't--escape the hollowness at the center of its original.  As Hollywood's looting of geek culture becomes ever more frenzied, I find myself repeatedly falling into the trap of thinking that a new take on an interesting but flawed work might chip away at those flaws and bring to the surface what was interesting and worthwhile.  What I keep bumping up against is the fact that in the new world of book-to-film adaptations, the ones looking to court a preexisting audience that numbers in the millions, fidelity to the source material is, for better and worse, the highest virtue.  The Hunger Games could, and should, have been a meaty, thought-provoking film, but only by stepping away from its source.  By remaining faithful to the book, the film is merely a very good piece of entertainment.  That's by no means a small accomplishment, but it's hard to watch the film, enjoyable as it is, without lamenting what might have been.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Hugo

Like, I suspect, a lot of people of my generation, my first introduction to George Méliès's 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon came from the Smashing Pumpkins' 1996 music video "Tonight, Tonight."  At the time, I had no idea who Méliès was or even that the video was an homage--it was simply a gorgeous, halucinatory short film set to beautiful music.  It was another homage to A Trip to the Moon that introduced me to Méliès's name and his importance in the history of filmmaking--the final episode of the 1998 miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, titled "Le Voyage dans la Lune," cuts between the preparations for the final Apollo mission and an interview with one of Méliès's assistants (played by producer Tom Hanks), who describes the film's production.  Martin Scorsese's Oscar-nominated, rapturously received film Hugo (based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick) also has Méliès and A Trip to the Moon at its heart, but its approach to both filmmaker and film draws a line between Hugo's intended, juvenile audience and people like myself.  When Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan living in the maintenance spaces of the Gare Montparnasse in 1930s Paris, tells his newfound friend Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) about a film his father had seen as a young man, in which a rocketship takes off from Earth and hits the man in the moon in the eye, people like myself, who have seen "Tonight, Tonight" and From the Earth to the Moon, or simply know the smallest bit about the history of cinema, will recognize the film he's talking about immediately.  Children watching the movie, however, will probably be as much in the dark as Hugo and Isabelle, and eager to learn more.

Children's books have been a hot commodity for more than a decade, ever since a certain young wizard made it OK for adults to enjoy them, and children's films were quick to follow suit in courting both the juvenile and adult audiences.  The books and films that have gained massive popularity and large adult audiences tend to be fantastic adventures whose protagonists are either destined to greatness or have greatness thrust upon them.  What's been lost in the shuffle is the fact that there is an entirely different genre of writing and filmmaking for children, whose conventions adults are likely to find less congenial.  These books tend to be episodic, made up of linked stories that young readers can more easily process (or have read to them).  Their emphasis tends to be on mundane problems related to family, friends, or school, with fantastic or adventurous elements--if they exist at all--serving mainly to highlight and help resolve these issues.  The protagonist isn't a child of destiny, but merely the person that the story is happening to.  There is often an educational component to the story--a piece of history, or science, or art, that the protagonist learns about, and thus teaches to the reader.  The fate of the world is rarely at stake, but the characters' emotional well-being is.

I haven't read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but judging by Hugo I get the impression that it is this latter type of book.  For all the film's pomp and visual flair--its loving caress of every nook and cranny of the Gare Montparnasse (actually the Gare du Nord, filling in), its fascination with the enormous, endlessly churning gearwork of the station clocks that Hugo maintains, and of course, its impressive, and impressively subtle, use of 3D--the story it tells is very low key.  While struggling to avoid being spotted by the law and sent to an orphanage, Hugo is also trying to work through his grief over his father's death by fixing an automaton that they had been working on together.  He meets Isabelle, and her guardian Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), and together the two children discover the wonder and history of cinema, and learn that Papa Georges is Georges Méliès (and also the automaton's creator), now broken down and bitter over the collapse of his career and the loss of all his films.  They decide to assuage his grief by showing him that his films are still remembered and loved, and do--which also leads to Hugo finding a home with Isabelle and Papa Georges.  The end.

It's interesting to see a big-budget Hollywood children's movie that tells so small a story, and there is, at first, something refreshing about Hugo's avoidance of the conventions of such films.  It's initially quite wrongfooting, for example, that Hugo is so reserved about his history and the reasons that he is living in a train station and obsessing about an automaton, even in situations where to speak up would spare him significant misery.  We're used to children's films front-loading their protagonist's backstory, the better to get the actual plot rolling.  In Hugo, however, Hugo's reticence tells us something about him--that he is in too much pain to talk about it blithely, and that he has learned a healthy distrust of adults--prioritizing character development over plot.  The problem, and the reason that the film ultimately leaves me so unimpressed, is that this is not the only story that Hugo is telling, and that its other stories are nowhere near as small or as intimate as this one.  Whether he's keeping faith with Selznick's novel, or bowing to Hollywood's current idea of what a children's film should be like, or simply making the film he wanted to make, Scorsese combines this low-key character drama about a child coming to terms with the loss of his father with an adventure, complete with elaborate, visually inventive chase sequences, about two plucky children investigating a mystery and outwitting cruel adults, and a potted history of the early years of cinema and the career of Georges Méliès.  The result is tonally incoherent, the three strands constantly getting in each other's way.  The film is so busy serving up the set pieces of Hugo and Isabelle's adventure (including one in which Hugo dangles from the minute arm of the station clock), that it has no time to develop Hugo or his emotional journey in any but the baldest, most unsubtle of terms.  The adventure, however, is in its turn undercut both by Hugo and Isabelle's understated reactions and lack of urgency, and by the film's frequent pauses to deliver short lectures about the history of its medium.  From one scene to another, Hugo seems to have no idea what kind of story it's trying to tell.

Nowhere is this more apparent, or more troubling, than in the film's treatment of adults who behave viciously towards Hugo and other orphans.  Even positive characters such as Papa Georges, and ones that the film flags as redeemable such as Sacha Baron Cohen's station inspector, demonstrate an utter lack of sympathy towards hungry, friendless, homeless children like Hugo.  (If the film were more strongly rooted in its historical setting--if instead of concentrating on recreating the 1930s through visuals, fashion, and design, it took even a few scenes to establish the period's mores and attitudes--this behavior might be explainable, but Hugo feels too much like a modern child--albeit an unusually self-possesed and capable one--for the historical explanation to hold much water.)  A children's adventure needs villains, and those villains are usually adults who are cartoonishly evil, so it doesn't strain either our suspension of disbelief or our sense of moral outrage when they behave horribly to children.  Hugo, however, in its character drama plot strand, tries to show us these characters as real, rounded people, and yet it never calls them to account for their cruelty, because that cruelty belongs to another strand--the station inspector's pursuit of Hugo is part of the adventure story, while Papa Georges belongs to the strand about the history of cinema. 

In that strand, Hugo's suffering is downplayed in a way that feels entirely incongruous with the rest of the film.  When he and Isabelle try to confront Papa Georges about his history as a filmmaker, they are forestalled by his wife, Mama Jeanne (Helen McCrory).  She refuses to tell them Papa Georges's story because, she says, Hugo is too young to know such sadness.  Mama Jeanne may not know that the child she's speaking to has lost both parents, been snatched from his happy, comfortable life by an apathetic, drunken guardian who put him to work from morning until night and then abandoned him, and is currently living without any adult supervision, scrounging for food, and trying desperately to keep out of an orphanage that nearly every character in the film describes as a hell on earth, but Hugo does, and so do we.  And yet neither the character nor the film challenge her assumption that Papa Georges's pain, and his need for healing, are greater, and more important, than Hugo's, which ultimately makes both Georges and Jeanne seem monstrously self-absorbed.  At the end of the film, Hugo shows Papa Georges that his films haven't been forgotten, and returns to him the automaton.  For this, Papa Georges tells the station inspector, "this boy belongs to me."  The implication being that Hugo has earned his new family, and his escape from the orphanage, by being of use to Papa Georges.  Meanwhile, other, less useful orphans--such as the weeping boy that the station inspector packs off to the orphanage with nary a moment's hesitation--don't deserve such good fortune.

I think the reason that Hugo ends up delivering such a vile message is that ultimately, both Scorsese and the film are much more interested in George Méliès and the history of cinema than they are in their title character.  By the film's final third, it's pretty clear that the heart of the story is not in Hugo's adventures but in the lectures about early cinema that he and Isabelle receive, some of which are both well-done and informative.  When the children read that audiences watching Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, one of the very first moving pictures, were so thrown by the new technology that they reacted in horror, fearing that the train would hit them, they (and we) can't help but chuckle.  But Scorsese draws our attention to the universality of that reaction in a scene in which Isabelle, who has gone to the movies with Hugo for the very first time, gasps with fear as the character on screen dangles from a great height, and of course through the new medium of 3D in which the film is presented, with which he creates his own illusion of an oncoming train when he has Hugo dream about a derailment (I had my own private demonstration of the way that new filmmaking technologies can cut through the audience's jadedness and familiarity when the woman sitting next to me during Hugo kept laughing with delight at the 3D objects coming at her from the screen).  At the same time, these infodumps, freed from the constraints of story, are belabored--the story about the audience fearing the filmed train is repeated twice, and so are many of the important details of Méliès's career--and, to someone who knows a little about the subject, nowhere near as detailed as they'd need to be to make up for that flaw.  It's hard not to conclude that we would have had a better and more informative time simply watching a biography of Georges Méliès.

Which brings me back to my observation that Hugo works very differently for younger viewers who don't know the history that it is relating than it does for older ones who do.  I don't mean to suggest that adults or film buffs can't enjoy Hugo, because that is quite clearly not the case--I've heard effusive reactions to the film from many adults, including film critics who most likely know a lot more about Méliès than I do.  But I have to wonder how many of those positive reactions are rooted in the sheer joy of seeing Méliès and early cinema on screen, packaged for a whole new generation of viewers with healthy dollop of cinephilia, and whether that joy isn't being allowed to obscure the fact that Scorsese does nothing new with these elements, simply presents them on screen for the audience's edification.  Visually, Hugo is a heady feast, but its visual elements give the impression of Scorsese checking items off a list titled Stuff Steampunk Fans Like: brass!  Cogs!  Gears!  Steam!  Late 19th century glass-and-steel architecture!  Windup toys!  Automata!  And, of course, A Trip to the Moon.  Taken together, they have the effect of making the film's visuals seem calculated and leaden.  The only one who escapes this effect is Méliès--his drawings and films are consistently the most engaging visual elements of the film, but like much else about Hugo's handling of Méliès, they are presented as is, and without comment.  It hardly seems fair to credit Scorsese for their affect.  (The sole exception, a scene in which Méliès's drawings fly around a room, becoming animated as they pass before the camera, is one of the film's highlights, but also an indictment of every scene that doesn't follow suit.)

"Tonight, Tonight" and "Le Voyage dans la Lune" are great introductions to Méliès and A Trip to the Moon, but part of what makes them great is that they take Méliès's ideas and images and make them their own.  "Tonight, Tonight" replicates the film's imagery but changes its plot considerably, not least by adding a pair of lovers as protagonists who echo the song's themes.  "Le Voyage dans la Lune" draws a parallel between Méliès's vision, and his visionary grasp of the potential of the brand new medium he was working in, with the dream of an actual trip to the moon, and the work that went into making that dream a reality.  It is simply mind-boggling that given more than two hours to work with, a budget of $170M, and the most innovative, cutting edge technology, a filmmaker as talented and versatile as Martin Scorsese couldn't--or wouldn't--do the same.  It's hard not to imagine--especially in light of the brief scene in which the film visits Méliès's workshop during his heyday--what a wonderful film Hugo could have been if Scorsese had tried to bring Méliès's artwork to life, in high-def and three dimensions, but what we get instead is plodding and unoriginal.  Hugo will no doubt introduce a new generation of viewers to Georges Méliès and A Trip to the Moon, and this is obviously a good thing.  Those of us who were already familiar with them, however, might do well to stick with the original.

Friday, March 02, 2012

The 2012 Hugo Awards: My Draft Hugo Ballot

I'm not sure that I've mentioned it here before, but I'm a member of Chicon 7, the 2012 Worldcon that will be held at the end of August in Chicago.  It's a bit up in the air yet whether I'll actually be able to attend, but for the time being I'm a member, which gives me nominating rights for the Hugo awards.  The deadline for submitting nominations is fast approaching--March 11th--and I'm afraid my progress through the ranks of prospective nominees has been poor.  If in previous years I made a point of reading through the year's entire output of short fiction magazines, online and off, and sought out books that might be likely nominees, this year I just haven't had the time.  In the short fiction categories, I've settled for relying on others to thin the herd--the Locus Recommended Reading List (as previously mentioned, Liz has a post linking to those stories on the list that are available online), Rachel Swirsky's recommendation posts (short stories, novelettes, novellas), recommendations from friends, and my own trawling through the archives of online magazines like Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Fantasy Magazine, Subterranean Magazine, and Apex Magazine.  I'm still hoping to get some reading--especially of novels--done before the deadline, but here's what I've got so far.  If you've got comments, or recommendations, I'd love to hear them.

Best Novel:

I've only got one surefire nominee this year--Kameron Hurley's God's War.  I'm also considering nominating Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti (already a Nebula nominee), a novel that I found flawed on a first reading (see my review at Strange Horizons), but whose strengths have lingered more strongly in my memory since then.  If it weren't so obviously a shoe-in for a nomination even without my help, I'd consider nominating China Miéville's Embassytown, but unlike Mechanique my ambivalence about that novel hasn't faded enough for me to give it my vote.

Other novels that I'm hoping to read before the nomination deadline: Osama by Lavie Tidhar, Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, By Light Alone by Adam Roberts.  Other potential nominees that I'd like to read, but probably won't get to, include Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente, Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi, and The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers.

Best Novella:

I've neglected this category until now, mainly because I can't shake the feeling that the field for works of this length has narrowed so much in recent years that the category is starting to lose its value.  Online magazines don't tend to print novella-length works, and print magazines have been cutting down on them.  Most novellas these days are published as standalone volumes, which creates a fragmented readership whose nominations reflect--even more than in other categories--a preference for certain authors rather than a comprehensive view of the field.  This year, there are several novellas that have been garnering a lot of attention--"Silently and Very Fast" by Catherynne M. Valente, "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson, and "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" (PDF) by Ken Liu (all three of which are Nebula nominees).  I plan to read them all, but with such a narrow consensus it's hard not to feel that the decision has already been made for me.

Best Novelette:
  • "Six Months, Three Days" by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com) - A man who can see the future meets a woman who sees all possible futures.  They begin to date, as they've both foreseen, even though they both know that the  relationship is doomed to failure after six months and three days.  The characters' respective powers naturally raise the question of free will vs. predestination, which Anders does some interesting things with, but she also draws on the their powers to create a believable, and believably dysfunctional, romantic relationship whose unravelling is ultimately deeply painful.

  • "The House of Aunts" by Zen Cho (GigaNotoSaurus) - It's hard to suppress a groan at Cho's premise--a teenage vampire romance.  But the vampire is not a vampire but a Malaysian monster, and the setting of a Malaysian village changes many, though not all, of the conventions of the teenage characters' lives.  More importantly, however, the central relationship between the protagonist, Ah Lee, and her aunts, is wonderfully drawn--the aunts are, at points, loving, overbearing, uncomprehending, fierce, and gentle, and Ah Lee's interactions with them turn from infuriating to hilarious to touching on a dime.  Add to that a romance that is neither cloying nor too dominant in the story, and you've got a definite winner.  Cho is a new writer, and one to watch--as well as nominating this novelette I plan to nominate her for the Campbell award.

  • "The Vicar of Mars" by Gwyneth Jones (Eclipse Four) - The consensus seems to have settled on Caitlin R. Kiernan's "Tidal Forces" as the standout story from Eclipse Four, but though I liked that story, I was more engaged by Jones's, which is darkly amusing and creepy.  It's a rather perfect distillation-cum-deconstruction of the classic 19th century ghost story, transplanted to Mars and starring an alien, atheist priest.  Though it's set in Jones's Aleutian universe, the story stands quite well on its own, and has stayed with me in the months since I read it.
Other stories that I'm considering nominating are Genevieve Valentine's "The Nearest Thing," a well-done variant on the very familiar story of the inventor who falls in love with an artificial being, and K.J. Parker's "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong."  I'm particularly uncertain about the latter, which on the one hand is one of the most engaging, perfectly formed stories I've read this year, and on the other hand is a fairly straightforward retelling of Amadeus with almost no fantastical component, and a final twist that makes Amadeus's already troubling message even more so.  I almost find myself wishing that it will be nominated so that I'll have the excuse to discuss it at greater length, but I'm not sure I'm willing to give it my vote.

Best Short Story:

In this category, there's only one story that I'm absolutely certain is going to be on my ballot, Catherynne M. Valente's "The Bread We Eat in Dreams," from Apex Magazine, about a demon who settles near an early American settlement.  It's a very funny story which seems more interested in the settlement's growing pains--particularly the squabbles between Puritans and Catholics--than in the demon, but it brings her in at opportune moments to stir the pot and take the town in a fantastic direction.

Other stories that I'm considering nominating include: "Pack" by Robert Reed (Clarkesworld), a weird story that I nevertheless found strangely compelling; "The Last Sophia" by C.S.E. Cooney (Strange Horizons), a story about a girl forced to carry the children of fairies with an interesting and refreshingly cynical narrative voice; "Her Husband's Hands" by Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed), an affecting story about about a returning veteran and his wife that I found somewhat manipulative; "Shipbirth" by Aliette de Bodard (Asimov's, February 2011), an expansion of her Aztec alternate history into space; and "The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees" by E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld), a story that anthropomorphizes the two species in its title in a way that allows them to play out campaigns of competing political theories in the space of a single season.

Best Related Work:

No idea what to nominate here.  It feels a bit inappropriate to nominate the Science Fiction Encyclopedia since a) I'm a contributor, and b) it's still in beta, but I might still do so.

Best Graphic Work:

Not only do I have no idea what to nominate here, I'm not very interested in the category.  Avram Grumer has an interesting list of potential nominees over at Making Light, however.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:
  • Melancholia, dir. Lars von Trier
  • Source Code, dir. Duncan Jones
  • X-Men: First Class, dir. Matthew Vaughn
I'm really of two minds about this ballot.  I'm certain that I want to nominate Melancholia, but am doubtful about the other two, both of which are interesting, enjoyable, but flawed films.  And why, for example, am I nominating X-Men, but not Rise of the Planet of the Apes, an equally interesting, equally flawed summer SF film?  The answer--that X-Men has better characters while Apes shortchanges anyone who is not an ape--doesn't entirely satisfy me.  And while I can justify leaving Another Earth off the list on the grounds that Melancholia does many of the same things, and does them better, I'm not sure about Attack the Block, a film that I found more interesting for its concept than its execution.  Full of unexplored ideas and underdeveloped characters, Attack the Block feels like a film whose script was several drafts short of being ready, but can I justify not nominating it while giving a vote to a less thought-provoking, and perhaps equally wobbly, film like Source Code?  I'll have to think some more about this category.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:
  • Community, "Remedial Chaos Theory" - There's a sense in which nominating this episode feels like a way of sneaking in a beloved, geek-friendly, but nevertheless entirely non-genre show under Hugo's radar, sort of like the knots that some fans are tying themselves in trying to justify a nomination for Sherlock.  But "Remedial Chaos Theory," in which the same story plays out in seven different ways according to the result of a die toss, is an episode that casts Community's prevailing concern with its core group and their relationship in genre terms, showing how each member contributes to the group, and how their absence changes it and creates different outcomes to the same situation.

  • Being Human (UK), "The Longest Day" - The strongest episode in the show's generally strong third season, this episode sees Herrick, the first season's vampire antagonist, returning to plague the main characters as a seemingly helpless amnesiac, sparking a bitter, complicated dispute about the rights and wrongs of this situation that touches on the show's core issues and shows off the characters' strengths and weaknesses.  Given the somewhat disappointing turns that the show has been taking in its fourth season, this is probably the best that Being Human is ever going to be.

  • Misfits, Season three, episode two - There are problems with this episode, mainly a cheerful willingness to retcon a lot of character development from the show's previous two seasons in order to make its plot work, and a tendency, when discussing the realities of the female experience, to go to the rape well too often.  But despite these issues, the episode, in which superpowered youthful offender Curtis explores the implications of his ability to turn into a woman, is one of the most deft, respectful, interesting explorations of gender identity and sexuality I've ever seen, parlaying the show's infamous crudeness into a refreshing frankness about sex and bodily functions.  It's a shame that the rest of the season drops this storyline and its implications for Curtis, but the episode itself is nevertheless laudable.
I'm not quite sure what else to nominate in this category--and given that the Hugo administrators might as well go ahead that engrave Neil Gaiman's name on the trophy right now I'm not feeling terribly motivated to keep looking.  2011 saw some mediocre-to-bad genre TV (Fringe, Falling Skies, Torchwood: Miracle Day) that I don't feel like nominating in general, and some decent-to-good shows (Game of Thrones, Caprica) that didn't feature any standout episodes.  Perhaps the rumors about the death of the TV episode are not premature after all.

I don't have much to write about the other categories, most of which--except for the Campbell, which I feel too woefully under-read to nominate in this year, except for the previously mentioned Zen Cho--I don't care much about anyway.  I'll probably post a more coherent, finalized version of my ballot closer to the nomination deadline.  Until then, your comments are welcome.