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 Tor.com (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 Tor.com 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 Tor.com.  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 Tor.com 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 Tor.com 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 (Tor.com, 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 (Tor.com) - 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 (Tor.com) - 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 (Tor.com) - 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 (Tor.com) - 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.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

The 2014 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on Award-Pimping

It might be hard to remember, because there have already been two bigger and more bitter slapfights since, but the first genre kerfuffle of 2014, lo these six or seven weeks ago, was about award-pimping.  More specifically, it was about the increasing prevalence, in the last half-decade, of "award eligibility posts," those lists posted by authors around the beginning of the year and of award-nominating season in which they list their work from the previous year and what categories it's eligible in.  Perspectives on these kinds of posts differ wildly: some people view them as innocuous, as a benign public service, or as a harmless bit of self-promotion.  Others, meanwhile, see them as gauche and unpleasant, and as actively harmful to awards and the genre in general.  Adam Roberts kicked off this year's iteration of the discussion with a post firmly on the anti- side, and though I find his piece smart and thoughtful, it mainly reminds me that this is an issue on which I find it difficult to form an opinion.

On the one hand, I'm largely unbothered by award eligibility posts when taken in isolation.  Though I've seen examples that have been hectoring, self-satisfied, or demanding, I find most of them informative and unassuming.  I'm sympathetic to the argument that they represent a public service, reminding readers of work they might have missed or forgotten.  (Though I would also point out that this is a function that can be served just as well, and often better, by a frequently-updated, organized, easy to find bibliography, something that a shocking number of authors don't bother with.  If, in the course of my Hugo reading, I come across an author I like and want to look at more of their work, I'm not going to trawl their blog archive for an award eligibility post.  I'm going to look for a bibliography and, if I can't quickly find one, move on to an author who can be bothered to put one together.)  I also take the point, raised by Amal El-Mohtar in a post responding to Roberts, that anti award-pimping arguments impact more powerfully on women and people of color, who are anyway discouraged by cultural conditioning from tooting their own horn.

On the other hand, I'm not happy with the way that discussion of award-pimping has proceeded, particularly in the wake of El-Mohtar's post.  I'm disappointed with the way that the term "award-pimping" has been subsumed and finally replaced by "self-promotion."  One of the most important arguments, it seemed to me, in Roberts's post was that award-pimping was "directly and negatively distorting of the award shortlists that follow."  By substituting the specific activity of award eligibility posts with the blanket term self-promotion--which can comprise any number of types of behavior, both acceptable and unacceptable--we short-circuit any possibility of a discussion of whether this particular kind of self-promotion is desirable, effective, or conducive to a healthy award scene.  To take a different example, a few days after the award eligibility kerfuffle happened I saw John Scalzi complain on twitter that he had attended a convention panel in which a member of the audience, seeing that a panel member had failed to show up, unilaterally placed themselves on the panel.  I'm sure that if you challenged this person they would respond that they were simply promoting their brand and visibility, but does it therefore follow that this is the kind of behavior we want to tolerate or encourage?  Is it conducive to an optimal con experience for other attendees and panel members, which is what we, as a group, should be concerned with?

I can't help but take the unwillingness to debate award-pimping as a specific tactic, rather than an expression of self-promotion, as yet another reflection of the way that sooner or later, everything in fandom starts to be perceived as existing for authors.  You see this a lot in reviews: the perceived illegitimacy of negative reviews (and the attendant belief that reviews should function as a "constructive," workshop-esque critique), or the assumption that reviews are directed at authors, who therefore have an automatic right of response.  Increasingly, I'm seeing the same attitude where awards are concerned.  Awards are, of course, a powerful career (and sometimes, sales) booster.  But the purpose of an award isn't to celebrate any single author; it's to celebrate the field and recognize excellence within it.  Though, as I've said, I don't find award eligibility posts objectionable in isolation, as a phenomenon they bother me because they shift the focus of the conversation surrounding awards from the field as a whole to the individual author.  In a trenchant analysis of some of the fallacies surrounding the award-pimping conversation, Martin Lewis writes that the unspoken subtext of award eligibility posts is "my work is among the five best works of its kind published last year."  I think that, more often, the subtext is "I want an award."  There's nothing wrong, of course, with wanting an award, but there is quite a bit wrong with the primacy that that desire, and its expression, have been allowed to take in the conversation, to the point of being treated--as I think El-Mohtar's post and discussion following from it do--as something virtuous and even political. 

On the third hand, saying that I wish there had been a discussion of Roberts's argument that award-pimping posts are harmful isn't the same as saying that I think they are.  In fact, I'm not entirely convinced that they even work.  If anything, a glance at the last few years' Hugo ballot suggests that if award eligibility posts make a difference, it's only for people who already had the kind of enormous, loyal readership that is either a reflection or the cause of the kind of popularity that practically guarantees Hugo nominations all on its own.  (In that sense, some of the defenses of award-pimping from or on behalf of less recognizable authors feel a little like mid-level or low-selling artists defending copyright extension laws that will only ever benefit mega-corporations.)  Would John Scalzi's April's Fool story "Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City" had garnered a Hugo nomination in 2012 if Scalzi hadn't drawn attention to its eligibility on his blog?  I suspect not, but Scalzi himself would still have been perennial Hugo nominee (and eventual winner).  And what about the case of Seanan McGuire, who had four nominees in the fiction categories (and only missed out on the fifth by a few votes) in 2013?  That result surely can't be ascribed purely to whether or not McGuire decided to post a list of her eligible work.  On the other hand, Larry Correia did engage in explicit and unabashed award campaigning in 2013 (which he represented as a blow on behalf of pulp writing and against the "literati critics" who apparently make up the Hugo voter base), resulting in several of his favorites gaining nominations in the related work and podcast categories, and in Correia himself coming within less than twenty votes of a best novel nomination.  It's doubtful that he would have achieved those results without his campaign--but then, it's equally doubtful that if we were to achieve the result Roberts hopes for, of creating a norm that views award eligibility posts as illegitimate, that someone who seems to hold the Hugo award in as much contempt as Correia would abide by it.

On the fourth hand, this is really nothing new.  The Hugos are, and have always been, a popularity contest.  Who you are and who you know have always played a role in whether you get nominated.  There's no question that there's been a palpable shift in Hugo nominations in the last few years, away from perennial nominees like Mike Resnick (whose position as the award's most decorated author is often ascribed to his popularity among certain segments of the Worldcon membership) and towards authors with a larger online presence, but that simply means that a different group of authors is benefiting from the same dynamic.  (It's also worth noting that one of the effects of that shift is that Resnick doesn't get nominated for as many Hugos any more, and I doubt there's anyone of sense who can argue that that's not an improvement.)  In his post, Roberts writes that SF awards are characterized by a tendency to vote out of fannishness for a particular author, rather than fannishness towards the field as a whole, and it's certainly difficult to look at the three examples I've given and not conclude that this is probably what lay at the heart of each of them.  But as he himself concedes, that's a tendency that is baked into the award's format and history.  We can ask whether the acceptance and celebration of award-pimping doesn't exacerbate that tendency--which is, again, a conversation that I wish we were having--but it certainly didn't create it.

On the fifth hand, that's not a compelling argument for remaining invested in the Hugos.  It's easy to point a finger at award-pimping because it's a relatively new phenomenon that has dovetailed with an obvious shift in the Hugo's tastes, one that has resulted in shortlists that have been less interesting and of an overall lesser quality, but the truth is that that shift may simply represent a fundamental problem with the award itself.  Last year after the nomination period closed Justin Landon made a powerful argument for just not caring about the Hugos anymore, and while I've obviously failed to do that it certainly is true that in the last few years, as each Hugo ballot has been announced, I've found myself feeling less and less invested in the award.  Whatever the reason for it, an award in which a joke story is in the running for best short story of the year is not in good health.  An award in which a single author receives 20% of the fiction nominations is not in good health.  An award in which a concerted and open ballot-stuffing campaign bears fruit, very nearly to the point of affecting its tentpole category, is not in good health.  I've spent the last few weeks in a flurry of pre-Hugo reading and consideration, but the truth is that when I look up from that work and consider the award dispassionately, I find that I feel about it the way I felt about the Nebulas seven or eight years ago--as if the Hugos had grown increasingly irrelevant as a yardstick for excellence in the field.  (As an important ray of hope, it's worth noting that the Nebulas have rehabilitated themselves significantly since that nadir, producing, in the last few years, several interesting and varied shortlists.)

On the sixth and final hand, I feel that there's a wind of change this year.  Or maybe a better way of putting it is that elements that were gathering force in the last few years seem to have achieved a new level of prominence this year.  Even as the award eligibility phenomenon gains steam (and respectability), more and more people are also using the internet to create a more broadly informed voter base.  Dozens of people are posting their Hugo ballots and recommendations (to take a by no means exhaustive sample: Nina Allan, Thea and Ana at The Book Smugglers, Liz Bourke (1, 2, 3, 4), the bloggers of LadyBusiness, Justin Landon, Martin Lewis, Jonathan McCalmont (1, 2), Aidan Moher, Mari Ness, Ian Sales, Jared Shurin, Rachel Swirsky (1, 2, 3), Adam Whitehead).  Blogs like Hugo Award Eligible Art(ists) seek to inform people (like myself) who have little grounding in the category, and make them acquainted with worthwhile nominees.  Existing projects like Writertopia's Campbell award eligibility page collate information that makes it easier to nominate for an award whose eligibility requirements can seem tricky even if you're an old hand at this Hugo stuff.  If you're someone who is interested in voting as more than a single author's fan, it has never been easier to gain a broad appreciation of the field and its practitioners, even the ones who aren't superstars.

I still don't know whether award eligibility posts are part of the problem or simply a ineffective distraction.  I do think that the efforts I've been seeing in the last two months have a real chance of being part of the solution, and I mean to join in.  In the next few weeks, I'll be posting my own Hugo ballot, a few categories at a time.  (I'll also be posting links to works that I consider worthwhile on my twitter account.)  It's entirely possible that when the Hugo nominees are announced I'll once again feel demoralized, and as if all this effort--mine and everyone else's--was as naught before the onslaught of some popular blogger's megaphone.  But for the time being I'm hoping that a lot of small voices have their own power.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Short Fiction Snapshot: "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" by Ted Chiang

When I introduced the Short Fiction Snapshot series at Strange Horizons, I noted that it wasn't intended just for positive reviews.  Reviewing short fiction at essay length can mean reviewing it negatively as well, and in today's installment I give the series's first negative--or at least mixed--review to Ted Chiang's "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling," from Subterranean Online.  Chiang is, of course, one of the most celebrated names in genre short fiction, but with this story he seems to be punching below his level even as he does some of the things that make his work so remarkable.  Read the story, and my review, and join in the conversation!