Friday, March 06, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Media Categories

Last year when I wrote about this group of categories, I noted that it consisted of two categories in which I didn't feel that my vote mattered much, and two in which I didn't feel knowledgeable enough to nominate well in.  That hasn't changed much this year--in the case of the Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category, in fact, my vote feels even more useless than usual.  2014 was full of so many high profile, well liked genre films that the final ballot feels predictable from here (for the record: Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Lego Movie, Snowpiercer, and either Mockingjay Part 1 or Edge of Tomorrow) and just as unexciting.  On the other hand, other categories in this group, like Best Graphic Story, feel as if they're coming into their own.  After several years of feeling as if the category was being voted on exclusively by a small and cliquish group while the rest of the membership looked on with indifference, there's been a growing consensus in the last few years around some fun and interesting work.  I'm still not convinced that the category is justified--we're not, I think, doing a better job rewarding genre comics than the awards specifically designed to recognize excellent in that medium--but it's also not obviously a waste of time anymore.

One word about the Best Related Work category: after Kameron Hurley's victory last year for the essay "We Have Always Fought," I've been seeing a lot of people suggesting blog posts as nominees.  I understand why that's a popular approach--especially among online fandom, a single blog post reaches a lot farther and a lot faster than a book.  But though I've personally benefited from the stance that individual blog posts are fair game in these kinds of awards categories (two blog posts of mine were nominated for the BSFA's best nonfiction award in 2011 and 2012), I have to say that as a nominator, that's not something I'm comfortable with.  I would like to see the Best Related Work category reserved for longer works of nonfiction (and other indefinables), and my own nominations are along those lines.  If you're looking for a way to recognize online writing, one way to do so would be to nominate Speculative Fiction 2013, edited by Ana Grilo and Thea James (full disclosure: I have an essay in the book, but it also has a fantastic table of contents, and Amazon is offering the ebook version free of charge today [US, UK]).

Previous posts in this series:
Best Related Work:

Having said the above, it should be noted that I haven't actually read any nonfiction books from 2014, and that my two selections in this category are there because I've already read large portions of the material in them when it was published online.  Other works that I haven't read, but which I'd be very interested in see nominated in this category, include The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore, Greg Egan by Karen Burnham, Call and Response by Paul Kincaid, and Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson.
  • Sibilant Fricative by Adam Roberts - I don't think I'll surprise anyone (and I hope I won't get much disagreement) when I say that Roberts is one of the top genre reviewers working today.  Sibilant Fricative collects reviews from the blog of the same name, including his epic (and increasingly despairing) read-through of the Wheel of Time series.  Roberts's work is smart, erudite, thought-provoking, and extremely funny, and he deserves to be recognized for it.

  • Stay by John Clute - A reviewer of no lesser stature but a very different style from Roberts, Clute has practically invented his own style of writing.  It can sometimes be exhausting to make one's way through his reviews (and often requires a thesaurus), but it's never anything less than enlightening, and his way of looking at the genre has opened my eyes as a reader and a reviewer.
Best Graphic Story:
  • Saga, volumes 3 & 4 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples - I'm repeating my nomination from last year here, but Saga remains a thoroughly engrossing and delightful story.  Volume 4 is perhaps less successful than the previous entries in the series, with more focus on mundane settings and happenings, but even in that part of the story there are interesting things happening with the peripheral (but never less than fascinating) characters, and throughout both volumes Saga's world remains vibrant, funny, and exhilarating.  It's a truly impressive piece of genre storytelling that, even in its weaker moments, remains a brilliant accomplishment.

  • Sex Criminals, Volume 1: One Weird Trick by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky - I was underwhelmed by Fraction's beloved Hawkeye comic, so I wasn't expecting much from his strange-sounding non-superhero effort.  But Sex Criminals--about two people who have the power to stop time when they orgasm, and who decide to supplement their romantic relationship with some bank robbery--was an unexpected delight.  Funny, smart, full of rude but often quite witty humor, but also quite meaty in its discussion of societal attitudes towards sex and its depiction of its central relationship, it accomplishes quite a lot already in its first volume, and I can't wait to see what happens next.  I'm hardly breaking new ground in calling this one of 2014's best new comics, and I think that it should be recognized by the Hugos.

  • Steve Rogers's American Captain by Robyn E. Kenealy - I'm a little hesitant about this nomination, because this webcomic updated relatively rarely in 2014 (I wish I'd been reading it in 2013).  Nevertheless, the story is ongoing, which I think makes American Captain eligible, and as a work of fiction I think that this is exactly what the best graphic story was created to recognize--a webcomic, and a work of fanfiction, that is also a meaningful genre work.  Presented as comic strip drawn by the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Steve Rogers as a way of coping with the anxiety of being transplanted to the 21st century, the comic follows him as he tries to adjust to his new life, cope with the experiences of the old one, and work out the role he wants to play as a symbol and a superhero.  Other MCU characters show up and are as richly drawn as Steve (though the comic was begun in 2012 so doesn't take into account the events of films after The Avengers), and their and his story are a careful blend of humor and a serious examination of depression and PTSD.  You can read the story so far in chronological order starting here.
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:
  • Snowpiercer (review) - The only one of my nominations that has any real chance of making it onto the ballot, I found Bong Joon-ho's anti-capitalist fable a tad overpraised when it opened in Israel last spring, after having been spared Harvey Weinstein's scissors.  Nevertheless, there's no denying that Snowpiercer is different, extremely well made, and fully committed to its bonkers genre premise.  It's precisely the sort of movie the Hugos should be recognizing.

  • The One I Love (review) - A relationship drama that uses the fantastic to explore (and then destroy) a marriage, The One I Love is impeccably made and acted, and utterly unafraid of its fantastic components.  We should see more movies like this one, that remind us that science fiction doesn't have to mean explosions and space battles.

  • Coherence (review) - An ultra-low-budget production that is nevertheless good looking and effective at depicting its strange happenings, Coherence uses the concept of alternate universes to poke at the psyches and relationships of its middle class, suburban characters.  It's a tense, smart movie that does a lot with very little.

  • Over the Garden Wall - This Cartoon Network miniseries from the makers of Adventure Time is unlike anything I've ever seen, and utterly engaging.  Two brothers, nervous Wirt and carefree Greg, find themselves lost in the forest, guided only by a talking bluebird called Beatrice and fleeing a mysterious beast.  How they ended up in the woods, and what the forces menacing them want, is something that is only slowly revealed, but in each episode the three characters have adventures that straddle the divide between horror, humor, and surrealism, the show completely unafraid to leave its viewers completely lost, presumably because it knows that they will be utterly charmed by its beautiful animation, dreamlike tone, and impeccable voice work (including such names as Christopher Lloyd, John Cleese, and Tim Curry).  Over the Garden Wall is a reminder that some of the best genre work nowadays is being done in animation, and it should be watched by more grown up fans of weird fiction.
(It's not on the list because I haven't seen it yet, but another movie that I'm hoping to watch before the tenth in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, if only because Scarlett Johansson's triumphant year of transhumanism should be represented here somewhere.)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:
  • Gravity Falls, "Sock Opera" - I've said it before and I will say it again: Gravity Falls is, bar none, the best genre show on TV right now, and if you're not watching it you're depriving yourself of great characters, funny jokes, and one of the most intelligently and intricately constructed fantasy worlds out there.  "Sock Opera" is a major mythology episode, reintroducing one of the show's major antagonists, the evil triangle Bill Cipher (just go with it), who takes over the body of protagonist Dipper Pines in a turn of events that is genuinely scary even to an adult viewer who has seen this trope a million times before.  But it is also, like all the best episodes of the show, about the relationship between Dipper and his twin sister Mabel, who spends the episode trying to win over her latest crush by convincing him that she shares his passion for sockpuppet theater.  The mixture of silly humor and deadly serious horror sounds impossible to carry off, but Gravity Falls, as usual, manages it with aplomb.  (Since I have extra nominating slots, I may also give one to "Blendin's Game," which advances the show's time travel storyline and has a lot of old school genre references.)

  • Person of Interest, "Nautilus" - Person of Interest is an odd duck, a conventional and often dreadful procedural wrapped in one of the most innovative and thought-provoking SF stories on TV (or perhaps it's the other way around).  This makes it difficult to nominate in this category, since most of the show's individual episodes are terrible even as its overarching story, about emergent AIs warring with each other over the future of a largely oblivious humanity, remains brilliant.  "Nautilus" is about as close as the show comes to an exception, largely sidelining its action storytelling to focus on its best character, Michael Emerson's Finch, as he tries to persuade a young woman not to ally herself with Samaritan, an evil AI that wants to control humanity.  The exploration of how the certainty and sense of purpose that the AI offers might appeal to a certain kind of intelligent young person makes excellent use of the show's premise (and along the way suggests an origin story for the show's other best character, Amy Acker's Root, who is herself an acolyte of another AI), suggesting how the existence of such beings might change our lives and what it means to be human in the most profound ways.

  • Penny Dreadful, "Séance" - Penny Dreadful's first season never quite lived up to its promise, getting tangled up in the show's witty commingling of famous 19th century genre characters without ever quite finding a story worthy of them.  But the show's execution was often enough to make up for this aimlessness, particularly when it focused on its best character, Eva Green's haunted Vanessa Ives.  "Séance" features Vanessa's first tour-de-force scene, in which she chews the scenery, the other characters, and possibly the camera crew when she's possessed by a demon at the titular gathering.  It's the episode that makes it clear just what sort of show you're in for, and just in case you were still unclear, the twist reserved at its end for the character of Victor Frankenstein seals the deal.


Ted Cross said...

I hope you might consider nominating Stephan Martiniere for Best Pro Artist. Besides his work on Guardians of the Galaxy, his cover works for Shield and Crocus and The Immortality Game were breathtaking.

CP said...

Person of Interest IS an odd duck; the couple times I've tried to get into it, I came away with the same impression fascinating concept, but I can't say the execution grabs me.

But the concept has its weird points, too; is sort of seems like your basic "scrappy underdogs fight for justice in a corrupt world" concept (i.e. Burn Notice or Leverage), except for the scrappy underdogs having an all-knowing artificially intelligent surveillance system on their side that would give the KGB wet dreams, and they use it exactly the way any good security state advocate claims they would (all to protect people from crime, and what's wrong with that?) The result is kind of Agents Of SHIELDish: "oh look, it's another Ragtag Bunch Of Misfits... only, in this story, they're kind of closer to the Initiative/Hands Of Blue role... can they DO that?" POI is much more self-aware and all the creepy and questionable aspects of the Machine are explored in depth, but it doesn't counteract the fact that it is, in fact, a creepy and disturbing premise.

(Not that that necessarily means "bad").

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think Person of Interest acknowledges the creepiness of its premise a lot more blatantly than most shows of its type - through the character of Root, the Machine's most devoted acolyte who also happens to be a psychotic murderer, or in a recent episode in which it was revealed that the first few dozen version of the Machine all tried to kill Finch within hours of becoming self-aware, or in a plotline that saw Finch being put on "trial" for violating human rights by an anti-government militia.

As you say, ultimately, and like every other show that posits an unaccountable, secret group who acts as the guardians of humanity, the show is going to come down on the side that such a group and such power are necessary. But I think that Person of Interest plays fairer than Agents of SHIELD or Arrow, if only because it acknowledges that Finch's actions have changed the world, and not always in ways that are positive or under his control.

Chris A said...

I hesitated to give Avatar: The Last Airbender a try on "but-isn't-this-a-kids'-cartoon" grounds and ended up loving it, so I'll have to look into Over the Garden Wall, which I've heard good things about prior to seeing it on your ballot.

Interesting that you should mention Roberts' Wheel of Time reviews. I thought they were often funny - one in particular, which borrowed the jargon of Lacanian psychoanalysis to make the tongue-in-cheek argument that Jordan was not only writing experimental fiction that resisted the narrative imperative that in a story, things must happen, but had in fact eroticized the obstruction of narrative progress, was downright hilarious - but I was also couldn't help noticing that in the process of writing several thousand words on the series, Roberts hadn't managed to say much of anything interesting about the text at all.

It seems to me that insight is the first prerequisite of good criticism, even good criticism of bad fiction. (Which is one of the reasons I follow your site - good luck receiving a repeat nomination yourself this year!)

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