Saturday, March 26, 2016

The 2016 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Media Categories

We are now five days away from the Hugo nominating deadline, and moving on to a group of categories that can be a lot of fun, but also a bit frustrating.  Fun, because these are the categories where the Hugo steps away from the somewhat insular focus of its fiction and publishing categories and engages with the larger world of pop culture, and frustrating, because we're still so resistant to defining these categories in such a way as to make the nominations in them mean anything.  Should we, for example, nominate single essays in the Best Related Work category?  We've started to, in recent years, and I can even see the argument for it--a blog post can have a reach and an immediacy that a scholarly work could never hope to achieve.  But personally, I like having the related work category dedicated to book-length works (and I also think it's a little unfair to both kinds of nominees to force them into this sort of apples-and-oranges comparison).

Similarly, it's been years now since nominating whole seasons of TV shows in the Best Related Work: Long Form category has been normalized, but I don't care for that practice at all.  I think a season is a chapter in a greater work, made up of elements that are (if the writers have done their job right) self-contained stories in their own right.  Pitting something like that against a movie just doesn't make sense to me--though, in fairness, I'm perfectly happy nominating miniseries in this category, so I'd be the first to admit that my preferences don't exactly have scientific rigor.  (These preferences, by the way, are the reason you won't find shows like Galavant, Agent Carter, Sense8, and Humans on my ballot, because none of them, to my mind, had standout episodes in 2015, even though I liked the shows as a whole.)

Until that kind of formalization happens, however, I'll just have to keep plugging along with the definitions that seem right to me, and enjoy the added pleasure of disagreeing with everyone else's.  (As usual, I am skipping the Best Fancast category, because I don't listen to podcasts.)

Previous posts in this series:
Best Related Work:

Every year, I chastise myself for not reading enough in this field to nominated properly (yet another reason why nominating essays might make sense, but I still can't convince myself to do that).  This year, I wish I'd gotten around to Edward James's Lois McMaster Bujold, part of the University of Illinois Press's Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, and Twelfth Planet Press's Letters to Tiptree, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce.  I will, however, be nominating Adam Roberts's Rave and Let Die, a collection of his reviews from the blog Sibilant Fricative, published in 2014 and 2015.  Roberts is long overdue for a Hugo in several categories, and this collection of his witty, effortlessly insightful reviews is the perfect opportunity to correct that oversight.

Best Graphic Story:

This is one of those categories where I have to castigate myself for not being as well- or as widely-read as I'd like, especially since several of my nominees are continuing volumes in series I've nominated in previous years.  If you're looking for some less predictable choices from someone with a broader view of the field, Barry Deutsch has been collecting recommendations at Alas! A Blog.
  • Bitch Planet, Book 1: Extraordinary Machine by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro - I was a little hesitant picking up this volume, despite the rapturous reviews that DeConnick's new series had received, because the premise--in a world where women can be criminalized for being "non-conforming," a group of female prisoners are given the chance to fight the system by participating in a sports tournament--sounded a little schlocky.  Turns out, it's a lot schlocky, and therein lies the power of this comic, which doesn't apologize for the over-the-top depiction of its misogynistic world, and through that willingness to go to extremes manages to touch on some painful truths.  The story is only getting warmed up in this volume, but the characters--most of whom are women of color--are instantly engaging, and I'm very much looking forward to their future adventures.

  • Sex Criminals, Vol. 2: Two Worlds, One Cop by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky - Hugo voters didn't seem to connect to the first volume of this series when it was nominated last year--it came dead last, as I recall.  Which is a shame, because Sex Criminals is, to my mind, one of the smartest and funniest comics I'm reading, and a genuinely compassionate and non-judgmental look at relationships, living with mental health issues, and, of course, sex.  In this volume, lovers Jon and Suzie start to explore the wider community of people who, like them, stop time when they climax, and also deal with Jon's descent into depression, and Suzie's difficulties coping with his emotional issues.  Like all the best love stories, this is one in which the two lovers are just as interesting on their own as they are together, and in which their problems are real enough that you can understand why they might have trouble making it work, even though you really want them to.

  • The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III - As I already wrote when I crowned this book one of my best reads of 2015, I went into Overture expecting it to be a pointless nostalgia tour of what is still Gaiman's greatest achievement.  Instead it not only tells a wonderful story in its own right, but expands the world of the original Sandman, revealing new layers to a character who had seemed fully-explored.  Williams's art, meanwhile, is gorgeous and hallucinatory, jumping from style to style and busting through the limitations of panel and page orientation to establish the chaos that Dream unleashes when he allows a Dream Vortex to go unchecked.  It's an important addition to the Sandman story, and a beautiful work of art in its own right.

  • Saga, Volume 5 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples - I was a little underwhelmed by the previous volume in Vaughan and Staples's far-ranging, gonzo space opera, about a pair of star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of a galactic war and their forbidden child.  It seemed to be at the stage where, instead of starting to tie plotlines together and gear up towards the stories ending, the writers were merely proliferating entities and complications in order to stave off that ending.  Volume 5 doesn't exactly address that concern--on the contrary, it introduces several new players to the game in which Marko and Alana are merely pawns, and ends with a huge cliffhanger that takes them even farther than they were from their desired happy ending--but it's also a reminder that in the hands of good enough writers, this doesn't have to be a problem.  Saga's bright, complicated, endlessly fascinating world continues to be its most appealing quality, but close behind is the comic's serious handling of issues like PTSD and the responsibility of citizens for wars fought in their name.  This volume's conclusion, in which Marko and Alana realize that they can never overcome the damage wrought by the war that brought them together, but that being together gives them the chance to be better people, is both clear-eyed and hopeful.
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:
  • Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland - I have some problems with Garland's fable about artificial intelligence and gender relations, which I might yet write about, and I think that on the whole it is perhaps less thoughtful and intelligent than it thinks it is.  But that is still pretty thoughtful and intelligent.  It's a pleasure to watch a movie whose characters seriously discuss what intelligence and personhood actually mean, and which then turns around and suggests that these high-minded discussions are meaningless so long as the people having them are incapable of recognizing the humanity of women.  That the film has the courage of its convictions, and takes its story to its predictably awful ending, is yet another point in its favor.

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, written by Peter Harness, directed by Toby Haynes - Like Ex Machina, the BBC's adaptation of Susanna Clarke's novel is imperfect.  In particular, it underserves the character of Stephen Black, and the significance of the novel's ending for him (in fact, one might argue that it misses a lot of the significance of the novel's ending).  That misstep aside, however, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell captures a lot of what made the original novel so special and inimitable, particularly the numinous, subtle quality of its magic.  Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan are both perfect in the roles of Strange and Norrell, and the latter in particular manages to imbue a character who on page can seem a bit like a caricature with a great deal of humanity, making him sympathetic even as he does the most selfish, cowardly, destructive things.  We're about to see several other important genre novels adapted into miniseries, including American Gods and Red Mars, and one can only hope that their treatment will be as thoughtful and respectful as Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell's.

  • Mad Max: Fury Road, written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris, directed by George Miller (review) - Much as I enjoyed it on a first viewing, it took a while for me to fully realize just how special and accomplished Fury Road is.  It certainly didn't hurt that it came very early in the year, and that every genre movie that followed it--even relative successes like The Martian or Star Wars: The Force Awakens--only threw into sharper relief how incredibly smart and well-made Fury Road is.  That this is also a movie that is almost effortlessly feminist--all it takes is treating its female characters like people, not sidekicks to the men, whose exploitation and sexual abuse doesn't need to be put on display--makes it even more of a delight.  This is one of the best movies I saw in 2015 in any genre, and it definitely deserves to win a Hugo.
Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:
  • Gravity Falls, "Northwest Mansion Mystery" (written by Alex Hirsch, Mark Rizzo, and Jeff Rowe, directed by Matt Braly) and "Weirdmageddon: Part 1" (written by Alex Hirsch, Josh Weinstein, and Jeff Rowe, directed by Sunil Hall) - In its final stretch of episode (though technically the season finale aired in 2016), Gravity Falls more than held on to its crown as one of (if not the) smartest and best-made genre TV series.  The continuing adventures of twins Dipper and Mabel, who investigate strange happenings in the the weird town of Gravity Falls, combine humor, smart writing, strongly-felt emotional beats, and a willingness to get absolutely batshit weird.  "Northwest Mansion Mystery" is one of the show's best standalone mysteries, in which Dipper is recruited by town mean girl Pacifica to discover why her family's mansion is being haunted.  "Weirdmaggedon: Part 1" is the first part of the series's final story, in which Lovecraftian horror is unleashed on the town and the rules of reality are suspended.  It's frankly astonishing that a show aimed at children is willing and able to depict material that delves so deeply into the unheimlich, but "Weirdmaggedon" is also a fantastic adventure story, and one that also builds up to the even greater adventure to come.

  • Jessica Jones, "AKA Ladies Night", written by Melissa Rosenberg, directed by S.J. Clarkson - On the whole I found Jessica Jones a little forgettable on the episode level, but its pilot episode is one of the most perfect hours of television I've seen in some time (certainly one of the most perfect hours of television delivered by Marvel TV, which tends to produce weak episodes even in otherwise strong shows).  It introduces the characters, the predicament, the villain, and ends with a complication that is as shocking as it is galvanizing.  As a pilot episode, it does exactly what it was meant to do--get us invested in this story and its protagonists, and rooting for their victory.  In a genre landscape that is increasingly forgetting how to do things like this, Jessica Jones's ability to do so feels like something that should be rewarded.

  • Orphan Black, "Ruthless in Purpose, and Insidious in Method", written by Graeme Manson and Chris Roberts, directed by Aaron Morton - Orphan Black is another show that has never been particularly strong on the episode level, but I thought its third season stepped up its storytelling in several ways (though I seem to have been alone in this).  It found a suitably imposing enemy for Sarah and her clone sisters, figured out a way to use some of the show's weakest and most inconsistently-written characters, and best of all, it finally delivered a single, self-contained episode that works as its own bit of storytelling while still paying off the threads of plot built up throughout the season.  In "Ruthless in Purpose, and Insidious in Method," Sarah tries to manipulate her enemy-clone Rachel into giving her the research that went into creating them and their sisters, only to spring a trap set by the conniving Rachel.  It's a fun, twisty heist story (which also introduces a new clone who is instantly engaging, no small achievement in a show that already has half a dozen characters played by the same actress) whose ending is unexpected but also completely earned.  This is the level Orphan Black should be aspiring to all the time.

  • Person of Interest, "If-Then-Else", written by Denise Thé, directed by Chris Fisher - The beleaguered artificial-intelligence-procedural, whose fifth and final season is set to be burned off this summer, delivered an extremely strong fourth season, one that pushed its characters to the limit and explored new aspects of them.  No episode did that more memorably than "If-Then-Else," which takes us inside the head of the AI who helps (some might say commands) the human characters, as it tries to figure out an escape route for them after they've been trapped in a fatal dead end situation.  As the AI plays and replays the scenario in its processors, looking for a plan that won't end in death for at least some of its assets, we also get flashbacks to its early days, in which it is being taught by its creator and mentor (Michael Emerson) to value life, and not just treat people as pawns in its greater plan.  "If-Then-Else" is also an episode that finally pays off the long-simmering romance between characters Root (Amy Acker) and Shaw (Sarah Shahi), which if nothing else is a testament to how much this show's writers can cram into an hour and still end up with an exciting, nerve-wracking episode.


Unknown said...

As I wrote in my SH review, Scott McCloud's "The Sculptor" is the best graphic novel I have read in years. It's also at the top of Deutsch's list. A must-read, and also must-nominate and must-win for the Hugo, IMO.

Barry Deutsch said...

Obviously, I agree, Raz. But I will be shocked if it even gets nominated, let alone wins; Hugo voters generally either go for comics published by the big 3, or for webcomics. Which is fine; what it comes down to is, that's what most Hugo voters are reading.

Abigail, thanks so much for the link! I've been having second thoughts about "Bitch Planet" and thinking it might be better than a couple of things that made my top five. And I really liked "Sex Criminals" (which I think I voted for last year) and "Sandman: Overture." I'm a couple of volumes behind on "Saga," but I'll catch up eventually. :-)

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