Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The 2017 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Media Categories

These are the categories that have the most color and make the most noise.  And they're usually the ones where I feel the most grounded when I come to nominate, but this year I actually managed to miss out on several movies that I wanted to consider for Best Dramatic Presentation--things like High Rise, Midnight Special, Kubo and the Two Strings, and even Zootopia.  Nevertheless, I'm pleased with how my nominations worked out this year--I tend to think of media as being the more generic arm of SFF, but the works I've nominated here are each so much their own thing that I'd hate to imagine my year without them.

Previous posts in this series:

Best Related Work:

This is the category that I always feel most guilty about not nominating more widely in.  There's a lot of great non-fiction being written in genre right now, on- and off-line, but since my threshold for substantiveness excludes most individual blog posts, I often end up with very little that I want to nominate here.  The solution, obviously, is to read more long-form non-fiction--UIP's Modern Masters of Science Fiction is a great source that I somehow never get around to--but happily this year has been a good one for long-form online essays and blog series.

(Not listed in this ballot, because he's asked people not to nominate it, but still very much worth reading and remembering, is Jonathan McCalmont's "Nothing Beside Remains: A History of the New Weird", which delves into the short half-life of this genre, and the critical conversation that surrounded it.)

  • A People's History of the Marvel Universe by Steven Attewell - The only criticism I can make of Attewell's series is that it seems to be on permanent hiatus, just when we could use an independent history of this corner of pop culture, told from a decidedly leftist perspective.  Attewell delves into the origins of several key Marvel characters and concepts, from Magneto's background as a Holocaust survivor, to the infamous "mutant metaphor".  He describes both the evolution of ideas we've come to take for granted, and the pitfalls the Marvel writers fell into as they tried to grapple with social upheaval and the need to reflect it in their world of heroes and villains.  With superheroes currently one of the dominant forms in our pop culture, a perspective like Attewell's is invaluable.

  • Boucher, Backbone, and Blake - the Legacy of Blakes 7 by Erin Horakova - One of the many remarkable things about Erin's essay is how accessible and thought-provoking it is even to someone like myself, who has been hearing about Blakes 7 for years, but has seen almost nothing of it.  This is by no means an introductory piece or a guide to newbies.  Its focus is specific, one might almost say deliberately fannish.  And yet, by turning her eye on some very particular aspects of the show, and the people who were instrumental in achieving them, Erin builds a larger argument about the intersection between art and politics, about the capacity of popular entertainment to grapple with difficult, even radical ideas, and about the specific circumstances on the set of Blakes 7 that allowed it to do so, and how modern work would struggle to achieve the same effect.  It's a brilliant piece of cultural commentary (as already acknowledged by the voters for the BSFA award's non-fiction category) and one that absolutely belongs on this year's Hugo ballot.

Best Graphic Story:

  • Clean Room (Volume 1: Immaculate Conception) by Gail Simone and Jon Davis-Hunt - I didn't expect much from this series, which after all has a rather shopworn premise--spurred by the death of a loved one, an ordinary person begins investigating a secretive organization and falls through the trapdoor of reality.  But Simone executes this story incredibly well, starting with the organization at its center, a Scientology-esque cult that just happens to be humanity's last line of defense against body-snatching demons.  Davis-Hunt's artwork perfectly captures the horror of Simone's creatures, but the heart of this story is not the gore, but the two women at its center--plucky, no-nonsense journalist Chloe, and tough-as-nails cult leader Astrid, who quickly become fast frenemies, and allies in the war to come.

  • Paper Girls (Volume 1, Volume 2) by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang - Given all the excitement surrounding Stranger Things (which I have no doubt will be gracing this year's Best Dramatic Presentation nominations) it's a little surprising that Saga didn't use the Netflix juggernaut to promote Vaughan's new series, which tells a very similar story, but addresses the main complaint that a lot of fans had against it.  Paper Girls is Stranger Things starring four Barbs, the less-popular, slightly weird girls who just happen to be the only ones left standing when reality takes a break on one ordinary fall day in 1988.  In addition to being a weird science fiction mystery, it's also a story about the relationships between women--between friends, between the girls and their mothers, and, in the second volume, between one of the heroines and her future self.

  • Monsterss (Volume 1: Awakening) by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda - The story of Monstress is, frankly, a little on the familiar side--fantasy world, promised ones, looming apocalypses--but it's more than made up for by the richness of its world.  I've already written about Takeda's stunning art, but it would be nothing without Liu's work in building a complicated, multifaceted fantasy society divided between various races, castes, and guilds.  The fact that nearly every character in the story is a woman, and that disability is a common fact of life in the story's cruel, war-torn world, makes Monstress an interesting twist on its type, no matter how familiar.

  • My Life as a Background Slytherin by Emily McGovern - With her hilarious web-series, McGovern has done the seemingly impossible--found a new corner of humor in the seemingly exhausted field of Harry Potter fanfic and fan-art.  As the title indicates, the strip follows the adventures of Emily, a member of house Slytherin during the events of the Potter books (though background Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Gryffindor characters also make guest appearances).  It uses her perspective to poke fun at the book's characters, as well as the more questionable qualities of Hogwarts as an educational institution, and a house system that relegates a quarter of its students to the "evil" house at the age of eleven.

  • The Vision (Volume 1: Little Worse Than a Man, Volume 2: Little Better Than a Beast) by Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, and Michael Walsh - I've written about this comic several times already, including selecting it as one of the best books I read in 2016, so it's probably not a surprise to find it on this ballot.  But what feels particularly right about nominating King's run of The Vision for a Hugo is that, while most superhero stories are considered at least SF-adjacent, this is just a plain old science fiction story, about a robot who tries to be human, and the disastrous, tragic results that follow.  That the Vision is also a former superhero plays into the story (and allows King to make some interesting observations about the rights and duties of a person who has saved the Earth multiple times), but not as much as you might expect.  Walta and Walsh's art perfectly complements the chilling, compelling story, which manages to surprise you at every turn, even when you know how it's going to end.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:

  • A Midsummer Night's Dream (adapted by Russell T. Davies, directed by David Kerr) (review) - It might sound strange to say that Davies stages Shakespeare's play as an episode of Doctor Who, but that is exactly what he does, complete with a minimally-conceived yet surprisingly-coherent alternate world setting, a looming menace who seeks to stamp out freedom and creativity, and trickster figures who save the day by refusing to play by the rules.  The result is one of the best things Davies has done in a while, and one of the freshest approaches to the play I've ever seen.

  • Arrival (written by Eric Heisserer, directed by Denis Villeneuve) (review) - For all my reservations about the changes that Arrival makes to Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life", there's no denying that taken on its own, it's a powerful, moving film, one that proves that there is room and an audience for thoughtful, cerebral SF movies that center women, soft sciences, and emotional connections.

  • Deadpool (written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, directed by Tim Miller) - I expect at least one MCU movie, if not two, to make it onto this year's ballot, but I'd much rather see a nomination for Deadpool.  Deeply imperfect and not nearly as funny as it clearly thinks it is, it is nevertheless the only superhero work from 2016 that recognizes the inherent ridiculousness, and fundamental flaws, of the concept, and treats it accordingly.  For that, it deserves to be rewarded.

  • Hidden Figures (written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, directed by Theodore Melfi) - I can't think of a movie that came out in 2016 that seems more calculated to appeal to Hugo voters, with their space program fannishness and love of everything that is geeky and science-y.  The fact that Hidden Figures sheds light on a part of the space program's history that had remained relatively unheralded for years makes it even more perfect for this category--it's about time Hugo voters gave these women their due along with everyone else.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:

  • Black Mirror, "San Junipero" (written by Charlie Brooker, directed by Owen Harris) - There's been some discussion over what it means that the hands-down best episode of Black Mirror is also the one that abandons the show's trademark cynicism and brutality, and tells a sweet love story with a happy ending.  I think a better way of putting it is that "San Junipero" shows us Black Mirror at its best, as a show that imagines how technology can change us in ways that not everyone is ready for, and which are not seen as a universal good, but which can be embraced precisely by those people for whom the old system didn't always work--though the episode doesn't sensationalize it, it's no accident that the love story at its center is between two women (one of whom is bisexual, and spent years happily and faithfully married to a man).  Whether that's something the show wants to continue exploring is up to Brooker, but in the meantime, "San Junipero" is too fine an accomplishment not to recognize.  (Bubbling under is the episode "Nosedive", whose execution just gets more perfect the further I move away from it.  I don't think it's a coincidence that this story, too, is less bleak than the typical Black Mirror episode.)

  • Gravity Falls, "Weirdmageddon 3: Take Back the Falls" (written by Shion Takeuchi, Mark Rizzo, Jeff Rowe, Josh Weinstein, and Alex Hirsch, directed by Stephen Sandoval) - My last chance to get Hugo voters to recognize one of the best genre stories of the last few years.  "Weirdmageddon 3" is the final part of Gravity Falls's explosive and completely satisfying series finale, in which the titular town must ban together to defeat the incursion of Cthulhu-esque demons who plan to take over our reality.  It's an episode that gives all of the show's wide and wonderfully drawn cast of characters their moment to shine, and gives the evil villain Bill Cipher his well-deserved trouncing.  And it features the show's trademark weirdness and horror, both of which are achieved at a pitch that is astonishing in a work of children's entertainment.

  • Person of Interest, "The Day the World Went Away" (written by Andy Callahan and Melissa Scrivner-Love, directed by Fred Toye) - Person of Interest's final season was hit-and-miss, and I wasn't overjoyed by the neatness of its ending.  But in its best moments, such as this episode, it remained a show that challenged its audience to imagine how an all-powerful AI would see the world, and how such a creature could be a person without being in any way human.  "The Day the World Went Away" introduces some truly dizzying ideas about the meaning of life in a world in which we can all be modeled in a computer--"We're all simulations now", one character concludes, and therefore "we never die".  It's a reminder that at its best, Person of Interest was one of the most purely SFnal shows on TV.  (Bubbling under is the episode "6,741", which explores how an AI can play with, and even destroy, our perception of reality.  It's probably not a coincidence that the two standout episodes of the season are the ones that most heavily feature the Root/Shaw romance.)

  • Supergirl, "Falling" (written by Robert Rovner and Jessica Queller, directed by Larry Teng) - Supergirl has been extremely hit-and-miss, especially in its approach to political issues such as feminism or (in its current season) immigration.  But this first season episode shows off what the show can do when it gets its concepts just right.  It takes a well-worn comics trope, red kryptonite, and explores the true horror of its implications, for Kara herself as well as the people around her.  And it's an episode that dives straight into the show's feminist underpinnings, as going evil, for Kara, means trying on various "bad girl" personas modeled by the women in her life.  The result is a surprisingly resonant episode with a great deal to say about how women end up performing goodness and badness (it's no coincidence that every personality change Kara experiences comes with a wardrobe change), and how those roles can end up driving them literally insane.

  • The Good Place, "Pilot" (written by Michael Schur, directed by Drew Goddard) - I would have liked to nominate The Good Place's entire first season, but alas, the brilliant ending that takes a smart and interesting comedy and turns it into one of the most shocking and delightful series I've seen in a long time aired in 2017.  The show still deserves to be recognized by the Hugos, however, and the pilot is a good choice because of the way it lays out the show's fantasy worldbuilding.  The Good Place is a comedy whose laughs are derived in no small part from its ability to construct an internally consistent fantasy world, and the fact that it does this so well makes it one of the best genre shows of 2016.

14 comments:

Stuart Worthington said...

Good list. Do you watch Steven Universe? I feel like I should already know the answer to this, forgive me, but I'm really curious.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I keep hearing good things about it, but I still haven't picked it up. There are so many episodes to catch up on at this point...

Aoede said...

The positive side is that they're all very short episodes -- take out the opening and the credits and it's just 10 minutes. But of course even bitty episodes like that stack up over time!

Paper Girls sounds really interesting and I'm surprised I haven't heard anything about it before given the description, as you say -- for context, I'm not super plugged into the comics scene, but I've heard of Monstress. Have you read Mirror?

AJD said...

@Stuart Worthington, which Steven Universe episodes would you nominate?

Likely candidates from 2016 seem to me to include The Answer, Log Date 7 15 2, Gem Drill, Mr. Greg, Bismuth, Earthlings, Mindful Education, and Last One Out of Beach City.

Last One Out of Beach City is probably my personal favorite of those episodes, but Bismuth and The Answer both seem like more likely Hugo material.

Adam Roberts said...

I wonder if Hugo should drop its Best Related category? I'd guess you're not alone among Hugo voters in having strong, informed opinions about most of the categories, but not so much about this one. Now that's not (very obviously, given your personal track record) because you don't care about the critical discourse surrounding the genre. There's something in the way this category is framed, or about its unfit to the Hugos more broadly, that just leads it into fatuity. I don't mean to sound over-grumpy; maybe I'm wrong. But looking back over its history: I don't begrudge Clute and Nichols' Encyclopedia its Hugo of course (although I wonder if it really deserves three Hugos -- wouldn't one be enough?); and Julie Phillips's book on Tiptree is evidently important book that deserved the recognition; but those aside the winners in this category going back tend to the lightweight (I don't want to sound like I'm dissing the James/Mendlesohn Cambridge Guide to SF, which is a fine book of its kind; but its kind is the synthetic, introductory-level student guide, rather than original critical work). Kameron Hurley winning for her blogpost three years ago, stirring though that blogpost was, suggests Best Related figures for at least some voters as in effect 'best fan writing by professionals who also happen to be fans but whom we can't nominate for Best Fan Writer because they're industry professionals'.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Aoede:

I hadn't ever heard of Mirror until you mentioned it. Looks interesting.

Adam:

Yeah, there's something fundamentally broken about the related work category. It's connected to the slippage between it, best fan writer, and best fanzine, but I don't think that's all it is (after all, I'd love to see the category recognize more nonfiction published in non-traditional venues and formats, and indeed my two nominees more or less answer that description). Rather, I suspect the problem is that the category is too widely defined, and covers too broad a field. So the choices that end up making it onto the ballot can tend to be, as you say, rather lightweight, and driven a great deal by their author's name recognition. This year, for example, I imagine the forgone winner is Hurley's essay collection (which, for the record, I find to be a much more reasonable choice than her single essay in 2014), but is that because it's one of the top works of genre non-fiction from 2016, or the one whose author is the most recognized?

Adam Roberts said...

The Hugo is a fan award, so it's not surprising that Best Related gravitates towards fan favourite authors. Sometimes that does entail clumping, as when David Langford won best fan writer for 18 years in a row, or whatever it was; but fans having favourites is kind-of a thumbnail of what it means to be a fan, and these are minor categories, where people care less and so argue the toss less. And I really don't want to sound sour. I agree with you, it's hard to see anybody but Hurley taking this category this year. And that's fine: she does polemic well; polemic is a valid and important mode of discourse, and the topic of her polemic is an important one. I just think there really needs to be more to critical debate than just polemic. Or maybe what I'm actually saying that 'Best Related' needs to be 'Best Critical', which is perhaps off the point of what the Hugo wants the category to be: I suppose there may be people who see its current catch-all nature as a feature, not a bug. Still. Put it this way: though my profile is not as high as many in the genre, it's higher than some. In 2016 I published a 250,000-word history of science fiction with Palgrave. Now I know very well that I've more chance of riding a hippogriff to the moon than of seeing that title get any Hugo votes whatsoever; and that's not just because I haven't been hawking it around genre venues with a 'vote for me' hat on -- I could have engaged in months of such hawking and it wouldn't make a blind bit of difference. And that's fine: I genuinely am blithe about that fact. But my point is: if my book doesn't so much as register on the Hugo radar, then what chance other critics doing new work in the field? What odds would you give on Ritch Calvin's Feminist Science Fiction and Feminist Epistemology, Steven Hrotic's Religion in Science Fiction or Sharon McGraw's Race in Science Fiction or Lisa Yaszek and Patrick B. Sharp's Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction getting any award attention? All book-length, 2016 titles. Why has, say, Wesleyan University Press never won a Hugo? Liverpool University Press?

I suppose the obvious objection here is that this isn't what the Hugos are about, which is fair enough. Most scholarly critics of SF are fans, but most fans are not scholarly critics of SF. But, to repeat myself from the earlier comment, most fans are interested in the broader critical discussions around the genre. There ought to be a way of widening the debate, or the meta-debate.

Greg Hiebert said...

My wife and I are voting for the very first time this year and The History of Science Fiction is definitely on our ballot. Just throwing it out there, so you know there was one person that loved it. It is a Book of Gold for me (to steal a great concept from Wolfe).

Adam Roberts said...

Thank you, Greg!

Tom Shapira said...

Mirror was a comic I desperately wanted to love, made by all the right people, that just didn't click for me - the actual page-to-page pacing felt laborious and they spent so long on world-building without making it actually intersting (though, to be fair, I've read it in the context of the 8House series - which was a disaster; maybe it work better in solo terms).

In terms of other comics worth mentioning Chew published its final, gloriously madcap, issue; almost hard to believe that series that started with a detective-with-a-gimmick premise would reach such heights of weirdness (and end up answering of the questions set up in the myth-arc).

Transformers: More than Meets the Eye continues to be the best written space opera on the shelf (the art is still too busy)- it would've won a dozen Eisners by now if it wasn't called "Transformers". a wonderfully human series that takes all the regular tropes of transformers fiction and uses them in remarkable way: how does a society that spent millions of years at war deals with peace? if you are "born" with a particular alt-mode does it dictate your course in life? can giant war-robots fall in love? (the answer to the last one is "yes")

Aoede said...

It's true that I haven't read the other 8House stuff myself. Why was it disastrous?

Tom Shapira said...

Publication was all out of synch: two of the series basically fell off the face of the earth midway through the run, Archlight took over a year to publish its four issues (by the time issue #3 came out I've pretty much forgotten what happened previously); and even when stuff was completed it felt underwhelming - both Arclight and From Under Mountains ended being more like a prologue to a story than a proper tale.
This was THE project I was most hyped for in 2016: I loved all of the creators involved (to be fair - artistically it was a triumph) and the concept scope sounded intriguing; but it ended being much ado about nothing.

Aoede said...

Oh, I see -- what a pity! I'd heard that it wasn't going to continue, but since I'd only gone and read the Mirror collected issues after the fact I wasn't aware there were so many publication problems.

temmere said...

I can certainly understand why so many people found "San Junipero" appealing, but I've spent far more time thinking about "Nosedive."

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