Sunday, March 11, 2018

The 2018 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Media Categories

The Hugo nominating deadline will soon be upon us, and as ever there are a million things I wanted to watch, read, play, or ponder before the nominating period closes.  Just in these categories--in which I feel reasonably well-versed this year--the list of things I really wanted to get to include the Japanese anime film Your Name, the fourth season of Black Mirror, Fullbright's recent game Tacoma, and Strange Horizons's 100 African Writers of SFF project.  As ever, be sure to check out the 2018 Hugo Recommendation Spreadsheet, and the 2018 Hugo Wiki, for other suggestions (and, of course, you can also add your own to both).


Best Related Work:
  • "Freshly Remember'd: Kirk Drift" by Erin Horáková (Strange Horizons) - It's been nearly a year since Erin's masterful essay--about James Kirk, how pop culture processes masculinity, and how the forces that have changed how we view our male heroes are also reflected in politics.  Aside from being a brilliant--and brilliantly written--bit of textual analysis, which repeatedly demonstrates that Kirk is a much more thoughtful, respectful, and even feminist character than the conventional wisdom about him would have it, "Kirk Drift" speaks to vital currents in our culture.  Why do we prioritize bluster and machoism over competence and cooperation, so much that we reinvent characters who embody the latter traits so that they instead espouse the former?  I doubt there's another piece of criticism published last year that was as relevant or as necessary as this essay, and it deserves to be recognized by the Hugos.

  • Iain M. Banks by Paul Kincaid (University of Illinois Press) - The Modern Masters of Science Fiction series (edited by Gary K. Wolfe) has been publishing tantalizing volumes about mid- and late-twentieth century SF authors for several years, but none were as designed to appeal to my interests as one of my favorite critics writing about one of my favorite authors.  In this short but illuminating volume, Kincaid walks us through Banks's career--with the aid of copious references to interviews, contemporary reviews, and reminiscences of Banks's friends in the UK SF community.  Most gratifyingly, he ties together Banks's SF and mainstream output, arguing that the gap between the two is nowhere near as wide as many critics have argued, and that there are common themes that recur throughout his work.  He also delivers a close, strongly political analysis of the Culture novels, and while I don't entirely agree with his conclusions, his argument is cogent and engaging.  This is a major work of criticism on a major author, and any fan of Banks owes it to themselves to read it.

Best Graphic Story:
  • Black Bolt, Vol. 1: Hard Time by Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward (Marvel Comics) - If, like me, your first encounter with Black Bolt, the leader of the Inhumans, was in Marvel TV's misbegotten TV series, then the first volume of Ahmed's run will be not just a treat, but a necessary corrective.  Ahmed strips Black Bolt of his powers (including his earth-shattering voice) and places him in a cosmic prison, at the whim of a sadistic, all-powerful warden.  The stiff-necked king is forced to make common cause with prisoners he would otherwise despise and dismiss, which gives them the opportunity to showcase their humanity, and him the chance to earn his.  Ward's psychedelic art is essential to the story's success, conveying both the irrationality of the prison, and the characters' inner turmoil.

  • Shade the Changing Girl, Vol 1: Earth Girl Made Easy by Cecil Castelucci and Marley Zarcone (Young Animal) - I don't read a lot of superhero comics in general, and when I do I tend to gravitate towards Marvel because those are the characters I know from the movies and TV shows.  But DC couldn't have targeted me better with its recent Young Animal line, which focuses on characters who are not so much heroic as they are weird.  In Shade the Changing Girl, an alien thrill-seeker steals the cloak of madness that once belonged to the poet Rac Shade, and finds her consciousness transported to the body of a comatose teenage bully on Earth.  The story charts her adjustment to life as a human girl, to the consequences of her host's past cruelty, and to the madness of the cloak which constantly threatens to overwhelm her, even as her friends try to conceal her crime and figure out a way to get her home.  The result feels much more like proper SF than a superhero story.

  • Bitch Planet, Vol. 2: President Bitch by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro (Image Comics) - I was intrigued but not entirely won over by the first Bitch Planet volume, which introduces a world in which women dubbed Non-Compliant--too mouthy, too smart, too unattractive, too gay--are dumped in a sadistic off-world prison.  The second volume, having established its premise, settles down to its story, and delivers something much more satisfying, which has left me eager to see where the story goes from here.  The various characters feel more lived in, as they form a group that rebels and takes over the prison.  And the forces arrayed against them begin to act in earnest, setting up even more interesting stories for future volumes.

  • My Favorite Things is Monsters, Vol. 1 by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics) - Here's where I admit that I don't really have an argument for why Ferris's brilliant, magnificent debut work belongs on the Hugo shortlist.  While there are genre elements in this story--chiefly heroine Karen's fascination with monster movies and her defensive self-image as a burgeoning monster herself--this is largely a mimetic story, albeit one that bounces between time periods, and between Karen's life story and her musings about art, high and low.  But it's also one of the most brilliant books, much less graphic novels, I read in 2017, and if I have the opportunity to nominate it for something, I'm going to do it, even if I have to hang that on a rather flimsy thread.

  • Crawl Space by Jesse Jacobs (Koyama Press) - I heard a lot of praise for this short, self-contained piece before I read it, but none of it prepared me for just how assured and effective Jacobs's deceptively simple story would be.  In a rented home in a nameless suburb, new girl in school Daisy discovers that the washing machine in the basement leads to an alternate dimension, where the normal rules of physics and reality don't apply.  She invites one friend, who invites several others, and soon the entire class is tripping on this altered reality--getting lost, or trashing the place, or just imposing on their host's patience.  Using a very simple scheme of lines and colors, Jacobs brilliantly conveys the strangeness of the other world, and the way it affects the humans who venture into it, while also telling a sweet, sad story about teenagers who just want to fit in.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:

2017 was a tremendous year for genre film and other sorts of dramatic presentations, and I think we can all make a solid guess as to how this category will shake out.  Which is why I've tried to give my nominations to slightly more offbeat choices--you won't find Logan, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, or The Last Jedi here, even though I liked all of them.
  • Colossal (review) - In a year full of lauded and much-discussed superhero and monster movies, this is the one that got away, even though it deserved better.  Nacho Vigalondo's expertly-turned dark comedy, in which heroine Anne Hathaway discovers that she can control a monster menacing Seoul, presents itself as something gimmicky, and turns out to shockingly smart and cutting.  It's a brilliant portrait of abuse and how people fall into abusive relationships, and an original, desperately needed take on the superhero canard that with great power, comes great responsibility.  If anyone should be giving this movie its due, it's the Hugos.

  • Crisis on Earth X - I enjoy the DC TV shows (certainly more than the DC movies or most of Marvel's TV output) but I'd be the first to admit that they're rarely very good, much less great, TV.  But this project, in which of the four CW shows--Supergirl, ArrowThe Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow--contributed an hour to a single continuing story featuring all of their characters banding together to battle an invasion from an alternate Earth governed by Nazis, was a genuinely impressive achievement.  It's been noted in the past that the CW shows do superhero crossovers better than movies like Batman v Superman or Justice League, but Crisis on Earth X takes its storytelling to the next level, genuinely replicating the comics crossover event (and given what I've heard of recent DC and Marvel crossovers, with results that are much more enjoyable).  It's its own thing, and worthy or recognition for that fact.

  • Get Out - I obviously don't need to add too much to the mountains of praise heaped upon this movie, but for Hugo voters in particular I think that it's important to recognize it.  Get Out does exactly what we keep arguing genre fiction is best at, take a fantastical situation and use it to make incisive comments about the real world.  At this moment in particular, with the Hugos finally opening their ranks to perspectives of people other than just white men, the way Get Out uses the tropes of horror to make its more mundane--and thus even more terrifying--point is something the award should be recognizing.

  • Night in the Woods (review) - I'd like to see this category recognizing more games and other forms of interactive narratives, and Night in the Woods is a perfect opportunity to do so.  It's a great game, and its use of the fantastic is perfectly judged, imbuing the failing small town at the game's center with a sense of weirdness and looming horror, and echoing heroine Mae's mental health problems.  Its political subtext, as well, feels ripe for recognition by the Hugos--how many recent works have not only drawn on Lovecraftian horror, but used it as a metaphor for the economic hollowing out of the Rust Belt?

  • Twin Peaks: The Return (review) - I know that this is probably a long shot, but dammit, The Return was one of the most brilliant, groundbreaking genre works published last year, not just in film or TV but overall.  The temptation to wallow in fanservice and lead viewers down a merry path of clues to the show's mythology must have been immense, but instead David Lynch and his co-writer Mark Frost deliver not just a rewarding, self-contained story, but a meditation on guilt, trauma, and the possibility of compassion and healing.  A lot of people will probably single out the magnificent, nearly-wordless "Episode 8", but I think The Return is something much bigger than that single surreal hour.  It's a tale of a battle between good and evil that genuinely understands the full import of both, which is all too rare, and exhilarating when it finally happens.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:

This category, on the other hand, is leaving me pretty flummoxed this year.  There were a lot of high profile genre TV shows in 2017, but most of them worked on the level of their seasons (when they worked at all) and not so much on the level of the episode.  (Here's where not having watched Black Mirror, or for that matter the well-received but much lower-profile anthology series Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams, is proving to be a problem.)
  • Legion, "Chapter 1" - I was a little underwhelmed by Legion as a whole, but I can't deny the impact of its visuals and its gonzo storytelling (even if both were subsequently shown up by Twin Peaks, which does the same thing with so much more heart).  The show's first episode is a good choice for a Hugo nomination even if, like me, you're not in love with the entire season, because it's where Legion's commitment to weirdness, and to wrong-footing the audience, is at its strongest.  It's an hour that runs on suggestion, confusion, and stories-within-stories, and which doesn't resolve itself until its very last moments.  If the show that follows doesn't quite live up to the promise of this beginning, it's still a remarkable hour of TV in its own right.

  • The Good Place, "The Trolley Problem" - I admit, there's a part of me that wants to spend three nominating slots on The Good Place, and also nominate "Michael's Gambit", the brilliant first season finale in which the show's entire scheme reveals itself, and "Dance Dance Resolution", in which the show takes itself apart and reinvents itself a dozen times within the space of less than half an hour.  But "The Trolley Problem", in which the titular ethical dilemma is brought to vivid, blood-spurting life to haunt the flustered, good-hearted Chidi, is The Good Place in a nutshell--brilliant worldbuilding, great characters, and some of the chewiest ideas in pop culture.  If Twin Peaks was the best genre drama of 2017, The Good Place is the best genre comedy, and like the David Lynch extravaganza, it runs on a combination of weirdness, impeccable execution, and pure heart.

  • The Handmaid's Tale, "Offred" - Hulu's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel was equal parts timely and of its own time.  One can't imagine a more relevant time for a show about a totalitarian world in which women are enslaved and reduced to their reproductive function, but at the same time, putting the novel on screen throws its problems--particularly the limitations of its worldbuilding and its issues with race--into sharper relief (and the choice to continue the show past the novel's end will probably exacerbate those issues).  But "Offred", the series premiere, is the episode that hews most closely to the novel without exposing the show's limitations.  The strengths of the show--Elisabeth Moss's magnetic central performance, Reed Morano's claustrophobic direction, the stifling set and costume design--are on full display, and the pilot's arc, in which Offred first introduces us to her hellish situation and then vows to survive, is irresistible.

  • Star Trek: Discovery, "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad" - This is not truly a great hour of television, but it does something that hardly any other genre show is even trying to do right now--tell a self-contained science fiction story within a continuing setting that is interesting and enjoyable in its own right, not because of how it moves a larger, overarching plot.  The fact that this story is a time-loop episode even feels like a deliberate nod to how few shows try to make episodes like this anymore, and how few manage to do it well.  Plus, I like the idea of having Discovery on my ballot, as ambivalent as I ended up feeling about it.  It wouldn't feel right for the first Star Trek show in a decade not to at least get a nod at the Hugos.

4 comments:

James said...

I nominated Get Out as well, along with Coco. I am so far behind in my current reading that I was only able to nominate The Stone Sky for best novel. I hope I can get to read the final nominees in time.

Unknown said...

I haven't started this season, but in the past iZombie has really been the best/only genre show that tries to balance mysteries of the week with on-going story arcs. It was nice to see Discovery make steps in that direction - each episode's A plot definitely has a beginning, middle, and end - even if the on-going arc takes over, especially as the season moves on.

But the script for "Magic to Make" is just so good, particularly as it manages to put a spotlight on both Burnham and Stamets while also allowing for Tilly and Tyler to have strong supporting roles as well. Especially when compared with the Legends of Tomorrow time loop episode, which is also great, but only really has room for Zari to develop.




Greg Machlin said...

Voted for "Night in the Woods" in LF, and "Legion: Chapter 1" in SF! I...voted for two *other* episodes of "The Good Place" (Michael's Gambit and Dance Dance Resolution). Really liked The Trolley Problem, but the two I mentioned blew me away. I almost added The Trolley Problem, but that would've meant striking Twin Peaks, Ep 8, or "Pickle Rick" which I could not do.

Greg Machlin said...

Also, how did I forget CRAWL SPACE?? Thank you for the reminder. Snuck in, beating out Everyone's An Alien (the Johnny Sun book) and standing proudly next to ALL-NIGHT LAUNDRY, the insane online interactive epic graphic story that, curiously, *also* deals with doing one's laundry (at a laundromat) and alternate dimensions.

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