Thursday, March 14, 2019

The 2019 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Novel, Series, and Campbell Categories

As the Hugo nominating period winds to a close, I find myself a bit out of sorts with this final batch of categories.  For one thing, I was hoping to read Rachel Hartman's Tess of the Road before the nominating period ended, so that I could consider it for the Lodestar award for YA novels.  For another, I'm even more than confused than usual about Campbell eligibility--the Writertopia site remains an invaluable resource, but this year they've also linked to Rocket Stack Rank's list of eligible short fiction writers.  On the other hand, this year I actually have things to nominate in the best series category, which I hadn't thought would happen since I don't usually read more than the first volume of any series.

Previous posts in this series:


Best Novel:

  • The Breath of the Sun by Isaac R. Fellman (review) - In my review of The Breath of the Sun I compared it to Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria, and one of the reasons for that is that it has the same quality of broadening our understanding of what fantasy can do and how it can show us its world.  Fellman's mountain-climbing narrative touches on magic, religion, history, and technology.  It is a Nabokovian conversation between its author and her intended reader, the person to whom she is trying to explain her past.  But it is also a meditation on extreme pursuits, and what they mean and symbolize to different people.  It's a rich, hard-to-pin-down novel that is, despite the comparisons I found myself reaching for, unlike just about anything else I've read.

    (Note: I reviewed The Breath of the Sun using Fellman's previous name and pronoun.  As he's written on twitter, he has contacted the Hugo administrators and informed them about the change in his circumstances, and they will consider nominations under both his current and former name as referring to the same person.)

  • The Overstory by Richard Powers (review) - The genius of this novel--and the reason it deserves to be nominated for a Hugo despite being published and discussed as a mainstream work--is how it makes us see our own world as an alien planet.  How it makes us understand an alien species that we walk past every day and give very little thought to.  Powers constructs an alternate history of Earth as seen through the eyes of trees, and that history is, unsurprisingly, one of loss and calamity.  The conceptual shift is essential to The Overstory's environmental project.  By opening our eyes to the notion that the creatures we share our planet with are not dumb and senseless, and that even plants deserve consideration as equal participants in our environment, the novel leaves us space to imagine a different way of living--one of the core aims of science fiction.

Best Series:

  • The Fractured Europe Sequence by Dave Hutchinson - I haven't quite finished Europe at Dawn, the concluding (?) volume of Hutchinson's strange, China-Miéville-meets-John-le-Carré spy saga.  But whatever those final chapters deliver, the work as a whole is one of the most distinctive, unusual series to come out of science fiction in years.  Hutchinson's near-future Europe is fragmented into hundreds of independent polities, and his main characters make their living by flouting the constantly-shifting borders to transport goods and people.  Into that relatively-comprehensible world, Hutchinson introduces an entirely new spin on the concepts of "border" and "territory", in the form of a European player that exists in its own pocket universe, and whose agents are trying to manipulate the existing world order.  Coupled with some top-notch spy antics and winning characters, the result is one of the most unusual SF works of the last decade.

  • The Centennal Cycle by Malka Older - As I observed in my write-up of State Tectonics, no series did more to inspire A Political History of the Future than Older's thought-provoking meditation on how democracy and news media might change.  The Centennal Cycle does something that science fiction should always be interested in and doesn't do nearly enough of--poke at the core assumptions of how we order our society and ask whether they could be changed, and if so, what might happen.  Older's "micro-democracy", in which political parties both nationalistic, ideological, and corporate vie for non-contiguous territory all over the world, and all news is vetted and fact-checked by a central authority, is neither a utopia nor a dystopia, but simply different.  More importantly, it allows Older to ask questions about what we want from democracy and how it may be failing to achieve those goals, which feels like a vitally important question in the current moment.

Campbell Award for Best New Writer:

  • Isaac R. Fellman - With The Breath of the Sun, Fellman delivered one of the most remarkable debuts of the last few years, immediately staking a claim as a major new voice in fantasy who could push the genre in fascinating new directions.  First year of eligibility.

  • Jeannette Ng - I nominated Ng last year for her remarkable, utterly unique debut Under the Pendulum Sun, and she remains more than worthy of this nomination.  Pendulum was a weird, Gothic novel about fairies, religion, and finding your identity in the most unexpected places.  It took elements that I had never thought to see combined in a work of fiction and fused them together almost effortlessly.  I can't wait to see what Ng does next.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Rivers Solomon - Another author who is being nominated again on the strength of a remarkable debut novel.  Solomon's An Unkindness of Ghosts poked holes not only in the generation ship trope but in the prevailing assumption of a lot of SF, that things like prejudice and white supremacy will simply get better with time.  It created a challenging setting, and placed within it remarkable characters set on an exhilarating adventure.  It's been great watching Solomon spend 2018 exploring new opportunities, and I'm looking forward to reading The Deep, their collaboration with Clipping. Second year of eligibility.

  • Emma Törzs - It's actually a little unusual for me to nominate so many novelists in this category, so I'm glad to have encountered Törzs's short fiction, which is certainly worth highlighting.  "From the Root" in Lightspeed is not only unusual for dealing with female reproduction, but has a winning, inquisitive female lead.  And "Like a River Loves the Sky" in Uncanny has an unusual heroine and a refreshing focus on friendship that is not (and doesn't need to be) anything more.  First year of eligibility.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The 2019 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Publishing and Fan Categories

With only a few days left to nominate for the Hugos, we come to our third batch of categories.  One thing they all have in common is that they I tend to nominate the same things here each year.  Partly this is a function of the limitations of my perspective (I don't always, for example, have time to follow a new short fiction venue that might make it onto the semiprozine ballot), but partly it's a way of recognizing people and organizations that have been doing great work for years, without nearly enough recognition.  (Another thing this group of categories has in common?  It's also the one where I tend to leave more categories blank: once again, I won't be nominating in the best editor, best fancast, or best fanzine categories.)

Previous posts in this series:

Best Semiprozine

  • GigaNotoSaurus - this little magazine that could continued plugging away in 2018, publishing one story per month and finding interesting new voices to highlight.  It featured one of my favorite stories of the year, Adrian Simmons's "The Wait is Longer Than You Think", and in fact it's unusual for there not to be at least one GigaNotoSaurus story on my short fiction ballot.  Which, when you consider they only publish twelve pieces a year, is an impressive hit rate.

  • Strange Horizons - Are you aware that Strange Horizons has never won a Hugo?  Isn't it time we changed that?  This fantastic magazine has been around for nearly two decades, publishing boundary-pushing fiction and non-fiction, and providing platforms for pieces that simply wouldn't have a home anywhere else on the internet.  Who else would have published Erin Horáková's "Erin Groans", a book-length essay about obscure Gormenghast adaptations that is both delightful and enlightening?  The magazine also publishes an ongoing project, 100 African Writers of SFF, that explores the continent and its regions to find the speculative work being created there, and its sister magazine, Samovar, publishes fiction in translation.  And this is all happening with an all-volunteer staff.  Strange Horizons gets nominated every year, and always ends up an also-ran.  Let's make 2019 the year we finally give them a Hugo.

  • Uncanny - This relatively new magazine had another strong year in 2018.  Their fiction department ran an interesting project in the middle of the year, in which several authors wrote stories about present-day dinosaurs, which produced some very strong pieces.  But I was more strongly struck by the fiction department's focus on featuring stories with disabled protagonists, which dealt with their struggles to deal with a world that doesn't value them and doesn't make the space that will allow them to participate and contribute to society.  It's an important topic, and it's good to see editors exercising their judgment to promote discussions of it.

Best Professional Artist:

  • Tracy J. Lee - Lee is a commercial artist with a wide-ranging portfolio, but in the last year she illustrated several genre-related projects.  Chiefly, she designed the GIF animations for Wired's The Future of Work series, which featured short stories by several writers about the changing face of labor.

  • Paul Lewin - Lewin draws amazing Afrofuturist illustrations, and in 2018 he came to my attention for his gorgeous covers for the reprint editions of Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.  In a few months we'll also be able to see his cover for The Dark Fantastic, an essay collection by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas.

  • Victo Ngai - I've been nominating Ngai for this award for years, and there's really not much I can add to the praise I've already heaped on her.  If there's a better or more distinctive illustrator working in genre right now, I don't know who they are.  Her most prominent genre-related work in 2018 is the cover for Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology.

  • Del Samatar - I haven't read Monster Portraits, Del and Sofia Samatar's hybrid study of monstrousness, but the pictures I've seen of Del's illustrations for the book are simply stunning.

  • Yuko Shimizu - Shimizu had a great year in 2018.  She continued to create covers for JY Yang's Tensorate novellas, giving them one of the most distinctive (and appealing) looks in the business.  And she single-handedly sold me on Mike Carey's new fantasy comic The Highest House with her dreamy covers.

Best Fan Artist:

  • Vandy Hall - Hall creates strange blown glass and mixed media sculptures of fantasy creatures.  I particularly like her bird-like creatures.

  • Likhain - In 2018, Likhain continued to produce colorful, almost overpowering illustrations that draw on Philippine tradition and folklore to create a completely unique style.

  • Keith Newstead - I became aware of Newstead and his automata through "Erin Groans", which is another reason to reward that article and its author.  His "Gormenghast Castle Automata" is one of the most unusual and remarkable pieces of fan art I've ever seen, a gorgeous approach to the book that captures its core theme of inescapable, repeating patterns perfectly.

  • vacuumslayer - These Alice in Wonderland-ish photo manipulations continue to delight, with a definite political undertone.

Best Fan Writer:

This is exactly the same lineup I nominated last year, so instead of repeating myself too much, I'm just going to highlight some of the great work these writers did in 2018.  And, if a lot of that work happens to have been published at Strange Horizons, maybe that's more proof that it's time to give them a Hugo?
  • Nina Allan - As well as her wonderful blog (where she's been doing a lot of writing about crime and horror fiction recently), Nina continued reviewing for Strange Horizons.  Her review of Jac Jemc's horror novel The Grip of It sent me racing to find a copy of the book, and her thoughts on the miniseries version of Picnic at Hanging Rock, especially as compared to the 1975 movie, were extremely illuminating.

  • Vajra Chandrasekera - Most of Vajra's focus in 2018 seems to have gone to his fiction writing, as well as editing the Strange Horizons fiction department.  But his mega-review of last year's Clarke Award shortlist, "Rupture & Complicity" (part 1 and 2) is a master-class in how to combine reviews of individual works with a panoramic view of the state of the field, and provides an important tool for analyzing the currents running through the genre.

  • Erin Horáková - "Erin Groans", of course, but Erin had a fantastic writing year in 2018.  Some of my favorites of her pieces are her reviews of Paddington 2 and The Worst Witch.

  • Samira Nadkarni - For her monumental, leave-no-stone-unturned review of Venom alone, Samira deserves to be on this list.  And, though it is a 2019 publication, I'd be remiss not to mention her thought-provoking, eyebrow-raising review of the third season of Wynona Earp.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Captain Marvel

There isn't really that much to say about Captain Marvel in itself.  As a movie, it is a pleasant but unremarkable way to spend two hours.  Brie Larson is extremely winning as Air Force pilot turned Kree warrior Carol Danvers, but the film built to introduce her is rather nondescript, offering up neither the original, format-busting heights of Black Panther or Thor: Ragnarok, nor the pointless tedium of Doctor Strange, nor yet the infuriating pseudo-ethics of Captain America: Civil War.  I might call it inessential, if it weren't for two things: the film's significance as the first female-led foray in the MCU, and Carol's obvious significance to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, and the future of the MCU after it.

Which is really the most important thing you can say about Captain Marvel: this is a movie that is important not because of what happens in it, but because of what happens around it.  The most interesting conversations you can have regarding it all take place in the meta-levels--what does Captain Marvel mean for the MCU, for superhero movies, for pop culture?

Take, for example, the film's use of US Air Force imagery.  Within Captain Marvel itself, these elements are fairly minimal.  We get only a few shots of Carol as a pilot, and only hints of her uphill battle to claim her place in the boys' club of the military and combat flying--or, for that matter, the even more challenging journey endured by her best friend, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), a black single mother.  I strongly suspect that there was a lot more material shot covering this part of Carol's life, as well as her childhood, but what we get in the film itself is almost impressionistic.  A person who had only seen Captain Marvel and knew nothing of the media hoopla around it would probably consider Carol's Air Force background to be a minor detail in the tapestry of her life.  But if you do pay attention to that hoopla, you're aware not only of how much Marvel has been pumping up the film's military connections--from highlighting the role of Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt, the Air Force's first female combat pilot, as a consultant, to publicizing the fact that Larson spent time on Air Force bases while researching her character--but of the conversation that has sprung up over the unsavory implications of some of these tie-in efforts, such as an F-16 flyby during the film's LA premiere, or the Air Force airing recruitment ads before the movie.

Another example is the way Captain Marvel refigures Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, who functions here as Carol's sidekick on Earth, where she crash-lands after being captured by Skrulls, the enemies of the Kree.  Fury has been a fixture of the MCU since he showed up in the after-credits scene of Iron Man in 2008, and has always cut an imposing figure: a grey eminence, spymaster, and general who suffers no fools and always has plans within plans in his monomaniacal quest to defend the Earth from alien dangers.  The version of Fury we meet in Captain Marvel is much more down to earth--funny, self-deprecating, willing to pause his serious pursuits in order to coo over an adorable cat, and inordinately pleased with himself over minor bits of spycraft, like fooling a fingerprint reader with a bit of tape.

It can be hard to square the Fury in Captain Marvel with the one we've known for twelve years in the rest of the MCU, and once again, when looking for solutions, one immediately turns to the metafictional.  My first thought when the film's credits rolled was "someone told Jackson to just do what he did in The Long Kiss Goodnight".  That 1996 film, for those of you who don't know, was Renny Harlin's attempt to turn his then-wife Geena Davis into a bona-fide action star.  Its plot resembles Captain Marvel's in more than a few respects--it's about an amnesiac woman who discovers that the life she's built for herself since losing her memory in an accident is a lie, and that she is really a highly-skilled assassin.  She has to fight her former mentor, and does so with the aid of a down-on-his-luck private detective, played by Jackson.  The most blatant similarity between the two movies is the fact that Jackson plays a sidekick character in both, a humanizing influence whose humor and camaraderie help the heroine reconnect with the life she's forgotten, and to reintegrate it into her present life, finally becoming a self-aware, self-directed woman.

I don't know if the Captain Marvel team--directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who co-wrote the screenplay with Geneva Robertson-Dworet--intended the film as an homage to The Long Kiss Goodnight.  But there's no denying that such a reading gives Captain Marvel a depth that it might struggle to earn on its own.  Long Kiss was, after all, a famous flop that not only stalled Davis's career, but has been cited for years as "proof" that female-led action movies don't sell.  The fact that Davis has gone on to become a major activist for female representation in Hollywood, founding a self-titled institute that publishes reports on the limited space for women both in front of and behind the camera--pointing out, for example, that a film franchise can go twelve years and twenty movies without putting a woman front and center, and most people won't see anything wrong with this--only adds significance to the reference.

Of course, most people will take Fury's personality shift in Captain Marvel as merely a character arc, the film functioning as an origin story for him as well as Carol.  The film's ending even sees him drafting the first proposal for the Avengers Initiative, and spelling out to Clark Gregg's Coulson (who makes a brief appearance that nevertheless manages to step all over the backstory established for his character in Agents of SHIELD) the philosophy that will go on to guide his career--with dangers like the Kree and Skrulls out in the universe, Earth needs its own heroes to protect it.  But that's a reading that smooths over a lot of the problems with Fury--and with the MCU.

Marvel wants us to see Captain Marvel as a movie that shows us how Fury went from a schlub to a badass.  But what's startling about the Fury we see in this film isn't that he's uncool; it's that he's kind.  He finds himself caught in the crossfire between a quippy, take-charge alien soldier, and a bunch of alien shapeshifters who scare the bejeezus out of him, and nevertheless tries to help out someone who is more lost than she realizes.  And then when the shapeshifting aliens turn out to be not so nefarious after all, he helps them too.  It's not the shift from baby-talking a cat to wearing full-length leather coats that bothers me about Fury.  It's the shift from being willing to interest himself in the problems of others and put himself out to help solve them, to greenlighting a system that would allow him to kill anyone on the planet at the push of a button.  Like so many characters in the MCU, Fury's coolness only makes sense if you limit your perspective.  In the grand view, Captain Marvel is a tragedy about how a good, decent man began his slide towards megalomania.

This is particularly glaring given that Captain Marvel itself wants to be a story about questioning a corrupt militaristic system, and finding humane solutions to problems instead of just shooting at them with the biggest, most powerful weapon you can develop.  It tells this story, however, incredibly badly.  If most of the film is fun but lightweight, the political subplot--in which Carol discovers that the war against the Skrulls is a lie, that she was once an unwitting part of a renegade effort to resettle Skrull refugees, led by the Kree scientist Mar-Vell (Annette Bening), and that her powers were given to her by an accident when that effort failed--is simply incoherent.  To state the obvious, what the hell does it mean, "the war is a lie"?  Wars can be founded on lies, but more often, they're founded on propaganda.  On the media's refusal to report fairly about who is attacking whom and who is suffering where.  And, usually, on a bedrock of racism that defines some people as less worthy of protection, and more killable, than others.  To suggest that Carol and other Kree soldiers were simply unaware of the fact that the Skrulls are not a race made up 100% of evil infiltrators, but are regular people who sometimes do evil stuff but also dream of a home and love their families, is not only idiotic, it makes our heroine look like an idiot--and that's the kindest interpretation you can put on her behavior.  (The one thing that does work in this storyline is Ben Mendelsohn as the sardonic, war-weary Skrull leader Talos, a rare case of an MCU character buried under layers of prosthetics who nevertheless manages to come off as a person, and an interesting one to boot.)

Of course, this type of flattening is typical of MCU movies.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the most complex and challenging film in the franchise, and one whose plot Captain Marvel clearly models itself on, nevertheless insists that what "Hydra infiltrated SHIELD" means is that half of all SHIELD operatives are secret double-agents, fully committed to evil, ready to turn on their fellows the moment the word is given with utter ruthlessness.  (And that this in no way reflects on Nick Fury's competence, moral character, or fitness to lead.)  It does this so that future films and TV series can rehabilitate SHIELD without giving any serious thought to whether this is desirable or even possible.  It's hard not to wonder if Captain Marvel isn't setting up a similar walk-back of its humanist message--on twitter, Gerry Canavan pointed out to me that though we see four Skrulls arrive on Earth in search of Carol, only three are accounted for by the end of the film, leaving a fourth to potentially start a Skrull invasion storyline.

So a weakness that might have been forgivable in a single movie--perhaps even a means of conveying an otherwise unpalatable message in a way that could impact on the film's young target audience--becomes much more glaring when you consider it as part of a pattern.  The MCU keeps gesturing at criticism of the security state or the military, but its broader shape will always end up being in favor of them.  By making Carol an unrealistic innocent, even as Fury learns exactly the wrong lesson from their adventure together, Captain Marvel not only defangs its message, it ends up saying the opposite of what it wanted to say.

It's a particular shame because, buried under this unconvincing political plotline, there's a more personal one that could have worked like gangbusters if it had been given more room to breathe.  Throughout the film, Carol struggles with powers she doesn't understand and can't entirely control.  Her mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) spews platitudes about emotional control and not giving into anger, while the Supreme Intelligence, the AI that governs the Kree (Bening again), warns her that "what can be given can be taken away".  Part of Carol's journey towards heroism is realizing that nothing about herself, and certainly not her powers, was given to her.  Rather, that they are something she needs to claim.  "I've been fighting with one hand tied behind my back!" she joyfully exclaims when she finally realizes that the Kree are more afraid of her than she should be of them.  When she finally embraces what she is, she becomes unstoppable. 

The film's absolute best scene comes when Yon-Rogg, now revealed to have been manipulating Carol in order to gain access to the Tesseract cube from which she draws her powers, calls back to an exchange he had with Carol at the beginning of the movie, insisting that he fight him without her powers, that only by doing so can she "prove" her heroism.  But Carol, without even breaking her stride, simply blasts him away, because he has no right to demand so much of her attention or time.  "I have nothing to prove to you," she tells him, in a moment that is bound to become a shorthand for casually waving off entitled men who demand to be "debated".

It's incredibly frustrating for a film whose true and most inspiring moment is a woman saying "I am enough, I am amazing, and I don't need anyone's approval" to spend so much of its running time doing anything but that.  But the problem is, Captain Marvel may be enough, but Captain Marvel isn't.  Even as the character is finding her groove, the movie is laying pipe, setting up a bigger movie in which Carol is merely one component of a whole, looking forward to phase four, trying to make sure that this billion-dollar juggernaut never stops.  As Aaron Bady has observed in one of the most clear-sighted reactions to Avengers: Infinity War, the MCU has a tendency to devour itself.  It burns up its best and most original parts as fuel for its worst and least effective ones.  Black Panther introduces us to the vibrant, fascinating new world of Wakanda, and Infinity War destroys it.  Thor: Ragnarok ends with the promise of new beginning for the Asgardians, and Infinity War kills them all in its opening minutes.  But Captain Marvel is something different.  It comes pre-digested--there's nothing here that's powerful enough, or sufficiently well-done, for us to feel protective of as the machinery of Endgame descends upon us.  Nothing but Carol herself.  Which is something, to be sure, but I can't help but feel that the first female headliner in the MCU deserved better.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

The 2019 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Media Categories

Part 2 of my ballot covers a lot of the "fun" categories, the ones that get a lot of nominations.  In several of them, it can be pretty easy to guess who the nominees will be, with or without your input.  Still, there's room here for off the wall choices, and for a reminder of how even the most mainstream work can still expand the genre's boundaries and do new things.

Previous posts in this series:

Best Related Work:

As usual, I haven't done nearly enough reading in this category, to the extent that it's hard for me to even imagine how it might shake out.  The recommendation list in this year's Hugo spreadsheet, for example, includes books, essay series, individual essays, and even a recipe (which I've made, by the way, and highly recommend, though I wasn't planning to nominate it for this award).  I will, however, point out that my series A Political History of the Future, which started publication at Lawyers, Guns & Money in 2018, is eligible in this category.

  • "Erin Groans: A Gormenvast Review of Every Adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Titus Books" by Erin Horáková, published at Strange Horizons - Once again, Erin produces the type of in-depth, breathlessly geeky, magnificently erudite deep dive that only she could deliver (and that only Strange Horizons would carry).  This exhaustive review of Gormenghast adaptations covers theater, radio, animation, TV, and even animatronics.  It's not just a survey of how this weird, indefinable, hopelessly flawed work has been adapted, but a meditation on the very concept of adaptation.  As media companies keep trawling the backlogs of genre for the next red-hot IP, "Erin Groans" is an important questioning of what we prioritize when our favorite, idiosyncratic works try to reach a wider audience, and how that process can lose sight of what made those works special in the first place.

Best Graphic Story:

I read a lot of comics in 2018, but I still find myself coming to this category with major gaps in my reading.  In particular, I wish I'd been able to get hold of Ezra Claytan Daniels's Upgrade Soul, and Anna Mill and Luke Jones's Square Eyes (nominated for the Kitschies' Inky Tentacle award for cover art earlier this week), before the nominating deadline.

  • Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal - Collecting strips originally published on Dhaliwal's instagram, Woman World is a wryly funny, low-key twist on a premise, the death of all men, that SF tends to treat with either hysteria or despair.  Its characters, for whom men are figures of myth and confused historical accounts, spend some of their time pondering the lost world represented by the male gender, and Dhaliwal mines some good jokes out of their incomprehension of the fundamental irrationality of our world, such as separate razors for men and women. But for the most part, their lives revolve around what's in them, not what's gone, and the strip's storytelling focuses on a remarkably gentle, humorous post-apocalypse.  (I wrote some more about Woman World, and how science fiction deals with gender in general, in this Political History of the Future entry.)

  • Coda, Volume One by Simon Spurrier and Matías Bergara - If you've been reading fantasy for more than a bit, the concept for this new series from BOOM! might make you roll your eyes.  A post-Tolkien-ian sword & sorcery epic whose sardonic hero keeps poking holes at the heroic conventions of the genre?  Haven't we seen this a million times before?  Well, maybe, but Coda's execution is fresh and delightful, and its main character, a misanthropic ex-bard wandering a landscape left blasted by the final battle against a dark lord, trying to free his warrior wife from a curse, is instantly relatable.  Bergara's almost Seussian artwork gives the comic's world a personality all its own, while remaining true to the conventions of the genre.  This is a fantastic new series.

  • Eternity Girl by Magdalene Visaggio and Sonny Liew - This remarkable miniseries from DC's late, lamented Young Animal imprint takes Chrysalis, a twelfth-tier, much repurposed superhero and uses her to tell an utterly unique story, about a woman who wants to die but is too powerful to achieve it, and decides the only way is to destroy the universe.  Visaggio's story works on multiple levels--as a narrative of depression, as a metafictional meditation on how superhero comics keeps bringing back minor characters and slotting them into new roles and genres, and as a cosmic story about the end of the world, which invents an entire backstage for the universe that is weird and fascinating.  Liew's artwork does a good job of separating the various story strands, and creating the sense that this is both a powerful metaphor for mental illness, and an adventure in which the fate of the universe is at stake.

  • On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden - The first thing you notice about Walden's brick of a graphic novel is the artwork.  Mostly black with splashes of color, it is both a classic take on space, and a completely novel one.  Walden's galaxy is dotted with human outposts, asteroid fragments and floating structures where bizarre animal species and even stranger human cultures flourish.  Spaceflight is achieved aboard semi-organic ships, and space itself is prone to multicolored, reality-bending storms.  Into this extremely different slant on space opera, Walden introduces a gentle but resonant story, about a young woman who takes work on a spaceship while thinking back to her school days and recalling her first love, with a mysterious girl from a little-known outpost.  It's as purely SFnal a story as I've read in comics this year, and a great example of the genre.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:

At some point last year I complained that 2018 wasn't delivering the same caliber of genre films as 2017, and though I still stand by that overall assessment, there's no denying that last year also delivered some of the all-time highlights of SFF filmmaking.  There are a few films I was hoping to watch before the nominating deadline--to my shame, I still haven't seen Annihilation--but my current ballot is so strong that it's hard to imagine anything on it being unseated.

  • Black Panther (review) - I suppose there's no chance that Infinity War won't make it onto this year's ballot, and beyond the fact that it is an objectively bad movie, it seems especially ridiculous to recognize it in a year like this one, when the MCU achieved its creative height (so far?  I suppose there's Black Panther 2 to look forward to) with this movie.  Not just a cultural phenomenon, but a marvel of worldbuilding and smart, politically aware writing.  Black Panther not only sets a benchmark for what superhero films can achieve--in their construction of imaginary worlds, in their handling of real-world politics, in the space they give to multiple, varied female characters, and in the creation of multifaceted, complex villains--it is also an exciting work of science fiction, a meditation about the responsibilities of a post-scarcity utopia towards the world around it that incorporates race and racism in a way that few treatments of this subject have done.

  • Sorry to Bother You (review) - The most original, boundary-pushing SF film of 2018 by far, not only because of its gonzo third act twist, but because of its focus on matters like labor rights and organization.  One of the things I've noticed in writing A Political History of the Future is that we're seeing more and more SF addressing the future of work, from the issue of automation to the question of how labor organizing might work in space.  Sorry to Bother You fits perfectly in that tradition, as a movie in which unionizing is an important, necessary step towards building a better world.  As important as it is for the Hugos to recognize works like Black Panther, I think it's equally vital for them to acknowledge Sorry to Bother You as a major work of science fiction film.

  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (review) - It's quite astonishing that in a year that already gave us Black Panther, we somehow got a second superhero movie that breaks the mold in so many ways, expanding the space allotted to diverse characters in the genre, pushing back against its established visual palette, and offering a quietly revolutionary message.  But whereas Black Panther emerged from the well-oiled machine of the MCU, Spider-Verse seemed to come out of nowhere, a shot in the dark at a character whose rights-holders have spent the last decade flailing.  That the result has been so triumphant, on every level, is more than worthy for recognition by the Hugos.

  • Suspiria - It's been a few months since I watched this strange, digressive, overlong horror extravaganza, and I still find it utterly delightful (in a terrible way, of course).  The thing I love best about Suspiria is that it's not just a movie about witches, covens, and murder.  It's also a movie about art, about giving yourself over to the creative instinct, and holding on to your own identity even when you're bringing another artist's work to life.  The way that Suspiria ties that theme to its premise of a witches' coven running a dance troupe is inspired, as are its observations about totalitarianism and how it seeks to control women.  In a ballot that, whatever its other strong points, is pretty strongly dominated by stories about men, it feels important to recognize one in which women take center stage.

  • The Terror, Season 1 - Long-term readers of these posts know that I have an aversion to nominating TV seasons in this category--it often feels like a way of compensating for the fact that TV writers can't write decent, self-contained episodes anymore.  But I make exceptions for self-contained stories, and The Terror, whose first season adapts the Dan Simmons novel, which dramatizes the doomed Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage, is more than worthy of recognition.  A gorgeous but entirely bleak journey into darkness, The Terror is at its best in its quietest moments, when the doomed sailors and officers of the expedition try desperately to hang on to their humanity and one another, only to realize that they can't.  This is also one of the few dramatic genre works from 2018 to deal, even obliquely, with environmentalism, with the entire disaster of the doomed expedition occurring because of the Victorian assumption that white men can always triumph over nature, and nature striking back.  (Sady Doyle has an excellent meditation on the series that discusses its connection to environmentalism and environmental racism.)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:

  • DC's Legends of Tomorrow, "The Good, the Bad, and the Cuddly"- Legends of Tomorrow really came into its own in its third season, finally becoming the Doctor Who-esque romp it was always trying to be.  This episode, the third season finale, sees the show's team of misfits and also-ran superheroes teaming up against a time-destroying demon with their typical lack of self-seriousness, which culminates in the creation of a giant plush doll to act as their joint champion.  No other show on TV is doing anything as weird, as silly, or as kind.

  • The Good Place, "Janet(s)"- I had some reservations about the third season of The Good Place, but "Janet(s)" is one of the show's top episodes, a crowning demonstration of how this show manages to do so much in only a fraction of what other, more prestigious shows take for granted.  In a mere 22 minutes, "Janet(s)" gives D'Arcy Carden a tremendous showcase, expands its cosmological worldbuilding, tools around with the weighty question of identity and continuity of consciousness, and gives us a major romantic moment for Chidi and Eleanor.  This is TV writing at its best and most adventurous.  (I could also make a case for "Jeremy Bearimy", and might in fact end up nominating The Good Place multiple times, but "Janet(s)" is, to my mind, the season's standout episode.)

  • The Haunting of Hill House, "Two Storms" - This is another show that I had problems with, particularly in the follow-up to this episode.  But "Two Storms" is Hill House at its best, marrying formal inventiveness--the entire episode is told in a series of long takes that carry the characters forward and backward in time--with the show's deep understanding of grief, guilt, and painful family connections.  As the Crain family come together for a private viewing of the body of their recently-deceased youngest daughter and sister, her ghost haunts them both literally, and in flashes of the past.  It's the perfect encapsulation of the show's mixture of horror and sorrow.

  • Marvel's Cloak & Dagger, "Lotus Eaters" - Someone should analyze the reasons why, as the skill of writing a decent standalone episode has atrophied from seemingly every genre show's writers' room, the sole exception has been the time loop episode.  It's quite common for episodes like this to become a high point of their show, but Cloak & Dagger, a well-kept secret that has quickly become Marvel TV's most impressive foray, does even better.  This hour, in which heroes Tyrone and Tandy become stuck in a coma patient's mind, treats the time loop as a psychological, rather than practical, trap, with Tyrone scrambling to persuade Tandy to let go of the past, even as her mind is shredded by endless repetition.  It's beautifully done and extremely moving.

  • The X-Files, "Rm9sbG93ZXJz" - For the most part, The X-Files revival was a rather pointless exercise, and season 11 was particularly terrible.  But the sole exception is this episode, a mercifully standalone hour that feels like the sort of thing Black Mirror would deliver if it had more heart.  Nearly wordless--every bit of communication is carried out by app screens and automated devices--the episode expertly uses Mulder and Scully, their well-worn chemistry and individual warmth, to breath life into what might otherwise have been a cynical fable about technology depersonalizing us.  It's a glimpse of what the new X-Files might have been, but also a delightful hour in its own right.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Recent Movie Roundup 32

I was hoping to get this post done before last week's Oscar ceremony (with its eye-rolling final result), but this week feels like an equally good cutoff point.  In a few days Captain Marvel will be upon us, and the blockbuster movie season of 2019 will have officially started.  Before that happens, there are still a few stragglers from last year's prestige film season that I was able to catch up on (though several films I really wanted to see never even made it here--chiefly First Reformed and If Beale Street Could Talk).  Here are some thoughts about them.
  • Cold War - Poland's entry in this year's best foreign picture race follows the on-again, off-again relationship of a couple, pianist and conductor Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), over a span of about fifteen years in the mid-20th century.  The titular conflict lingers in the background, but its effects shape the relationship just as much as Wiktor and Zula's own hangups.  Their first break comes when Zula admits to spying on Wiktor on behalf of the newly-Communist Polish authorities.  Years later, when Wiktor, now a defector to the West, tries to meet Zula in Yugoslavia, he manages to catch only a glimpse before being bundled off to Paris by the local police, who are eager to avoid a diplomatic incident occasioned by the Polish government's demands that he be extradited to them.  At the same time, however, it's clear that the couple's problems are rooted just as much in the personal--in Wiktor's selfishness, and Zula's self-destructive tendencies.  When they do unite in Paris, seemingly free of totalitarian control, the cracks in their relationship soon show, and are only exacerbated by the pressure of living as emigres.  Wiktor is now a small fish in a big pond, and Zula is frustrated by the need to perform a certain exotic type, the grateful escapee from the horrors of Communism.  But underlying it all is their inability to work as a couple, despite their overpowering, years-long love for one another.

    It's a good love story, and a great balancing act between the personal and the political.  But what I found even more engaging about Cold War was its backdrop.  Wiktor and Zula meet while establishing a folk-music troupe, a project that is as much ideological as it is artistic.  The film follows Wiktor and his fellow artists as they first record the music and dances of Polish farmers, and then massage that material into a form that suits Communism's desire for a wholesome, semi-imaginary vision of rural life (one that occasionally slides into nationalism and even white supremacy, as when Wiktor's apparatchnik superior suppresses the music of ethnic minorities and tries to get rid of company members who don't fit his ideal of Slavic beauty).  Similar processes--and musical groups--existed in Israel, some drawing from the same cultural sources.  The Hebrew version of at least one of the songs featured in Cold War (the film is, aside from everything else, a feast for music lovers interested in this corner of the medium) is a classic of Israeli folk music, and several other melodies heard in the film have been repurposed here with new lyrics--as Wiktor tries to do, at one point, to one of Zula's signature songs, fitting it with French lyrics in his hopes of building her audience in the West.

    Much has been made of Cold War's short running time--it takes barely 90 minutes to tell its Doctor Zhivago-esque story of a romance set against the mid-century upheavals in Europe.  For most of the film, this is a refreshing choice.  The way that events in Wiktor and Zula's relationship are used to hint at geopolitical turmoil is clever, and allows the film to foreground Kot and Kulig's fine performances.  Writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski's script is brilliant at conveying tiny nuances of the characters and their relationship, as well as how they are affected by world events.  But as the couple's story draws to a close, and Wiktor and Zula's indecision and inability to forget one another starts costing them dearly, the bittiness of the script starts to feel like a problem.  The couple's final choice, in particular, feels unearned--it's not that you can't imagine how they could have reached this momentous decision, but the connective tissue isn't there on screen, which ends up making the film's ending feel jarring and abrupt where it should be moving and cathartic.  It's not a movie-destroying problem--though, coming as it does right at the end, it can't help but cast a pall on the rest of the experience--but it is a flaw in what is otherwise an intelligent and deeply affecting melodrama.

  • The Favourite - Yorgos Lanthimos's most un-Lanthimos-esque film (among other things, it's the first time he's directed someone else's script--The Favourite's is by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) takes place in the early 18th century, at the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman).  Querulous, ill, and depressed, Anne is attended to regularly by her lifelong friend (and lover), Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), who uses her closeness to the queen to run both the court and the government.  A canny political operator married to England's top general, Sarah promotes her Whig allies and urges Anne towards policies that outrage the leader of the Tories, Harley (Nicholas Hoult).  That arrangement is rocked when Sarah is entreated by a dispossessed relative, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) for support.  What Sarah envisions as a simple position as a servant soon becomes more when Abigail ingratiates herself with Anne, substituting flattery and seeming devotion for Sarah's more spiky affections, and making herself available at all times while Sarah is occupied with affairs of state.  This eventually leads to Sarah being sent away from court, while Abigail, now Harley's creature, helps the Tories gain sway over the queen.

    Most of this is taken from history (though some liberties have been taken, for example shuffling off Anne's husband before the story starts when in reality he died when the crisis with Sarah and Abigail was already raging) but The Favourite's focus is less on historical recreation and more on using it to tell a sort of parable about power and the way women approach it.  Abigail desires safety above all.  As she explains to Harley, she doesn't care about affairs of state, or indeed the fate of the state, so long as she's safe.  And since she's a great deal more desperate than Sarah, she's more willing to devote herself to Anne's needs, less interested in challenging or disagreeing with her.  Sarah, on the other hand, wants to use her power in order to change the world.  The film initially makes her seem like something of a villain--the stereotypical figure of the evil vizier whispering lies in the weak-willed monarch's ear (not to mention that Sarah is interested in extending a costly war, which can't help but make her unsympathetic).  But it eventually becomes clear that her strong hand is necessary at court, for both Anne and the country.  Abigail's seemingly unconditional but actually entirely mercenary love is a treat that Anne initially gorges on, but which eventually makes her sick, and that sickness spreads to the court and government.  In one of the film's final scenes, Abigail intercepts a letter of apology from Sarah to Anne that might have healed the rift between them, and burns it in tears, seemingly understanding that everyone would be better off if Sarah returned to court--everyone except for Abigail, which is why she can't allow it to happen.

    The result is a film that starts out seeming like a farce--both in how it highlights the decadence and foppishness of the lives of 18th century aristocrats, and in multiple scenes that expose its characters in all their weakness and absurdity--and ends up becoming a tragedy.  For all three women, power is a zero-sum game--Abigail initially thinks that she can make peace with Sarah after cementing her position with Anne, but is quickly made to realize that her survival hinges on total victory.  But winning is never the safe harbor they might have hoped for.  Male violence lingers constantly in the background.  It is, in fact, fascinating how the film balances being a story about women in which men are merely supporting figures, with the frank admission that any one of them would be considered fair game under the right circumstances--when Abigail's machination lead to Sarah being injured and held for a paltry ransom by some peasants, her rescuer asks casually "were you raped?", and Harley routinely beats Abigail when she resists his attempts to get her to spy on Anne.  Even Anne, who is nominally protected from that violence, has her own tragedy of womanhood, having lost all seventeen of her children to miscarriage, stillbirth, and childhood illnesses.  Some reviewers have decried Lanthimos as a misanthrope, but to me his films seem to be about the awfulness of their world, and how it forces people to become monsters.  In The Favourite, no one has a choice in how they act, and yet they make the wrong choices, and the result is ruin for everyone.

  • Can You Ever Forgive Me? - Much as it bucks most Hollywood trends in terms of the kinds of stories that get told about women, The Favourite is still very much in the middle of the pack as far as what types of women get their stories told--powerful, famous, and usually beautiful.  Marielle Heller's Can You Ever Forgive Me? is so far outside that norm that it feels worth celebrating just for that fact--how often do female protagonists get to be depressive, down-on-their-luck alcoholics with a shitty personality?  More importantly, Can You Ever Forgive Me?'s heroine, nonfiction author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is "unlikeable" not in the demonstrative, in your face of so many anti-heroines, but in a realistic--and realistically unpleasant--way.  Her career guttering due to a combination of her choice of subjects (she writers biographies of 20th century female entertainers and fashion figures) and her unwillingness to play the game of publicity and connection-making, Lee finds herself friendless, and unwilling to admit that this bothers her.  She's a defiantly solitary person, but her misanthropy is as much a deep-seated fear of rejection.  It's easy to imagine how Lee, a smart, unattractive, gay woman, could have gotten so used to being ignored that she built her life around loneliness, but the film also makes it clear how she ends up rejecting anyone who does try to show her kindness and friendship, unwilling to be burdened by their needs or expectations.

    Can You Ever Forgive Me? revolves around a cash-strapped Lee forging personal letters from witty, sophisticated luminaries such as Noel Coward or Dorothy Parker, and selling them to collectors and specialist stores.  This is not a particularly cunning scam--anyone who has watched a heist movie will be able to spot, very early on, the weaknesses that make it unsustainable--and the focus of the film is instead on Lee's joy at being appreciated, at having her humor and cattiness praised, even if it's only because she's done such a good job of imitating others.  For someone who is both terrified of and desperate for connection, this ventriloquism offers a perfect outlet, until it inevitably collapses, forcing Lee to confront her own self-loathing.

    As well as being a fine--and uncommon--character portrait, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a wonderful portrait of a particular corner of New York in the early 90s.  Lee is part of the literary world, but the glittering salons she occasionally visits aren't really her scene.  She's much more comfortable in libraries, used bookstores, or seedy bars.  Her people are the also-rans, who like her had smarts and potential but never quite made good, and end up peopling the ecosphere from which stars and public intellectuals emerge.  This is particularly true of Lee's friend and partner in crime, Jack (Richard E. Grant), an aging party boy who sells drugs, chases pretty young things, and reacts to his diagnosis of AIDS at the end of the film with a shrug of "it was always going to get me".  With him, and with Lee, Can You Ever Forgive Me? offers a rare glimpse at people who know they're never going to be winners or even achieve much happiness, and who grasp at the small pleasures they can, even if these end up being self-destructive.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The 2019 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Short Fiction Categories

I've been nominating for the Hugos for about ten years now, and putting my ballots online for most of that period.  The centerpiece of those ballots has always been this post, in which I presented the results of a weeks-long trawl through various short fiction venues.  It's been an interesting project, and for the most part I've enjoyed spending each winter searching for interesting nominees, and trying to highlight authors and titles that not everyone may have noticed.  It's always rewarding when you can champion a worthy piece and watch it get the attention it deserves.  But this year's experience has confirmed for me that the project has become a little too time-consuming, a little too distracting from my other writing commitments.  This is probably the last year that I'm going to do a comprehensive mega-read of the year's short fiction before nominating.  I'm glad I got to do it one last time, and on a year in which I'm planning to attend Worldcon (which will also be the tenth anniversary of the first Worldcon I attended).

From what I've seen--and the effects of the last decade in the genre short fiction scene have been to render it even more diffuse than it already was, so I really can't say that I've had a comprehensive view--2018 was a strong year for SF short fiction, with venues including Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Uncanny delivering strong slates of stories.  I was interested to observe how easy it is to discern an editorial voice, and a preoccupation with certain topics, when reading through a magazine's yearly output.  Uncanny, for example, had a strong focus on disabled protagonists in 2018, with stories that often turn on their struggles to achieve necessary accommodation, with which they can participate and contribute to society.

One topic that I expected to see a great deal more of in my reading was climate change.  Only a few of the pieces I've highlighted here turn on this increasingly important topic, and very few stories I read dealt with it even obliquely.  Given how much climate change has been in the public conversation recently (and not a moment too soon) it's possible that next year's award nominees will deal with it more strongly, but I was a bit disappointed not to see SF writers and editors placing an emphasis on it already.

The nominating period for this year's Hugo Awards closes on March 15th.  If you're eligible to nominate, there are, as ever, a large number of resources you can draw on when making up your ballot, chiefly the Hugo nominations wiki, and the Hugo spreadsheet.

Best Novella:
  • Tentacle by Rita Indiana, translated by Achy Obejas (And Other Stories) - This utterly exhilarating novella is like a gonzo, Latin American twist on "All You Zombies", with a much better attitude towards its transgender protagonist, and a sharp handling of environmental, anti-colonial themes.  It's also a hell of a lot of fun to puzzle out, the various timelines, and the story's use of science and magic, coming together beautifully in an ending that packs a definite punch.

  • The Barrow Will Send What It May by Margaret Killjoy (Tor Novellas) - The previous volume in Killjoy's series about a troupe of demon-hunting anarchists, The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, packed a bit more punch with its tale of an off the grid community coming up with a demonic solution to the problem of authoritarianism.  This 2018 sequel is a little more mild in its subject matter, a town where people have started coming back to life, with our heroes caught in the crossfire.  But its theme of small-town conformity confronting the weird in ways that can bring out its worst qualities is worth exploring, as is Killjoy's no-nonsense embrace of the itinerant, gender-bending protagonists, who reject stability and embrace a radical form of justice and compassion.

  • Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson (Tor Novellas) - Robson had a great year in 2018 (see her again further down the ballot), and this novella is her crowning achievement.  Come for the refreshing focus on project management, efficient workflows, and resource allocation when traveling to the distant past, but stay for a gutting depiction of generational strife.  Our heroine is an aging environmental remediator slowly coming to terms with the fact that her life's work has come to nothing because of circumstances outside of her control, and clashing with her young assistant, whose generation blames the heroine's for leaving them in an economic and environmental lurch.  It's a busy, chewy story whose time travel plot might almost get lost in the shuffle if it weren't so interesting in its own right.

  • "Requiem" by Vandana Singh (from Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories) - Leave it to Singh to write one of last year's few climate-related stories. "Requiem" follows a young woman who travels to an Inuit village in Alaska to collect the belongings of her aunt, an engineer and environmentalist who disappeared during a storm.  It's a stately piece that is as much about capturing a moment as it is about telling a story, but its discussion of the depredations that climate change has wrought on the Arctic, and the way those changes (and the encroachment of resource-extracing corporations) have affected the Inuit way of life, are unsparing.  Though the ending offers a modicum of hope, it's the story's images of irrevocable change that stay with you.

Best Novelette:
  • "Through the Flash" by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (from Friday Black) - Friday Black is an exceptional collection that leans towards the fantastic in several places, but this story, its concluding piece, is as blatant a work of SF as you can imagine. In a nameless neighborhood in an authoritarian future, the tween narrator and her friends and family repeat, again and again, the hours before they died from a nuclear explosion, and tell us how they've coped (or failed to cope) with this kind of horrific immortality.  It's a funny, horrifying, beautifully constructed piece that shouldn't be ignored.

  • "If at First You Don't Succeed, Try Try Again" by Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog) - Cho's short fiction tends to draw unexpected connections between mythology and everyday life, and this story, in which she parallels a common demon's repeated attempts to achieve the enlightenment sufficient to become a dragon, and an academic's struggles with her thesis and tenure, is a typically brilliant juxtaposition.  That the demon and the academic end up falling in love is both delightful and, ultimately, extremely moving, leading to an absolutely perfect ending.

  • "The Thing About Ghost Stories" by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny) - It's a familiar premise--a chronicler of ghost stories experiences her own haunting--but Kritzer's handling of it is sublime, both in the narrator's voice and her descriptions of her ethnographic research, and in her more painful memories of life with her mother as she slowly succumbs to dementia.

  • "A Study in Oils" by Kelly Robson (Clarkesworld) - A refugee from the moon hides out in a remote village in rural China while his case is decided by an immigration committee.  The story is slight, but what makes it sing is Robson's worldbuilding--the defiantly traditionalist village where artists come for retreats; the violent, hyper-conformist society on the moon, which has chewed up the main character and left him with a brutal memento of his career as a hockey thug.  The contrast between the serene setting and the protagonist's guilt and anxiety is extremely well-handed, leading to a cathartic and rewarding ending.

  • "Orange World" by Karen Russell (The New Yorker) - An unusually down to earth story for Russell, which is saying something given that involves demons bargaining for mother's milk.  The topic of maternal anxiety, and the way society works to intensify it, has been well-covered by fiction, but Russell finds a fresh angle here, which she covers with her typical humor and inventiveness.

Bubbling Under:
  • "The Fortunate Death of Jonathan Sandelson" by Margaret Killjoy (Strange Horizons) - More anti-establishmentarianism from Killjoy, who here writes about a white hat hacker who finds herself on the hook for murder, and has to scramble to save her own ass without screwing over anyone who doesn't deserve it.

  • "Recoveries" by Susan Palwick (Tor.com) - The friendship between a perennial screw-up and the more stable friend who actually has much better reasons to be dysfunctional is a familiar trope, but it's mixed here with an alien abduction story in a way that makes it entirely its own thing.

  • "The Wait is Longer Than You Think" by Adrian Simmons (GigaNotoSaurus) - A human stranded for years with an alien whose social norms fall well beneath our needs for companionship comes up with various strategies to keep from losing his mind to loneliness, until one of them has disastrous consequences.

Best Short Story:
  • "The House on the Moon" by William Alexander (Uncanny) - This piece starts from an irresistible premise--what if the 19th century plutocrats who transferred entire European castles to the US, brick by brick, had future analogues who did the same thing on the moon?--and takes it a much darker, thematically richer direction than I had expected.  The heroine, a disabled girl in a society that only barely tolerates such people, is the only one to see through the alleged eccentricity of the project to recreate a bygone era where it doesn't belong, which allows her to solve the house's mystery.

  • "Waterbirds" by G.V. Anderson (Lightspeed) - An old woman dies, and her robot companion is suspected of foul play.  The story starts out like a cozy mystery, but soon becomes something sadder, then infuriating, and then hopeful, as we learn more about the life of the artificial main character and her efforts to eke out happiness in a world that denies her very personhood.

  • "We Feed the Bears of Ice and Fire" by Octavia Cade (Strange Horizons) - This environmental piece packs a punch that almost makes up for the rarity of this subject in 2018.  Juxtaposing the equally parlous conditions of the North Pole and Australia, and the dangers that this environmental degradation poses to the local wildlife, Cade spins a fable about nature striking back that is equal parts furious and magical.

  • "Strange Waters" by Samantha Mills (Strange Horizons) - A fisherwoman lost at sea struggles to return to her family, in a city where the currents traverse not just space but time.  It's a fantastic premise whose details Mills works out in a completely satisfying way, but equally satisfying is the heroine's determination, mingled with her knowledge that her quest might be futile, and that she's turning away chances to build new lives in the time periods where she fetches up.

  • "The Kite Maker" by Brenda Peynado (Tor.com) - Alien refugees land on Earth, we take them for invaders, and then we all have to live together in the aftermath.  It's a bleak premise whose harshness Peynado faces head-on, grappling with the impossibility of forgiveness, and the need to try anyway.

Bubbling Under:
  • "Ruin's Cure" by Vajra Chandrasekera (Big Echo) - A medieval king and the time traveling historian sent to ensure his triumph regard one another in a story that grapples with power, justice, and how to fix history.

  • "What Gentle Women Dare" by Kelly Robson (Uncanny) - An 18th century prostitute robs a corpse, which comes back to life and insists on interrogating her about her life.  This is a story that keeps changing its shape, until it reaches a conclusion that is utterly shocking, but which works perfectly with everything that came before.

  • "Super-Luminous Spiral" by Cameron Van Sant (Lightspeed) - A new twist on the familiar trope of the alien lover as a literary muse.  An aspiring writer sleeps with an alien and finds their literary output shifting.  Then they learn that others in their writing group have been experiencing the same thing.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Recent Reading Roundup 49

This long-simmering roundup covers some of my final reads of 2018 and the first ones of 2019.  Some of them have already turned up in my year's best list in December, but they definitely deserve a longer consideration.  In general, this is a strong list of books, even if it does remind me that with all the great books coming down the pike this year, there are so many 2018 books I still haven't gotten around to reading.
  • Transcription by Kate Atkinson - This was the third novel I read in 2018 with the general theme of "little-known aspects of WWII and how they utilized the work and abilities of women", following Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach and Michael Ondaatje's Warlight.  I wasn't crazy about either of those novels, so going back for a third helping in Transcription could be seen as refusing to learn from my mistakes, but happily Atkinson's take on this concept worked a lot better for me.  Like Ondaatje, her focus is on murky wartime espionage, but here with a much more precise remit: MI5's work in identifying and corralling Nazi sympathizers, in which an agent pretending to be a Gestapo operative created an entire fake operation from whole cloth in order to keep fifth columnists from seeking out the real thing.  Our heroine, eighteen-year-old Juliet Armstrong, is the typist for this project, transcribing the tedious, self-important conversations recorded in the apartment next door.  She's also the novel's greatest strength, observing the operation, and the antics of her peculiar MI5 superiors, with a combination of intelligence, cynicism, and naivete.

    Juliet is plucky and brave, but also conscious of herself as someone who is putting on a plucky and brave persona that is faintly ridiculous and drawn as much from movies as from the realities of espionage.  That sardonic self-awareness informs all of her experiences, and gives the novel its semi-comedic tone, even when it's describing horrific events.  When Juliet is promoted from typing duty to infiltration, in the upper class fascist group The Right Club, she's conscious of the evil these people represent, but also can't help but focus more on her exasperation when the spy antics she's expected to participate in devolve into a farce--as when the pass-phrase she's given to identify a fellow infiltrator turns out to be a common pick-up line and she almost goes home with a completely unrelated person.  But Juliet is also young and inexperienced, and even as she navigates the brave new world of espionage and fascist sympathizer meetings with quick thinking and keen powers of observation, she misses a great deal that the reader will likely notice--in particular, a subplot in which she tries to shake off her pesky virginity, only to turn to exactly the wrong person for the job.

    What's remarkable about Transcription is how it manages to maintain this ironic, humorous tone without losing sight of the awfulness of what it's describing.  There's never any suggestion that the fifth columnists Juliet spies on might actually be capable of launching a meaningful anti-government attack, but the racism and hate they express are nevertheless dismaying, precisely for coming from such ordinary, prototypically English sources.  There's something rather demoralizing about the realization that the novel's heroes are coming into constant contact with genuine evil, but can't do anything substantial about it because none of it is actually illegal--a predicament that hits a little too close to home right now.  This, however, is not the main thrust of the novel, which catches up to Juliet in 1950, as a producer at the BBC, who begins to fear that some of the unresolved events of her wartime work are catching up to her.  These were, to my mind, the less successful parts of the novel (I suspect Atkinson fell a little too deeply in love with her research about the BBC's early days, because there's little justification in the plot for spending so much time on it), and the mystery that the novel tries to maintain until its final moments ends up being a lot less engaging than it wants to be.  I enjoyed Transcription for putting me in Juliet's head, and for the tightwire act it performs when balancing between humor and horror. But not unlike the other WWII-set novels I read last year, I'm not sure it entirely figured out what it wanted to be about.

  • Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin - Netflix's adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House reminded me that I've had Franklin's biography of Jackson sitting on my shelf for a while, which means that for all my problems with the miniseries, it has resulted in at least one unambiguously excellent thing.  Franklin's work here is fantastic, and deserves to be as heralded by genre fans as Julie Phillips's in-depth reclaiming of James Tiptree Jr. in 2006.  It's an utterly engrossing read, which is particularly impressive given that Jackson lived a fairly mundane life, alternating her writing with homemaking, motherhood, and playing the faculty wife for her husband, the critic and academic Stanley Hyman.  But through Franklin's descriptions, we get a sense of the vibrant, raucous social circle Jackson and Hyman built around themselves, which included some of the foremost writers, critics, and journalists of the period.  We also get a strong sense of Jackson's struggles with anxiety, low self esteem (driven strongly by her casually disapproving mother), and the difficulties of her marriage with Hyman, who despite loving her deeply was nevertheless compulsively, cavalierly unfaithful, as well as being unhelpful around the house and with the couple's children, and, once Jackson became the family's prime breadwinner with her stories, novels, and essays, jealous of any writing time not directed towards paying work.  In addition, A Rather Haunted Life offers a fascinating glimpse into the literary world of mid-20th century New York, which was just starting to develop into what now seems like its canonical form--things like the New Yorker fiction department (who published Jackson's "The Lottery," to a resounding public response that has become as famous as the story itself) or the great publishing houses that have shaped modern anglophone literature.  Through it all, Franklin makes an argument for Jackson as a major, influential player on this scene, as well as an important literary voice.

    Franklin arranges her chapters by Jackson's writing projects, and by the houses and towns that she--and later, she and Hyman--lived in.  Her argument is as clear as it is inarguable.  Houses are a fixture in Jackson's writing, but so are homes, and the warring feelings of wanting to settle down in a place, and fearing that it could turn on you.  Throughout her life, Jackson both loved and despised the small towns and suburbs she made her home in.  She often used the houses she lived in as castles where she could protect herself from the outside world--which eventually took a dark turn as her anxiety intensified and she fell into debilitating agoraphobia.  But it was never possible for her to completely avoid the outside world, and when she met it she often felt misunderstood and rejected, for her non-traditional lifestyle, her appearance, and simply for being a sharp observer who wrote not-very-complimentary things about those towns.  A particularly hard-to-read anecdote involves Jackson learning that her younger daughter was being bullied and abused by her grade school teacher, and realizing with dismay that most of the town would side with the abuser and consider her behavior to be nothing to fuss over.  This conflict, between craving home and also fearing its power over you runs through Jackson's fiction, and in Franklin's telling, through her life.  Though I knew a lot of the details that Franklin reveals in this biography, I had never seen them organized as thoroughly and methodically as they are here, and the experience has given me a greater appreciation for Jackson as an artist and a person.  Any fan of Jackson owes it to themselves to pick this volume up.

  • Washington Black by Esi Edugyan - Shortlisted for last year's Booker award, Edugyan's novel is many things, but perhaps none as powerfully as a wrenching deconstruction of the coming of age trope in which a "special" child is a rescued from a horrific situation through a combination of their natural aptitude and the kindness of a powerful person.  The title character, George Washington Black, known as Wash, is a young slave on a Barbados plantation in the early 19th century.  Slavery is on its way out in British territories, but for Wash and his fellow slaves, emancipation can't come a moment too soon.  Their lives are a litany of back-breaking labor and horrific brutalities, and when the plantation's new master steps up the latter to assert his control, Wash's protector, Big Kit, decides that committing suicide with him will be the only possible escape.  Instead, Wash is drafted as the assistant to the master's brother, Titch, a naturalist and aspiring balloonist.  When the boy turns out to be bright and to have a talent for drawing, Titch adopts him as his assistant, and eventually runs off with him when a calamity on the plantation puts Wash's life in danger.  But the partnership, and uneasy camaraderie, between the two men is soon sundered, and Wash is left to make his way on his own.

    Washington Black is a bildungsroman that repeatedly questions whether the arc of such stories can really be available to a black boy like Wash in that moment in history.  In his journeys among Atlantic sea merchants (who assure him they don't carry slaves but still transport the sugar and tobacco they produce), arctic explorers, the free black communities in Canada, and the naturalist circles in England, Wash constantly finds himself having to assert his humanity, not only to people who view his race as disqualifying for that trait, but to people who claim to know better but still won't allow him equal space in their world.  Titch's abandonment looms large in his mind, but even more than that is the question of why the older man adopted him in the first place, thus saving Wash's life but also irreparably separating him from his community.  In various scenes throughout the novel, Wash is brought up short by the reminder of the suffering he's turned his back on--a glimpse of a girl he'd had a crush on, now pregnant with the master's child; the horrible mutilation visited on Big Kit and the realization that she has found a new child to mother; a wrenching scene in which Wash, post-emancipation, sits in the offices of an abolitionist society and learns the truth about his parentage and Big Kit's fate.  But his escape is never allowed to be complete, not only because his race continues to hamper him, but because even people who pity him for his suffering see him as something damaged, not entirely safe to be around.

    This is perhaps to make Washington Black seem unrelentingly bleak, but while there is a great deal of sorrow in this novel, it is also characterized by a joy of discovery, and a belief in the capacity of art and creation to heal and uplift even the most damaged people.  For Wash, his skill as an artist offers an escape in more ways than one--it attaches Titch to him, and later draws to him the attention of a naturalist who employs him and brings him to England.  But it also gives him something of his own, a reason to believe in his own worth in a world that keeps telling him he is subhuman.  In his quest for a place in the world to call his own, and for an explanation for Titch's mingled kindness and indifference towards him, Wash's only salvation is to find a way to create something worthwhile, and it is the book's most profound instance of benevolence and salvation that it offers him a way to do so.  Washington Black ends, not with the typical coming-of-age climax of success and acclamation, but with an extremely partial victory, and an acknowledgment that Wash will always be haunted by his past.  But it also gives him enough in the world to call his own for this to be a happy ending.

  • Milkman by Anna Burns - Burns made quite a splash last fall when she won the 2018 Booker seemingly out of nowhere.  Being neither an established superstar like Richard Powers, nor a young up-and-comer like Daisy Johnson, but a mid-list, mid-career author, seemed to strike some commentators as not on.  The fact that Milkman was quickly classed as "difficult" or "experimental" similarly fed into the narrative that the year's win was a little off.  In fact, Milkman is dense, and not a quick read--the near-stream-of-consciousness with which the book's teenage narrator, known only as middle sister, delivers her life story, which bounces from recent to distant past, and relates even the events of the present moment through constant digressions, requires more attention from readers than more traditionally-structured novels like Transcription or Washington Black.  But at its core it is telling a very straightforward story, and what's difficult about it is rather its subject matter: the violent, proscribed way of life in an paramilitary-controlled, late 70s Northern Irish neighborhood, whose codes and strictures suddenly entrap middle sister when she catches the eye of the title character, a major player in the neighborhood's unofficial leadership.

    What's brilliant about Milkman--not least in the way Burns uses her run-on, seemingly unfocused narrative voice to illustrate it--is how it draws connections between the political violence that rules middle sister's life, and the sexual violence to which she suddenly finds herself completely vulnerable.  The neighborhood's paramilitary leadership represents itself as a fully-functional alternative government structure, with social (and potentially violent) consequences for anyone who engages with or avails themselves of the apparatus of the state.  But this leaves middle sister vulnerable to the milkman's abuse not only because he's connected, but because the things he does to her do not, in the neighborhoods' collective worldview, constitute abuse.  He hounds her, destroys her peace of mind, and forces her to narrow the scope of her world in order to avoid him (early on, for example, she's forced to give up her running practice when he turns up to run alongside her, and the milkman quickly sets his sights on her evening classes and the time she spends with a boy she dubs maybe-boyfriend).  But in a neighborhood where everyone is constantly aware of the potential for violence, where every family has suffered losses, and where there seems to be no hope of the future offering any better, desiring peace of mind is seen as foolish and illegitimate.  The fact that middle sister sets up psychological defenses, however paltry and insufficient, against the violence and hopelessness of the neighborhood--she's known for walking with her nose in a book, and she only reads fiction from the 19th century and earlier, because she hates the 20th century--is perceived by the neighborhood's hivemind as more of an affront than the milkman's unwanted advances.

    It is, at one and the same time, a brilliant depiction of the psychic cost of life at the height of the Troubles, and a timeless portrait of how young women are crushed by social orders that don't perceive them as valuable and deserving of their own dignity and freedom.  Perhaps because I had recently finished watching the first season of the TV adaptation, I found myself thinking of My Brilliant Friend while reading Milkman.  Both works are about a smart, observant young woman who grows up in a society that fundamentally doesn't value her, and that expects both men and women to abide by codes of gendered behavior that only reinforce a violent, repressive way of life.  As in My Brilliant Friend's working class Neapolitan neighborhood, the social structure in Milkman is so perfectly designed to perpetuate itself that it rarely needs to exert overt force in order to do so.  The forces of conformity, communal expectations, and social pressure do the job instead, as in a running theme in the book in which middle sister repeatedly learns about couples who cheated themselves out of happiness by breaking up and marrying people they didn't love, because to be too happy in the neighborhood would single them out somehow.

    A crucial difference between Burns and Ferrante is that Milkman is often blackly funny, and in fact frequently switches from that tone to one of bleak fury with barely a warning.  A subplot about a woman who casually poisons people, and whom the neighborhood has largely accepted as a local fixture, leads to a scatological sequence in which middle sister's mother harangues her for calling down on herself the enmity of the milkman's wife (whom she believes has poisoned her daughter) while trying to get her to purge.  Other scenes involve conflicts between the neighborhood's fledgling feminist group and the paramilitary leadership in which the neighborhood's more traditional women, who exercise a limited but very real form of soft power, find themselves exasperated by both sides.  None of these subplots should be funny, but in Burns's hands, the boundary between absurdist humor and outright horror becomes extremely porous, and one finds oneself having both reactions simultaneously.  It's a device that ends up feeling overused, particularly towards the end of the novel, in which a subplot about middle sister's mother trying to court the neighborhood's most eligible bachelor suddenly gets far too much air.  In general, Milkman overstays its welcome, particularly for such a dense read.  But these are minor complaints against such a brilliant, fearless novel, one that makes for an appropriate crowning achievement for one of the most exciting Booker seasons I can remember.

  • Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah - When you finish Adjei-Brenyah's rapturously-received debut collection and go back to look at the front cover, it's absolutely unsurprising to discover that the top blurb is by George Saunders.  Saunders's influence is felt all over this book, and some of the stories are highly reminiscent of his work--"Zimmer Land" mirrors Saunders's fascination with theme parks and the people who make them work, and in both the title story and several others, there is a familiar exaggeration of American consumerism that uses fantastical elements to make its point.  But Friday Black is also very much Adjei-Brenyah's own work, and remarkably assured and distinctive at that.  The collection's opening story, "The Finkelstein 5", is a complete gut-punch of a story about life for a young black man in the weeks after the trial of the vicious murderer of five black children ends in an acquittal.  It's a story that balances on the thinnest knife's edge of parody.  The situation may be exaggerated, but you're never sure just how much, and the anger felt by the narrator, who also explains to us how, using clothing and demeanor, he can alter his level of Blackness (he can get it down to 1.5 on the phone, but in person the lowest he can go is 4.0), is very real.  In "Zimmer Land", the park in question bills itself as an immersive experience allowing people to experience scenarios that challenge their understanding of justice.  But as hinted by the title, the protagonist's job turns out to be to give white patrons a justification to play at killing a black "thug"--he even wears expanding tactical armor that suddenly makes him look bigger and more powerful, a reminder of the way that some killers of black teens have described them as possessing demonic strength and speed.

    Not all the stories in Friday Black are so explicitly about the current moment in the African-American experience (though all of them feature black characters, most of whom are, like Adjei-Brenyah, the children of African immigrants).  In the title story, the narrator is the top salesman at a retail store on Black Friday, who has developed the preternatural skill of understanding the desires of the feral, dehumanized shoppers after being bitten by one.  In "The Hospital Where" the narrator accompanies his father to the emergency room while telling us about the magical creature to whom he has sold his soul in exchange for writing talent, even as that god begins manifesting in reality and granting the narrator powers.  The use of the fantastic is impressive and finally immersive--the final story in the collection, "Through the Flash", is and out-and-out science fiction piece about the inhabitants of an already-repressive future dystopia who find themselves trapped in a hellish loop in which they repeat the hours leading up to their death by nuclear explosion.  In all of the stories, Adjei-Brenyah's language, powers of observation, and cutting sense of humor make for a rewarding reading experience that doesn't obscure how disquieting their only slightly out of tilt vision of the world is.  I have to join in all the raves calling Friday Black our first introduction to a major new talent.

  • Suicide Club by Rachel Heng - When I first heard about Heng's novel, which takes place in a future in which the rich have access to rejuvenating and life-extending technologies that allow them to live for centuries and perhaps longer, I imagined it as something similar to Laurie Penny's novella Everything Belongs to the Future, in which the social impact of reserving longevity for the rich (which, to be clear, is only an exaggerated form of the situation today) is examined and challenged.  So the fact that the book left me underwhelmed is probably as much my fault as Heng's, who took the story in much more character-focused directions that I found a great deal less appealing.  Suicide Club's heroine is Lea, a centenarian and rising corporate star whose perfect life is shattered when she catches a glimpse of her long-missing father and gets into an accident trying to follow him.  Lea's life-extending enhancements mean that being hit by a car is something she can just brush off, but the accident brings her to the attention of her society's Ministry, who monitor citizens, and especially "lifers" like Lea, for attitudes they deem antithetical to the sanctity of life.  Lea is suspected of sympathies towards the titular club, whose members post videos of their gruesome suicides in protest of their society's obsession with extending life at all costs.

    That social obsession is Suicide Club's most interesting note.  The society in the book encourages its citizens to be "life-loving", which means cutting out behavior that might endanger their health and longevity--unhealthy diets, of course; but also high-impact sports which can cause limb and tendon damage; emotionally stirring music, which can induce production of the stress hormone cortisol; any interaction or activity, in fact, that causes stress or discomfort.  The problem is that Suicide Club takes this concept in a very Black Mirror-ish direction, focusing solely on the personal and rarely on the communal.  Multiple scenes turn on Lea's indignation when she's subjected to invasive investigations of her lifestyle, or compelled to attend therapy meetings for those deemed suicidal.  Her dizzyingly quick slide towards the socially unacceptable--all she has to do is put a foot wrong once or twice, and she's tagged as troublesome and shunted to a track that is virtually impossible to get out of--is impeccably charted, but also not very interesting.  We've seen this story before (it's interesting, for example, to observe the similarities between Suicide Club and Black Mirror's "Nosedive"), and it's hard not to want to crane your neck around Lea, and get a glimpse of the wider world around her.

    Not that that world turns out to be particularly engaging.  Stories about longevity and immortality tend to incorporate issues of climate change, overpopulation, and inequality.  They are, after all, positing a world in which the rich and poor are basically separate species.  But all of these elements are absent in Suicide Club.  Climate change doesn't appear to be an issue, even though most of the novel's plot takes place in Manhattan, a century or so in the future.  The population, we're told, is actually dropping, which neatly avoids the resource scarcity problem inherent in a class of hyper-consumers living for centuries.  Most importantly, the novel has almost nothing to say about the "sub-100s", those people whose genetic potential allegedly makes them unfit for life extension technology (in fact, we never find out whether this designation, made at birth, is true or a self-fulfilling prophecy).  They barely appear in the story, and their interactions with Lea and other lifer characters tend to be benign and forgettable.  Even the Suicide Club itself turns out to be less a form of political protest, and more an affectation, a way for bored, dissatisfied rich people to go out in style.  Again, this is me complaining that Heng hasn't written the book I wanted her to write.  Her actual focus--Lea's reconnection with her non-conformist father and her growing realization that her society's way of life makes her unhappy--is well-handled and frequently quite affecting.  But its gentleness was a constant reminder of the angrier novel the subject matter seemed to demand.