Friday, January 28, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, January 24-28

As well as my own review of The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman, these week Strange Horizons features Matthew Jones's review of the film Monsters, which makes me all the more eager to see it.  There's also an interesting discussion in the comments.  Today also marks the Strange Horizons debut of Aishwarya Subramanian, who reviews Karl Alexander's sequel to his 1979 novel Time After Time, Jaclyn the Ripper.  She finds the novel utterly baffling, but the review is a lot of fun to read.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Women Writing SF: Gwyneth Jones

Before we get started, some other reading projects inspired by Niall's focus week.  At Torque Control, new blogger Shana Worthen is planning to read and host discussions of the eleven books selected in Niall's poll of the best SF by women from the last decade.  The schedule is here.  Martin Lewis, Martin Wisse and Ian Sales have also embarked on similar projects to read SF by women during 2011.  The first installment of Ian's series, on Rosemary Kierstein's The Steerswoman, is here.  Finally, as Chance reminds us in the comments to Martin's post, she's been blogging about women writers since before it was the popular thing at a blog with the self-explanatory name of 365 Days of Women Writers.  Happy reading to everyone, and kudos to Niall for inspiring so many people.

On to Gwyneth Jones, who, like Joanna Russ, is a name that has come up a lot in discussions of SF by women and feminist SF in the last couple of years.  My first foray into her fiction came last year when I read the Clarke-nominated Spirit: The Princess of Bois Dormant, but it left me unsatisfied (possibly because it is a standalone follow-up to her Aleutian trilogy, which I haven't read).  When two other of Jones's novels ended up on Niall's best of the decade list, however, I knew I had to give her another look.  What I found was an author who in fact shares several similarities with Russ--a similar uncompromising intelligence, a similar unwillingness to coddle her readers, and a similar awareness of feminist issues and of the movement's jargon.  But if Russ's work is feminist in a classically second wave way--either despondently calling attention to the injustices of a misogynistic society or rallying her readers to the cause with visions of a brighter tomorrow (and sometimes both)--Jones takes a very third wave approach.  Her characters are aware of feminism and of feminist issues, and are often confronted with the difficulty of reconciling their feminist principles with everyday life.  Some of them are Bad Feminists, and others are unappealing ones.

Bold as Love, which won the Clarke award in 2002, is the first in a sequence of four novels which retell the Arthurian myth as the story of a counter-cultural revolution in near-future England.  As the novel opens, Parliament is about to pass an act dissolving Britain into its component nations, and economic and environmental crises have given rise to a new brand of fascism, environmentally-conscious but no less violent or xenophobic, whose English ranks are swelling.  The government, eager to connect with and maintain legitimacy in the eyes of the populace, especially young people, recruits several rock stars to a think tank on Britain's future, among them superstars Ax Preston and Sage Pender, and up-and-coming teenage rock princess Fiorinda Slater.  When a bloody coup from within the think tank leaves the government in the hands of Pigsty, a provocateur whose humorous antics conceal deep instability, the trio must on the one hand scramble for their own survival, and on the other hand try to temper Pigsty's policies and the growing eco-fascist menace, assuming leadership positions which they maintain even after his downfall.  For the rest of the book Ax, Sage and Fiorinda are faced with such overwhelming challenges as a religious war between Christians and Muslims, an onslaught of European refugees, and the collapse of global communication systems, overcoming each by winning hearts and minds with a combination of their star power and good old rock and roll.

Bold as Love is a largely shapeless novel (if it has anything like an arc it is the three leads' journey towards the acceptance of a predictably bohemian solution to the famous Arthurian love triangle), essentially repeating the same sequence of events over and over: a crisis occurs, Ax responds in a forthright, principled manner, Fiorinda and Sage rally to the cause, the populace is brought in line by a rousing rock concert, and the waters are calmed, cementing both the trio's leadership and their bond.  The second volume in the quartet, Castles Made of Sand, has been described as the second half of Bold as Love's story, and this might explain the novel's episodic structure, but I found that Bold as Love stands very well on its own.  The pleasure of reading it is rooted less in its events (about which perhaps the less thought expended the better, as I'll discuss in a minute) than in its energy and flow.  Whether the events she's describing are violent or transcendent, whether her characters are fleeing a hail of bullets or electrifying an audience from the stage, Jones never lets the adrenalin flag, never lets up the novel's operatic tone.  True to its title, Bold as Love is a bold, joyous novel about people who don't hold back from their passions, and who embody the rock and roll ethos of living each moment to the fullest.  It's a conviction that carries through the novel's pages.

Less persuasive is Bold as Love's conception of itself as science fiction (or, to be fair, the science fiction community's, including the Clarke judges and the voters in Niall's poll, perception of it as such).  Jones does a good job of creating a world fifteen minutes into the future, one that is both degraded due to economic collapse--travel within England is precarious, and a major sub-plot involves the collapse of the internet due to an unstoppable computer virus--and in which new technologies are still cropping up, such as gene therapy that allows users to power electronic devices with their own ATP, or a chip implanted in Ax's brain that places enormous stores of knowledge at his fingertips.  None of these details, however, are enough to counteract the implausibility at the novel's core, its insistence on a world in which the notion of a rock and roll revolution--repeatedly exploded as a hippie fantasy in reality--not only comes into being but proves workable and resilient.  "The time for politics is past," Fiorinda announces, and Ax explains to a politician who thinks he can control the counter-cultural government that "We're not their political leaders, we're more like their gods.  That's what rockstars are to their public, Countercultural or otherwise: objects of superstitious devotion."  Jones tries her best, establishing the nation's desperation, the trio, and particularly Ax's, charisma and capability, and the precariousness of the process by which they come into power, in which album sales more or less replace elections, but still the novel's premise doesn't make any sense.

Or, at least, it doesn't make sense as science fiction.  Bold as Love works quite well as a fantasy, and between the Arthurian parallels and the faint but increasingly insistent hints of magic in the novel, this is quite likely the direction Jones intended it to take.  Rock stars, after all, are less gods than celebrities, and celebrity is the modern-day equivalent of royalty (so much so that actual royals usually find themselves being judged, and expected to behave, as celebrities).  As England's woes increase its population turns increasingly to Ax, the new Arthur, gradually accepting him as a leader who is king in all but title.  The sense of strangeness that permeates the novel as a result of its insistence that a celebrity cult can be parlayed into functional leadership eventually solidifies into an in-between state, suspended between SF and fantasy, waiting, presumably, for the next volume to crystallize the story's genre and the shape of the world Ax, Sage, and Fiorinda are making.

Life, Jones's 2004 novel about a female scientist who makes a groundbreaking discovery about the genetics of gender, is, like Bold as Love, uncertain about its genre.  The novel begins with the scientist, Anna, entering university in England, and follows her career for the better part of two decades, in the process taking her, and us, from a familiar recent past (the millennium celebrations and 9/11 are name-checked) to an unfamiliar near-future, complete with global unrest, environmental catastrophes, and, in one particularly chilling instance, a lethal flu pandemic.  All of this, however, is in the background.  Anna's life, despite the upheavals she witnesses and in some cases experiences, is quite ordinary and mostly comfortable, and the business of the novel is the mundane one of charting the ups and downs of her career as she methodically pursues her controversial discovery, and of her marriage to the devoted, determinedly feminist, stay-at-home dad Spence.  In Bold as Love Jones uses the forcefulness and energy of her writing to get readers past the absurdity of the events she describes.  Life's tone, in a sharp contrast, is even-tempered and unfussy, but it's in the service of the same effect--to make palatable and even plausible the events of Anna's life--which read like The Perils of Pauline as written by Betty Friedan--as well as her saintly, long-suffering personality. 

Raised by hardworking, conscientious parents, Anna is dedicated to principles of equality, determined never to demand special treatment and always to do her part, and more interested in working hard and learning than in recognition of praise.  She epitomizes, and takes to almost humorous extremes, the post-feminist type, the young woman who is convinced that feminism's goals have been achieved and that to put herself forward would be to tilt a perfectly egalitarian system in her favor, and as if this were not enough she seems to lack anything resembling pride, and though she is ambitious it is an ambition to do good, not gain accolades, that drives her.  Unsurprisingly, the result is that Anna is repeatedly trampled by the men and authority figures in her life.  The misogynistic calamities she endures include, but are by no means limited to: having her work stolen by a fellow student (who explains that his career is more important than hers, since she'll be leaving science after she has children) and losing a prestigious graduate spot to him, being fired from her PhD program for becoming pregnant, and then again after her controversial findings about gender are seized on for their sensationalistic implications by the press, and, of course, being raped.  No single injustice that Anna endures, and no single misogynistic opinion that blocks her path, are unbelievable in themselves, but that they all should have happened to the same woman, who nevertheless does not experience a single moment of bitterness or rage as a result, who in fact continues to blame herself for everything that's happened to her--for putting herself forward, for trusting the wrong people, for not anticipating the weaknesses and prejudices of those around her--strains credulity past the breaking point.  If Life's tone were a little bit different, Anna's ordeals would have the effect of making it seem like a very dry, very dark comedy.

The tone that Life is told in, however--matter-of-fact, sympathetic, and nonjudgmental--imbues Anna and her life with a quiet dignity that makes heartbreaking, recognizable stuff out of her experiences.  There probably (hopefully) isn't a single person who has experienced all of the indignities piled on Anna's head, but a different one will reverberate with each reader.  Anna is rounded enough person, even through her saintliness, that she comes to seem less like an everywoman, a representative of embattled femininity, and more like a real, albeit remarkable, person.  Jones manages this by making Anna's perfection, and her ability to maintain it in the face of overwhelming unfairness, a flaw.  It is an indicator of her fundamental disconnect from reality, her inability to grasp that the system she moves in is profoundly misogynistic, that the people around her are petty and grasping, and that the honesty, forthrightness, and selflessness with which she deals with the world are rarely reciprocated.

Because she fails to grasp the imperfection of the world she lives in and the people around her, Anna's attempts at fair and equitable behavior are often indistinguishable from cruelty.  Her relationship with Spence, embarked upon when they're both students, feels like a dramatization of this XKCD strip (another instance of the book taking what might have been comedic and making it earnest and heartfelt), but what Anna fails to realize is that Spence has been in love with her for months.  This sets the stage for a marriage that is nearly scuttled not by the disparity of affection between Anna and Spence, but by their determination to do the right thing, to sacrifice for one another and carry their own weight, and their guilt over the other's sacrifices and weight-carrying. A romantic novel would end with Anna realizing that she loves Spence; a cynical one, with the dissolution of their marriage.  Life, with typical deftness, makes room for both romance and cynicism.  By its end, Anna and Spence's love is rooted as much in the life they've built together and the child they've raised as it is in romance, but for all its importance it is not the central point of Anna's life, and its significance is in the fact that it enables Anna's career.  The end of the novel finds Anna crying hysterically at having realized, finally, that she is loved, but that love doesn't come from Spence but from the scientific community, which has finally accepted her findings.

So far I've written about Anna, and the reviews I've read have also focused on her, but shadowing her throughout the novel and acting as her dark mirror is Ramone, a girl Anna meets at school, who remains, despite years spent apart and out of contact, Anna's closest friend, and possibly the true love of her life.  If Anna is post-feminism taken to parodic extremes, Ramone is the quintessential angry feminist--belligerent, confrontational, deliberately and joyfully offensive.  She spends most of the novel being dead right about the world and how it treats women, but utterly incapable of pulling herself together for long enough to do anything about this or even get herself heard.  In one particularly surreal segment, she goes from sought-after controversial media personality to living on the streets after being kicked out by her abusive boyfriend in the space of a few weeks.  Like Anna, Ramone seems more a type than a person.  Like Anna, she is an exploration of how feminism doesn't necessarily solve your life--just as Anna's belief in equality doesn't make the world around her egalitarian, Ramone's recognition of inequality, and her determination to fight it, don't render her equipped to do so.  (Unlike Anna, however, Ramone can't be a delicately shaded character, and as a result the chapters focusing on her veer closer to farce than the Anna-centered portions of the novel.)

Life's jaundiced take on both feminism and post-feminism is complemented by Bold as Love fielding a heroine who is almost anti-feminist.  To an outside observer, Fiorinda, who is Ax's lover before Pigsty's revolution and remains in Pigsty's court after his coup, could easily be taken as embodying the stereotype of the woman who gravitates and latches on to powerful men, something she herself admits to doing, and though there is more to her than this cliché, the fact remains that it's with men that Fiorinda forms relationships, while feeling either indifference or antipathy towards women.  Raised by a depressed, emotionally distant mother, and betrayed by her fun-seeming aunt, who pimped Fiorinda out to a rock star who turned out to be her own father, Fiorinda comes by her dislike of women honestly, but when the one act of feminine solidarity in the novel--the murder of Pigsty after he's accused of pedophilia and murder--turns out to be a calculated attempt by his wife to conceal her complicity in his crimes, to which end she'd manipulated a female member of Pigsty's inner circle (who lambastes Fiorinda for hating women), it's hard not to suspect Jones of something deliberate.

Interestingly, it's this internalized misogyny that humanizes Fiorinda, who teeters, on occasion, on the brink of seeming more like a symbol than a person, driving the novel with the force of her personality, her cool intelligence, and her magical acts--"Where did she get those cold, wise eyes, where did she find that tone of contemptuous authority?" a character wonders.  That she has such obvious hang-ups about women gives Fiorinda a flaw we can latch onto, just as Anna and Ramone's inability to live up to their ideals make them more sympathetic despite their exaggerated construction.  Though Jones's feminism seeps through both novels, it is of a complicated and cynical variety.  In Life in particular, Jones seems to be saying that for all its truth, feminism is too simple a metaphor to encompass life in all its complexity, and that human existence can't be boiled down to ideology, even though that ideology remains vital and true.  That Jones accomplishes this subtle, disquieting message with characters who often come off like archetypes in feminist fables, and with a narrative of their travails that often veers towards the mawkish, only makes her accomplishment with this rich, furiously intelligent novel all the more impressive.

So that's Gwyneth Jones seen through two novels--a feminist who seems not to like women, or perhaps people in general, very much, a science fiction writer who can't seem to keep both feet in the genre, an ideologue who mocks her own convictions at every turn, an angry feminist who can't quite keep from winking at her readers.  What I feel at the end of these two novels, mostly, is intimidated--by Jones's intelligence, her forcefulness, and the complexity of her vision.  The next step would probably be the sequel to Bold as Love (though I have the sense that the series is going to sink into melodrama in a way that I won't care for) or perhaps her short stories (a collection is forthcoming from Aqueduct Press).  Either way, I'm sure there will be much to read for.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Review: The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

My review of Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World appears today at Strange Horizons.  This has been one of the most well-reviewed genre novels of the last few months, and though I found much to admire and enjoy in it I fall short of the ecstatic praise that has been heaped upon it.  I was more enthusiastic about Gilman's debut novel Thunderer, which I reviewed here several years ago.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, January 17-21

This week's Strange Horizons reviews kick off with something a little different: Karen Burnham's review of Mary Roach's popular science book Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, which Karen finds funny and fascination.  On Wednesday, Shaun Duke (in his reviews department debut) makes an argument in favor of Tron: Legacy and its worldbuilding, though the discussion in the comments has turned mostly on whether the film's plot holds together.  Today, Hannah Strom-Martin enthuses about Mike Allen's third collection of "strange and beautiful" stories, Clockwork Phoenix 3.  In addition, John Clute's column Scores appears this week, and its subjects are Johanna Sinisalo's recently-translated Birdbrain and M. Rickert's new collection Holiday.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Today's Happy Thing

My review of the essay collection With Both Feet in the Clouds, edited by Hagar Yanai and Danielle Gurevitch, has been nominated for the 2010 BSFA award in the best non-fiction category.  It joins a ballot made up of two blogging projects (Paul Kincaid's four-part discussion of the 2010 Hugo nominees at the group blog Big Other and Adam Roberts's epic review cycle of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time), Francis Spufford's Red Plenty, a work of creative nonfiction (which Farah Mendlesohn and Niall Harrison insist is actually a novel), and Gary K. Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan's Coode Street Podcast.  A slightly crazy and mismatched set, which I think is about right, as it gets at the way that the science fiction community has been using the internet, in its various guises, to proliferate opinions and criticism, while leaving space for traditional publishing.  I don't expect to win, nor do I think that I should--as pleased as I am by how the Clouds review came out, I don't think that it can stand up to the breadth of material represented by the other nominees--but the nomination put a big smile on my face.  So thank you, everyone who nominated, and have fun voting!

Monday, January 17, 2011

At the Strange Horizons Blog: What to Review

In the second post in my series about reviewing at the Strange Horizons blog, I discuss the question that occurs long before the editor gets down to editing: which books (and films and TV shows) to commission reviews of?
As seems to happen quite often in discussions of genre or reviewing, the question of what to review boils down to a choice between prescriptive and descriptive. Is a reviews department a paper of record, reporting on the state of the genre and on the important names at its core, or is it a partisan platform, evangelizing for little-known writers and works and reflecting an inevitable editorial bias? Is its purpose to report on tastes, or to make them?
Follow the link and add your thoughts.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, January 10-14

This week's Strange Horizons reviews begin with Paul Kincaid's take on 80! a festschrift published for Ursula K. Le Guin's 80th birthday last year and now being made publicly available.  On Wednesday, Chris Kammerud take his first look at Philip José Farmer's writing in Up the Bright River, a collection of Farmer's short fiction, and finds Farmer more interesting and more varied than he expected.  Finally, Kelly Jennings reviews the two latest books in Liz Williams's Inspector Chen series, The Shadow Pavilion and The Iron Khan, and finds them both entertaining and interesting.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Women Writing SF: Joanna Russ

When Niall Harrison launched his project to highlight SF written by women by polling for the best such novels from the last decade, I reviewed my reading lists and came away feeling mortified.  I know that I don't read as many books by women as I should, but it turns out that I had read almost no SF by women at all.  So the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 are dedicated to rectifying that situation, with an ambitious reading list and a perhaps even more ambitious blogging plan (but then, one of my goals for 2011 is to blog more about books, and to that end I've laid out several reading projects for the year).  The first stop on this tour is Joanna Russ, an author and critic whose presence on my radar has been growing steadily over the last few years, usually in the context of feminism and SF criticism, but whose books are frustratingly hard to come by.  Happily, a confluence of used book finds over the course of 2010 left me with four of Russ's books with which to ring in the new year.

I started with Russ's famous essay How to Suppress Women's Writing, which has become a touchstone of feminist and anti-prejudice discussion in my corner of the blogosphere, laying out the ways in which a prejudiced society discourages, discounts, and tries to ignore the work of women, and then uses the inevitable results to argue that women can't write.  I've heard so much about How to Suppress, and have seen its arguments (particularly Russ's famous adage that "active bigotry is probably fairly rare.  It is also hardly ever necessary") repeated so many times that actually reading through the essay wasn't particularly revelatory.  It's a lively, well-argued work, but also badly in need of an update.  Some of its arguments are so thoroughly of their time, and so obviously a response to conversations that Russ observed or participated in (indeed, her personal experience as a teacher of writing is referred to on several occasions) in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, that they both threatened to undermine the validity of Russ's argument as a whole and left me rather befuddled.  In the chapter titled Pollution of Agency, for example, Russ discusses the dismissal of women's writing through the rejection of that writing's topics as prurient or salacious, but the examples she gives are of writing that is dismissed as "confessional" because of its sexual content (the example Russ gives is Erica Jong).  Though sexually frank writing is, of course, still controversial, I've never seen that particular wording used as a condemnation of women's writing, and I couldn't sympathize with Russ's outrage over it.

What hasn't changed, however, and what seems as relevant today as it surely was in the early 80s when How to Suppress was published, is Russ's final point, that the most vicious and effective means of suppressing women's writing is to elide its history.  This forces every generation of women writers to start from scratch.  It encourages them to look down on fellow women artists (or to assume that such artists don't exist), to model themselves on male artists and emulate their work, and to seek the company, admiration, and mentorship of men.  It denies them the artistic primordial soup, made up of mediocre, decent, and ordinary works and writers, from which every masterpiece has emerged.  Without that continuity and community of women artists, Russ concludes, the chances of women's writing succeeding are dramatically reduced.  I think that things are better today than they were when Russ was writing, but the impetus that sparked Niall's project--the fact that only one woman has won the Clarke award in the last ten years and that women are slowly disappearing from British SF publishing, as well as the fact that (as Kev McVeigh recently pointed out) efforts to honor the masterworks of the genre consistently downplay the role of women within it, are surely an indication that they aren't as good as they could be.

Russ's nonfiction is intelligent and incisive, and those same qualities are on display in her fiction, but to very different effect.  As a writer of fiction, Russ is uncompromising, giving very little space to the reader's comfort or ease.  The three books I read were all short but demanding reads, the narrative performing lightning-quick changes of setting or emotional tone, and inserting background details and important information so lightly into the text that a moment's lapsed attention can leave one entirely bewildered.  In The Adventures of Alyx (1976), this challenging style is used in service of Russ's twist on the sword and sorcery genre--that of a female protagonist.  The Adventures collects four stories and one short novel (Picnic on Paradise, originally published as a separate volume in 1968) which feature or concern the title character.  It isn't quite a fix-up--though a rough chronology of Alyx's life can be cobbled together, it might be more accurate to say that at least one of the stories' protagonists is an alternate universe version of the others.  What does tie the stories together, however, is Russ's preoccupation with feminine strength, and with a type of character who has become a cliché (and an at times destructive one) but who, in the late 60s, must have come as a shock, to her author as well as her readers.

Alyx--introduced as "a neat, level-browed, governessy person"--is a thief and assassin for hire in the fantastic city of Ourdh (though Picnic on Paradise sets her background in ancient Greece, another indication that Russ was figuring out the character--and perhaps even her subgenre--as she went along).  The opening story, "Bluestocking" (originally published as "The Adventuress") in which she reluctantly accepts the assignment of shepherding a young heiress out of Ourdh before she's married off to a Bluebeard-esque older man, can be read as a proof of concept for a female action heroine who embodies the familiar strong, silent yet deadly type generally reserved for men.  Of Alyx's fighting style, Russ tells us that "if you have not strength, there are three things which will serve as well: deceit, surprise and speed.  These are women's natural weapons"; when the ship with which she and her client escape Ourdh is boarded by sailors clearly intent on rape, she observes "with joy that two of the three were fat and all were dirty; too vain, she thought, to keep in trim or take precautions."  Russ gives Alyx a type of origin story in "I Thought She Was Afear'd Till She Stroked My Beard" (originally published as "I Gave Her Sack and Sherry"), but only in the sense that it establishes that Alyx has no origin.  The story introduces us to a teenage Alyx who is married to an abusive brute, and who takes the opportunity of her husband's being visited by pirates to kill him and run off with them, but at no point is there a sense that Alyx is becoming a heroine, or that there was ever a period in her life in which she wasn't one.  Rather, "Beard" establishes her as a quasi-mythical figure, who is too large and powerful to be contained by the romantic narrative through which the pirate captain, who both trains Alyx and becomes her lover, tries to understand her.  At the same time, however, Russ never surrenders Alyx's "governessy" quality, nor her dry humor, both of which help to maintain to maintain her humanity.

Alyx's adventures take a turn for the SFnal in "The Barbarian", in which she's hired by a man in possession of futuristic technology to wreak havoc, then has to outsmart him when he turns his sights on her.  As Nic Clarke writes, the crux of the story is Alyx using her wits and ingenuity to outsmart an opponent who, despite possessing infinitely superior technology, is stupid and lazy--as Alyx ends up concluding, he is an end-user, and a rather incurious one at that (in his write-up of The Adventures, Niall Harrison points out that stupidity and a lack of curiosity are the hallmarks of evil in the Alyx stories, and I've found that this is true in Russ's fiction in general).  The SFnal slant continues in Picnic on Paradise, in which Alyx--now a time agent brought thousands of years into the future, is assigned to escort some stranded tourists across a resort planet that has suddenly become a war zone.  The justification for Alyx's presence is flimsy--the warring parties possess unbeatable tracking technology, which means that no electronics can be used during the trek, so someone accustomed to managing without technology is needed to get the job done--and Russ herself seems to be poking fun at the story's contrivance when she designates the beginning and end points of Alyx's trek "point A" and "point B."  This winking acknowledgment of her story's fictionality is typical of Russ, and can also be discerned in the ease with which she slides between genres, and between genre and mimetic fiction.  In Picnic on Paradise it also points the way to the story's actual crux--another demonstration of Alyx's capability and toughness, and the shock of her encounter with pampered, technology-dependent future humans, whose inability to grasp the danger of their situation leads Alyx to brand herself a kindergarten teacher (a point that is brought home when it's revealed that Iris, a young woman whom Alyx has taken under her wing, is in fact seven years older than Alyx).

When point B is found to have already been overrun, Alyx leads the tourists on a weeks-long trek over the mountains, and though the breakdown of their preconceptions and civilized exterior is to be expected, Alyx's corresponding breakdown--at first when she softens towards Iris and strikes up a romance with a young man; later when her response to tragedy is to abuse the mood-altering drugs offered her by some of her charges--comes as a greater surprise.  Despite the occasional references to futuristic technology in these portions of the story, Picnic on Paradise reads mostly like a typical and almost naturalistic story of survival in conditions of adversity.  It's largely Russ's unusual voice, and Alyx's constantly befuddled and exasperated point of view, that give it a gloss of strangeness.  But this false sense of familiarity is exploded when Alyx and the surviving tourists return to civilization, and she is once again the odd man out in a society that is too soft, too disconnected from the physical and biological, to suit her.  Alyx being Alyx, she ends the story by vowing to reintroduce her tough-minded worldview by encouraging the growth of Trans Temp and training its agents in her image.  In the last story in the collection, "The Second Inquisition," we discover that she was successful.  Set in small town America in 1925, it shows us an Alyx-ish time agent (who may be Alyx's descendant) who has run away from her job and is hiding in a rented room belonging to the parents of the narrator, a teenage girl longing for escape.  The details of the story--the narrator's subservient mother and domineering father, her desire to participate in small-town rituals of femininity while at the same time disdaining the roles they force her into--have a lived-in quality that only intensifies the impact of the story's ending, in which, after helping the time agent to defeat her pursuers, the narrator realizes that she is not going to be whisked off to have adventures.  "I wanted something to come out of the mirror and strike me dead.  If I could not have a protector, I wanted a monster ... Nothing came ... I would have to face by myself my father's red face, his heart disease, his temper, his nasty insistencies ... No more stories."  The slide from science fiction to naturalistic fiction is also a shift from fiction to autobiography, from wish-fulfillment fantasy to the reality that all young women have to live in, and struggle against.

Unlike the Alyx stories, Russ's 1970 novel And Chaos Died is a more straight-up work of science fiction--as straight up as Russ's fiction gets, that is.  It tells the story of Jai Vedh, a futuristic human who, during a routine space voyage, crash-lands on a planet and is discovered, along with one of the ship's officers, by the members of a lost human colony who have developed powers of telepathy, telekinesis, and teleportation, and have become incomprehensibly inhuman as a result.  In the first half of the story Jai falls in love with a local woman called Evne and goes native, developing his own mental powers.  These chapters are a masterfully disorienting description of a person's disintegrating state of mind as he either becomes post-human or loses his mind, and they make for uncomfortable yet compelling reading.  In the second half of the novel Jai is rescued and forcibly returned to Earth, where he is separated from Evne (who followed him, and has been captured for study by military authorities), whom he pursues in between giving us a disgusted and self-satisfied tour of Earth culture, a hedonistic, entertainment-obsessed society whose ballooning population is made up mostly of idiots.  These chapters are also uncomfortable, but less successfully so--they give the definite impression that Russ is trying to write her version of Stranger in a Strange Land (published in 1960, a decade before And Chaos Died), but her tone keeps sliding into a snide parody of media- and body-obsessed culture that hardly seems worth the effort of puzzling out her still-challenging prose.

It seems, however, insufficient to describe And Chaos Died as either a story of post-humanism or a cultural satire.  There's a lot more to the novel that I haven't been able to figure out yet.  The first chapter finds Jai and the stranded officer (referred to only as The Captain) already on the planet and under attack from the post-humans, and ends with them besieged in their escape pod, which Evne and her people have torn nearly to shreds.  But the next chapter's opening line is "They came down in the escape capsule the next morning, Jai Vedh safely strapped in and trying to control his air-sickness," and when they emerge from the capsule this time Jai embarks on the more congenial relationship with Evne and her people that takes up the rest of the novel, and no reference is made to the events of the first chapter.  It's possible that Russ is indicating that Evne's people are so powerful that they were able to bend time and space, resetting a scenario that had turned out badly and trying it again, but if so it's left entirely up to the reader to reach that conclusion--which, to be fair, would not be out of character for Russ.  It's also hard to know what to make of Jai's statement, in that same first chapter, that he is gay, given that he spends the novel not only in love with a woman but enthusiastically bedding her and several others.  The fact that the first chapter caters so blatantly to gay stereotypes--Jai says of himself, "I don't like women ... I never have.  I'm a homosexual," and later on he has to fight off the urge to assault the Captain--again seems to suggest that Russ is doing something, but I'm not sure what that is.  Ultimately, And Chaos Died leaves me befuddled.

The Two of Them (1978), in contrast, is almost too accessible.  It could be taken as an expansion of "The Second Inquisition" in which the narrator, rather than being left behind, is carried off from that story's unsatisfying and limited existence as a young woman in 50s America to become a Trans Temp agent.  As the story begins, Irenee (formerly Irene Waskiewicz), has arrived on the planet Ka'abah with her partner, mentor, and lover Ernst, the man with whom, as a teenager, she escaped her parents' stultifying, borderline abusive marriage, a boyfriend who couldn't understand how a sane woman might prefer a career to marriage and children, and a society determined to turn her into a clone of her mother.  Irenee and Ernst's mission is only vaguely described and rather quickly done away with (it does, however, rely on Irenee's computer skills, which Russ lovingly describes in several scenes that seem to be the analogue of Alyx's working out how to outsmart her adversary's machines in "The Barbarian"--a deliberate emphasis on the female character's intelligence and skill--and may also be the some of the earliest instances of hacking in science fiction), but its significance is to establish that Ka'abah is a strategic location whose government must be appeased, and that its virulently misogynistic culture must therefore be tolerated.

Irenee and Ernst get a good view of this culture when they stay in the house of Alee, a mid-level functionary, and encounter his wife Zumurrud, his sister-in-law Dunya, and his preteen daughter Zubeydeh.  The chapters on Ka'abah read like a fictionalization of How to Suppress Women's Writing, or of any other work that seeks to describe the way that misogynistic culture not only devalues women but teaches them to devalue each other and to undermine each other's efforts to escape their predicament.  The dissatisfied Zumurrud is kept in a medicated stupor, clucked over by her maid, who explains to Irenee that high-born women don't appreciate being able to do nothing all day while scheming to take her mistress's place.  The dominant art form on Ka'abah is poetry, and though it is exclusively the purview of men, Zubeydeh is convinced that she is the exception to the rule (as Irenee says to Ernst, "She doesn't question the system, just insists she's outside it"), and that her father will allow and enable her artistic endeavors.  Both Alee and Zumurrud, however, have before them the example of Dunya, who yearned to be a poet and went mad when repeatedly prevented in her endeavors--or, as they think of it, despite repeatedly being prevented from writing poetry for her own good.

This portrait has the potential of being very broad and hectoring, and indeed leans in that direction several times, but Russ includes enough idiosyncratic details to humanize what could have been nothing more than a fictionalized feminist tract--Zubeydeh's poetry is described even by the sympathetic Irenee as nothing more than talented juvenalia; when encountering Zubeydeh's brother Jafaar, who has encouraged her poetic ambitions, Irenee sharply sums his type as "romantic, enthusiastic, innocently opinionated, easy to squash, and immensely loveable until suddenly at twenty-five he will turn unexpectedly into a carbon copy of his father."  Perhaps more importantly, Ka'abah's society, and the difficult situation of the women of Alee's household, are seen through Irenee's eyes, who, at the same time as she sees them from the perspective of the enlightened foreigner appalled by Ka'abah's misogynistic ways, is also looking through the eyes of a survivor, an escapee, of another form of institutionalized misogyny.  Her sympathy for all three women is rooted in her, and her mother's, experiences.  This duality, the fact that the American-born Irenee sees her mother and herself in Zumurrud and Zubeydeh, helps to counteract the somewhat troubling focus of the book's early chapters on Ka'abah's Muslim culture, and the way that its misogyny is expressed through traditionally Muslim artifacts such as veils and women's quarters.

Even more effective is the fact that after Irenee strong-arms Alee and Zumurrud into letting her take Zubeydeh away, the two develop a fraught and acrimonious relationship that sheds an unflattering light on Irenee's relationship with Ernst and on the freedom that working for Trans Temp has granted her.  Zubeydeh mirrors young Irenee's own fascination with Ernst, and tries to shut Irenee out of her relationship with the man who has taken Alee's place as her savior and protector.  Even after the two mend fences, Zubeydeh's increasingly sharp observations about the power imbalance between Ernst and Irenee reveal that, much like Zubeydeh, Irenee gained power by assuming her own exceptionalism, her superiority to other women and the necessity of having a man grant her the power to escape their fate, that the life she's chosen for herself has taken her away from women's company, and that though he may deny it, Ernst exercises significant control over her choices and options.  At the end of The Two of Them, Irenee and Zubeydeh leave Ernst, Trans Temp, and the future, and return to Earth--once again, the narrative slides from genre to naturalism, effortlessly taking us, in the space of a few paragraphs, from the corridors of a starliner to a motel in a nameless city in 1970s America, where Irenee becomes, once again, Irene, a divorced single mother.  It is strongly implied--as it has been throughout the novel, in which Russ frequently addresses the reader and identifies herself as the author, who has "decided" that certain events took place in a certain manner, or has changed her mind about a previously-described point--that the story is, as it was in "The Second Inquisition," is a fantasy of empowerment that must now give way to a more complicated reality.  The story ends with a vision of feminist solidarity that would verge on over-earnest were it not so heartfelt, and were the novel preceding it not so thorny and willing to discomfort its readers.

As a sampling of Russ's work, these novels may not the best place to start--I've left out her acknowledged masterpiece, The Female Man, and the overwhelming majority of her short fiction (I'm also interested in Russ's reviewing, which has been collected in a sadly rather expensive volume, and though I own a copy of the Farah Mendlesohn-edited essay collection On Joanna Russ I've left it for a later date, as I still have a lot of reading to do for this project and nonfiction tends to take me longer to get through than fiction).  They do, however, establish the salient facts--Russ's intelligence, her playfulness, her willingness to be weird and off-putting, and her preoccupation with feminist issues.  All of which are more than enough reason to seek out more of her work, and make her a very good starting point for this exploration of women's SF.

Monday, January 10, 2011

At the Strange Horizons Blog: On Reviewing

I've been the Strange Horizons reviews editor for just over two months, and in that time two things have become crystal clear.  One, the zombie novel thing has gotten completely out of hand, and two, I need to articulate what I want from the department's reviews, and what I think a review should or shouldn't do.  As I say in my post at the Strange Horizons blog:
It's easy, when you're writing your own stuff, to get by on gut instinct—something feels right or it doesn't, and if you've got a good editor (like Niall) they can often help you articulate what isn't working, what you're trying to accomplish, and how to fix it. ... since I've started editing other people's writing, I've found myself struggling for words, for the tools with which to explain what I want for the review department, and how specific reviews are failing to bring their point across, or sometimes just muddling it.  I've felt a keen awareness of the need for some sort of guidelines—for myself, as much as for the reviewers I edit.
Today's post is the beginning of what I hope will be an irregular series through which I can formulate these guidelines, so if you're interested please click through and add your thoughts.

But seriously, enough with the zombie novels.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Five Comments on Caprica

  • A few months ago, io9's Annalee Newitz called Caprica "one of the most literary scifi shows ever aired," and this strikes me as right, not necessarily because of the show's themes, as Newitz claims, but because the type of world Caprica was set in, and the story it told in that world.  It's a rather rich irony that the spin-off to a series whose core failure was its writers' lack of interest in worldbuilding, and their willingness to sublimate their SFnal world to a present-day allegory, had some of the best SFnal worldbuilding ever seen on TV, and the fact that Battelstar Galactica gained not only fannish but critical acclaim while Caprica received neither (a few blips notwithstanding, such as New York Magazine's Emily Nussbaum (no relation, alas), who seems both nonplussed and excited by the show's use of virtual reality) probably says everything that needs to be said about the current state of televised SF.  Caprica is set in a world in which the implications of technology--political, social, commercial--are not only thought out but are the crux of the story.  And those implications are often crushingly mundane.  Daniel Graystone stumbles on a way to upload human consciousness onto a computer, and immediately comes up with the idea of monetizing it in the most mawkish, and unprincipled, way possible (meanwhile, Clarice Willow decides to build heaven in a computer, then complains that her programmers have failed to capture the necessary awe and grandeur).  The avatars of Zoe Graystone and Tamra Adams decide to strike a blow against the depravity that runs rampant in the virtual worlds (a technology that, like television itself, was originally envisioned by Daniel as an educational tool), but find themselves turned into pop culture icons and plastered on hipster t-shirts.

    Just as interesting as the show's SFnal worldbuilding, however, is its non-SFnal variety--the ways in which Caprica is like modern Western culture but also unlike it.  Some things are familiar--talk shows, sports arenas, colonialism--but given a slightly foreign twist that keeps the show from descending into the kind of allegory that scuttled Galactica.  And then there are the aspects of the world that don't exist in ours--polytheistic religion (though this is glossed over too often; see the next point), gay marriage for mob enforcers, a schoolteacher in a polyamorous marriage, interplanetary travel that is as demystified as air travel--and which the show matter-of-factly inserts into a familiar setting.  Together they create a sense that Caprica is a real world, and that there are many other stories that could be told about it.  I was never entirely won over by Caprica's plotting, which also strikes me as literary, in the sense that the pacing, tenor, and tone of the show changed dramatically over the course of its single season, just as a novel might start with exposition and move towards a tense climax.  I'm not convinced that this style is a good fit for television in general (though it's become increasingly popular--Dexter uses is almost exclusively), but it certainly doesn't work in a twenty episode season broken up into two chunks which are aired months apart.  The five post-cancellation episodes, which aired on Syfy in a single chunk a few days ago, feel like a completely different show from the beginning of the season, and this gap (as well as the chronological one) makes it difficult to figure out how, or whether, the characters have grown and changed.  Still, whenever the story, or even the characters, let me down, there was Caprica's world, and its writers' obvious joy in exploring its complexity and depth.

  • Caprica's handling of religion is simultaneously fantastic and horrible.  Fantastic because religion on the show is not a monolith, and people can share religious faith without sharing values, or even an understanding of what that faith means.  The depiction of the monotheistic church on Geminon, with its competing streams, militant and less militant factions, and political infighting, carries a definite and fascinating whiff of Medieval and Renaissance Catholicism, and though it's rather dubious that a marginalized sect in a democratic, secular society would develop these sorts of structures--why fight for power if there's no power to be fought over?--the implicit recognition that religion can become bound up with the quest for power without being the same thing as that quest is an unusually sophisticated one.  On the other hand, Caprica never answers the core question raised by its religious plotline, a question without whose answer none of the show's handling of religion can truly be trusted: why are the monotheists blowing themselves up in public?  What do they hope to accomplish by doing so?  Clarice's plan to use a terrorist bombing as a sort of lethal ad campaign for her virtual heaven is mustache-twirlngly absurd, and anyway isn't formulated until rather late in the season, at which point Barnabas has already carried out several bombings.  Zoe embraces monotheistic religion because she thinks that Caprican society is corrupt and degraded, which might have worked as a reason to commit mass murder, but no monotheist other than her expresses these feelings--not even Lacy, who is largely under Zoe's spell--and Zoe herself isn't a terrorist.  It's very hard to escape the conclusion that the monotheists on the show blow people up because Caprica's writers think that this is what people who believe in God do.

    An obvious response to this might be that killing dozens of innocent strangers in what is likely to be a futile and self-defeating attempt to advance your agenda is an inherently irrational act, and since characters like Barnabas and Clarice are, if not irrational, then at least intellectually dishonest, there doesn't need to be a reason for their terrorist activities.  But there's a difference between an irrational act and a motiveless one.  The terrorist who blows themselves up in Iraq or Tel Aviv may not have a particularly sensible plan towards achieving their political goals, may not be acting out of anything more thought out than anger and hate, may not even be particularly smart, but they do have a motive, even if it's just to strike out at the people they think are responsible for their suffering, or to make themselves feel, if only for a moment, less helpless and downtrodden.  At no point does Caprica establish the monotheists' motives.  They're not persecuted (at least not until they start their terror campaign), nor is there, as far as we can see, any systemic oppression or prejudice arrayed against them, and the notion of using terror tactics as a recruiting tactic is laughable.  If Taurons were blowing themselves up in the streets of Caprica City it would make sense (and in episodes like "Dirteaters" it's revealed that guerrilla and terror tactics were used on Tauron), and every episode in which characters like Joe and Sam Adama recal their persecuted past while apparently privileged characters like Clarice plann mass murder and send teenagers to paramilitary training camps only drives home the irrationality at the very heart of the show.  Given how central religion, and the issue of terrorism, are to Caprica, this unwillingness to even acknowledge the question of why the two are linked is a very nearly fatal flaw.

  • By the same token, Caprica's female characters are alternately magnificent and disappointing.  Women's status on Caprica and its colonies is one of the points on which the show's worldbuilding flounders.  On the one hand, the show features the same kind of male dominance with increasing female presence that we recognize from our world--in the boardrooms of Graystone industries, in the offices of the GDD, and in the ranks of the Ha'latha.  But on the other hand, characters like the Guatrau's daughter Fidelia, who takes over the Ha'latha from him, or the soldier who kills Joe and Sam's parents, are accepted without comment in traditionally masculine, traditionally misogynistic environments (this is the same approach the writers took with non-heteronormative relationships, but it works less well, in part because despite their best efforts the show's background is still dominated by men).  But when the show stops trying to depict social change and just portrays complicated, strong, adult women who live in and navigate the real world, play by its rules and nevertheless manage to exert control over it, Caprica gives the current title-holder in the category, The Good Wife, a run for its money (which is even more impressive when one considers that Caprica comes from the genre that gave us the ass-kicking female character that shows like The Good Wife could be called a response to, and that Galactica gave us Starbuck, a character who both epitomized and exploded the action girl trope).  As central as men like Daniel and Joe are to the first season's plot, it ultimately boils down to a battle of wits and wills between Amanda and Clarice, and in the background there are other women with power and influence--Clarice's wife Marbeth, Fidelia, Joe's second wife Evelyn, the monotheist mother superior.  Most of them have several roles, both domestic and professional, and they derive strength and authority from both spheres--just like the male characters.

    On the other hand, the show's young women are woefully underserved despite being, initially, more central to its plot.  Zoe fares the best, but mainly because her arc connects her with the series's two best characters, Daniel and Amanda--the season, for her, is largely about her teenage rebellion, and coming to some sort of peace and understanding with her parents.  The only Zoe-centered storyline that doesn't revolve around that relationship, and treats her as a woman rather than a child, is her romance with Philomon, which is bearable only because of the way its tragic and ugly ending explodes the romantic expectations the show had encouraged us to develop.  Meanwhile, Lacy, for all of Magda Apanowicz's best efforts, is the most inconsistently written character on the show, simultaneously determined and tough-minded, and utterly subservient to the will of others--Zoe, Clarice, or whatever cult she happens to have joined this week.  There's a story to be told here, obviously--of a capable, strong person who nevertheless needs someone else to follow--but Lacy's devotion to Zoe and Clarice (and the degree to which the latter is feigned) are never explained, nor does the show reconcile the lengths to which she goes to help Zoe--which include participating in murders and terrorist bombings--with its insistence that Lacy is a moral, sympathetic character.  And the less said of Tamra, who appears and disappears, is made central to the plot and then ignored, according to the writers' convenience, the better.

  • For the life of me, I can't understand the choice to make Zoe ignorant of the mag-train bombing.  With the exception of the Clarice and Lacy, who tell no one else and don't seem inclined to do so, everyone assumes that Zoe was a terrorist, and it is an integral part of Daniel and Amanda's journey over the course of the season that they have to deal with this colossal failure as parents and citizens.  On the other hand, a great deal of effort is expended to stress that the Zoe avatar is not Zoe, and isn't responsible for her choices and crimes, thus absolving us of the crime of sympathy for a suicide bomber.  So why not make Zoe a terrorist?  She could hardly be any more self-involved and megalomaniacal, and while it's true that there's no reason for her to have wanted to commit mass murder, as discussed above there's really no reason for anyone, including Ben, to have wanted this.  As the show doesn't really explain why Zoe, rather than Ben, is seized upon as the mag-train bomber, she might as well have been the one. 

  • I've been trying to decide whether the show's connection with Battlestar Galactica helped it or hindered it.  Not in terms of survival--it's pretty clear that Caprica failed because it was too different from its parent show to draw in that show's fans (while hewing too close to Galactica's mythology for the comfort of people who hated it, like me), but at the same time I doubt that it would ever have been made if it hadn't been folded into the Galactica mythology--but in terms of its story.  The connection with Galactica, and our constant awareness of where the story is going, and the fact that characters like Daniel and Zoe are the architects of their own civilization's destruction, inevitably colors our reactions to both story and characters.  It creates a frisson, an ever-present sense of impending doom, that constantly elevates the story's level of tension and its grandeur.  It's an importance that the show doesn't quite earn, but more importantly, it changes the nature of the story that Caprica tells.  Without knowing where the creation of the Cylons, of machine sentience, and of personality upload, was leading Caprican society and the twelve colonies, we could watch Caprica as a story about the effects of technology, both positive and negative, and about the universal human tendency to exploit the weak and rush forward without understanding the consequences of our actions.  Knowing that the story has a tragic ending, however, not only forces the show into a wholly negative stance towards technology that isn't entirely supported by its scripts or characters, but turns Caprica into a morality tale, the kind of story about technological hubris leading to the apocalypse that SF TV loves to tell (see Dollhouse), which does something to negate the literary quality that is Caprica's strongest point.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, January 3-7

Before I get to the year's first reviews, the big news at Strange Horizons this week is that the magazine's blog is switching to full-time activity (whereas before it published mainly to advertise the magazine's yearly fund drive).  Editor in chief Niall Harrison has already got some posts up, as well as an editorial detailing other changes in the magazine's publishing schedule (while at the same time getting ready to hand over the reigns to Torque Control to Vector's incoming editor Shana Worthen and its reviews editor Martin Lewis), and I will hopefully have something up there this weekend.  You can follow the blog on RSS, and it's also syndicated on LJ, and while we're at it, here are the RSS and LJ links for the reviews feed as well.

On to the week's reviews: as has become traditional, the reviews department rings in the new year by looking back at the previous one.  We asked our reviewers what their favorite, and least favorite, genre-related things in 2010 were, and I think the answers give an interesting and pretty accurate snapshot of the department's focus and interests.  Farah Mendlesohn's review of Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death appeared on Wednesday, and was significantly less positive than the book's reception elsewhere has been (see also Jonathan McCalmont's review at The Zone).  Balancing that out is Richard Larson, who is over the moon about Paul Tremblay's short story collection In the Mean Time, which was also one of his picks for best genre-related thing of 2010.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The 2011 Hugo Awards: An Appeal to the Hugo Nominators

The year is a scant few days old, and yet Hugo season is already upon us.  Renovation, the 2011 Worldcon, started accepting Hugo nominations on January 1st (and will continue to do so until March 26th), which means that from now until August 20th we're all on Hugo readiness alert.  It's customary for fandom to spend the nominating period recommending works and people, pimping their own eligible novels and stories, posting their ballots online to inspire, and to be criticized by, others, and just encouraging them to nominate.  I'm not a member of Renovation and I don't plan to become one (if I do--depending on the ballot and the availability of the Hugo voter packet--it'll be after the nominating period closes), but I'd like to join in this tradition.  Not with a recommendation, though, nor with its opposite.  More like a request.

Dear Hugo nominators: please do not nominate Connie Willis's Blackout/All Clear as a single work.

Some background: Blackout and All Clear were submitted by Willis to their publisher, Spectra, as a single work, a time travel novel about London during the Blitz, which takes place in the same universe as her previous novels Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog.  As reported to me by Niall Harrison, in an interview with Willis in Interzone 227 she revealed that the submitted book was edited down to its current, published length of nearly 1,200 pages.  It was then split (according to Willis's blog, because it "was too long to be published in one volume") into Blackout and All Clear, which were published in February and October 2010, respectively.  Nowhere on the front covers, title pages, or front matter of either book is there any indication that they make up two halves of the same story, and many readers reported being surprised when they turned the last page only to find an abrupt stop in the story and an invitation to purchase its second half.  Though both volumes are available as e-books, these are sold separately, and at full price.  Blackout/All Clear's reception has been generally positive, but nearly every review has stressed that neither volume stands on its own as a novel, and that the cutoff point between them is all but arbitrary.  Because they were published in the same year, the Hugo rules allow for Blackout and All Clear to be nominated in the best novel category as a single work, and almost as soon as Blackout was published I started seeing calls for Hugo nominators to do just that.

Before I get into the reasons why I think this a bad idea, let's get one thing out of the way: I am not a big Connie Willis fan.  I am, in fact, a big non-fan of her writing, and her rapturous embrace by fandom--and particularly Hugo-voting fandom, which has awarded her two best novel wins, eight awards in various short fiction categories, and thirteen more nominations--has never failed to baffle me.  As far as I can tell Willis is a limited writer whose creative peak is nearly fifteen years in the past, and whose career in the twenty-first century has been marked mainly by an ever-increasing descent into her worst writerly habits.  When Nick Mamatas complained, in his review of Blackout, that the book was slow, bogged down in minutiae, and unfunny, I had to check and recheck that had ever read anything by Willis before (it appears he has), because in my experience these flaws are universal to her fiction, and as a self-confessed admirer of it you would think that Mamatas would have known to expect them.  I mention this because this post could easily be taken as calling for Willis not to be nominated for the Hugo at all, which is not my goal.  Though I admit that as a reader, a reviewer, and a once and (probably) future Hugo voter I'd prefer it if Willis stopped turning up on the award's ballots (though in all fairness, I haven't read Blackout/All Clear, and for all I know it is a deserving work), I'd like to believe that I'd be making the same argument if the author and book involved were nearer to my heart.  I think that I would almost rather that Blackout and All Clear took up two spots on the 2011 Hugo ballot than just one, because the former would at least be an expression of overpowering love for the book, while latter seems to me to reward some very bad behavior--if not on Willis's part then on the part of her publishers--that I don't think an award given by fandom should be in the business of validating.

The voices I've heard calling for Blackout/All Clear to be nominated together have repeatedly argued that it isn't right to punish Willis for her publisher's choice to split the novel, which strikes me as wrongheaded on two counts.  First, because though it may be true that Willis was powerless to overrule Spectra's choice to split the novel (and their choice to conceal the fact of the split and effectively con their customers) she is by no means an innocent bystander.  Willis made choices that helped bring this situation about.  She wrote and submitted what was, by her own admission, a very long novel without, apparently, giving any thought to breaking it up into distinct chunks with actual stopping points.  And she signed off on an edited two-volume version without, again, trying to craft satisfying reads out of the individual volumes.  In contrast, I'm in the middle of writing a review of Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World, which is proving difficult because, like Blackout/All Clear, it's the first half of a story.  But though I can't call The Half-Made World self-contained, it does come to a stopping point that makes it a coherent reading experience in its own right, while everything I've heard about Blackout/All Clear suggests that it is an ongoing story that simply stops midway.  The frustration and disappointment that fans felt upon discovering that they'd have to wait eight months to read the next chapter in that story is at least in part the result of Willis's choices as a writer--the same choices that a nomination for best novel would celebrate.

Even more problematic to my mind is the notion that to deny Willis a joint nomination for the two volumes is somehow unfair.  For one thing, it seems to imply that an award nomination is something an author is due rather than something that they are, well, awarded, as a gift.  More importantly, as far as I can tell there's only one group here that's been treated unfairly, and that's the fans.  They're the ones who have gotten one book for the price of two, and who have had an eight-month-long wait inserted, without warning, into the middle of a story they had already waited nine years to read.  Willis and Spectra may suffer negative consequences to their prestige and reputation because of their behavior, but they've also reaped rewards.  It's only the fans who have experienced exclusively negative consequences as a result of a choice they didn't make and weren't informed of until it was too late.  For the Hugo, the award given by the fans, to now validate this kind of behavior, strikes me as an affront.

This post is not directed at Hugo nominators who share my opinion that Connie Willis is not a good writer, or even at those who are her fans but didn't care for Blackout/All Clear.  It's directed at nominators who truly believe that Blackout/All Clear represents one of the best genre novels published in 2010.  I'd like to argue that there's another principle at stake, one that might be more important than artistic merit--that of fair dealing.  The Hugo reflects the fans' judgment, but that judgment doesn't have to be, and hasn't always been, purely artistic.  At its worst, the Hugo has been used to reward well-liked people regardless of the actual value of their work, but at its best it has also been used to rebuke bad behavior--perhaps the most recent example is Locus's loss of the Best Semiprozine Hugo in 2009, which has been widely regarded as a response to the decision to change the vote-counting mechanism of the magazine's annual award after the ballots had been counted.  I think that there's a chance to do that again in 2011, and I think that fandom should take that chance.  There's been a lot of talk about fair and unfair in this discussion, but from where I'm standing there's no fairer way of behaving than this: Blackout and All Clear were two books at the checkout counter, and two books in their publicity material; they should be two books on the Hugo nominating form.