Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Matter of Lists

by John Popham

I was in San Francisco during Hugo Awards weekend, basking in the Bay Area cool while attending my brother-in-law's wedding. Both wedding and reception were held in his home and, being family and all, mine was a busy Saturday full of duties and distractions. Festivities and subsequent clean-up wore deep into the night before I let sleep take up it's knitting needles to knit up my much ravll'd sleeve of cares.  Then it was off to the airport godawful early, and a Sunday spent on airplanes in order to get back to DC at a respectable hour.

With all the rushing about I completely missed the Hugo Awards ceremony. Looking at the news and follow-ups it seems a case of slate voting being deployed as a means of beating back slate voting. More on that after I recover from the trauma of this year's award season.

I've been thinking a bit about top ten lists. I have my own top ten list of science fiction novels, of course, though I tend to keep it inside my head unless asked. But, after listening to reviewer and critic Renay's interview on The Coode Street Podcast (which I highly recommend - it's a fascinating discussion) I decided to lay out my personal top ten list. Straight from the shoulder, and true as I can make it. No fudging to make it seen erudite, respectable or diverse. Just my all-time favorites. My only rule was that I couldn't use the same author twice.

So here's my list, in no particular order. My comments on it follow.

1 -  A Storm Over Warlock by Andre Norton

In 1969 a woman opened a doorway for me. Stepping through to the other side I found myself on an alien world, and never returned to my point of departure. Forty five years have come and gone since I took Andre Norton's Storm Over Warlock down from a bookshelf.  I have journeyed a long distance since that day in many senses, having become unstuck from space and time by the act of reading it. This is hardly Norton's best work, but it was my first exposure to written science fiction and a vintage copy rests in a place of honor on my bookshelf.

2 -Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

This book tends to make both Science Fiction and Fantasy lists as it stands in near perfect balance between the two genres. It is the story of a select group of space travelers who have used technology to set themselves up over their fellow colonists as gods from the Hindu pantheon. One of their number, Mahasamatman (or Sam), undertakes to play the role of Prometheus and break the 'gods' rule over the rest of humanity. Along the way Zelazny delivers one of the worst puns in the whole of science fiction, but does so in the best possible way.

3) - Downbelow Station by C J Cherryh

One of the best 'ships in space' science fiction yet written. In Downbelow Station, Cherryh hits every marks she aims at. The richness of texture and scope of her storytelling is astonishing. Somehow the clash of fleets and the politics of interstellar war are kept in balance with Cherryh's depiction of the human lives caught up in events. Topping it off, this book delivers the iconic starship captain, Signy Mallory. Simply brilliant.

4) A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

Beautiful use of science to create characters and drive events in a story. One wickedly malevolent AI is inadvertently set free and tears into interstellar civilizations with mayhem on its mind. Vinge's description of the fall of major political and economic powers is riveting, as is his use of characters, both human and alien. It's up to junior librarian, two lost kids, couple of sentient trees and a planet full of dog-like aliens to save the galaxy's civilizations from destruction.

5)  The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

A great bit of story-telling from LeGuin. The Left Hand of Darkness explores the role of gender in heroic tales by setting this one on a planet called Gethen, where people are neither male nor female most of the time, taking on gender only briefly for purpose of conceiving children. The social institutions LeGuin creates for a population in which one can be father to some children and mother to others are credible and well thought through. At the same time she delivers an engaging adventure story with politics, intrigue, betrayal, and a daring escape across a frozen wasteland.

6) A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr.

Arguably the best post-apocalyptic science fiction story yet written. Set in the deserts of the Southwest United States after a nuclear war has destroyed civilization, A Canticle for Leibowitz follows the efforts of the monks of the fictional Order of Leibowitz as they attempt to preserve the remains of human knowledge following the nuclear holocaust. It's a ticklish task, what with humanity being by far the greatest danger to the monks and their precious horde of books.

7) Dune by Frank Herbert

Never mind the sequels that followed. Dune stands best on its own. The book is set in a future interstellar empire where noble houses owe allegiance to the powerful Padishah emperor. The story is centered around Paul Atreides, whose family is given stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis, the sole source of 'melange' or 'spice'; a drug that makes navigating across interstellar distances possible and thus is the lynch-pin of the imperial economy. It is a coveted position, but a dangerous one given that the noble houses are in a constant state of intrigue and the Atreides' enemies  are plotting to end their family's line for good. While the larger plot arc is simple, the tapestry of politics, betrayal, religion, ecology, technology and culture Herbert weaves in the telling of it makes Dune a classic.

8) Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Having barely fought off two alien invasions, humanity is searching for a military leader ruthless and brilliant enough to win an interstellar war, yet empathic enough not to become a despot once the war is won. Selected children, including the protagonist, Ender Wiggin, are sent to an orbital 'battle school' where they are trained, tested and evaluated. In lesser hands the machinery of the novel would have descended into trope-ridden military fiction. However, Card's deft handling of the characters, relationships and the emotional underpinnings of the story resonate powerfully. While Card himself has fallen from grace owing to his position on and recent statements regarding homosexuality, Ender's Game remains a brilliant piece of writing.

9) Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer to my mind, defined the Cyberpunk subgenre. It was the author's first novel and it hit the science fiction world like a lightning stroke. Science fiction hasn't been the same since. 'Nuff said.

10) Snowcrash by Neil Stephenson

It's a rare author who can deliver a complex plot filed with rich concepts, riveting prose and unforgettable characters. Its a rarer author who can do so with perfect narrative clarity while propelling readers through their story at high velocity. Neil Stephenson is a rarer author. Snowcrash follows Hiro Protagonist (last of the freelance hackers, greatest sword-fighter in the world and pizza delivery man for the Mafia) and Y.T. the skateboard courier as they search for the secret behind Snowcrash, a biolinguistic virus capable of infecting both machines and human brain stems.


Now, you'll note that my list includes no books earlier than 1960, or later than 1996.

None of that is for want of reading older books or more recent books. For example, I'm perfectly comfortable reading prose by Romantic and Edwardian writers and enjoyed reading both Shelly's Frankenstein and Wells' The Time Machine. But neither made my top ten because, while I believe they are essential reading for someone who wishes to be well grounded in the genre, I find the prose from that period uses a lot of literary conventions that tend to keep the reader at arms length.

Moving into the early to mid twentieth century, I like reading writers like Asimov and Simak. I find their books well constructed and their underpinning ideas rich and complex. But their characters tend to be weak, almost a secondary consideration, and fail to engage me as a reader.  Once again, they are on many 'must read' lists (including mine) for people who want to grok science fiction, but for my personal top-ten they don't make the grade. 

While I've been reading a lot of more recent works, there's not much out there that's really grabbed me. That's not to say I don't enjoy works published post-1996. However, much of the science fiction published of late are near-future dystopias or straight-up military science fiction. That's literary ground that has been so overworked that little of note grows there anymore.

Still, there are a number of newer writers such as Leckie, de Bodard and Weir who have side-stepped the mire of zombies and space marines and are turning out quite good work. None of them, however, have struck lightning with me so far. A number of my pre-1996 favorites, like Gibson, Stephenson and Cherryh are still publishing, but they seem to have lost some of their early zeitgeist. It's good writing; mature, solid and polished, as I'd expect with a master of the craft. But I no longer close their books wishing there were more.

However, it's all about the journey. The search continues. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Fiction Review: Little Man by Michael Cunningham

Reviewed by John Popham

I keep intending to write a bit more about the Hugo Awards. But, each time I try I recoil at the thought of the raging nerds occupying the fringes of fandom's political spectrum.  The visceral pleasure they seem to take in foaming at the mouth and attempting to claw out the eyes of their opposites makes thoughful discourse on the subject seem a waste of time. Indeed, as fandom's fringes descend into an orgy of fear and loathing, both sides perceive voiced reason as a symptom of disloyalty to their respective cause. Meanwhile, those of you gentle souls who are here for the stories, and not to mount someone else's ideological ramparts, have heard quite enough.

Good then. Enough. Be still, my soul.

Instead, let's talk about good stories, well told. In particular, let's talk about Little Man, by Michael Cunningham. It's a wonderfully executed  fantasy story offered up in the pages of the current New Yorker.

In Little Man, Cunningham retells the story of Rumpelstiltskin from the eponymous character's point of view. The device of re-telling old stories from the villain's point of view has been used so often that it's become hackneyed, and is only rarely well-done.  Its most successful execution to date was in John Gardner's Grendel.  It speaks well of Cunningham's retelling that, as I read Little Man, Gardener's work kept hovering at the back of my mind.

The main character, who we know well though he never names himself, opens the story with a simple question: What if you had a child? He goes on to describe why having and raising a child has become such a singular passion to him. Yet, what with his being an ugly two-hundred-year-old gnome, the possibility of parenting seems out of reach.
You are driven slightly insane—you try to talk yourself down; it works some nights better than others—by the fact that, for so much of the population, children simply . . . appear. Bing bang boom. A single act of love and, nine months later, this flowering, as mindless and senseless as a crocus bursting out of a bulb. 

It’s one thing to envy wealth and beauty and other gifts that seem to have been granted to others, but not to you, by obscure but undeniable givers. It’s another thing entirely to yearn for what’s so readily available to any drunk and barmaid who link up for three minutes in a dark corner of any dank and scrofulous pub.
The prose is thoughtful and compelling. The author's use of the second person point of view serves as a proposition to the readers to put themselves into narrator's shoes. It also recalls the ancient oral forms of story-telling that were the wellspring for the modern canon of fairy-tales. The result is a narrative voice that is poignant at times, whimsical at others and, in total, as elegant as the narrator's outward appearance is ugly.

As he muses on prospect of parenthood, the little man's attention is drawn into the plight of an actual parent; a miller who, in order to draw a king's attention to his daughter, has told the king she can spin straw into gold. The king puts the poor girl to the test. He locks her into a room with a large supply of straw and a spinning wheel, promising her execution as punishment for her father's cheek should she fail to deliver. 
"When you hear the story about the girl who can supposedly spin straw into gold (it’s the talk of the kingdom), you don’t immediately think, This might be a way for me to get a child. That would be too many steps down the line for most people, and you, though you have a potent heart and ferocity of intention, are not a particularly serious thinker."
Nonetheless, the little man, obsessed with the lot of parents, has a certain sympathy for the miller. He decides to help because some good may come of it, and because, for the first time in his gnomish life, he has something to offer a young woman that no one else can.

From there the story follows its traditional plot arc, but Cunningham's execution of that arc creates a compelling relationship between the little man and the miller's daughter that sows the seeds of the tragedy to come. While each is well intentioned, both of them are driven by irreconcilable desires that can only be satisfied by compromise with their darker natures.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Final Proposal of 'Best Series' Hugo Award Posted

by John Popham

Sasquan, hosts of this years World Science Fiction Association convention, has posted this year's proposed amendments to the Worldcon constitution. As anticipated, the proposed amendments include several intended to change the nomination process for the Hugo Awards in order to dilute the influence of 'slate' voting.  However an unrelated addition to this year's business meeting is a proposal to add a new Hugo Award category for Best Series:
"A work of science fiction or fantasy presented as a single series with a unifying plot, characters or setting, appearing in at least three (3) volumes consisting of a total of at least 240,000 words by the close of the previous calendar year,at least one of which was published in the previous calendar year. If such a work has previously been a finalist, it shall be eligible only if at least two (2) additional volumes consisting of a total of at least 240,000 words have been published since its last appearance on the final ballot by the end of the previous calendar year and provided it has not won...before."

Presently a series in its entirety can be nominated for a Hugo Award under the best novel category the year the last book in the series is published. However, some fans of the series format argue that, with series becoming increasingly important in science fiction and fantasy genre publishing, that format deserves its own Hugo Award category.

The last time a Hugo Award specifically dedicated to a series was awarded was in 1966 when when Isaac Asimov's Foundation series won Best All-Time Series,  beating out Edgar Rice Burrough's Barsoom series, E. E. 'Doc' Smith's Lensman series, Robert Heinlein's Future History series and J. R. R. Tolkein's "The Lord of the Rings" for the honor.

The initial draft of the proposal amendment created some controversy as, in order to make room for the new award, it would have eliminated the Best Novellette award. Presently there are three short fiction awards, including Best Short Story (up to 7,500 words), Best Novellete  (up to 17,500 words) and Best Novella (up to 40,000 words). The final draft of the proposed Best Series amendment does not require any other Awards be eliminated in establishing a Best Series award.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Book Review: Ancillary Sword by Anne Leckie

Reviewed by John Popham

Possibly the greatest weakness of Anne Leckie's Ancillary Sword is that it has the great misfortune of being the sequel to her previous novel, Ancillary Justice, which deservedly swept the science fiction novel category during the 2014 Science Fiction awards season. 

In Ancillary Justice Leckie told the story of Breq, the last surviving corpse soldier, or ancillary, from the interstellar troop carrier Justice of Toren. Once a peripheral extension of that ship’s Artificial Intelligence, Breq retained the AI's identity following the troop carrier's destruction. Using alternating chapters, Justice told its protagonist's story using two plot lines; one following the star ship Justice of Toren’s AI through events leading up to its destruction, and the other following Breq, Justice of Toren's sole surviving ancillary, on her quest for vengeance against Anaander Mianaai, the emperor responsible for Justice of Toren’s destruction.

Mianaai, Lord of Radch is the ultimate imperialist. She is an ancient, shared consciousness comprised of multiple physical bodies. For millennium, Mianaai has ruled humanity, her many bodies allowing her to maintain personal presence and control throughout her interstellar empire and extend her reign across many human generations. Now, however, some subsets of the Lord of Radch’s personality have begun to rebel against the rest of its collective self. The opening moves of an interstellar civil war are in progress. 

Ancillary Sword picks up the story where Ancillary Justice left off, with Breq having allied herself with one faction of the Lord of Radch’s larger personality. Breq is provided a ship, the Mercy of Kalir, the rank of fleet captain and is ordered to secure and take command of a system called Athoek.

The fracturing of Anaander Mianaai, Lord of Radch, to whom all humans owe absolute and unquestioning loyalty, into rival factions was a rich plot device in Ancillary Justice, driving most of the action in that novel.  In Ancillary Sword Leckie allows the cascade of knowledge and events set loose by Breq’s quest in the previous novel to begin to break out onto the larger stage of interstellar politics and intrigue.

For millennium, failure to obey the Lord of Radch has been de-facto treason. However, when cognitive dissonance ruptures the once monolithic imperial mind into multiple contesting factions, every act of obedience becomes, likewise, an act of treason. With this dissonance now out in the open, the highly centralized imperial society is beginning to break down. A choosing of sides has been forced upon humanity. Thus, Ancillary Sword begins with the makings of a very taut and exciting middle act to Leckie’s planned trilogy in place.  Unfortunately the author misses the opportunity to capitalize on that potential narrative energy.  The result is a disappointing offering by a talented author.

In part this is due to the structural differences between the two books. Ancillary Justice had the danger and urgency of Breq’s quest plot-line trading fours with the impending disaster of Justice of Toren’s destruction, an event that reveals the splintering of a 3,000 year old emperor’s multiple selves into warring factions, to drive it forward.  The loss of the ship’s-eye-view of events in Justice, with scenes described as they unfold from the AI’s many-POV perspective as a means of driving dramatic tension, is particularly missed in Ancillary Sword.

With the alternating Breq narratives reconciled, Leckie continues her story in linear fashion and from a conventional first-person point of view.  After the opening chapters orient the reader and introduce the crew of Mercy of Kalr, Leckie sets the book in motion as the ship and crew travel to Athoek. However, once the Mercy of Kalar arrives at their destination, Ancillary Sword segues into a meditation on human social and economic hierarchies and the evils of empire. The narrative velocity of the story is allowed to dissipate as Breq turns her hand to delivering comeuppance to those at the top of the social order and succor to Athoek's much put-upon underclass.

While essentially a spaceship's AI downloaded into a human body, Breq understands humanity and what is best for us much better than we do ourselves. Leckie's rationale for this is that, having seen to the needs of its human crew for thousands of years, the AI is well equipped to intervene in human affairs. This could have been an interesting idea if Breq were allowed to stumble as she navigated the differences between managing a few dozen humans in the tightly controlled context of a ship under military discipline, and doing so with billions of obstreperous free-range humans within much looser social construct of civilian society.  Sadly, this opportunity is missed as well. Breq begins the work of re-ordering society, humbling the exalted and exalting the the humble, with nary a misstep. Every human intervention Breq undertakes goes surprisingly well. And that, to some degree, is the central weakness of Ancillary Sword. Time and again, Leckie passes over the opportunity for nuance in favor of easy moralizing.

While Leckie is an ambitious and talented world builder, her characters tend not to receive the same level of attention. Beyond the protagonist Breq and Anaander Mianaai, the characters in Ancillary Sword tend toward thin and shallow sketches. They exist functionally and, at times, as a gestalt without seeming to emerge as fully realized characters. Breq's crew are not referred to by names, but as a number within their unit designation; an odd conceit for Breq to maintain given her objection to the continued use of humans as ancillary troops. Privileged characters are venal and shallow. Unprivileged characters are, almost invariably, good and thoughtful souls; the salt of the earth except when pushed to extremes by the venality of their privileged overlords. Most exist primarily as moral foils for Breq, providing her reasons to comment on events or hold forth on her personal philosophy. Or they offer facile counter-arguments for Breq to dispatch with ease. There is little by way of spark of life within them.

A notable exception to this is Dlique, a human raised by an alien race, the Presger, in order to serve as their translator. Translator Dlique explodes onto Ancillary Sword's stage for a mere ten pages or so but, in that brief space, manages to become the series' most memorable character to date. Indeed, Dlique's commentary in the inadequacy of eggs (they never become 'anything interesting like regret, or the middle of the night last week') is Ancillary Sword's most frequently quoted passage. Alas, poor Dlique is hustled back to the wings all too quickly. Understandably, I think. The light and color injected by Dlique into Leckie's otherwise brooding narrative would quickly have become too difficult to maintain without putting the larger work off its balance.

In the last quarter of the book Leckie re-engages the larger story arc, which injects sufficient energy into Ancillary Sword to drive the book's crisis and denouement to a satisfying conclusion. Revelations place Breq and the Mercy of Kalr in the shadow of potential threats lurking near the Athoek system. The impending civil war, which has spent much of Ancillary Sword as a faint rumble on the far horizon, seems suddenly (and finally) a clear and present danger once more.

While Ancillary Sword is not as good a work as Ancillary Justice, it is still a respectable entry into the far-future science fiction subgenre. It delivers a thoughtful 'ships in space' novel, leveraging the conventions of space opera and military science fiction without slipping into their more hackneyed tropes. While Sword does not stand well on its own, it provides a passable transition from Ancillary Justice to the final book in the Imperial Radch trilogy.

More than one author, having dazzled the public with their first novel, have become trapped by that success and never published a second. With Ancillary Sword, Leckie has gotten past the second novel curse in good form.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The House of Many Rooms

by John Popham

Interesting days for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Seems my return to the genre community could have been timed better. Ah, well. As Ursula LeGuin once observed, you can go home again as long as you accept that home is a place you've never been before.

As I mentioned last week I'll be reviewing all of the Hugo Award nominees for best novel. I 'm finishing up my review of Anne Leckie's Ancillary Sword and should post that later this week.  My review of Jim Butcher's Skin Game was already posted prior to its being nominated.

Marko Kloos has become, alas, a casualty of the culture wars presently raging in Worldcon. He withdrew his Lines of Departure from the Hugo Awards final ballot in order to remove his name and his work from the current Hugo Awards controversy.

With Kloos' withdrawal, Jim Liu's translation of Liu Cixin's well regarded The Three Body Problem has been elevated to the final Hugo Awards ballot. I plan on going forward with the review of Kloos' Lines of Departure nonetheless. I will simply add The Three Body Problem to my pre-Hugos review slate.  That should be and happy addition to my workload, given the reputation of Liu Cixin's entry.

I regard the withdrawal Kloos' Lines of Departure as a profound pity. Both the book and its author seemed well regarded across the community leading up to the announcement of the final ballot. Indeed, John Scalzi, hardly a member of the puppies fan club, has championed Kloos' awesomeness  and endorsed Lines of Departure to the Scalzi readership. It's a sad state of affairs when an author with broad appeal is pressured from award contention because a someone with reprehensible views likes their work. One would have thought a book that could appeal to both John Scalzi and Vox Day is precisely the sort of book that should be a contender for the Hugo.

Alas, the quality of one's stories seems to have become a secondary consideration when Hugo Award worthiness is measured.

Of course, it is an ill wind that blows no one good. If nothing else, the sturm und drang surrounding the Hugos appears to have re-energized the larger science fiction community's engagement with the Hugo voting process. George R. R. Martin commented in his blog post What Now? that a air of complacency has surrounded the nomination process in recent years, with many Worldcon members abdicating the nomination process to a small group of Worldcon insiders. As I pointed out in 2,122, for every voter who submitted a nominating ballot this year, at least seven of the ~16,000+ eligible voters did not.  I'd expect to see next year's nominations get a lot of love from the science fiction community. With more fans voting, the 2016 nominations should represent a much broader cross-section of (lower-case) fandom's population.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the Hugo Awards' current open nomination process will survive beyond 2016. George R. R. Martin wrote in the same blog post that Worldcon members currently in control are crafting changes to the voting rules. The proposed changes are intended to preclude interlopers from nominating 'undeserving' authors and their works for Hugo Awards in the future. By definition, such rule changes would have to limit the democratic nature of the nominating process; shifting influence from the general public (who can buy a supporting Worldcon membership for $40) to insiders who can be, it is supposed, counted on to nominate works that reflect the will of Worldcon's current movers and shakers.

Those speaking for Worldcon have gone out of their way in the last month to emphasize that the Hugo Awards are bestowed by Worldcon, and not by the science fiction and fantasy reading public. This suggests that Mr. Martin is correct and that plans are motion to take at least the the Hugo Award nominations out of the hands of said reading public. This could be done in a number of ways. For example, Worldcon's insiders could vote to limit the pool of eligible Hugo Award nominators to those Worldcon members who regularly attend the event. They could weight the nominations of attending members more heavily in order to reduce the influence of nominations from supporting members. They could appoint a panel of judges empowered to select a final ballot of deserving nominees based on works submitted by Worldcon's rank and file members, thus taking the final ballot out of the hands of the rank and file. And so on.

In order to protect the Hugo Awards from being rigged, it appears Worldcon's deciders are poised to rig the Hugo Awards, an irony not lost on Mr. Martin:
"[The Sad Puppies] started this whole thing by saying the Hugo Awards were rigged to exclude them.... So what is happening now? The people on MY SIDE, the trufans and SMOFs and good guys, are having an endless circle jerk trying to come up with a foolproof way to RIG THE HUGOS AND EXCLUDE THEM. God DAMN, people. You are proving them right. "

While Worldcon owns and bestows the Hugo Awards, they have commonly been promoted as an expression of the reading public's will, as the most democratic of literary awards. At the end of the day Worldcon has been defined by its membership, i.e., any and all of the reading public who wished to participate and paid for a membership. It has been, at least nominally, a community of equals whose sole common denominator was a love of the genre.

It is deeply disappointing to learn that some of that membership now wish to be more equal than others.

As I've written elsewhere, science fiction and fantasy have long been a big house with open doors, and lots of rooms in which to dream. Squids from space, Bug Eyes Monsters and granite-jawed starship captains legitimately share the table with Breq, Pyanfar Chanur and Therem Harth rem ir Estraven.  This is not a weakness of the genre. It is the genre's strength, this cross-pollination of the ridiculous and profound, the vulgar and the high-minded.

Those who value that house and the stories told therein should be exceedingly slow to judge who does and does not deserve a place at that eclectic table. We are an unlikely-to-the-point-of-absurdity community of wild and obstreperous minds, opinions and dreams. Our stories are born in the midst of tumult. Ours is not a respectable house, and we are not possible otherwise.

Babies and bath water, my friends.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Hugo Awards - Best Novel Nominees

by John Popham

The nominations came out for the Hugo Awards last week and, despite the controversy surrounding the nominating process there's general agreement that the line-up in the best novel category is an interesting one. I plan on posting a review for each of the best novel nominees this year, so the good news is that I've already read two of the finalists; Ann Leckie's Ancillary Sword and Jim Butcher's Skin Game.  As I've already published a review of Skin Game and am well into hammering out a review of Ancillary Sword my burden of reading and writing is much lighter than it might have been.

I'm looking forward to Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor. It's been getting a lot of good press and has been high on many recommendation lists, including Locus Magazine's 2014 recommendations, which is put together by a pretty erudite and eclectic collection of reviewers.  Kevin J. Anderson's The Dark Between the Stars and Marko Kloos' Lines of Departure will be my first encounter with those authors, so I'm looking forward to making their acquaintance as well.

From what I know of the nominees so far I look for a horse race this year when it comes to the voting. Leckie's Ancillary Sword is solid, workmanlike science fiction, but lacks the brilliance of her Ancillary Justice, which made a well deserved sweep of the category during last year's award season. Still, the fans of the Ancillary series will be lining up to send Leckie back to the Hugo podium. Butcher has labored long in the vineyards of urban fantasy and is well overdue for a Hugo nomination. While Skin Game is not the best work in his Dresden Files series, Butcher has a very large and loyal following who will want to reward him for many years of entertaining reading. The Goblin Emperor is a name to conjure with in 2014 and, if the book lives up to its reputation, it should be a contender as well.  The Dark Between and Lines of Departure have less buzz in the marketplace however, if they deliver the goods from a story-telling perspective, either of them could emerge as a dark horse at this year's Worldcon awards ceremony.  

For the purpose of the reviews, the usual rules of engagement will be in effect: Praise where I believe praise is due, but no punches pulled when an author drops the literary ball. Some reviewers follow the 'if you can't say something good, don't say anything at all' rule of book reviews in order to avoid hurting feelings or drawing the ire of authors and their followings. For myself, I believe the first duty of the reviewer is to the prospective reader.  The readers are, after all, the ones who have to decide where to spend their hard-earned cash.

Reviews aside, I won't be making a recommendation with regard to Hugo voting. As George R. R. Martin has pointed out, the promotion of works for the Hugo has been becoming ever-more overt these last ten years. This year the polite fiction that interested parties don't campaign for the Hugos has been blown to smithereens. There will be plenty of recommendations crowding the blogosphere and social media as Worldcon draws near without my adding to the sound and fury.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous.
     - Neil Gaiman
Consider the number 2,122. Not a big number as numbers go. Not a small one either. Now, set the number 2,122 aside for a moment, but keep it in the corner of your mental field of vision.

The Hugo Awards, as most of you know, are awards nominated by and voted on by science fiction and fantasy (SF&F) fans. With many literary awards, nominees are submitted to a panel of judges who then select the final slate of nominees. Not so with the Hugo Awards. The Hugos put SF&F fans firmly in the driver's seat.  Fans of SF&F select the finalists, and fans of SF&F elect the annual winners of the Hugo Award from among those finalists. No panels. No notables or literary luminaries sitting in judgement. No yardstick for artistic or cultural merit. Just the votes by fans of the genre for the works they wish to honor that year.

In this sense, the Hugo is a 'popular' award, unlike the Nebula Award in which nominating works is limited to the roughly 1,800 members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and voting on the finalists is limited to Active and Lifetime members of the SFWA.

I've always liked the Hugo. Sure, sometimes I might argue with the collective taste of fandom, but I'll be the first to admit I can be a bit of an elitist when it comes to the written word.  I've been delighted when the rest of fandom's choices align with mine, but hardly put-out when they didn't. For me the point of the Hugos has always been about fun; about rewarding good stories that resonate broadly among the genre's fan base. It is the only major writing award in which the little guy had a say, and in which the influence of insiders on the final results was restricted by the nature of the process.

Over the years I've liked to think that the Hugo Awards are about Jane and Joe lunchbox, for whose spare shekels the publishing industry lustily competes, having a chance to voice their opinion and have that opinion heard.

The list of Hugo Award finalists were announced on Saturday. This year it's created something of a kerfuffle in the science fiction and fantasy community.

Well, that's not precisely true. It's actually the latest eruption in a kerfuffle that's been going on for several years. OK. Strictly speaking it's not, technically, a kerfuffle. It's more a nasty, mean spirited holy war; with fringes of the science fiction and fantasy community having a go at each other and the rest of the community caught in the middle. Both sides have legitimate grievances, but neither are in a mood to listen to one another.

At the surface the divide is a political one, with the fandom's liberal fringe on one side and it's conservative fringe on the other.  Disagreement with even the most extreme orthodoxy of either of the two groups causes its membership to cast the dissenter as a member of the opposition.  Both sides are in 'with us or against us' mode as they attempt to force the greater fan community to choose between them. Most fans I know have been keeping their opinions to themselves and maintaining a low profile as they wait for the angels of our collective better nature to prevail, but there seems no end in sight.

Political tempers are running so hot that a fan's taste in science fiction and fantasy literature is beginning to be taken as a statement of political loyalties. Any dedication to old fashioned adventure stories featuring rockets, ray-guns, swords or sorcery causes one to be marked as a conservative partisan and a white-male power fantasist.  A preference for literary or social science fiction and fantasy, in which today's culture and diversity issues are explored, causes one to be marked as a liberal partisan and a social justice warrior.  Both sides spend a surprising amount of time trash-talking what they perceive to be the inferior literature of the opposition.

Of course the Hugo Awards have become ground zero for this dispute.

In the last few years both sides have sought to influence the outcome of the Hugo nominations and final awards voting in a manner that favors their literary and social point of view.  Historically, openly campaigning for a Hugo has ended badly for the campaigner. Thus, while SF&F's taste-makers and insiders have always had some influence on the Hugo Awards, traditionally that influence has been muted. In recent years, however, we've seen the advent of  internet-based 'eligibility' and 'recommendation' lists published by persons of influence within the science fiction community. While they stopped short of saying 'vote my slate' the intent to influence Hugo voters was clear.

This year, SF&F's conservative fringe escalated the conflict, mounting a campaign intended to fill the entire finalist slate with nominees in line with their tastes, but eschewed by SF&F's liberal fringe.  In this they were largely successful.

SF&F's liberal fringe has responded by threatening a 'no award' campaign; urging Hugo voters to vote 'no award' in any category dominated by the conservative fringe.  If successful, this would result in the awards for most categories of Hugos being withheld for 2015. While a satisfying block for the liberal fringe in the short term, this would very likely begin a cycle of retaliation, with each side using the no-award mechanic to stick a thumb in their enemy's eye. With each turn of this self-destructive crank, the reputation of the Hugo as one of the most venerable and democratic science fiction/fantasy awards will be diminished.

About now you're probably wondering how some marginal fringe groups have gained so much influence over the Hugo Awards. After all, like space, SF&F fandom is big. Really big. It's a huge demographic that consumes an astonishing quantity of books, magazines, graphic novels, movies and sundry media each year. The audience of the genre is far larger than it's ever been before. How could a relatively small subset of that audience put the Hugo Awards at risk of becoming the booby prize in their political/social pissing contest.

The answer is 2,122.

2,122 is the total number of nominating ballots that went into determining who would be on the final Hugo ballot in 2015. It was, believe it or not, a record turn-out.  In choosing the finalists for fandom's greatest honor, only the opinions of 2,122 individuals mattered.

Now, for the purposes of the Hugo Awards, a 'fan' is a member of the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS). Anyone who buys a full or supporting Worldcon membership for the prior year, current year or upcoming year is a member of the WSFS and eligible to nominate and vote for the Hugos. Membership and voting rights are open to any science fiction or fantasy fan with the price of at least a supporting membership in hand. Thus, among the movers and shakers in the WSFS, a Fan is a member of the WSFS, and Fandom is the overall WSFS membership.  Based on Worldcon registration numbers for the current and prior years, the number of eligible voters should be over 15,000.  But only 2,122 opted to nominate works for the Hugo Awards. Based on past history, fewer than double that number will vote to select the winners from the final ballot. 

With only 2,122 voters weighing in on the slate of Hugo finalists, influencing the outcome isn't terribly difficult.  A few hundred votes one way or another can make the difference in a decision that has significant financial and career outcomes. In such a small pool, non-aligned voters may outnumber faction voters, but uncoordinated votes have less impact on the outcome. This serves to give both fringe groups influence far in excess of their numbers. Now that the battle over the Hugo Awards has broken out into the open, we can look forward to both fringes levering that influence with a will.

It would be good for the larger SF&F community if the leaders on both sides of this fracas would call their troops to heel, take a breath, and work matters out like grown-up. Inside voices and all that. Science fiction and fantasy are not, after all, a zero sum game. For one side to win the other side needn't lose. However, said leaders are true-believers, convinced of the virtue of their cause and the nefarious nature of the foe.  They would sooner see the house of Hugo burn to the ground than put out the present fire.

The only solution available then is to increase the number of un-aligned voters. The larger the pool grows the more effort will be required to influence the outcome. If 15,000+ fans voted in the Hugos Awards the influence of fringe groups would be profoundly diluted, and the results would more accurately reflect will of the larger science fiction and fantasy community. To me, that's what the Hugo Awards should be all about.

Of course, growing the pool of voters that much would require science fiction and fantasy community to roll up its collective sleeves, and for larger fandom take ownership of the Hugo Awards by participating in the process.  We need an extraordinary effort by science fiction and fantasy's real fans.

So here's the question: What makes someone a 'real' fan? 

I ask it because the fringe groups presently raging about and breaking the crockery within the WSFS seem quick to deny anyone with whom they disagree the right to call themselves fans. The leadership of the WSFS itself has stated that, as the Hugo is administered and bestowed by the WSFS, its membership comprises fandom. There's a lot of fan-denial going on these days at cons and on the internet. As if being a fan of science fiction and fantasy had anything to do with deserving, anything to do with money or anything to do with membership.  As if passion for the form and the stories it tells were not enough.

Well. Let's just fix that right now, shall we?

Therefore, by the power bestowed upon me by Andre Norton, whose stories began my life-long slow dance with the impossible, I declare this day that we are all true fans of science fiction and fantasy. 

There. You are anointed. Now go forth and do your fannish duty.

If you are an eligible Hugo Awards voter already, vote without fail for the Hugos this year. If you aren't an eligible voter, become one and then vote without fail for the Hugos this year. Take the time. Do the reading, watching and listening.  Vote, and vote no one's agenda but your own. Then nominate works and vote again next year.

 Let no one deter you. Let no one deny you. Let no one deride you as unworthy of this duty.