Monday, August 18, 2014

Tor and the 2014 Hugo Awards

by John Popham

The 2014 Hugo Awards were held yesterday at the World Science Fiction Convention, hosted this year by Loncon3, the London Science Fiction Convention.  I walked away from this year's ceremony with three main observations: 

First, Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie's first novel, picked up a well-deserved win for best novel. Ancillary is thoughtful, well written and a good story well told in the best tradition of Science Fiction.  Ms. Leckie's novel pretty much ran the table for awards in its category this year.  Ancillary Justice won the Arthur C. Clarke award (for Science Fiction first published in the United Kingdom), the Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) and the Locus award for best first novel. Taken together, this represents a rare consensus across the Science Fiction/Fantasy community with regard to the quality of Ann Leckie's work.

Second, Game of Thrones, 'The Rains of Castamere' won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. During the presentation (which was broadcast on UStream TV) there was a bit of snarking on Twitter that at least it didn't go to Dr. Who.  This puzzled fellow blogger Amanda Rutter from England, who asked whether there was some backlash behind the sniping at the beloved BBC series.

The answer is that the good Doctor has been dominating this category for the last ten years.  In fact on this year's ballot alone the Time Lord occupied three of the six final nominations for the category, with two episodes from the show itself (The Day of the Doctor and In the Name of the Doctor) and one comedic send-up of the show (The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot).  While Game of Thrones has won this category two years running (winning with Game of Thrones, 'Blackwater' in 2013), Doctor Who has not had fewer than two nominations in the category since 2005.  From 2006 to 2012 the good Doctor pretty much owned Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, losing only once; in 2009 (the year of the great television writers' strike) to Joss Whedon's Dr. Horribles' Sing Along Blog.  

I enjoy Doctor Who very much.  However, it would be wise for the Hugo Awards to limit final nominations for shows in an episode format to one episode.  Allowing a single television show, however popular, to occupy multiple slots on the final nomination ballot presents a myopic view of the state of the art.  There's a lot of excellent Science Fiction and Fantasy being produced in short form these days that are well regarded by fandom, but looking at the Hugo ballot the last few years, one would think that weren't the case.  Limiting final nominees by a single franchise would present a more expansive view of what fandom is watching.

Finally, you'll recall I pointed out earlier this year that Tor Books is very far ahead of the other Science Fiction and Fantasy imprints when it comes to proactive outreach to the fan community.  Their website, Tor.com, does more than merely flog it's latest offerings and broadcast marketing-chum onto the web.  Tor maintains a family of bloggers whose writings inform opinion for much of Science Fiction and Fantasy fandom.  It publishes short stories, novellettes and novellas and has the resources needed to ensure good quality both in terms of the fiction acquired and the editing and presentation of that fiction on its web site.   The authors, bloggers and editors in the Tor community know each other and each others' work.  Fans who visit and read the Tor website know them as well. 

And you can see the pay-off on Tor's community building strategy in this year's Hugo Awards.  Tor authors won the Hugo's in the short story, novella and novelette categories.  Ellen Datlow, a Tor editor, won the Hugo for Best Editor, Short Form.  Aidan Moher, whose A Dribble of Ink won the Hugo for Best Fanzine is a former member of the Tor.com blogger community.   This doesn't mean Tor expects its community to vote in lock-step, but that Tor understands that people in a community tend to look kindly on works by their peers within that community and that translates into both votes and vote recommendations.

Of course winning Hugos in the shorter fiction forms doesn't automatically translate to revenue for Tor.  However, it goes a long way toward reinforcing the image of the Tor brand and the Tor community as a center of quality in Science Fiction and Fantasy fandom.  It creates pride and shared accomplishment within the Tor community - a sense of 'Look what we did'.  So, when Tor promotes books to that community, readers and writers therein are much more likely to consider reading those books and then going on to generate positive social media buzz for those books they enjoy.  

What I find fascinating is that none of Tor's competitors seem minded to repeat Tor's success in this area.  While Tor's website has become an internet destination for SF&F fandom, Orbit, Del Rey, Harper Voyager, Angry Robot, DAW, AceRoc and the rest of the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprints, all seem flat-footed and crude when it comes to their presence on the web.  Their websites and social media broadcasts announce their presence and push product, but little more.  While they seem to view social media as mere digital billboards for peddling their imprints, Tor is integrating themselves into the fan's Science Fiction and Fantasy experience.

So props go to Tor this Hugo season. Congratulations, and well done.  As for the rest of the SF&F imprints, you might want to slip out of your bow-ties and eye-shades, get off the sidelines and into the game. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Television Review: The Strain

by John Popham

As I've mentioned previously, there's a lot of good Science Fiction and Fantasy turning up on television these days. However, an ongoing bone on the throat for me is television's insufferable vampire dependency.  Or maybe it's television enabling the public's insufferable vampire dependency.  Anyway, suffice it to say that I reached vampire overload some years ago. I find vampire fiction trite, boring and unoriginal.  It's been done to death and back again. It's the same stupid story and I don't care how much we like to hear it over and over and over again,  The last thing television landscape needs is a widening of the already yawing vampire narrative sink-hole.  I swear, I'd trade every vampire show on the air for one decent space-based science fiction series.

It is therefore with considerable chagrin I must admit that one of the best SFF shows of this Summer involves (sigh, you guessed it) vampires. 

I have to confess I've been enjoying FX's series The Strain, based on Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's three book vampire series.  Now, in my defense I have to say that I was sucked in by the visuals and promos before I knew I was dealing with vampires. It looked as though FX was planning a sciencey Body-Snatchers meets Contagion mash-up with great production values.  Which was clever on the part of FX.  By the time I realized The Strain was a vampire-driven series they'd gotten past my guard and I was looking forward to the pilot.

To an extent, the early episodes have followed the Body-Snatchers meets Contagion theme I was anticipating.  And in large part it's that Science Fiction take that's allowed the show to stand out from the usual suspects in the vampire line-up.  The Strain thus far treats vampirism as an ugly and virulent vector-borne disease; a parasitic virus that kills its host and then animates the dead host's body as a means of transmitting itself further. Not only does it re-animate the body, it remakes it; rewriting the host's genetic pattern to create a form optimal to the disease's needs.

As a result the vampires of The Strain retain only the most basic human parameters.  There is nothing romantic, sulky or debonaire with these blood-suckers.  Rather we're treated to decidedly inhuman predators in whose presence humans cease to occupy the top rung in the food chain.  These are feral monsters that project six-foot long 'stingers' from their mouths through which they ingest their victim's blood and inject into said victim the tiny worm-like creatures that transmit their disease; thereby feeding and reproducing at once.  Oh, and they defecate while they feed, and I don't see anyone in the paranormal romance business making that look suave or sexy anytime soon.  It's a nice touch that serves to move the creature firmly beyond the boundaries of human-kind.

Alas, del Toro and Hogan didn't have the courage to trim away a number of weary vampire tropes when writing the books on which the series is based.  The vampires are controlled by a central consciousness; an uber-vampire predictably called 'The Master', who spends his days in an ornately carved dirt-filled coffin.  Abraham Setrakian (David Bradly), aging vampire hunter and Latvian survivor of the Holocaust is a stand in for Van Helsing.  The vampires are vulnerable ultra-violet light, and are best dispatched using silver, with the body beheaded and burned afterwards.  It's not surprising, I suppose. Del Toro has always had a soft-spot for bringing old lore into the light of the present day.  And Setrakian's silver sword is quite an attractive accessory; just the sort of visual del Toro loves.  I expect you'll be able to order it on-line in time for next year's Comic-Con.

Eph Goodweather (Corey Stoll), the CDC doctor in charge when the contagion arrives by jet-liner at Kennedy airport, and the series' main protagonist, is a scientist's man of science.  He is suddenly in over his head, trapped between the political maneuverings of his superiors and a plague so unlikely that he has trouble convincing himself of its true nature, let alone anyone else.  With the situation relentlessly slipping out of control, he's forced to abandon the usual medical protocols and depend on the advice of Setrakian, who Goodweather had previously dismissed as a disaster-chasing crank.  And, of course, the more stridently Goodweather insists all is not well, the more unsettling his discoveries, the more marginalized he becomes from the CDC and those with the power to take effective action.

Alas, I fear the science fiction bit aspects of the show will not last much longer, though the show-runners are obviously making an effort to keep The Strain from going full-vampire as long as possible.  Eventually science will have to take the back seat before it is finally abandoned by the side of the road, and we'll move from a science fiction/horror hybrid to an old testament/horror hybrid with post-apocalyptic overtones.  I won't say precisely how or why that's the case as it would result in spoilers.  Suffice it to say that the plot of the The Strain will eventually leave the Science Fiction environs and travel to musty and well-trodden places I prefer not to revisit, no matter how good the show's visuals and production values.

In the meantime, I'm content to sit back and enjoy the ride.