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

2,122

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.

Vote.