Another year of awards

It’s nomination season again, and this year is an exciting one, because it’s the first in which I’m eligible to nominate for the Nebulas as well as the Hugos. Nevertheless, my nominations this year will be narrower than the last two: I’m planning to nominate in the short fiction categories only. Short fiction is what I write, so I feel more qualified to judge it than to judge novels, and I also didn’t have much time for book reading last year. Many SFF novels were published in 2016 and I have little doubt that some of them are great, but I haven’t had a chance to read enough of them to weigh the field.

I’ll start with novelettes rather than short stories, because that way I can start with my favorite story of 2016: Polyglossia by Tamara Vardomskaya (GigaNotoSaurus, March 2016). GigaNotoSaurus doesn’t usually get much attention from reviewers and critics, but this is a rich, multi-layered story that is well deserving of an award.

Polyglossia is a story of linguistics, cultural survival, family and resistance to oppression – not necessarily in that order – set in a low-magic fantasy world that suggests the early twentieth century. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of good world-building, and the world of this story is intricately detailed and plausible; more than that, the world-building is integrated into the plot and informs the characters’ actions such that no detail is wasted. The linguistics are also tightly integrated into the plot – the author is a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics with an interest in the philosophy of language, and it shows – and the politics of language and cultural preservation come to play a key part in its resolution. At the same time, the story calls into question what we call family, what duties we owe to our ancestors, and how to balance those duties against the exigencies of politics. Polyglossia is rewarding on several levels – thus far, I’ve never failed to get something new out of it with each rereading – and if I had to pick one story that defined speculative fiction for me in 2016, it would be this one.

Second on my novelette list is The Dancer on the Stairs by Sarah Tolmie (Strange Horizons, November 2016), the story of a woman from our world who is swept into another and who must learn to navigate and ultimately preserve its society. I hadn’t expected to like this story – tales of mannered societies usually leave me cold, and the palace world within The Dancer is exquisitely mannered – but here, the reasons underlying the manners and the way in which they shape the protagonist’s life are absorbing, and her slow process of learning, adjusting and ultimately realizing her role in that world are both fascinating and emotionally affecting. Again, my taste for world-building, and the intricate way in which the details of this story unfurl, made it one of my favorites of the year.

Rounding out my novelette short list are A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djeli Clark (Tor, May 2016) and Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, Feb. 2016). The former is a lush, beautifully written mystery set in an early twentieth-century Egypt in which supernatural creatures have helped to throw off the colonial yoke but are dangerous in themselves; the latter, a story of music and discovery (recurring themes of Pinsker’s) set amid a post-apocalyptic landscape and seasoned with longing for companionship.

Turning to short stories, my favorite of the year and the first on my nomination list is And Then, One Day, The Air was Full of Voices by Margaret Ronald (Clarkesworld, June 2016). In the near future, Earth has received signals from an advanced and accomplished alien civilization… which then slowly fade, and we realize that the civilization died many years ago and that the records of its decline and death are only now reaching us. The breadth of time and space between Earth and the alien world means that we can do nothing to prevent their demise, and the story is about the spiritual effect that this realization has on humanity. The story is heartbreakingly human, the narration lyrical, and the resolution satisfying to the soul.

Touch Me All Over by Betsy James (F&SF, January-February 2016) is second: the story of a young woman exiled by a magical curse who must learn to turn it into a blessing. This story has been told before, but the way James tells it is intimate, lyrical, and emotionally affecting, and the story is told with a visual richness and an eye for small detail that takes it well above its subject matter.

Life in Stone, Glass and Plastic by Jose Pablo Iriarte (Strange Horizons, June 2016) is a story of memory: how it can be both painful and healing, and how what is lost might be regained at least temporarily. This is another intimate and compassionate story, dealing with dementia on the one hand and horror on the other: the trauma of memory and the trauma of its loss. This isn’t a lyrical story like James’, but it is a forceful one: its dialogue and description are contemporary, gritty and powerful, and its imagery is lasting.

Between Dragons and Their Wrath by An Owomoyela and Rachel Swirsky (Clarkesworld, February 2016) is an allegory of contemporary West Africa in which a refugee child earns a meager living by harvesting dragon scales, dreams of a better life in the capital city, and is both grateful and resentful toward the foreigners who provide aid. This returns to the lyrical style of storytelling, of which both Owomoyela and Swirsky are masters, and it tells of a haunting that is all too literal in much of the world. And Laws of Night and Silk by Seth Dickinson (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2016) is another lyrical and powerful story of the child of a fair-folk race who is stunted so she can be used as a weapon, and the effect of her awakening on her caretaker and ultimately her society.

Finally, my nominations will include three novellas, all from Tor and all, to some extent, out of character for me to like. Runtime by S.B. Divya (Tor, May 2016) is a cyberpunk story – a genre I usually hate – but Divya gives it humanity through the striving of the protagonist, the tense excitement of a cross-country race, and a satisfying conclusion. The Cthulhu mythos also usually leaves me cold, but The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (Tor, February 2016), set in 1920s Harlem, is a fortunate exception – the storytelling is a blend of Lovecraft and the Harlem Renaissance, and the irony of a black protagonist in that particular world isn’t lost on either author or reader. And A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor, October 2016) is a high fantasy that begins in a royal court – yet another thing that’s usually a turnoff for me – but which is set in a rich African-based world (something I’m a sucker for) and turns into a powerfully told romance. Again, I’m a fan of world-building, and this is what all three novellas on my list have in common: each of them will transport you as they did me.

Hopefully this year, I’ll have time to read a few novels between my writing, my day job and all that’s going on in the world.  But 2016 has still been immensely rewarding and inspirational – we’re living in a golden age of short SFF fiction, and some of the best of it was on display throughout the year – and with stories like those above, I have no regrets about my year in reading.

Hugo Ballot: Novel

This year’s short list of novels, like the novella category, is a strong one, and like the novellas, the novels have a clear winner and a clear loser.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

The winner: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. The Fifth Season is probably the best SFF novel, not of the year, but of the decade. Maybe it’s the best SFF novel of the century, although it’s still early. It’s pitch-perfect in nearly every way: the writing is lyrical in the right places and prosaic where it’s better brought down to earth; the fourth-wall-breaking brushstrokes and the shifts in viewpoint and tense are startling in exactly the right way; the characters are vividly drawn and the injustices of the world portrayed with nuance and moral strength. It’s long enough to do justice to its epic premise but not so long that the story drags. I could go on for days, but others have done so already.

Even more than that, The Fifth Season, like all Jemisin novels but more so, is a master class in world-building. The Fifth Season sits somewhere on the uncertain border between science fiction and fantasy, and manages to build the kind of world that both genres are meant to explore. It takes its unnatural premises – what if the world suffered extinction-level geological catastrophes every few centuries and certain people had inborn power to control the earth’s movements? – and spins them out into history, politics, social organization and material culture that seem natural. The Fifth Season’s world is lived-in and is obviously thought through to the smallest detail; it’s a world in which readers can immerse themselves and from which the hidden stories that lie behind every novel come to mind unbidden. This is a masterpiece, and nothing else on the ballot comes close to it.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

The loser: Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. This is a book that people seem to love or hate, and I hated it. I’ll give Stephenson credit for ambition, but unlike Jemisin, he couldn’t make it work. The walking-stereotype characters and the overtones of racial essentialism in the final part were enough for me to put it below No Award – the only novel this year to achieve that honor – and the bad science made it worse. A word about bad science: hard SF authors often neglect the “soft sciences” such as sociology and linguistics, and Seveneves is a particularly bad example, all the more so since Anathem proves that Stephenson can extrapolate both hard and soft sciences.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Of the remaining novels, Naomi Novik’s Uprooted easily takes the second-place slot. It’s a familiar fantasy with familiar tropes, but Novik manages to do a few new things with them. The writing is lucid, the setting well-realized, the characters sympathetic and well-drawn, the enemy evil and multi-faceted. The conflict is a genuine contest of will, with an enemy capable of learning from its setbacks; the Eastern European setting complements the overtones of myth and history; the story is unpredictable enough to keep up nearly constant suspense; the resolution is both unexpected and satisfying. In a year without The Fifth Season, I might easily have put Uprooted at the top of my ballot; as things stand, it’s a strong runner-up.

The Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher
The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher

Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass comes third. It’s an entertaining read: steampunk, flying ships and talking cats, what’s not to like? There are characters to root for and plenty of action. The single gratuitous political statement (about the Auroran enemy being driven to conquer because it has been bankrupted by its wasteful social-democratic ways) is mercifully short, and I suppose authors are allowed one of those every so often. But The Aeronaut’s Windlass is too long, the story lags in too many places, and in contrast to The Fifth Season, the setting isn’t fully realized and we see far too little of the strange world the characters inhabit. I like Butcher, but this isn’t his best, and I’m not sure I’d read the next book in the series.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

And finally, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy. I’ve never understood the appeal of the Ancillary novels – I’ve seen enough thoughtful rave reviews of them that I’m prepared to believe this is a failing of mine rather than Leckie’s, but I’ve never understood it all the same. Ancillary Mercy and The Fifth Season are both dense, but where Jemisin’s density is lucid, Leckie’s is opaque. Her world doesn’t permit easy entry, and she couldn’t make me care about her characters or about the conflicts running through their society. I can see the novel’s literary merit – no one would dispute that Leckie is a masterful writer – but I can’t sign up for the ride on which she wants to take us.  Leckie can take comfort in the fact that many will no doubt rate Ancillary Mercy higher than I do.

1. The Fifth Season
2. Uprooted
3. The Aeronaut’s Windlass
4. Ancillary Mercy
5. No Award
6. Seveneves

Hugo Awards 2015 – the aftermath

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The Hugo awards have completed, and it was a definitive rebuke to the Sad Puppy/Rabid Puppy slate. For a great summary, see this article in Wired; for reactions, see Mark (neutral), see Richard (pro-Hugos), and John Wright (pro-Puppies).

I’ve been mostly a lurker with respect to the whole Hugo controversy – though I did strongly support Ms. Marvel over at my non-geek-facing blog. I am grateful to Mike at File770 for due diligence in keeping all sides of the debate visible.

I think that the main lesson here going forward is that the Hugos are vulnerable – relatively small numbers of people can influence the results. If nothing else, we should thank the Puppies for raising the controversy to the level of rallying people to participate.

However, there does need to be a way to broaden the base to make the system immune to coup. The EPH proposal is a good start but it seems to me (and I may be mistaken) that it is designed as a band-aid to the problem arising from the vulnerability, not a genuine solution to that vulnerability.

Make no mistake, EPH or not, it is still perfectly possible for Vox Day and whoever else to interfere with the results next year. There’s nothing I see in EPH that can forestall another wave of Noah Wards, since ultimately the outcomes are still gameable due to the small numbers involved. The time of hiding in the Shire is over – the world beyond has taken notice, and the stakes are higher.

What are the solutions?

For one thing, the Hugos were given a gift in terms of mass media coverage this year. From Wired to WaPo, Puppygate was media catnip as a proxy in the culture wars. This means that there are several dozen journalists who are now experts on Hugo arcana and who are an audience that can and should be cultivated. More importantly, all of their readers are now marginally aware of what the Hugos are, and the involvement of luminaries like GRRM also helps raise that awareness above background noise. Press releases to these journalists and direct advertising in their publications will maintain the interest.

Also, what about more aggressive marketing to Communities of Geekdom? For example, Comic-Con (and it’s satellites around the country, like Chicago’s version last weekend). AMAs on Reddit? A pitch to the writers at Big Bang Theory? How about a big party somewhere, a mass book signing of Hugo nominees?

This is just 5 minutes of brainstorming on a blog post. The point is that the official machinery of the Hugo Awards itself needs to start contemplating solutions to grow the base and keep the Hugos relevant to a broader swath of fandom than has been sufficient till now.

I hope that this wasn’t a banner year for Hugo voting, but rather the beginning of a strong trend. If not, the Hugos really are in danger, long term.

related: Mark’s observations

The Hugo Awards and political correctness

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The Hugo Awards are science fiction’s most celebrated honor (along with the Nebula Awards). This year there’s a political twist: the accusation that the Hugos are “politically correct” and favor liberal writers over those with conservative political leanings.

The fact that Orson Scott Card won the Hugo in both 1986 and 1987 for Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, or that Dan Simmons won a Hugo in 1990 for Hyperion, is sufficient evidence to prove that no such bias against conservative writers exists [1].

The current controversy is a tempest in a teapot, originating because two conservative writers (Larry Correia and Theodore Beale aka “Vox Day”) have decided to make an example out of the entrenched political correctness that both are convinced exists (see: confirmation bias). Here is Correia’s post about his actions and here is Beale’s. One of the common mantras of these people is that their hero, Robert Heinlein, would not be able to win a Hugo in today’s politically correct world.

Past SFWA president, Hugo winner, and all-around good guy on the Internet, John Scalzi definitively refutes the idea that Heinlein would not have won a Hugo and does so with genuine insight and understanding of who Heinlein was, what he wrote, and how Heinlein himself promoted SF as a literary genre. Key point:

When people say “Heinlein couldn’t win a Hugo today,” what they’re really saying is “The fetish object that I have constructed using the bits of Heinlein that I agree with could not win a Hugo today.” Robert Heinlein — or a limited version of him that only wrote Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and maybe Farnham’s Freehold or Sixth Column — is to a certain brand of conservative science fiction writer what Ronald Reagan is to a certain brand of conservative in general: A plaster idol whose utility at this point is as a vessel for a certain worldview, regardless of whether or not Heinlein (or Reagan, for that matter) would subscribe to that worldview himself.

They don’t want Heinlein to be able to win a Hugo today. Because if Heinlein could win a Hugo today, it means that their cri de coeur about how the Hugos are really all about fandom politics/who you know/unfairly biased against them because of political correctness would be wrong, and they might have to entertain the notion that Heinlein, the man, is not the platonic ideal of them, no matter how much they have held up a plaster version of the man to be just that very thing.

Read the whole thing.

In fact, the whole idea that the Hugo are biased against conservatives is a form of political correctness in and of itself. Steven just linked this article about how political correctness is a “positional good” and summarizes:

briefly, a positional good is one that a person owns for snob appeal, to set oneself apart from the rabble. Ownership of the positional good is a way of declaring, “I’m better than you lot!” And it continues to be valued by the snob only as long as it is rare and distinctive.

The idea, then, is that being one of the perpetually aggrieved is a way of being morally superior. I’m open-minded and inclusive, which makes me better than all those damned bigots out there.

Of course, Steven is invoking this idea as a critique about liberals crying racism; he overlooks the same dynamic at work by conservatives crying about exclusion, possibly because he is sympathetic to the “Hugos are biased” claim.

Regarding that claim, Scalzi had meta-commentary on the controversy overall (“No, the Hugo nominations were not rigged“) that is worth reading for perspective. It’s worth noting that Scalzi’s work was heavily promoted by Glenn Reynolds, of Instapundit fame, back in the day, a debt Scalzi is not shy about acknowledging publicly. This should, but won’t, dissuade those inclined (as Correia and Beale are) to lump Scalzi in with their imaginary “leftist” oppressors.

I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is and support the Hugos by becoming a contributing supporter [2] for the next year. This will allow me to vote on nominees and I will receive a packet of nominees prior to the actual voting, which if you think about it, is an incredible value. If you’re interested in supporting the Hugos against these claims of bias, consider joining me as a contributor yourself. Now that I’m a member, I plan to blog about the nominations process as well, so it should be fun.

RELATED: Scalzi’s earlier post about The Orthodox Church of Heinlein. Much like the Bible, and history, the source material often gets ignored.

[1] To be fair, Card and Simmons aren’t really conservative – they are certifiable lunatics. See here and here.

[2] Here’s more information about becoming a member for the purposes of voting for the Hugos. This year’s convention will be in London, “Loncon3” so membership is handled through their website.