Sunday, 20 August 2017

Can We Categorize Clipping?

There is a long tradition of pop stars getting their geek on by recording high-concept sci-fi-inspired
Clipping frontman Daveed Diggs will
have to wait another year to complete
his EGOTH. Photo from Worldcon 75.
albums, from David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars to Stix’s Mr. Roboto to Rush’s 2112 to Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk. While some of these works have been celebrated by music critics and the broader public, until this year they’ve been largely overlooked by the Hugo Awards process.

Splendor and Misery from L.A.-based experimental hip hop group Clipping is an ambitious and challenging work that is an exemplar of this tradition. In the 2017 Hugo Awards, it became only the second such work to be nominated for a Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award (after the 1971 album Blows Against The Empire by Jefferson Starship, which finished in the voting below ‘No Award’).

However, Splendor and Misery failed to generate much popular support among voters, placing last amongst other nominated works in the category and losing to Leviathan Wakes from the TV series The Expanse. While Leviathan Wakes is an awesome bit of television (and is the work that we voted for) it is kind of a shame that there isn’t a good category to recognize eclectic and unusual works in the Hugo Awards.

Format-Agnostic Awards

At a panel at Worldcon75, we were impressed by the Hugo Awards administrators’ commitment to the idea that anything with merit and the necessary nominations deserves to be on the ballot, regardless of format. There was some discussion about the inherent strength and flexibility of current categories, which could accommodate works like board games, as an example.

However, at what point does flexibility begin to take away the original meaning of a category? Perhaps there should be scope for more opportunities for the Hugo awards to present special
As has been noted earlier on this blog,
a lot of great SF from 1972 was not
recognized at the Hugo Awards.
The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust
is another example of this.
(Image via
recognition for science fictional or fantastic works that defy easy categorization into one of the traditional awards areas. Or perhaps Hugo Administrators might be given the discretion on an as-needed-basis to offer a grab-bag format-agnostic category for works that fall outside the standard mold. If any genre can handle liminal works based on merit, not format, it should be SF and fantasy.

It would be foolish, however, to suggest that there should be a Best Album category at the Hugo Awards. The longstanding unofficial rule of thumb is that there should be a good expectation in any given year that there are at least 15 worthwhile nominatable works to make a category viable. In most years, there would be far fewer science fiction or fantasy concept albums to choose from.

Unfair Comparisons Shortchange Odd Nominees

Under the Hugo Award rules as they currently stand, science fiction concept albums clearly fall into
The Archandroid is the second of seven
planned albums chronicling the story
of Janelle Monáe's time-travelling
android alter-ego Cindy Mayweather.
(Image via 
the category of short-form dramatic presentation. But since the Best Dramatic Presentation category was split into long-form and short-form categories, the short-form category has been dominated by television episodes.

In most years, the only shortlisted works for best dramatic presentation short subject are television episodes. In 2011, Janelle Monáe’s exquisite album Archandroid – which told the tale of an android messiah fighting to restore freedom, love and unity to a robot metropolis – wasn’t on the ballot, while three episodes of Doctor Who competed against each other.

But how can you compare Archandroid to The Pandorica Opens, the Doctor Who episode that won the category that year? Should the liner notes be considered when judging an album’s merit?

The pop album and the video are mediums so disparate that how one judges the success of either one as art – or as science fiction – are completely different. There isn’t a reasonable grounds for comparison.

Comparing Apples And Orions

One might note that, as a group who are united only in their love for science fiction and fantasy as a
We suspect that Splendor and Misery
would have fared better at the Hugo
Awards if the related music videos
had explicitly been part of the nomination.
(Image via YouTube) 
genre, Hugo voters are an incredibly diverse group who might not all share the same taste in music.

Which brings us back to Splendor and Misery. Hugo voters are not an audience that is known for their love of experimental rap. However, when Clipping performed a concert at this year’s Worldcon in Helsinki, the response was electric. It is clear to those of us who were at the performance that Clipping’s inclusion on the ballot meant something both to the band, and to the audience.

A evocative tale of slavery, isolation, and yearning for freedom, Splendor and Misery is elevated by the richness of the language, and the deftness of Daveed Diggs’ delivery. This should be remembered as a great work of science fiction, regardless of how it was adjudicated at the Hugo Awards this year.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Review: The Collapsing Empire

Given John Scalzi’s track record, high profile, and vocal fan base, it seems likely that
The awesome cover art
for the North American
edition should garner
award consideration
for Nicholas Bouvier.
(Image via
The Collapsing Empire will be given a fair amount of consideration on many 2018 Hugo nominators’ lists.

Based on how fun this book is at times, that consideration is probably warranted.

The novel is set in an interstellar empire tied together by limited faster-than-light traderoutes known as ‘the Flow.’ This empire — The Interdependency — has lasted for millennia because of the economic dependence of its member worlds to each other.

The key protagonists are the new Empress of the Interdependency, and the son of a scientist on a distant world whose father has spent decades discovering that the flow is going to collapse.

The overaching plot — which has some parallels to Asimov’s Foundation— is expertly constructed and well-paced. Although the characters all seemed to speak with a similar voice, their motivations were clear, and the conflicts felt natural.

Dangerous knowledge

We are certainly not the first readers to note the parallels between the problems facing The Interdependency in The Collapsing Empire and global climate change in our own world. And, similarly, it is clear that incomplete knowledge can be more dangerous than no knowledge.

In addition, one of the major plot points — that one of the rival factions in the political structure of the Interdependency has misunderstood important scientific research — is a nice reminder about the value of the peer review process.

There are wonderful ideas that leaven the story — the Emperor’s ability to speak to computer simulations of previous emperors and to learn from their experiences is a brilliant bit of imagining that allows the author to delve into the history of the Interdependency.

The problems of keeping a diverse empire together despite delays in communication are well thought through.

However, The Collapsing Empire has significant flaws. For example, there is a lack of described detail in how these ideas are communicated — palaces are ‘baroque,’ but we are offered nothing beyond that. This leads to some very spare and sparse writing which moves at a fairly fast pace, but the dearth of imagery was actually distracting at times.

Who is telling the story?

This lack of detail brings us to a major tonal issue with the storytelling in the novel. Specifically, there is dissonance between the world Scalzi has built and the voice of the narration. This is an epic imperial tale that reads like it is being shared by a high-achieving millennial.

The third-person omniscient narrator has a lot of personality — which seems very odd. The narrator sounds a lot like Scalzi’s blogging persona, speaking with breezy pop-cultural grammatical constructions. We wondered if this was a deliberate style choice.

Although The Collapsing Empire is clearly written with possible sequels in mind, there is enough of a conclusion to the narrative that it could stand on its own. That being said, we’re leery of nominating a work that is bound to receive a number of follow-ups; perhaps it is now better to wait a few years so the overall work might be considered for the new Best Series category.

While we aren’t going to complain if The Collapsing Empire makes it onto the Hugo shortlist next year, we have already read stronger works that will be placed higher on our ballots.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

It’s OK when your favourite book doesn’t win.

With the full perspective of history, it would be difficult to argue that Warren G. Harding was a better presidential candidate than his opponent James Cox.

The two Ohio-based newspaper publishers faced off against each other a century ago in the presidential race of 1920 — Cox, a capable, well-liked reformer losing in one of the all-time landslides against a mediocre and unchallenging man who would go on to lead the most corrupt
James M. Cox (left) and his would-be
vice president. Whatever happened to
that guy? (photo via
administration in U.S. history.

It’s a good reminder that democracy doesn’t always get it right — and that’s as true in presidential elections as it is in science fiction awards. But it’s a system that gets it more right, more of the time than any other, and it’s one of the reasons why I love the Hugo Awards.

Tomorrow night

With the Hugo Awards set to be presented tomorrow, here in Helsinki, I think that it’s an important thing to think about. Especially in light of some of the negativity surrounding the awards in recent years.

In our beloved democratic traditions of the Hugo Awards, sometimes the book you love isn’t going to win.

When I look over the awards, I’d probably say that my favourite books won on only a handful of years — and that’s just fine. A whole lot of amazing, excellent books that I would never have voted for have won, have found new readers, and have been celebrated.

The Big Time was good,
but On The Beach also
came out the same year.
(Image via Wikipedia)
The point is that an award is not undermined by a failure to recognize a great work … because they can’t all be honoured.

It can't all win

There is more great science fiction than can ever be recognized. In any given year, there are dozens of novels that deserve to win the Hugo Award, and you can’t give the Hugo to all of them. In 1958, Fritz Lieber deserved the Hugo Award for The Big Time … but so did Neville Shute for On The Beach, and Alfred Bester for The Stars My Destination, and Robert A. Heinlein for Citizen of the Galaxy.

Do I sometimes wonder why The Big Time got recognized at the expense of The Stars My Destination? Of course. But at the same time, it doesn’t undermine the legitimacy of the award or the process.

Maybe at the Minneapolis Worldcon in 2073, fans will be questioning how we voted in 2017. But I feel confident that they’ll respect the process, and continue to celebrate the excellent works that have been nominated.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Company Town — The best 2016 SF novel not on the Hugo shortlist

The 2017 best novel shortlist was filled with worthwhile nominees representing diverse strains of
Our favourite SF novel
of 2016 did not get
a Hugo nomination.
(Image via
modern science fiction. From populist space adventures with hidden depths like A Closed And Common Orbit to ambitious and challenging far-future tales like Too Like The Lightning

It is interesting to note that the slate did not include much in the way of near-future works or grounded hard science fiction. And that’s a bit of a shame because 2016 saw the publication of one of the finest such works in recent memory. 

Madeline Ashby’s book Company Town may have escaped Hugo nomination because of its Canadian provenance, and primarily Canadian distribution. But it is a well-thought-out, nuanced thriller that should have appeal to a much wider audience. 

Set in a city built on a series of converted oil rigs off the coast of Newfoundland, Company Town is the story of Go Jung-hwa (AKA Hwa), a Korean-Canadian security worker and bodyguard who becomes caught up in a web of corporate intrigue when she is hired to protect the scion of a powerful business family. 

But that capsule plot summary does not do the author’s breadth of imagination justice. The city of New Arcadia is a character in and of itself, whose social strata, economy, citizens and culture are integral to the story. It has personality based on history and memory without leaning on nationalism or pride. 

This history of New Arcadia and the personal histories of its denizens never arrive in awkward infodumps, but are baked into the story in a natural and subtle ways. This is deft worldbuilding; enough detail to be relevant to the reader without distracting from the narrative or plot. 

As has been observed often, when the future arrives, it is unevenly distributed. In Company Town,
Given the size and growth of offshore oil rigs, its not
inconceivable that one day, they will be the size of cities.
(Image via The Motley 
Ashby introduces us to a world in which low-level genetic and technological augmentation has become normalized — but is class-based. We learn that some implants are cheaper and flawed, that others can be hacked.

For reasons of class and income, Hwa remains one of the few baseline humans around, having not even been cured of a serious neurological condition she was born with. 

As the book begins, Hwa is employed by the (completely legal) United Sex Workers of Canada, providing protective services to the union members. Although she quits that job fairly early in the story, her relationship to the union, and to the union members she protected provide both an anchor for her character, and a view into life in New Arcadia. This was written with evident knowledge of organized labour. 

After New Arcadia is bought out by a major corporation, Hwa goes to work for the CEO’s family. The various class strata that Hwa interacts with, and the characters that inhabit this world are well thought out, and believable. This is a book where we cared about what happened to just about everyone, and wondered what the future held for their city. 

Although this is not a cyberpunk work, Company Town is clearly part of the same intellectual tradition as Neuromancer and Snow Crash. The focus on inequality, the street-level perspectives, the body augments, and the class struggles all point to the earlier works’ influences. This is post-cyberpunk at its finest. 

No book is without its flaws, and in the case of Company Town those flaws are most evident in the conclusion. In the last 70 pages, there is an odd tonal shift and an unnecessary romantic subplot. The book seems to get less grounded and more fantastical. But even these issues are overshadowed by strong writing, engaging characters and inspired conceptual work.

If Company Town had been nominated for the Hugo Award, it would have been at the top of most of our ballots. As Canadians, we are left wondering why this book didn’t have stronger uptake. Although it failed to secure a nomination, this is a book that we suspect will have enduring value, and will be remembered as an exemplar of Canadian science fiction.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

All The Birds In The Sky — Book Club Review

All The Birds In The Sky comes with a gold-star pedigree. Universally, our book club looked forward to reading it because of our longstanding respect for Charlie Jane Anders’ work as a science fiction
Image via

While this book — Anders’ first novel — shows promise, it ultimately did not live up to our expectations.

As with many journalists who turn their quills to novel writing, Anders’ fist attempt at long-form writing seems to be an aggregation of vignettes. The prose is more than competent in places, but the structure is uneven, the pace is off-putting and the dialogue left us wondering about the intended audience.

Written with knowledge of the genre

That being said, Anders’ long-time involvement in fandom and knowledge of the genre shine through. Members of our book club praised the magic system she created and the odd applications of scientific technology — particularly the university-based A.I. that is trying to help people find romantic partners.

Many of these ideas may be worthy of development into standalone short stories — a format that Anders has shown skill with in the past (We would particularly highlight her first-rate story The Fermi Paradox Is My Business Model).

Charlie Jane Anders
(Image via Wikipedia)
As noted in a previous blog post, our group has a preference for books that have a beginning, middle and end and are self-contained. This book’s large-scale structure — childhood, divergence, conflict, apocalypse — works, and it’s good to see at least one nominated book that fulfills a single large narrative arc.

Uneven pacing

But the pacing of this arc is choppy and characters disappear and reappear suddenly and without explanation. The assassin — one of the more interesting characters in the book — disappears for long stretches without cause and, when he is written in, seems to act without clear motives.

The book’s exploration of societal dichotomy between nature-based neo-pagan beliefs and technophilia spurred some lively debate in our group.

Given our appreciation for much of Anders’ previous work as a journalist and short stories, many of us are looking forward to her subsequent works. However, this book was not at the top of any of our Hugo ballots.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Too Many Sequels

It's worth noting that the majority of this year's Best Novel Hugo Award shortlist is comprised of books that are either the first part in a series, or the sequel to another work.

In fact, only one of the six novels on this year's shortlist (All The Birds In The Sky) is a standalone work.

This is not the first time in recent memory that the shortlist has been dominated by sequels, prequels, or works in a shared universe. But it is part of a larger trend, and it's one that worries us. 

In the 1960s, 88 per cent of the Hugo shortlist was comprised of standalone novels. From 2001 to 2010, 56 per cent of Hugo shortlisted novels were standalone works. In the first seven years of this decade, the statistic has fallen to 27 per cent (ten of the 36 novels shortlisted).

The problem with sequels

There's a place for sequels: perhaps a story has too large a scope to be contained in one volume, or perhaps the author has created a universe in which multiple ideas can be explored. Some fine
Some sequels tackle new
ideas and new conflicts.
(Image via
examples of this are Vernor Vinge's Deepness In The Sky and Orson Scott Card's Speaker For The Dead

But it could be suggested that the idea of a series of templated sequels is philosophically antithetical to what Science Fiction is about, and therefore what we think the Hugos should celebrate: new ideas. 

With few exceptions, sequels are not about new ideas. By the time Lois McMaster Bujold wrote Captain Vorpatril's Alliance in 2012, was there ground left to cover in the Vorkosigan Saga that hadn't been explored in the previous dozen books?

More troubling is the fact that sequels, prequels and series make works less accessible to new readers. Anyone can pick up and read Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man without feeling that they've missed something important. The same cannot be said for Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars, which is an excellent novel, but one that we have qualms about having been honoured with a Hugo because it is not accessible to new readers.

Without pointing fingers at anyone in particular, sometimes, for some authors, producing endless populist sequels can be a crutch. And these sequels will get nominations because of a small, dedicated, fervent group of fans. 

Books written as the first part in a trilogy, or a series, are more defensible as Hugo nominees, but can still have their issues - how can we judge a story that is left incomplete? If the first book in a trilogy does not stand on its own, can it still be Hugo worthy?

All awards systems have biases

One of the things that gives the Hugos legitimacy, prompts so much great discussion, and engages so many fans is how democratically the awards are run and juried. But the open and democratic system we have for the Hugos should not blind us to the structural biases of the awards, including this
In retrospect, should
Becky Chambers' self-
published debut have
made the shortlist?
(Image via
increasing bias towards sequels.

We suspect this bias exists through no ill intent, but mostly because it can take a while for readers to hear about a standalone work, or something from a new author, or a book that becomes a word-of-mouth phenomenon. So these types of works are sometimes overlooked. A good example of this is Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, which Becky Chambers self-published in 2014. We would argue that it missed the shortlist in part because it didn't reach a wide audience of Hugo Award voters until it was republished the subsequent year. 

These biases are understandable — the books we're likeliest to nominate are the ones we've read prior to the nomination deadline, and that is in turn driven by which ones we're likeliest to have run out and bought on the day they hit the shelves. 

We already know that we want the sequel to a book we've already read, and we know we're going to enjoy the latest book by our favourite author. And so the same Hugo voters will reward books by the authors they already know. This probably contributes to the fact that there hasn't been a Hugo shortlist of all first-time nominees since 1963. 

As with all biases, we're better off when we acknowledge their existence, try to mitigate their effects, and act with intentionality.

Trends in publishing

Clearly, these biases have existed since the dawn of the Hugo awards. But I suspect that trends in publishing are exacerbating the issue. 

Fewer novels are being published in mass-market paperback than in previous decades, as publishing
In my opinion, the first
book of Mission Earth
would have been a less
offensive nomination.
houses focus on the pricier (higher profit margin) trade paperbacks instead. The gap in time between hardback publication and either format of paperback has grown from an average of 12 months in the 1990s to approximately 18 months today (for those works that ever even see a paperback publication). This makes newer works purchased in book stores less accessible than in previous decades. 

And of course, publishers *like* sequels because they're easily marketable. I would wager that there are significantly more serialized and sequelized books that are hitting the shelves today than there were in previous decades. 

Compounding this trend is the rise of electronic publishing, which might have reduced costs for consumers looking to buy a new volume, but doesn't provide the same opportunity to browse bookshelves to discover new authors and new works. Although we don't have any data to back this up, we suspect that one is less likely to try out a work from a new author on a Kindle than while browsing at the local book store. It is easy, however, to choose and download a sequel. 

It's easier to be a passive consumer than it is to seek out new works. 

Where do we go from here? 

Lets be honest about it, Hugos 2018 starts right now with the books that people are reading this summer. 

If you are someone who has a ConJose membership, or if you are likely to get one in time to
Does the Fifth Season
trilogy need another
Hugo nomination?
(Image via
nominate works, we would encourage you start figuring out your ballot. 

Give some thought to accessibility, to sequelitis, and to which worthy authors have *never* gotten a Hugo nod. And maybe pick up a standalone novel you might not otherwise give a chance to — try Kameron Hurley's The Stars Are Legion or Mur Lafferty's Six Wakes

N.K. Jemisin's Fifth Season was a worthwhile winner last year, and most of our book club voted for it. But does the trilogy deserve getting a third book nominated for essentially a continued exploration of the same ideas? We'd suggest that the space on the 2018 Hugo ballot might be better served with an author who has yet to receive this kind of recognition. 

Friday, 28 July 2017

Ninefox Gambit — Book Club Review

Image via
The horrors of war, sacrifice and a theocratic-fascist society are at the forefront of Yoon Ha Lee’s debut novel, that also happens to be a less-than-typical military science fiction novel.

The novel primarily follows two characters: Cheris, a living soldier with a gift for math, and Jedao, a brilliant, undead general and feared mass murderer. To up the tension between the two, Lee places both characters in Cheris’ body. Together, the two must face a “heretical” enemy that is altering the fabric of reality with “calendrical rot.”

The universe of Cheris and Jedao isn’t well-explained by Lee, who instead throws readers out of the boat to teach them to swim. There isn’t much description of the technology, the different cultures and castes, the boundaries between science and what some of us saw as ritualistic magic (ie. blood sacrifices at holidays), or how seemingly basic things work. Most of our group wasn’t bothered by this approach, and it lead to many comparisons to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. In fact, we enjoyed discussing how we came to understand the mechanics of the story’s setting. For example, some of us interpreted the frequent references to “calendar” as a type of math (ie. instead of calculus, it’s calendar), while others saw calendars as a means of creating a uniform collective unconscious or psychic energy able to affect certain technologies.

While maybe a paragraph explaining the meaning of “calendar” in this context would have been welcome, we respected that Lee probably cut down the page count by half with the approach he took. Lee’s efficient prose reflects the militaristic society and the war genre. Lee never shies away from the gruesomeness of war and the remarkable tyranny of the theocratic-fascist society he creates, which elevates Ninefox Gambit beyond the average military science fiction story. In Lee’s universe, war is not to be celebrated or enjoyed; it is awful, brutal and at least two characters recognize that it needs to be stopped. 

Beyond Ancillary Justice, this book opened up a lot of comparisons to some of this year’s other Hugo-nominated books: the absence of variety in species/culture in contrast to A Closed and Common Orbit, the lack of defined gender roles unlike Death’s End, community service as a punishment in the criminal justice system in Too Like the Lightning and the boundaries of magic between science, as seen in Obelisk Gate and our final book club read, All the Birds in the Sky.

While we all doubted that it would win the Hugo, at least one of us thought it was the best novel on the shortlist and we are ready to see where the rest of the series goes.