Review: This Census Taker – Hugo2017 Novella

I like puzzles and I like puzzles that I can’t solve but which have a nice structure to them. I even like unsolvable puzzles, which I guess are technically not puzzles at all but things that feel like they have solutions. The aesthetic of puzzles is that they should combine both a sense of curiosity about some hidden mechanic but also have some other aesthetic element: elegance, symmetry or visual elegance.

China Miéville’s novella This Census Taker is not a roman à clef although it does feature keys but it has the aesthetics of an unsolvable puzzle. The story points at things as if they are clues but those elements (the deep hole into which things are thrown, the father’s affectless violence, the boy/narrator’s inconsistent recollections) don’t ever come together as a finished puzzle. The novella is like a painting of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle – the edges artfully done but with the looming chasm of the centre incomplete.

It is, the Gene Wolfe novel I’ve been waiting for I guess – the one where Wolfe takes his odd narrators (in this case an agent of a mysterious census who must complete a ‘second book’ distinct from his first book of figures), his obsession with dangerous & inscrutable father figures (in this case the violent, probably murderous key cutter) and settings that have detail but yet remain indistinct like dreams but leads them off in a new direction.

Like Wolfe’s work this novella is disatisfying. It leaves questions unanswered to the extent that critiquing it is difficult. The opening of the story has the protagonist as a child escaping from his hillside home to the town below in horror at having witnessed his mother kill his father. Yet the story changes immediately, somebody, not his mother, killed his father or rather…his father killed his mother. That later the father is still alive and the mother is gone is the only solid confirmation of which event happened but the story is suffused with this air of incipient violence. Is that violence gratutitous? It is never described except in terms of the father’s violence toward animals but the horror of it never goes away. Yet, the story’s avoidance of resolution means we are given no insights into this violence.

The father is, apparently, a killer but why he kills is as mysetrious as his work. He cuts keys, with an electric saw – but in a world that otherwise feels nineteenth century (I note Rocket Stack Rank call the story ‘post-apocalyptic’ ). In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it paragraph we are told the keys have magical powers, so we at least get some sense of why a key-cutter lives in almost isolation but it isn’t a satisfying explanation.

The prose is excellent and that adds to the sense that Miéville knows what he is doing and that he is fully in control of this story. So I didn’t finish it thinking ‘that was an incoherent mess’ but if you locked me in a room and forced me to right a ‘second book’ about the differences between this story and an incoherent mess, I’d be hard pressed to identify the clear distinction.

I enjoyed it – that’s the best I can say about it. I think it is a very subtle horror story, possibly just the right level of horror for me (I’m not keen on horror) in that it captures the stress and concern of a disturbing dream. I think it is an easy story not to like and I’m not really sure I appreciate or ‘get’ it. I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone other than as a demonstration of just how well the author can join words together.

If it had less craft it could go below No Award. If I felt I had a better handle on the story, it could go as number 1 on my ballot. As is? I’ve no idea. It was a story. I read it. We should check to see if Gene Wolfe has gone missing and is locked in Miéville’s attic.

Rise of the Scrappy Doos


*I prefer to name groups by how they name themselves but the latest version of Puppyness arising out of the fading away of the Sad Puppy brand doesn’t have a name of their own. Based on my earlier post on recent events, I think “The Scrappy Doos” is a decent moniker to cover a more disperate phenomanon.

scrappydooFirstly it carries on the puppy theme, secondly it encapsulates the relative threat level compared to other incarnations and thirdly it is a handy metaphor for the disconnect between how cool Scrappy thinks he is compared to how annoying he actually is.

Anyway, some people like Scrappy, so I hope it isn’t too demeaning a name and currently I don’t have a better label.

Compared with the Sads and Rabids, the Scrappy Doos are not a coordinated group, they may or may not have been involved with either Sad or Rabids campaigns in the past but if they were they would have been on the periphery. They tend not to make strong distinctions between the Sad and Rabid campaigns and can be seen as ‘monopuppists’ (i.e. the idea that really the two campaigns were one campaign in different forms). They tend to be more overt in their self-promotion. Just as the Sad Puppies were incorrectly described as being a group of Mormon men, the Scrappy Doos may be incorrectly decsribed as Catholic men.

In terms of existing movements they are closest to the Superversive movement and the Pulp Revolutions movement. Those two movements* can be seen as offshoots of the Rabid Puppies but this can be misleading. The Rabids had a core of straight Alt-Right griefers willing to do exactly what Vox Day told them to do for the lulz. Superversive began independently of the Rabids but has attached itself to Castalia for promotion and is focused on literary works (although of a right leaning nature). Pulp Revolution arose from the Castalia House blog and hence is more closely connected to Rabid Puppies but again is not the same as the griefing group.

[eta – paragraph went astray] Whereas the Rabids collectively were not particularly interested in the field of SFF, the Scrappy-Doos have more in common with the Sad Puppies in so far as they tend to be actively involved in writing, publishing and books. In this sense they are more like other groupings in fandom. However, where significant voices in Sad Puppies (Correia, Torgersen, Hoyt, Freer) had had some success in trad-publishing (mainly centred around Baen Books), the Scrappy Doos are involved with small publishing groups or self-published.

Time for an info-graphic.


Names at the top indicate people who helped establish entities below. Dotted lines imply some degree of association. Arrowed lines imply on-going activity. Pink boxes are websites around which quasi-groups have formed organically to some degree. [eta: graphic tweaked a bit]

*[I’m using the word ‘movement’ generously here – we aren’t talking about huge numbers of people. ‘Tens’ rather than ‘hundreds’ I think]


Sad Popcorn

I’m stuck for a word and being stuck made me wonder whether the proper hierarchy is:

spat < flame-war <  brouhaha < kerfuffle?

“Spat” seems the right term for what I want but ‘fallout’ also works, so I’ll name this the ‘End of Sad Puppies Fallout Spat’. In which nothing very much happens but which I’ll carry on watching just because I stuck with the show for so long.

Prompted, perhaps, by Larry Correia’s anti-Mike Glyer meltdown, Sarah Hoyt posted her intentions around Sad Puppies 5 at Mad Genius Club. The fifth iteration of the Sad Puppies was intended to be a book recommendation site. This would amount to a kind of soft-landing for the brand, allowing Hoyt et al to retain control, stop others hijacking the term, and do something worthwhile. I honestly do think this is a good idea for everybody – some other group hijacking the name ‘Sad Puppies’ could prolong the griefing and angst.

However, one of her remarks caused some offence:

“Tips hat to the right. Thank you kindly. But you guys are aware your aesthetics and goals aren’t ours, right?

You just turned Marxist aesthetics on their head, and are judging books by being anti-Marxist and how much they don’t support the neo Marxist idea of justice. That’s cool and all. To each his own. And since, so far, your crazy isn’t being taught in schools, it’s slightly less annoying than the Marxist crazy.”

Hoyt wasn’t exactly clear who she was addressing beyond “the right”. I took it to mean specifically supporters of Vox Day, but that very vagueness caused some issues. While Vox’s comment section are plainly just out to troll ‘the SJWs’, attached to the Rabids are two other offshoots of the Puppy campaign:

  1. Superversive: primarily around this review website: but also associated with non-Rabid writer L. Jagi Lamplighter (who is also John C Wright’s wife) and SciPhi Journal editor Jason Rennie. Among this cloud is Brian Neimmier, Jon Del Arroz and Declan Finn. Superversive writers also blog at Vox Day’s publishing house’s blog Castalia House.
  2. Pulp Revival: this is centred around Jeffro Johnson, who is the main editor of the Castalia House blog and it is aimed at reviving interest in pre-WW2 pulp science fiction writers and those associated with that genre (including post-WW2 works like Philip Jose Farmer’s re-invention of Tarzan).

The overlap between the two groups is substantial, with several names writing for both Superversive and the Castalia House blog. Superversive is also acting as a publisher having published an anthology of stories entitled “Forbidden Thoughts” which included an introduction by Milo Yianopoulos  and which also included a story from Sarah Hoyt.

The link between Vox Day’s reactionary politics and the two movements above is not as overt as Vox Day himself. It isn’t mysterious though – obviously the pre-war pulps including many attitudes and beliefs that the Alt-Right would like to re-normalise, while Superversive is just a more general push-back against modern science-fiction.

So, Hoyt’s comment was seen as a criticism of the Rabids, Pulp Revival and Superversive and caused some negative comments. [eta: in particular from here ]*

Hoyt has now written a longer reply at her own blog: Be warned, it doesn’t always make sense and there are a lot of cases of the kind of revisionism of events around Sad Puppies 1,2,3, & 4 that have become depressingly familiar. However, the meat of the piece is counter-criticism to the quasi-Rabid reaction.

“So, imagine my surprise when my post immediately attracted two commenters yelling at me for… well… actually I have no idea because most of it makes no sense. You guys can see the comments yourselves. There’s something about me looking down on people who don’t use the right oyster fork. You guys know my background and my question on this is… there’s a FORK? FOR OYSTERS? Why?”

Anyway, that’s about it. Various grumpy things going on.

*[as spotted by Doris Sutherland]

[eta Doris also points out these posts from Russell Newquist – who publishes some of Declan Finn’s books. The posts relate in part to an earlier post by Hoyt attacking Declan Finn for posting his own suggested Sad Puppy list:

Mean Girls Pick Fights With The Weak ]


Review: Doctor Who – World Enough and Time

I’ll start with the problems:

  1. The trailers spoiled what was a cleverly done slow reveal of the baddies. So we all knew John Simm was coming back to play the master and that the classic Mondasian Cybemen were going to appear.
  2. Pearl Mackie put in another tremendous performance but once again Bill had to die-but-not really to give the Doctor something to do. As an actor Mackie is getting opportunities to shine in a role that is easily overshadowed but as a character Bill is being treated badily by the scripts. I do hope she continues into next season.

Yeah but, this was very good. Lots of great concepts including a spaceship on the edge of black hole with huge time differences between the top and the bottom. This sciency enough idea was well integrated into the whole story – allowing Bill’s stay in the creepy body-horror hospital to last for years while the Doctor spends a few minutes on exposition and trying to get into the elevator at the other end of the ship.

Michelle Gomez has been somewhat more restrained as Missy this series but got to have more fun this episode. Mocking the basic tropes of the series (including the role of the ‘companion’ and the real name of the Doctor) added more levity to what was a very dark episode.

Good solid science fiction but will the curse of the two-parter strike next week?

Some updates on Timothy’s PR work


Tim is too busy to write this himself so here are some general updates and questions:

  1. A question from a reader: “Is Timothy’s career choice in anyway inspired by the Princess Carolyn character  from Bojack Horseman?” – no, we only started binge watching Bojack Horseman the other day when I realised I’d let that Netflix account roll over for another month. Also Tim is more like Tod, except well he says I’m the Tod and I think I’m more the Diane but they we got confused with Cheers. It wasn’t a good conversation.
  2. “Has Tim got anymore clients?” – not currently but he has some excellent leads. He is hoping to specialise in tell-all books by former insiders from the Trump administration or failing that from former insiders from the teams investigating the Trump administration or failing that from former insiders from the legal firms defending the former insiders of the Trump administartion that are being investigated by the teams investigating the Trump administration.
  3. No, no luck on Tim negotiating a book deal from the Satsuma Spider God – in fact as no appaling Satsuma Spider God apocalypse has not happened, Tim is beginning to doubt whether there really is a Satsuma Spider God hidden on a secret floor in Trump Tower.
  4. Timothy is still hoping that Bortsworth Quest is nominated for a Dragon Award. I told him that is both silly and narcissistic. He said that I can’t even spell “narcissistic” and I said “it is easier to spell than you would thing” and I think I was write. Damn. I meant “right”. Look, that isn’t a mispelling- that’s just accidently putting a different word down like when I write “think” instead of “thing”.
  5. Jon Del Arroz has started his own answer to Sad Puppies called “Happy Frogs”
  6. Why are we even linking to that, is what I want to know? Tim says I have to as it has Declan Finn listed and “It is about time he won a Dragon Award – what even is the point of the Dragon Award if Declan Finn doesn’t win one”.

Hugo 2017: Best Graphic Story

There is a lot to praise in this category. There is a lot of variety in the styles of stories and the finalists genuinely look like a selection of what is worth paying attention to in the field. Particular congratulations to the Hugo packet organiser, who manage to get full versions of the works into the packet.

Less good in terms of variety is that the finalists split neatly between Marvel and Image. Possibly as a legacy of the previous Rabid vandalism, people have gone for safer choices?

How to pick? I think it is important that what gets rewarded is story. That doesn’t mean artwork or other elements of graphic stories be ignored but it does mean that story comes first. Each of the finalists are part of either an on-going series or volumes of a longer story. Judging them needs to take into account the extent that what we are seeing is an incomplete part of something longer.

In reverse order:

7. No ‘No Award’ in this category. All good stuff, worth reading and worthy of a nomination.

6. Black Panther, Volume 1: A Nation Under Our Feet, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze (Marvel). Off to Wakanda to see what the Black Panther is up to and it is bad news all round. This is a story about the perils of being in charge and the emphasis is on things spiralling out of control. It is both a bug and a feature of the story that multiple story lines are competing for attention but overall this volume by itself is unsatisfying. This is all set-up and while it cleverly depicts a good man desperately trying to hold a country together amid gathering crisis, it isn’t in itself a succesful story.

5. Saga, Volume 6, illustrated by Fiona Staples, written by Brian K. Vaughan, lettered by Fonografiks (Image). The Staples/Vaughan space opera about star-crossed lovers keeps powering on. Tricky to review because this is Volume 6 in what has always been quite openly a saga. Read it, enjoy it but if you haven’t read volumes 1 to 5, it won’t make a lot of sense.

4. The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man, written by Tom King, illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta (Marvel). The Vision, the synthetic being who is also a long running member of The Avengers, has constructed himself a family and moved to the suburbs. The premise suggests either comedy or a sprialling descent into suburban psychological horror and the writers decided not to pick comedy. Secrets and lies confront bigotry and fear and things just get worse. It is well put together but I found it dissatisfying and so much of the story relies on the central characters not anticipating events.

3. Paper Girls, Volume 1, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang, colored by Matthew Wilson, lettered by Jared Fletcher (Image). Another Brian K. Vaughan entry – this time a Stranger Things like 1980s set story about a group of teenage girls who deliver newspapers in a suburban neighbourhood. Things get weird very quickly as a future factional war and time-travel intrude into their lives. Entertaining but I feel the story could have gone slower and given more time for the characters of the girls to be fleshed out a bit more.

2. Ms. Marvel, Volume 5: Super Famous, written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Takeshi Miyazawa (Marvel). Ironically this is the most conventional of the finalists in so far as it is a Marvel superhero comic with cameos from Iron Man and features Hydra as the bad guys (minor spoiler there – sorry). Yet it is also the finalist that offers a complete story arc for its character as Ms Marvel tackles the demands of being an Avenger, corporate gentrification, mind control, school life and the demands of her somewhat traditional Pakistani-American family. Witty and humane, Ms Marvel navigates a tricky line between falling into pastiche and parody of the superhero genre while not taking itself too seriously. You don’t need to have read the previous volumes but you do need a sense of who is who.

1. Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening, written by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda (Image). Dense and detailed both in plot and artwork, this volume feels longer than it is but in a good way. A fantasy with some substantial world building set in a world split between humans and half-human ‘Arcanics’ as well as a sinister holy order of witches (on the human side) and some kind of god-like demons. Also, it has talking cats in it – more than one! Great stuff and a standout in a high quality field.