The Hugosauriad: Introduction to a Dinography

Reading through the stories that have won a Hugo Award is a huge task and I am, fundamentally, a lazy man. I’m also somebody who likes to make a virtue of my laziness. Any read-through of the Hugo Awards is a matter of choices and those choices hide aspects that make the awards interesting.

The obvious focus is on the winning novels but this avoids the rich influence of shorter works or of other categories like Dramatic Presentation. Worse, “winning” is a category that disguises far too much about the dynamics of the Hugo Awards. Non-winning finalists themselves provide a fascinating insight into the choices of Worldcon membership, as do those works that were nominated but did not make the finalist shortlist. There’s even insights to be gained from works that were never acknowledged by the Hugo Award process in any form.

Yet such broad criteria turn a difficult task into an impossible one and the premise I started with is that, above all else, I’m a lazy man. How then to look at novels and short stories, winners, finalists, also-rans and ineligible works across sixty-seven years (and before anybody corrects me ‘1952’ isn’t an error – the first Hugo Awards in 1953 drew from works that included 1952).

The answer came from the 2019 Short Story finalist The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat by Brooke Bolander. Bolander’s dinosaurs are thoroughly modern feathered protagonists in a genre-defying fairy tale. Not only is the style of the story both new and old but also the dinosaurs featured in it. That new and old quality is something that is intrinsic to dinosaurs as a theme — old because they are from a long time ago and new because they represent a time when the Earth was younger.

The second point on my map was Rachel Swirsky’s Nebula winning short story “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” written in 2013. The story provoked artistic debate about the nature of science-fiction but also became an object of hate and ridicule by the reactionary Sad Puppy campaigns, whose actions came to dominate discussion of the Hugo Awards for several years.

Two points form a line and following that line backward I could cut a rock sample through the Hugo Awards and expose the geologic layers. From there I could construct not a biography of the Hugo Awards but a dinography* — an account of a thing using the medium of dinosaurs.

A dinography requires some rules, specifically a rule as to what counts as a dinosaur. For my purpose the dinosaur eligibility includes

  • Actual dinosaurs as recognised by the paleontology of the time a work was written.
  • Prehistoric reptilian creatures from the Mesozoic era that in popular culture count as dinosaurs such as large marine reptiles and pterosaurs.
  • Fantastical creatures derived from dinosaurs such as creatures in Edgar Rice Burroughs Pellucidar series.
  • Aliens (intelligent or not) of a reptilian nature that humans would see as dinosaur like.
  • Dinosaurs as a metaphor for something either out of time or hanging on beyond their time.

The creatures I deemed ineligible include:

  • Dragons
  • Birds unless they are there specifically to make the link with dinosaurs
  • Sea serpents, lake monsters etc unless they are specifically linked to dinosaurs of prehistoric marine reptiles

I think it is obvious why including any story that might have birds in it would distort the project. The reasons are similar with dragons: they would overshadow the dinosaurs. Even the science-fictional dragons of Pern evoke a different set of themes than dinosaurs.

For categories I looked at novel, novella, novelette, short story and dramatic presentation. I appreciate that there might be a hidden wealth of dinosaur fossils hidden in the strata of art and related work categories but I chose not to look.

Where I could, I looked at finalists and winners. I did not look deeply into the long list of nominated works that didn’t make the finals, except on a few occasions when I was aware of something dinosaur related and I wanted to see how it tracked. In my final reading list I included two short stories that pre-date the short story category for the Hugo Awards for reasons that I will hope will be clear. I also included an episode of a television show that appeared on the long-list for Best Dramatic Presentation (short form) but which did not receive enough nominations to be a finalist. Again, I think my reasons will become clear when I reach it.

The structure of the Hugosauriad will be a set of semi-regular essays about the stories, their context and influences. They are grouped into geologic zones:

  1. Paleozoic: This introduction. The paleozoic being the era before the mesozoic.
  2. Triassic: 1950s, 60s and 70s of Hugo dinosaur stories.
  3. Jurrasic: 1980s and 90s of Hugo dinosaur stories
  4. Cretaceous: 2000’s of Hugo dinosaurs
  5. Extinction boundary: Puppy shenanigans and Chuck Tingle
  6. The Dinosaurs Survive: 2019 and beyond. The dinosaurs never died off, they just grew feathers.

Interestingly, the medium of dinosaurs misses a lot! The New Wave and the 1970s is more present by their absence, hence the dinography eras don’t match the normal ways we might split science-fiction history.

Of the twenty works in my list, only five are by women and of those most were written recently. The gender disparity in recognition of writing doesn’t shift for decades in this sample. I’d be grateful for suggestions of dinosaur themed stories from 1950-1990 written by non-cis men that will help illustrate what was missed.

My reading for the Triassic is complete and posts will start soon looking at:

  • Ray Bradbury
  • L. Sprague de Camp
  • James Blish
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • and Clifford D. Simak

As always, everything is a work in progress and a case of self-education rather than existing expertise. Corrections, advice and suggestions are always welcome. I think this will be fun 🙂

*[‘Dinography’ was going to be my original title but it appears to be the name of an advertising company. Various other ideas such as ‘Hugosaurus’ are twitter handles or usernames etc. Hugosauriad got zero hits on Google, so that’s the working name.]

Ein unendlicher Kreis: Dark Season 2 (Netflix)

Dark was the surprise German Netflix show that pulled me into its orbit at the end of 2017. I’ve just finished season 2 and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a somber and angst filled take on the Jeremey Bearimy time-travel plot that shows no mercy to the feelings of its characters. It also demands quite a lot from its audience, with five (and a bit) time periods, multiple out-of-place characters and circular family trees.

The premise (slowly revealed in Season 1) is that the small, insular German town of Widen is the centre of a mystery. The overt version of the mystery is the disappearance of some children in 1986 and 2019. Connected to this is a mysterious cave system in the surrounding forest and the nuclear power plant, that in 2019 is scheduled to be decommissioned. The deeper mystery is that time itself is not right in Widen and that events in 2019, 1986 and also 1953 are more directly connected. The presence of a sinister figure called Noah, who appears in all three time periods to be the same age, points to even more sinister forces at play.

Without spoiling things too much, by the end of Season 1 the human drama and the time-travel shenanigans are taking up at least equal time. Season 2 shift the modern day plot onto 2020 and brings in the 1920s and 2050s as two other time periods. Looming over all is a coming apocalypse, counting down each episode with ‘X days to the Apocalypse’ under the date. That the countdown connects with the upcoming decommissioning of the nuclear power plant is no coincidence.

Season 2 is far more overtly science fictional than Season 1. I was concerned that this would change the character of the show and it does but mainly in a positive way. Season 1 took a broader view of the characters, in particular how the teenage lives in the 1980s shaped the adult characters in 2019 and the subsequent impact on their children. The core set of families (the Tiedemanns, Dopplers and Nielsens) were figuratively trapped in patterns of emotional harm which metaphorically paralleled the timey-wimey aspects of the show.

Season 2 follows the logic of season 1 and in the process the show changes. The intertwined families are part of a literal looped timeline, as was gradually revealed in season 1. Dramatically, season 1 implied that Jonas was the central character of the 2019 teenagers but he becomes more overtly central to the story in season 2. An older version of himself (who haunted season 1 as an enigmatic stranger) has an almost Jesus like appearance but is a tortured soul, desperately trying to un-manipulate events and disentangle the world.

Along with the looming apocalypse, we have the inevitable time-travelling factions. A new character called Adam appears to be the sinister force behind whatever the fake priest Noah has been doing and also leads a group hinted at in season 1 who were responsible for mysterious iron door in the cave. On what may be possibly the side of good (or maybe not) is Claudia Tiedemann, who in the 1980s is the boss of the nuclear power plant.

For fans of time travel stories that like to dwell on the paradoxical nature of the idea, there are no genre surprises here. Indeed, the shows more science fictional elements rests on cliches of the genre and science-sounding buzz words (e.g. ‘the god particle’). Yet, it uses all of these to great effect and grounds the inherent absurdity in the emotional trauma of the characters (and that is often heart wrenching).

The visual design is also tremendous, particularly with the implied progressive development of multiple means of ways of exploiting the time-travel capabilities.

Also, surprisingly, things are actually being explained. I thought, part way through season 1, that this was a story that maybe would work best with the core mystery never resolved i.e. Widen was just a place with a spooky time rift. Instead, the connections and the nested set of choices of character is becoming clearer (maybe). The time loops are getting knottier but also the broader cast have each discovered that they are not in a noir crime drama but are in a science fiction story. Multiple characters working out the mind-bending connections between events helps the underlying story recap and explain itself.

Having said that, I was deeply grateful that the Wikipedia page for the show now has family trees and episode synopsis to help track who is who. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_(TV_series)

As with Season 1, I watched the show in German with English subtitles. I don’t speak German but I found that worked better than the dub. I can’t attest to how good the translation is but the only bit I found annoying was when one character was talking about another character’s height, he was clearly talking about centimetres but the height was given in feet and inches. Yup, the expectation is that viewers can cope with backwards propogating causality and boot-strap paradoxes but not the metric system.

A third and final season is planned. I will definitely be watching.

About Tor.com & Fanwriting

That Beam piece has certainly got people talking about the Hugo Fan Writer category, which is a positive development. I’ve been musing here about the nature of the category for some time and I’d like to focus on something which I think might help clarify an issue.

Firstly though, I don’t want anybody to infer from this post that I think any current finalists or past finalists were illegitimate because of where some of their work was posted. That is not the case as far as I’m concerned. On the other hand that doesn’t mean we can’t think about how the category should be in the future and what rule change may help facilitate that.

Secondly, this is not intended to be a case of Tor-bashing. Non-fiction essays at Tor.com are the example that people keep discussing, so it would be disingenuous not to talk about Tor. However, I must add that I like what Tor.com is doing as a site and also it is doing good work in terms of promoting a diverse range of views and voices.

Last year I wrote about how I wouldn’t want to see a kind of strictly amateur rule applied to fan writing. The simplest way of delimiting the boundary between professional and fan writing would be simply to apply a rule that if the writer is paid then it doesn’t count. I think the negative consequences of such a rule these days would hurt the category more than help. I’m a cis-het financially stable man with a long commute each day and access to cheap portable internet: writing this blog is a hobby that I can indulge in because of social and economic advantages that I have. Patreons etc are ways that help enable not just others like myself but also a broader range of voices to engage with fandom and cover the costs of doing so.

Having said all that…the current rules don’t adequately distinguish between commercial venues for writing and non-commercial ones. The distinction in the rules is focused on availability to readers, which made sense in a world of fanzines, semi-prozines and professional magazines. It doesn’t make sense in a world where there are major publications that are free at source.

Put another way: technically Damien Walter’s former columns in The Guardian on science-fiction related issues would technically be eligible for Best Fan Writer but are not something that people would really think of as being specifically FAN writing even though any specific piece fits the general model of fan writing in terms of content.

So is there a way we can make a distinction between Tor.com or say Barnes & Noble blog or similar commercial venues that publish non-fiction essays that otherwise might be seen as fan-writing?

I’d contend that it isn’t any of the following:

  • Payments to the writer
  • Costs to the consumer (I.e. that it is free to read doesn’t make it fannish anymore than an essay behind a Patreon pay-wall makes the essay non-fannish)
  • The content of the post (OK in some cases, the content might make a piece none fanwriting but not in general)

So what’s the big critical distinction? EDITORS. Is the content commercially curated? Is somebody paid to pick who and what is being published? That’s the big distinction and it really is what matters.

Again: this is not a dig at Tor.com or anybody writing for them. However, there is a big difference between work that is being put out for its own sake and work being put out as part of a commercial operation in terms of whether it is fan-work or not. The difference isn’t in content but in control, who gets to pick.

To go back to the Damien Walters example (and I’m not trying to pick on him either but he’s a handy example), there’s other ways we could exclude his former Guardian column as an example of fan writing (e.g. The Guardian isn’t a SFF outlet as such) but I think the key element is the control (even if it is light) that the newspaper would have over the column. The same is true of Tor.com or Barnes & Noble. I doubt there is much, if any, interference from higher management in terms of particular essays but it is still curated content with the wider purpose of further the interests of a commercial organisation.

Of course, we can’t avoid commercial organisations in our capitalist world. Pull the camera outwards and I’m beholden to some degree to a commercial organisation (WordPress) to have a blog but otherwise I’m more or less a free agent.

So here is a rule change I’d very tentatively suggest:

3.3.16: Best Fan Writer. Any person whose writing has appeared in semiprozines or fanzines or in generally available electronic media THAT IS NOT PROFESSIONALLY EDITED OR PROFESSIONALLY CURATED during the previous calendar year.

Does that work? Or is it to vague still?

Some advice for time travellers

I feel like I’ve watched a lot of time-travel narratives of late — in particular season 2 of the German Netflix series Dark but also the Netflix superhero drama The Umbrella Academy and even Star Trek:Discovery . So time for some handy advice if you find yourself voluntarily or involuntarily wandering the time streams.

1. Don’t panic

Obviously, finding yourself in the wrong time period can be alarming. The key thing is to chill out. Panic, rushing around or shouting incomprehensible warnings at people is a bad idea. You almost certainly have years to accomplish whatever your mission/destiny is. Getting arrested or sedated is not going to help.

2. Carry a notebook

A notebook is a great bit of technology that will work in any time period. For starters you can write down The Rules for how time travel works in your scenario (we’ll get to The Rules in a moment). You can also keep track of the people you meet in your travels. As some of them are likely to be close relatives this is particularly important.

3. Do NOT kill or have sex with anybody

Just don’t. It doesn’t matter what The Rules are (we’ll get to The Rules in a moment), just don’t kill anybody and don’t have sex with anybody. At the very least check the family tree that you should have drawn in your notebook by now. Do you really want to be the sinister murderer in your family’s dark past? No? Good, don’t kill anybody. Do you want to avoid being your own uncle, grandmother, sibling, second-cousin, great aunt? Yes? Good, then avoid anything that might create self-referential family trees.

4. Listen to that mysterious stranger you meet early on

Honestly, even if you aren’t currently planning to go time travelling, NOW is the time to carry a notebook. When the uncannily familiar stranger and/or your great aunt starts babbling to you about destiny, or how what has been written can (or cannot) be unwritten, get them to pause a moment and ask them to write it down in your handy notebook.

This encounter may be the point where you are told The Rules (we’ll get to The Rules in a moment). Having them written down will make your life so much easier and will also make it easier for you to explain them to your younger self when you meet them when you are disguised as an uncannily familiar stranger.

5. Try and get a handle on what the apocalypse is exactly

I’m sad to say that there is probably an apocalypse. You may already be living in the post-apocalyptic world or it lies in your near future. DO NOT FORGET RULE 1! DO NOT PANIC! There is a good chance that you or your actions in trying to prevent the apocalypse is, in a shocking late twist, the actual cause of the apocalypse. So slow down and get a handle on what’s going on. Understanding The Rules (we’ll get to The Rules in a moment) may help and you may have no choice in the end but hasty action is almost certainly a bad idea.

6. Try to Avoid Becoming a Faction in a Time War

Some people are trying to stop the apocalypse, some people are trying to maintain the integrity of the timeline. Some people are just shit heads. This is how time wars start and how human history gets a secret version that can only be explained by two factions struggling for temporal supremacy. There’s a good chance that a future version of yourself is the secret leader of one of the factions that you are struggling against in another shocking late twist. Don’t forget Rule 3. do not kill or have sex with anybody and specifically do not kill or have sex with a future or past version of yourself. Even assuming that is not what causes the apocalypse, it just makes for very confusing conversations with yourself and you end up filling your notebook with over-complicated family trees.

7. Learn The Rules

A mysterious stranger/fellow time traveller/helpful scientist/a future version of yourself/an ageing version of your own grandchild who is paradoxically your great aunt/your arch-nemesis in the time war/all of the above, will at some point explain The Rules. WRITE THESE DOWN.

The Rules explain what kind of time travel you are engaged in. Specifically the degree to which you can or can’t change what has happened. They may involve a long lecture on the bootstrap paradox and how that relates to your great aunt and why she looks a lot like you. There may be a whole bunch of physics — this won’t matter so much and is mainly gibberish and buzz-words and will have no actual impact on anything. Write it down anyway so that you can check whether it matches what is in your great aunt’s secret research notebook.

8. Learn Some Local History

Probably worth doing this now prophylactically JUST IN CASE you get caught up in a time travel narrative at a later point. This will save you a lot of time when you journey back to the past only to discover that your great aunt’s house wasn’t built back then or that her secret research facility was in a different part of town etc.

9. Pack a sandwich

You might get hungry. Also, a first aid kit and a torch (or a flash light if you are American). A Polaroid camera can be handy for leaving a faded photograph of yourself with your great aunt that you discover many years hence when clearing out her belongs after you were left her house in her will after her mysterious death five weeks before the impending apocalypse.

10. AVOID THE POLICE

Don’t get involved in law enforcement. Whatever your views of police officers happens to be, face facts — this is not a profession that wants to hear an explanation of events that involves violations of causality, Einstein-Rosen Bridges, or how you happen to be your own great aunt. They will either think you are mocking them or that your are mentally unstable and either way you will end up locked away at exactly the moment you need to be at the secret research facility to prevent a younger/older version of yourself having sex with that very attractive physicist who unbeknownst to you is actually your great aunt/yourself/a younger version of your future nemesis/time-war assassin/all of the above.

If you are arrested by the police for looking strange or shouting cryptic warnings at yourself as a school kid, then consider your options:

  • Lie: you will get found out by the dogged police officer who will identify the flaws in your story, setting them on a trail that will inevitably lead them into being recruited by the other faction in the time-war (perhaps unwittingly).
  • Tell the truth: the police officer will eventually begin to believe your wild story of nested time lines but only when it is too late and there is a good chance that their new found obsession with time-travel will lead them into being recruited by the other faction in the time-war (perhaps unwittingly).
  • Blame your confusion on drugs: I don’t know if this works but I haven’t seen anybody try it. Try saying: “I think I must have been drugged because I was under a weird delusion that I was a time traveller and that the physicist I cornered in the supermarket was my great aunt. I’m feeling a lot better now but suffering from a little amnesia. I really just need a quiet lie down .” Maybe fake a big yawn at that point.

Either way, when you escape from the police station or psychiatric facility do try and retrieve your notebook.

I Guess I’m Talking About John Scalzi Today

I woke up to find Twitter aflame with people discussing a column in the fanzine Beam that opens with: “So fuck John Scalzi anyway.”

There is a link in this tweet from the man himself where he replies.

There are also some interesting responses on Twitter from Kameron Hurley and Alexandra Erin.

The gist of the piece is simple. The character of the Best Fan Writer category has changed and the writer (Ulrika O’Brien) blames John Scalzi. It’s not a great piece but it is better than it sounds but not by much. The worst aspects are the histrionic claims (“The Hugos are broken, probably permanently and irretrievably.”) and placing all the blame on one person (the aforementioned Mr Scalzi) and the dismissive tone of the choices of voters and often the voters themselves.

It has some merit as a piece that attempts to look at the changing character of a set of awards. That’s interesting and it is probably interesting to a number of people who read this blog who, prior to Puppy shenanigans, were less invested in the Hugo Awards qua Hugo Awards — including myself. Actually, particularly myself on reflection. As the piece says:

“Going from not knowing what a Best Fan Writer is to having a Hugo for it in 18 months is no mean feat. Going from not being a part of fandom in any way (Scalzi marks his entry into fandom to a Detroit convention in
2005), to having a Hugo for fanac in three years, is incredible. Literally.”

I somewhat resemble that remark, having gone from NOT EXISTING as any kind of presence at the start of 2015 to being a Hugo Finalist for Fan Writer in 2018. I’m part of what the writer sees as the problem described as:

“When I do see it, I increasingly find a bunch of total strangers who’ve not visibly participated in fandom, and I see red all over again. I will inevitably be told that the failing is in me, that were I to educate myself, I would discover their merit. As often as not, whatever merit is involved, what I actually discover are more neo-pros doing nothing remotely to do with fandom as we know it, or if they do, only in pursuit of making money off us.”

As I’ve discussed in previous posts on fan writing, there’s certainly many people being nominated for work that is in various ways paid for. Having said that, there’s plenty that isn’t nor was John Scalzi’s blog itself a money making venture (except in the more general marketing sense.)

Taking two steps back and looking at the bigger picture and the actual societal changes occuring in the relevant time period, what do we see? Nothing mysterious and nothing secretly controlled by John Scalzi but rather the increasing and inevitable online nature of fandom, along with generational change. The period of 2000 to 2020, was always going to be one in which fandom would have the kind of generational change that fandom is always having because people get older and people from a younger generation become more influential. To use tired generational-terms, a shift from Baby Boomers to Gen-X with (now) more Millennials (and younger).

The accompanying shift was technological with blogs, blogging networks (particularly Live Journal at one point), social media platforms and commerical pop-culture media sites changing where fan-related discourse was happening. This was a cross-generational change (e.g. GRRM’s Live Journal or how influential Mike Glyer’s File770 fanzine-turned-blog became during the Puppy Debarkle).

The more interesting claim is that John Scalzi is to blame for the Puppy Debarkle itself:

“But perhaps most memorably for many, 2015 was the first Year of the Puppies. The combined efforts of the Sad and Rabid Puppies managed to get their slates solidly wedged onto the short list of many categories, including literary and media ones, leading to much public outrage in the months leading up to the convention, and to a rhythmic tattoo of Hugos going to “No Award,” during the awards presentation. And the audience applauded. Our highest honors were so badly broken that category after category went unawarded, and the fans applauded. Thanks Scalzi. Fuck you.

Yeah, Scalzi. Because beyond distorting the fan categories beyond all recognition, John Scalzi opened the door for anyone who was paying attention and willing to do the leg work to rewrite any Hugo to their own preference. Looking at an award category, deciding that the people currently winning it don’t deserve to, examining the rules to see if they explicitly forbid what you want to do, and then mounting a blog-based campaign to circumvent the spirit of the award by recruiting a bunch of fan-cultural outsiders who never previously nominated or voted in that category to do so – does that sound at all like a familiar pattern? And make no mistake, Scalzi’s blog had plenty of Puppy-leaning types paying attention to it. The incomprehensible, but much repeated favorable comparison of John Scalzi’s debut novel, Old Man’s War, to the work of Robert Heinlein pretty well assured that the Randroids and the pseudo-libertarian ammosexuals would be there in droves.”

Like most of the column, the charge is histrionic and ignores so many other dynamics. Also, Scalzi didn’t open any door. The door was already open, he just walked through it. The only way that never would have occurred would have been if Worldcon and the Hugo Awards had simply dwindled into irrelevance, ignored by new generations of people and a fannish discourse that had expanded into new arenas*.

Having said all that, as a self-appointed student of the Hugo Debarkle, the role of John Scalzi and his Whatever blog can’t be ignored. Go back to the years prior to the Puppy revolt we don’t need to speculate about any nexus between future Puppies and the influence of the blog because we can watch Brad Torgersen (Sad Puppy 2ic) being Brad in the comment section, along with various other notable characters in the performance that would follow. I can’t see anything in those years for which John Scalzi deserves moral blame for though. He was (is) a succesful author who was also keen to engage with fandom when he discovered its delights. That’s hardly a new path. The fan-writer to pro-writer path anything new for the Hugos, something Robert Silverberg reminded people of last year.

There is a broader point to the column. Are the fan categories rewarding fan-works or are they acting a second-tier aspiring pro categories? Firstly, accept there’s never going to be a clear distinction. Secondly, changing the rules is NOT mysterious nor unachievable! Rather than a futile exercise in lambasting John Scalzi (and let’s face it, he’s weathered plenty of lambasting over the years) consider what kinds of things the fan categories SHOULD reward and think about how FUNCTIONALLY they can be defined in our new more inter-connected world.

The question is what fan-writing should be and how it should be celebrated. Which is an interesting one and it is one in which it is worth noting John Scalzi not as John Scalzi the author but John Scalzi the guy who is and was heavily engaged in fandom as it is now.

*[NOTE: I’m not saying existing or former arenas of fannish discourse are irrelevant or inferior, just that other arenas now exist]

Work in Progress

Dinosaurs and Hugo Awards and things. No, no it will all make sense. Why yes, I am spending time making a ‘cover’ picture for a set of blog posts instead of writing the blog posts….