Hugo 2020 Novellas: This How You Lose The Time War, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

Two agents from two conceptually different future outcomes for the universe, range through time attempting to shape history to make the destiny of their faction the inevitable one. Stepping between worlds and alternate realities they begin a correspondence: at first taunting and bragging, then flirting and then, inevitably, declaring their love for one another. The plot is easy to sum up primarily because the details to some degree do not matter, the arc is inevitable but that’s part of why it is the perfect choice for a story about vast factions attempting to tweak history.

Of all the novella finalists this year, it is the most ambitious — an author collaboration on timey-wimey epistolary story that is happy to indulge in long flights of romantic prose. That it works at all is remarkable, whether it always works well, I’m not so sure. I’m really not sure whether I wanted a story that was longer or one that was shorter. The argument for shorter was, I’m sad to say, that I got bored with the point at which Red and Blue were just saying how much they loved each other repeatedly — it was sweet but I was relieved when the story moved towards its end game.

The argument for longer? Both the Garden and the Agency were underplayed and while the whole point is there is no real rationale for the Time War, a better sense of what the factions imagined the stakes were is something I craved. That same context was missing for Red and Blue in terms of their fellow agents or connections with other ongoing characters. Really only the Commandant existed as an additional character throughout the story. The personal isolation of both agents was part of the issue that both had and provides a reason for them to continue to reach out to each other but without any other real personal dynamic with anybody else that very passion between them lacked something.

I ended up wanting to like this a lot more than I was actually enjoying it. However, there’s some stunningly well written sections and the obsessive and baroque methods by which messages are exchanged as the characters zip between settings is delightful. The vivid imagery and use of verbal colour is compelling, as is the technique of referencing paintings (in particular Henry Wallis’s Death of Chatterton) to add to the very visual sense of the story.

I very much do like to see bold stories that take big risks and follow ideas through. I really can’t fault it by that standard, even if it didn’t quite pay off its promise for me.

Book Launch: The Hugosauriad

Two hundred and fifty two million years in the making, a book that spans geological eras, astronomical bodies colliding, and people getting upset at award ceremonies. Space! Big game hunters! A surprising number of priests! Atheist therapods! This is a book that has everything but a simple premise!

Let’s go back to the beginning. The Permian-Triassic extinction event aka “The Great Dying” was our planet’s greatest extinction event that we know of. Over 90% of marine species and 70% land species died off…hold on…that’s too far back. Fast forward a bit. The USA of the 1950s! A time of optimism, change and technology! Into that exciting era of rock-and-roll stepped the Hugo Awards for Science Fiction. The awards, often controversial, usually provocative and always interesting would become the premier science fiction & fantasy awards for books written in English.

Jo Walton’s Informal History of the Hugos did an excellent job of combing through the eras of the award to give a sense of the changes in taste and the dynamics of the voters. However, with so many categories and so many notable finalists, any attempt to capture the full breadth and depth of the awards is nearly impossible. There are many Hugo read-through projects (e.g. Nerds of a Feather’s current Hugo project http://www.nerds-feather.com/search/label/Hugo%20Initiative ) but I did not want to cover the same ground. So while I had considered a Hugo history project for this blog I never could find the right approach or a way in that would not be just repeating what more skilful people had done better.

The nomination of Brooke Bolander’s “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” set me thinking. 2019 was, by my reckoning, the first truly “post-Puppy” Hugo Awards — the first year since 2013 in which the extreme right-wing campaign to influence the award was not directly visible on the nomination process. That set me thinking of an arc of three stories in which the Puppy debarkle had played out:

  • Rachael Swirsky’s movingly lyrical If You Were A Dinosaur My Love — a story hated by the right wing factions behind the Puppy campaigns.
  • Chuck Tingle humorous monster erotica “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” — nominated by alt-right trolls but which led to a spectacular counter-trolling by Chuck Tingle himself.
  • And the Brooke Bolander’s story in Uncanny Magazine, a combination of author and platform that was a fair illustration of where the Hugo Awards had come to in the wake of that conflict.

So, there was a hook. The past five years of the Hugo Awards could (sort of) be traced in terms of a set of stories with dinosaurs in them. It was, a decent enough idea for an essay. Now what would the first paragraph of that essay say? “Dinosaurs have often featured in the Hugo Awards.” Hmm, was that true or would I just be talking out of my cloaca? I’d need to do a bit more research and that meant surveying the awards lists for dinosaur stories: https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/05/11/what-have-i-missed/

Thanks to helpful readers here, I tracked down stories and the shape of the Hugosauriad became clear. I would write not a biography of the Hugo Awards but a dinography — a history using dinosaurs as the instrument.

Picking a single theme opened up a way into the huge scope of the Hugo Awards. Instead of just winners, I could look at notable finalists as well but more than that, I could look at stories that weren’t even nominated (in some cases because they preceded the Hugo Awards) but which were influential. It also meant that I could trace how one theme had changed and shifted in the genre over decades but also how features of the Hugos (such as the infamous No Award) had played out in multiple eras.

To my delight and surprise other themes volunteered themselves as if eager to jump on the bandwagon: the boundary between science fiction and literary fiction, the influence of changing scientific ideas on science fiction, the role of humour in science fiction, the representation of women as both authors and characters in the awards.

The Hugosauriad is not a comprehensive look at the Hugo Awards nor is it a comprehensive look at dinosaurs as a theme in science fiction but it is both a deep and varied examination. I have tried to vary the style and approach of the essays. Some are serious, one at least is very silly. Some deal with a single story in depth, others are focused on the wider context.

The original essays can be found on this blog https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/hugosauriad/ but I wanted to ensure there was an ebook version that could be read as a complete history. I considered quickly bundling things together but I was sensibly persuaded to spend at least some time tidying up. Thanks to JJ, quite a substantial number of typos and clunky sentences have been fixed! More may have crept in since!

The Hugosauriad: A Dinographic Account of the Hugo Awards is now available in multiple ebook formats. As always the cost is FREE and half price for dinosaurs.

It’s available at most ebook distributors except for Amazon:

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1023724

Apple Books: https://books.apple.com/au/book/the-hugosauriad-a-dinographic-account-of-the-hugo-awards/id1515818792

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-hugosauriad-camestros-felapton/1137089686?ean=2940164092702

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/au/en/ebook/the-hugosauriad-a-dinographic-account-of-the-hugo-awards

Scribd: https://www.scribd.com/book/463446289/The-Hugosauriad-A-Dinographic-Account-of-the-Hugo-Awards

Happy Five Years Today

So today is the actual five year anniversary of this blog. Yay! I hope you’ve enjoyed the month’s festivities. The new serial story blog https://homunculuscartographer.home.blog/ is live with the first three entries for the story. There will be another chapter on Sunday and then every Thursday and Sunday for weeks and weeks!

I hope to do the Hugosauriad book launch tomorrow or the weekend. You can access it on Smashwords already (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1023724 ) but it is still under review for circulation to other outlets. After a miraculous zero issues with the file itself, it then got snarled up in a different automated check. Smashwords scan files for links to or references to Amazon (basically to stop authors using books on Smashwords as just spam links to their books on Amazon). Because the Chuck Tingle chapter and some of the chapters in that same era talked about the impact of Amazon and the Kindle and/or had links to relevant pages (eg the story summaries for Chuck’s books) that set off warning lights. I made some crude edits to de-Amazonify those bits, so the this is now the expurgated Chuck Tingle chapter but not the expurgations that people might expect! Pounded in the Bibliography by Somebody Else’s Amazon References I guess 🙂

Here’s the very first post: https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2015/05/29/hello-world/ which was more of a ‘Hello World’ (which is in the actual URL)

The second post explained the https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2015/05/29/about-the-name/ and also said:

“Logic can be equivocal, whimsical and pedantic. Entities that have interesting characters and names need not be human and need not even be things. This blog will look at books and politics and particularly speculative fiction. Occasionally there will be logic and maths. Often there will be crimes against spelling and grammar.”

I think I met the five year KPIs for that task!

The next post (still on May 29) was a very short introduction to what would be a major topic https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2015/05/29/puppies-and-hugos/ That was a story so far. I think I thought things had passed their peak for 2015 at the time…

And then (still May 29) I got started: https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2015/05/29/on-petunias-and-whales-part-1/ Well, if there was an original sin for this blog it was that series of rambling posts!

The very last post of May was the other thing I needed a blog to explain: how to vote in an era of trolls https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2015/05/31/hugo-voting-strategy-high-bar-no-award/ What I was anticipating was more spoilery/trolling tactics in the future. The idea was that we might end up with slates every year and on the slates there would be some stuff that actually was good put there to mess with our heads — what we would later call ‘hostages’.

Hugo 2020 Novellas: To Be Taught if Fortunate, Becky Chambers

I’ve found Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers books a bit hit and miss. They have many positive qualities and I absolutely understand the love for them but I’ve struggled to finish more than one of them. So I was interested to see her branch away in this novella that is set in a much nearer future.

Not unlike the film Interstellar, the story follows a group of explorers visiting exo-planets each with potentially harbouring life and each with their own unique circumstances (an icy planet, a high-gravity planet, a water world). What makes these explorers different from the standard trope is that they are purely doing science for science’s sake. They aren’t the advanced guard of terraformers or colonists (or not intentionally so). It’s a nice idea to see in fiction that too often sticks 19th century European-explorer tropes onto science fiction trappings.

As with her Wayfarer stories, the crew are mix of characters who attempt to work together with compassion while dealing with their own unique personalities and issues.

And that’s about it for positive things I can say. Maybe it was because of the audio book but I found the protagonist to be patronising and condescending creating an overall tone of smugness that often ran counter to the plot. The story was full of the kind of poorly worked through unnecessary detail that serves Chambers’s stories badly (like the genetic enhancement to make the crew’s skin glitter when they are working on a dark planet…in full protective suits to stop them contaminating the planet). I really don’t need every detail to be science perfect and free of any niggles to enjoy SF but Chambers often adds these kinds of techno flourishes that then make little sense. It’s the sense of these thing as carefully constructed details that adds to the incongruity of them that simply wouldn’t be an issue if treated more vaguely or out of focus. For example, I have zero issues with the ship’s interstellar drive. How does that work? Who knows! And that’s fine — it’s a necessary thing for the story to exist and not everything needs an explanation but if you give an explanation that is intended to make sense textually then it really should make sense. Arrrgh! There’s nothing wrong with having characters get glittery skin via gene modification in itself but if you want that to happen because it would be cool to have glittery skin THEN HAVE THAT AS THE REASON WHY THEY DID IT – because it was cool and not because it might save them some infinitesimal fraction of the power on lighting on their trips outside of their interstellar spaceship on a DECADES long mission.

That issue isn’t just confined to the techno bits but also to the character motivations. We have a whole scene in which one of the crew members is in anguish at having to kill an alien critter. It is an important emotional moment and as an idea it is a neat reversal of the usual human-alien encounter featured in, for example, the various Alien films. But, but, but the crew really, really must have already worked through emotionally and ethically a lot of the issues that they then struggle with and we KNOW this because the main character earlier had already discussed the biggest obvious problem: they keep dropping a great big fiery rockety spaceship into these eco-systems killing goodness how many critters each time it plonks down. I’m not having a go at the ethical framework the crew have adopted, it made sense and the fact that even to explore and investigate requires a degree of pragmatic acceptance that they WILL have some impact on the local fauna. It’s like she’d set a story in a vegetarian restaurant but for just one scene and one scene only, she needed the characters to be vegans. Later on the crew (under psychological stress but still) end up killing a huge bunch of alien creatures because they were just really f-ing annoying.

I audio-booked this one and if I’d read it with my eyes I’d have given up way before the end. Even so, I had to re-listen to half a chapter because my mind had wandered off to somewhere more interesting part way through and I realised I had lost track of 30 minutes of the story. Even the title of the story has that maybe-you-didn’t-think-this-through aspect to it, being a quote from the recording added to the Voyager probe’s golden disc from (at the time) UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim which is reprised at the end of the story:

“As the Secretary General of the United Nations, an organization of the 147 member states who represent almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet earth. I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet. We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of the immense universe that surrounds us and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.” [my emphasis]

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Kurt_Waldheim

Yes, it’s a great quote but hmmm the inspirational quality is maybe not so great in context. I’m not saying nobody should ever quote Kurt Waldheim, just that there is a hell of a lot of baggage there that makes any quote from him becomes weighed down with irony particularly when used inspirationally about our common humanity.

There’s a decent short story or novelette here but the whole thing needs some merciless editing. I ended up actively disliking the whole crew and by the end I had to imagine that the actual twist was that the rest of planet Earth found the crew so insufferable that humanity just pretended that Earth had lost all capacity to communicate with them any more, like somebody pretending to have bad phone reception to get out of a phone call.

The same emotional beats, the same subversion of space exploration tropes, the same view of science-for-science’s-sake could have been done in a much shorter, much tighter, much, much better story. I finished it days ago and thought if I stepped away from it then I’d be less annoyed by it but I wasn’t. Now I’m doubly annoyed because I’ve ended up writing a mean review and now I’m annoyed that I’m annoyed.

Hugo 2020 Novellas: In an Absent Dream, Seanan McGuire

Last time I reviewed Ted Chiang’s novella finalist and that story has an odd dynamic with his also nominated novelette. Based on a plot synopsis the stories are utterly different but there is a conceptual overlap such that reading one causes a re-evaluation of the other. There is a similar dynamic here between McGuire’s novella (a new entry in The Wayward Children series) and her nominated novel Middlegame.

There are some more obvious overlaps, both Middlegame and In an Absent Dream feature a clever friendless girl who doesn’t really understand how lonely she is who finds friendship in magical way. Both characters even escape class to a janitors closet but it isn’t these plot points so much but the sense of an author exploring a set of ideas, in particular the process of bookish children becoming adults and the parallels of escape within literature and literature as escape.

With In an Absent Dream, the main character Lundy finds a door (as is required in the Wayward Children) that leads to the small world of the Goblin Market. The first thing we learn about the market is that it is governed by rules and from there the story is set on a course that we know will end with Lundy breaching the rules in some way leading to a semi-tragic end. That’s not a flaw in a story but rather a way of establishing the gravity of the tale. It has a sense of a morality fable but there is not a moral as such beyond the reality that growing up is painful for children and parent alike.

It is a more complete and consistent story than Middlegame but it was, for me, a less interesting one. It was also hard to experience the story as a thing separate from both Middlegame and the other stories in The Wayward Children series. In that context, In An Absent Dream felt to me like an addition to an exploration of an idea that didn’t add much to what I’d already experienced in the other stories whereas Middlegame opened up new avenues of exploration but with connections to those same ideas of children’s literature (and specifically portal fantasies) as questions about the process of becoming an adult and what we lose or retain on the way.

As always, you really cannot fault McGuire’s mastery of prose. There is an apparent effortlessness to the story telling and the emotional impact of Lundy’s numerous disappearances adds to the tragic melancholy of the story. However, and this may sound odd, I really thing I’d have enjoyed this a lot more without the surrounding connections to the stories that preceded it. Perhaps the very theme of the Goblin Market and its insistence on ‘giving fair value’ makes me doubt whether I, as a reader, gave fair value to the story (note: I’m not doubting whether I gave fair value to the author and publisher 🙂 because I did pay for the book!) by finding myself judging the story on the merits of other stories.

Hugo 2020 Novellas: Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom, Ted Chiang

The title gives me an excuse to talk about the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Concept_of_Anxiety ) except I know very little about Søren Kierkegaard other than that he makes me nervous. Suffice to say if you entitle a story with a quote from Kierkegaard you are pointing to questions of what it means as a person to be. For the stories collated in Ted Chiang’s anthology Exhalation that was already clearly a theme. The pneumatic robot scientist dissecting his own brain to discover a terrible revelation about the certainty of entropy in the title story is a distinctly science fictional take on the them of existentialism. Likewise the introspective shift in Omphalos when the devout scientist protagonist comes to understand that (the very real and manifest) God’s centre of attention is not humanity brings us back to the question of what is it like to be. That two letter English irregular verb is the centre of metaphysics but the sense here is one of psychology.

Ultimately, in Omphalos the complex premise takes the central character down a path of acceptance that in many ways is unremarkable and the same can be said of the scientist in Exhalation. Taken together, the common idea could be stated that the core question doesn’t change with circumstance. Chiang utterly changes the universe in both examples and the clever, nimble minded protagonists find themselves contemplating the same issues as those same characters might if translated to our universe. The same spectrum of responses is open to them and both characters look for a way of maintaining a personal equilibrium in the face of a universe or a god that is perhaps indifferent to them.

“Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” has a similar quality in that we meet people in a world in which there is a highly pertinent science-fiction conceit that impacts questions of personal choice and identity and what it is to be but which, in the end, does not fundamentally change how we or the characters engage with those questions. I think it does so more successfully than either Exhalation of Omphalos by centring ordinary people in a story where the technology informs the setting rather than providing a surprising revelation about the universe.

The conceit is very well done. In a world not unlike ours, there is a marvellous invention called a Prism. This is a machine that use quantum mechanics to provide a means of communicating across branching realities spawned by quantum bifurcations in line with the many worlds interpretation. The Prism machines have distinct limits, each one is tied to a specific quantum event that machine itself induces when first activated which provides access to an alternate reality only from that point forward. Also, while large amounts of information can be exchanged (including audio and video) the exchange of information is finite — you will eventually use it all up.

The nature of a Prism means that once you activate it, a parallel you has also activated the machine (or rather you split Schroedinger’s cat-style into two prism owning people) allowing communication with this version of you that up until that moment was exactly the same as you. At this point the value of the Prism practically (and monetarily) is very limited as this other person is basically you living in (almost) exactly the same world. Only over time do timelines diverge as random and/or chaotic events accumulate giving both of yourselves insights into how your lives might have gone.

The story follows two interrelated plots: firstly a psychologist who runs a support group for people who have become obsessed with the paths their alternate selves have taken and secondly a woman who works in a dodgy Prism shop who is running a scam that involves trying to con a member of said support group into selling their Prism. The con relies on the fact that the value of the information in an alternate universe may not lie with the specific alternate self but with other people in that universe. In the case of the Prism at the heart of the con, a celebrity couple who suffered a fatal car crash have a different survivor in each universe making the Prism potentially a means for the grieving survivor to speak with their dead soulmate (and vice-versa).

Meanwhile the psychologist is still dealing with her own issues around a choice made when she was a teenager — a choice that she feels set her best-friend off on a bad path. In a world were people can trace where alternate choices have led themselves, such questions have the potential of empirical exploration. However, as the people in the support group reveal this additional information often leads to deeper issues of people trying to second guess themselves or even issues of jealousy and envy of alternate more successful versions.

Ultimately the Prisms cannot answer how we should behave ethically but Chiang is also careful to avoid fatalism, predestination and chaotic indeterminism as views of the world. The Prisms do offer ways of doing controlled experiments to reveal true facts about the world or even personal choices but they simply cannot resolve a person’s individual dilemmas because one way or another a version of you will have to live with the choice that has been made.

Regret is the central emotion here rather than the anxiety of the title. The two key characters experience regret in different ways and come to terms with past choices in their own ways.

Susan’s Salon: 2020 May 24/25

Yet another open thread for people to just chat. Posted every Monday (Sydney time). It’s OK to be sad and it’s OK to be happy. Please feel free to post either troubling news or pleasant distractions in the comments for this open thread. [However, no cranky conflicts between each other in the comments. Links, videos, cat pictures etc are fine – be nice to one another!] Whatever you like 🙂

Wear a mask while posting a comment.

I haven’t written about Covid-19 for awhile

I haven’t written about it much recently because I didn’t have much to say that added to the discussion. In Australia things are opening up again: most schools are open (but not ‘back to normal’), restaurants/cafes have started limited seating and generally people are out and about in shops and offices more. The running total number of cases are low (7 thousand) as are the total number of deaths (102). Luck and timing seem to have made a huge difference here but the big question is how big that reservoir of unobserved infections is. With more wintery weather here and social contact increasing, we’ll need to see if the infection rate starts zipping up again.

Meanwhile, nonsense continues from the usual suspects elsewhere. I’ve seen more than one attempt in conservative and global warming denial circles (but I repeat myself) trying to do a comparison of lockdown policies with infection rates and/or changes in infection rates. The idea is to roughly classify a nation’s response and then look at levels of infection and then (lo and behold) find no connection and declare that lockdowns did nothing.

The reasoning is fallacious. The fallacy is one we’ve seen before: looking at data but stripping out what we already know. Lockdown policies are connected to infection rates in multiple ways. Consider two different examples: Italy and New Zealand.

Italy suffered a massive early spike in infection rates relatively early for a European nation. With hospitals overwhelmed in the north, the country began quarantine measures at a point were relatively little was known and access to testing was limited. As a policy response it was pretty much an extreme emergency measure where authorities had very few options available to them. On the other hand (and in real time, not very long after) New Zealand adopted a strong lockdown policy precisely because the country had very FEW cases. NZ had a shot at an elimination strategy: close off people entering the country, shut down community spread, wait for a few weeks…and (maybe) the virus is gone.

So we have a range of policy measures that have been implemented as a response to quite different circumstances. Among the countries compared, most have significant measures in place of some kind but there is a lot of variety on specific ones (e.g. school closures is quite varied as a policy) and the impact of a government ‘recommending’ as a measure and enforcing a measure is also varied (i.e. in one nation a recommendation might have had a similar practical impact as a mandated policy).

In short, it’s a mess that will require more complex analysis than simply comparing ‘lockdown’ v ‘no lockdown’. The Our World In Data site has a decent overview of policy responses here https://ourworldindata.org/policy-responses-covid They also have a kind of aggregate index for a variety of countries (https://ourworldindata.org/policy-responses-covid#government-stringency-index ). How useful that is, I’m not sure. Again, simply comparing one date with total infections will produce gibberish e.g. currently NZ has a less severe score than Sweden but that hides that NZ had a VERY severe score ten days earlier, so you have not just different levels of severity but different PATTERNS of severity.

What happens next? Different regions have been impacted at different times. Obviously East Asian nations suffered the initial spike, followed by Western Europe and then North America. Cases continue to grow in the USA, although that growth is partly masked by falls in the parts of the US that were impacted first.

This graph shows some selected nations based on previous conversations or places that people have made comparisons between. Different choices of countries might lead to a very different perception of the trajectory. Also, as we’ve discussed before, the extent and efficacy of testing impacts these numbers.

Russia, parts of South America and the Gulf States also have rising numbers. The worldwide spread is far from over.