Looking back at a kerfuffle

Back in July the Galaxy’s Edge* magazine, Robert J Sawyer’s regular column discussed some issues around the SFWA. The column was also covered in this Pixel Scroll at File 770. I didn’t engage a great deal with Sawyer’s comments because I’m not a part of the SFWA and I’m unlikely to ever be and I’ve also really zero idea of what the make up of the organisation should be or what practical impact a writer’s organisation can have. Suffice to say, Sawyer has had a long career writing science-fiction and is a former SFWA president so ostensibly knows a lot more than I do on the topic. Having said that…well I didn’t get a clear sense of what he thought the issues were (other than that the SFWA should be more like the Writer’s Guild of America).

There was one point that bugged me though but I decided not to focus on it at the time because it was secondary to Sawyer’s broader points. The point was a throw away comment part way through the column:

“The crisis that led Lawrence to resign was precipitated by an unprecedented loosening of SFWA’s membership credentials, undertaken by fiat by the board, allowing huge numbers of self-published authors to join. Hustlers by nature, some of them immediately organized a successful block-nominating slate to get self-published authors onto the Nebula ballot, hijacking the Academy Award of the science-fiction and fantasy fields.”

Sawyer is referencing the controversy earlier in the year regarding Nebula finalists connected with the publishing self-help group 20booksto50K and the independent publisher LMBPN. I wrote about it extensively at the time but the best overall account is by Cora Buhlert here: http://corabuhlert.com/2019/03/01/the-latest-developments-regarding-the-2018-nebula-award-finalists/

So what is my issue with Sawyer’s brief description? Several things but primarily it promotes the misleading framing of the kerfuffle as self-published versus traditionally-published authors. That framing was pushed by various people at the time and while there is some superficial truth to it, the framing is deeply misleading:

  • Many of the authors nominated who were on the 20booksto50K list had been traditionally published previously.
  • At least one was a long term member of the SFWA.
  • Some of the most vocal SFWA members objecting to the list were from an indie-published background.
  • The framing obscures the role of a publisher (LMBPN) in the list.

That misleading framing was part of the issue with the original not-a-slate i.e. byt setting up not just a list but a narrative as to why random voters should feel some loyalty towards the list is part of how the whole issue became problematic.

However, those aren’t the only issues with Sawyer’s statement. He also overstates the impact of the list, the nature of self-published writers and ignores the subsequent behaviour.

  • “huge numbers of self-published authors to join” – I don’t know how many people voted for the 20booksto50K list but it didn’t need to be huge numbers to impact the Nebula short-list and it probably wasn’t. That only some works from the list were finalists implies it was a significant but not large number.
  • “Hustlers by nature” – is just pointlessly insulting. Sure, there is a Wild-West aspect to the world of Amazon self-publishing but we have a very obvious comparison group to compare with (which I’ll get to). There are certainly notorious examples of self-published authors behaving badly but they aren’t the norm.
  • “hijacking the Academy Award of the science-fiction and fantasy fields” – I’m not making excuses for the not-a-slate but the overall impact on the awards I believe was small. Multiple, excellent works that would have been finalists regardless were still finalists and the final outcome was probably indistinguishable with what would have happened regardless.

The comparison group I mentioned above is, of course, the Sad Puppies. It is true that post-hoc leaders and supporters of the Sad Puppies have used the same framing of indie/self-published versus trad-publishing as a kind of factional distinction. However, Correia, Torgersen, Hoyt and Wright were all from a traditionally published background and at the time (at least initially) there focus was on authors and works that were traditionally published. As hustles go, the Sad Puppy Hustle was bigger, more damaging and more significant to literary awards and had its roots in traditional publishing.

It is also notable how much better key figures around the 20booksto50K/LMBPN groups behaved. Again, I’m not making excuses for anybody’s actions, just making a comparison with the obvious other kerfuffle. Of the various interactions I had with authors connected with the Nebula fuss at the time, only one was reminiscent of the way Sad Puppy leader’s behaved and that one example had their own connections with the Sad Puppies.

No deep conclusions to draw other than messy things are messy.

*[Maybe too many things are called Galaxy’s Edge. It gets confusing.]

Authors behaving badly: Episode# 1,234,543 Richard Fox

I won’t add much commentary but if you haven’t already read Mike Glyer’s piece on Richard Fox’s poor behaviour: http://file770.com/perjury-not-piracy-is-the-problem/

For earlier context see:

https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/02/27/next-few-days-are-nebula-shorts-days/

https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/03/02/nebula-shorts-going-dark-by-richard-fox/

https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/02/28/its-worth-talking-about-lmbpn-publishing-when-talking-about-the-nebula-nominees/

I know that Mike Glyer takes book piracy seriously and I know that I do. Fake DMCA notices, as well as being an increase in hostile tactics deployed by supporters of Larry Correia, undermine author’s capacity to tackle piracy with genuine complaints.

Dragon Award Update

A general round-up of who is saying what and where.

The Red Panda Fraction have started an award suggestion spreadsheet http://bit.ly/DragonAwards2019Eligible using the same model as the Lady Business Hugo one. Very useful even if you aren’t participating in the Dragon Awards.

Previous years I tried to systematically collect Dragon Award requests for nominations. I haven’t done that this year, partly because interest in them seems to be waning substantially. Vox Day’s 2019 post soliciting nominations was non-committal [archive link]. Larry Correia has been promoting the award on Facebook but not much otherwise (e.g. not on his blog).

I haven’t seen any distinct promotion of the awards from 20booksto50K, which is odd given the Dragons are overtly an it’s-OK-to-campaign award. However, Craig Martelle has asked for nominations and based on previous years I would imagine he’d be a strong contender (specifically Scorpion’s Fury by CH Gideon which is a pen-name of his).

Of course, Declan Finn has been on the case of who to vote for http://www.declanfinn.com/2019/05/dragon-awards-may-2019.html but interestingly his publisher Russell Newquist hasn’t posted about the awards this year. Jon Del Arroz has been busy talking about other things. So overall, not much on my radar.

Nominations don’t close to July 19, so there are several weeks to go but based on past years, it has been quieter. Of course, also based on past years, there’s a community of readers-writers somewhere who have just become aware collectively about the Dragon Awards and who will be this years surprising finalists :).

Wrapping up the LMBPN Kerfuffle and the Nebulas

The Nebula Awards were announced yesterday [see http://file770.com/2018-nebula-awards/ for full coverage]. That brings to a close the minor kerfuffle around the 20booksto50K kerfuffle that I covered here.

As I said in that linked post, four works that were both Nebula finalists and on the 20booksto50K not-a-slate were from the publisher LMBPN which is associated with 200booksto50K (specifically it owns the trademark). Naturally I was curious to see what the reaction was to the results where from the key figures at 20booksto50K and there is a post on the Facebook group today from Craig Martelle. I won’t quote the whole thing, it’s mainly a post about how great 20booksto50K is (and it genuinely does appear to be a strong community of writers helping each other). However, there is a section on the Nebulas that I want to talk about:

“We are setting a new and nearly unreachable standard in author support – all authors, not just indies. The publishing processes that Michael Anderle has set up condense the publication timeline in such a way that books don’t sit around on someone’s desk for six months, waiting to earn money. This is the ebook market and one might as well earn for six months, re-roll and earn more. There is a great saying that we have in the Marine Corps: Amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics. In here, we talk about the uncool logistics. You want input on your tactics (the quality of your story), then talk to those who are vested – your readers. Six indies nominated for Nebula awards last night and zero indie winners. What matters most is which stories resonate best with the readers and which ones will lead to new stories bringing more readers on board. Who is going to be the most professional of the authors? Out of our six finalists? Only one is not a full-time author and that is by choice.
I am not talking down about any winners or any other authors – being a full-time writer comes with great risk. It is not something to be encouraged lightly. Or discouraged. Working hard at the right things, with intentionality of purpose, and personal drive toward achievable goals. If you can’t motivate yourself to write when you’re supposed to be writing, then maybe a full-time author gig isn’t for you. It’s really freaking hard. Indies represented strong and proud last night. Professionals in every way.”

https://www.facebook.com/groups/20Booksto50k/permalink/1905480926225029/

Sorry but that is a b*llocks bit of narrative. The idea that ONLY the authors on the 20booksto50K list are the only finalists that were “indies” is false. The claim that there were “zero indie winners” is best described as a lie. The winner of Short Story (“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington”, Phenderson Djèlí Clark from Fireside 2/18) has just as much, if not more, claim to be indie as any of the works published by LMBNP. All of the main story category winners have published independently at one time or another.

There were several attempts at the time to spin the 20booksto50K fuss as a struggle between indies and trad-pubbed authors. It was a tempting narrative for lazy thinkers but one that did not stand up to examination. There were finalists from the 20booksto50K who have had worked published by more traditional routes (Lawrence Shoen, Yudhanjaya Wijeratne) and finalists who weren’t from 20booksto50K who had published more independently. Overall it is a really bad way of categorising authors taxonomically and a deeply misleading way of characterising the conflict.

It’s really sad to see Craig Martelle still trying to spin what happend as an indie v trad-pub conflict. I was impressed by how other people involved learnt from what others were saying and moved forward positively (e.g. Jonathon Brazee) in a way that found common ground rather than trying to amplify conflict. It’s a shame Craig Martelle is sticking to a tired narrative.

Nebula Novelettes: Summing Up

Six longer short stories or shorter novellas with a cornucopia of ideas. I thought one was a stand out piece and another was pretty good but the others much harder to rank in quality.

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander was a tour-de-force (my review). Packed full of ideas and emotional gut punches, the story looks at how we exploit both people and animals. It’s also an excellent example of how to write an alien intelligence, even if in this case the non-human minds are those of terrestrial elephants. On re-reading the ending feels muddled but overall this is a bit of a masterpiece.

Tor.com’s approach to short fiction gets another strong entry with Tina Connolly’s The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections (my review). Mixing food and memories with more conventional fantasy/Ruritanian tropes, this is a movingly crafted story.

Much, much harder to pick between the others. They all had things I liked and certainly they form an interesting set of stories.

  • “An Agent of Utopia” by Andy Duncan (my review): Fascinating premise but the story just didn’t give me enough. I wanted something longer that gave more insight into the protagonist.
  • “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte (my review): This is a great set-up for a supernatural thriller with past lives and a man framed for murder. However, restricted to a novelette, the story is over before there’s any real sense of mystery. Rather like Agent of Utopia, I’m an ungrateful reader who wants this served to me as a novel 🙂
  • “The Rule of Three” by Lawrence M. Schoen (my review) The ideas really stick with you long after you’ve read it. I found the initial set-up a bit rushed and the actual core concept disturbing. Yet a good rejection of the idea of aliens being like us except with better gadgets.
  • “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi (my review). Some great visual ideas – I’d love to see this as an animated short film. The beginning suggests it is going to be one kind of story but it quickly takes on its own character.

What I would say about these other four is that there are qualities to each of the stories that would make me want to read more by each of the writers.

I talked in the short story round up about the extent to which we should at least be able to see with award contending stories, what makes them exceptional — i.e. how the stories stand-out from others. That’s not the same as saying a story is perfect or even of the highest quality but it does me it needs some elements that explain why that story in particular would get singled out by voters or a jury. I think each of these stories had aspects of that.

Nebula Novelettes: Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi – Messenger

A soldier returns home from war, hoping to reunite with his family only for disaster to strike.

“WE LOOKED TO OUR NEIGHBORS in times of war to be our enemies. It was the wrong place to look. We should have turned our gaze upward, to the sky—to space. In our preoccupation with ourselves, we missed them—the others. Picture this, if you will. One moment, I was checking out of three years of reserve duty in the Indian Army, putting down my rifle and walking up the old beaten path to the house. My little one shrieked and bounded towards me. The wife, eight months pregnant, looked on fondly. ”

R.R. Virdi; Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Messenger (Kindle Locations 11-15).

The asteroid Oumuamua (aka ‘Messenger’) was simply a first scout that heralded the arrival of an invasion. A second, similar but smaller asteroid arrives a year after the mysterious messenger and crashes into the moon. Then something drops from the moon and crashes violently into Bangalore. The impact destroys houses and kills many, including the soldier’s wife and family.

“THE ORDERS CAME THE next day as I lay empty-eyed at my friend Bhanu’s place, thinking of her. Thinking of my Divya and my Anisha. And the unborn child. In the background, the TV blared. An overly made-up news anchor blabbed on and on and on about lights in the sky. Bhanu came shaking his phone at me. “Arjun-ji! Arjun-ji! There’s more coming! They’re calling us up! They’re fighting!” My fists clenched. My knuckles cracked. “Let’s go,” I growled. “Let’s show them what all seven hells look like.”

R.R. Virdi; Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Messenger (Kindle Locations 44-49).

And so we launch into a story of giant mechanoid soldiers fighting giant alien monsters. Arjun volunteers for the Shikari programme and becomes a hundred metre tall cyborg/mecha called “Vishnu’s Vengeance” designed to hunt the creatures landing from space. Armed with a huge gun and capable of crushing buildings with his mechanical hands, Arjun is bent on revenge against the alien monsters.

“It was not easy, becoming what I am. They only took those of us with nothing to lose. Not all of us who went in made it out. Those who didn’t die went crazy. But I held on. My anger grew with time. I screamed their names in the darkness—Divya and Anisha, Divya, Anisha—until the words turned into a mantra and became my will. And by the time the neuro-doctors strapped me in for processing and gave me the final contest forms, my hands shook so badly with anger that I snapped the pen and stabbed the paper. Maybe I was already insane. “

R.R. Virdi; Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Messenger (Kindle Locations 59-63).

After the set-up for a Pacific Rim style giant robot versus alien kaiju conflict, the story takes a different course. The Shikari are regarded with reverence by their support staff and the human minds inhabiting the massive mechanoid soldiers also begin to take on divine delusions.

“Babaji , the Enemy is a Spider-class,” says Bhanu in my ear. I can vaguely hear the roar of helicopter blades underneath the crackling audio. “Five legs, low center of gravity. I think we see a tail.” Babaji. My crew call me Father. I am their Head, their Commander…their god.


R.R. Virdi; Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Messenger (Kindle Locations 66-68).

This feeling of god-like status is not helped by their names. Arjun may be technically called ‘Vishnu’s Vengeance’ but he is either addressed as ‘Babaji’ (i.e. father) or simply as Vishnu. To add to the issue with his mental state he is beginning to suffer from doubts as to who and what he is.

Matters come to a head when Arjun has to intervene with another Shikari. Named after the goddess Kali, the four-armed giant has “de-synced” and is convinced that they are the god they are named after. Brutally killing her support staff/devotees, Arjun is forced to intervene and stop her. Yet he himself is beginning to feel drawn down the same path as her.

What starts with a well worn premise follows its own course and becomes a distinctive take on giant battling robots/mecha. Rather than the human/alien struggle, the story shifts to the internal struggle for the central character’s own humanity and sense of purpose. This is coupled with a arresting images (giant mechanoids fashioned after Hindu gods in conflict).

In my round-up of the Nebula Short Story finalists I talked about exceptional stories. Whenever we consider awards we are necessarily singling out particular stories from others. Tastes vary, and even award worthy stories can have flaws but it stands to reason that to single out a story for particular mention is to say that this particular story is exceptional compared with others. In that regard Messenger is exceptional — it does stand out from other stories in the anthology it is in. There is more to it than an angst filled soldier killing alien monsters in a big robot.

It is weakest at the start, where the death of Arjun’s family and the arrival of the aliens is explained but the story gathers in confidence as it progresses and rapidly finds its own voice.

Nebula Novelettes: Lawrence M Schoen – The Rule of Three (Future Science Fiction Digest)

An American-Chinese man receives a tantalising video — evidence of an alien visitor near his grandmother’s village in China.

“My mother had called me at noon. She passed along surprisingly good video shot by a local child on the blind neighbor’s cell phone. I could hear the kid’s laughing commentary as he panned back and forth capturing some trees along the riverbank before moving on to show the water and what looked like an enormous pearl floating there. The trees provided perspective. The pearl had to be at least two stories tall. It looked like nothing on Earth, and certainly nothing that had any business being in my grandmother’s backward village. Except that’s where it was. Not the place where an alien visitor, or an alien invader, would set down. There was nothing significant there, nothing of value, just a handful of people who—a lone cell phone notwithstanding—had never joined the modern world. Nothing but my grandmother.”

The Rule of Three By Lawrence M. Schoen Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 1 December 15, 2018

The narrator’s grandmother is part of the Miao ethnic minorities in China and lives a simple agrarian life in the hills. The narrator’s initial puzzlement about why an alien would choose his grandmother’s village for first contact is answered as he discovers the alien has its own intriguing philosophy.

“It nodded at me and smiled. “If I make a thing, I am one and the thing is full of the life that I gave it. If I pass that thing to you, you are two, and the thing still feels its connection to me and so retains that life. If you give the thing to another, that person is three. The thing still holds the link to me, my life still resonates within it. The distance does not matter, but the number does. Three is the limit. Pass the thing I made on to a fourth person and it can no longer detect me. The connection is broken. Unlife rushes in to fill the void. As a result it cannot be easily perceived. It is dark, inert.”

The Rule of Three By Lawrence M. Schoen Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 1 December 15, 2018

The alien’s “Rule of Three” is not simply a preference against mass manufactured goods or modern consumerism but something that literally shapes its* powers of perception. It can barely perceive the narrator when they first meet and only then because a bout of food poisoning had meant the narrator had only eaten his grandmother’s food recently.

As well as limiting the alien’s powers of perception (rendering things ‘dark’ that hadn’t been made within the rule of three) the rule also is at the root of the alien’s power. Coming from a society where all things must have small personal chains of creation, the aliens have developed fantastical powers of creation. Even the alien’s pearl-like spaceship was personally crafted by the alien itself.

“There was no falling back on the classic trope of taking Foom to meet with world leaders. It wouldn’t be able to perceive them. Whether it was foie gras or prime rib, a fast-food cheeseburger or a cup of insta-noodles, antibiotics or cholesterol-lowering meds, there wasn’t a president or king or diplomat on the planet that wouldn’t appear dark to the alien. And even if they deliberately purged themselves as I had unwittingly done, if they ate my grandmother’s soup or dined on fish caught and cooked by their own hand, still the things they placed the most value on, computers and air conditioning and cars and smartphones and hospitals and organ transplants and electrical grids and highway infrastructure and missile defense systems, all the things we’d accomplished as we moved from the agrarian world through the Industrial Age, past the Atomic Age and into the current Information Age, all of it was dark. Unlife.”

The Rule of Three By Lawrence M. Schoen Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 1 December 15, 2018

Instead, the connection between the alien and human worlds is made by the narrator’s grandmother who teaches the alien her traditional skill of batik dyeing of cloth using the distinctive indigo dye of her people. This craft and art form is sublime to the alien who is entranced by how the patterns made by the wax are retained in the patterns of the dyed cloth even as the wax is lost.

Unfortunately, the alien has other plans for humanity as whole, who it regards as being largely consumed by unlife.

According to Schoen, his story was inspired by a sponsored visit to China in 2018.

“In June of 2018, the Future Affairs Administration** flew me and three Canadian authors to participate in a workshop co-funded by the Wanda Group*** which was running a poverty abatement program in Guizhou Province, traditionally one of the poorest and most ethnically diverse regions in the country. We picked tea, made paper, learned batik, visited historic sites, and spoke with many people. I don’t have enough superlatives to describe the trip. When it was over, FAA asked us to write novelettes inspired by our experiences there. “The Rule of Three” was my result, the words coming to me without effort as I daydreamed about the places I’d seen.”

The Rule of Three By Lawrence M. Schoen Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 1 December 15, 201

There’s a vague genre of alien contact where the alien provides broader spiritual wisdom to humanity. Stranger in a Strange Land technically has a human in the alien prophet role but is effectively the holotype for the genre. By using the perspective of an alien, the reader is given a radically different view of their own world and society. In addition, the alien is granted a privileged perspective by virtue of either technological or spiritual powers (or both or they are the same thing). So it is not simply an outsider commenting on modern society but an outsider who is framed unarguably by the story as being from a more advanced state.

Here, the alien rejects the loss of personal connection in modern society with the things we own and use. The alien rejects our own alienation from our possessions and our lack of personal connection with what we own and consume even down to our clothes and food.

It’s a clever critique and you could pull it apart or point at Schoen and say that he hasn’t retreated to a pastoral life weaving his own clothes but that would be misunderstanding the role of fiction. This story isn’t a polemic or a manifesto but rather a way of turning our perception of what an alien society might make of us. The narrator explicitly points to the tropes of first contact and rejects them and instead the story asks us to imagine what if the aliens we meet are an extrapolation not of of current late-stage capitalism but rather an extrapolation of one of the many (but dwindling) other ways of living in the world.

On the other hand it is necessarily a shallow perspective on the lives of ethnic minorities in China. Nor is the critique of mass production done in any depth — it is simply granted by the alien as being not merely ethically wrong but also inimical to life and a danger to the rest of the universe. Yet, within the confines of a novelette there are obvious limits in how deeply such things can be explored.

Personally, I didn’t warm to the story, perhaps because of my pro-technology biases (and despite the interesting idea of being able to sweat beer) but it is hard not to be impressed with the consummate skill of the story. I was worried by the initial exposition of the character’s background that the story would follow a similar tone as the first couple of paragraphs but overall it is a deftly done and original tale.

*[“it” is the pronoun used for the alien in the story]

**[The ‘Future Affairs Administration’ is apparently a Chinese media group who co-published the magazine this story appears in. There is a Pixel Scroll entry on the venture here: http://file770.com/pixel-scroll-12-8-18-science-fiction-is-what-i-yell-zap-for-when-i-throw-at-people/ ]

***[The Wanda Group is a major private company in China and internationally (e.g. they own the Hoyts cinema chain in Australia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wanda_Group ]