Hugo 2019 – I’m not doing Best Series

The past two times I’ve found Best Series intractable but this year I was more hopeful I’d engage constructively with it. I’ve read some of all of each of the nominees, although only a small amount of two of them. Laundry Files, Centenal Cycle, Machineries of Empire and Wayfarers are each series that I’ve read all the novels and some of the shorter texts for. So I’ve done enough reading already to engage with two-thirds of the finalists.

So what’s the hold up? Of the four I can put Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers to one side. I get what people like about it but it’s just not for me. That gets me to three series that I have thoroughly enjoyed. Hoorah! But what’s next? It’s not just that they are each quite different, that is true of most Hugo finalists in most years. It’s that I really can’t find a way in to talk about them.

My gut suggests that the intended purpose of the category was too reward books that collectively do something that wouldn’t be recognised by the Hugo Awards when looked at as individual works. That would suggest to me that The Laundry Files is the obvious choice and to some extent Machineries of Empire is missing the point of the category as a finalist.

On the other side, the books of Machineries of Empire have been strong contenders for Best Novel. It seems absurd to say that a set of books that has won or been finalists for major awards, isn’t collectively Best Series.

And having said all that, I think the Centenal Cycle is much stronger as a set of stories than any one of the individual books. It set me thinking about so many issues and it’s one of those stories that just grows in my estimation the longer I think about it. No one of the novels had quite the mind-blowing impact of something like Ninefox Gambit but collectively this is a powerful series.

Final rankings are hard for any category but here it is more that I’d rank them differently depending on how I think about Best Series. I was even wondering if being a finalist for Best Novel should even be a disqualification for Best Series (i.e. subtracted from the word count) to make the award more distinct from Best Novel…and then I thought that was mean and unfair…and then I rethought that thought because otherwise series of books that had been past finalists will always have an advantage because Hugo voters are more likely to have read at least some of the series, turning Best Series into a consolation prize rather than a thing in its own right. Then Timothy slapped me, not because I was spiralling out of control but just because he’s a violent apex predator in a tiny body.

Centenal Laundry Gambit it is then.

Hugo 2019 – Looking at Fanwriters Part 2

I wanted to do this in two parts, first to look at the packets and then try and look beyond that.

One approach to ranking a set of fanwriters for the Hugo Awards might be to pick the example in the packet for each writer that you thought was the best example of their work and then rank each of those exemplars against each other. I think if I did that, I’d probably put Alasdair Stuart or Foz Meadows highest. But…it doesn’t feel right as a way of evaluating the finalists systematically*.

It fails in a couple of ways:

  • Reviews: longer critical essays or essays with personal insights will on a piece-by-piece comparison win out when judging writing. A good functional review will adopt a more ‘objective’ style of informative writing, which is technically hard to do but whose qualities are less obvious.
  • Broader aspects of fan writing: Elsa Sjunneson-Henry included a link to a Twitter thread in her packet contribution and it is a good example of how fanwriting also includes commentary in formats other than essays. Compiling news, parodies, event comments on other sites are part of the mix.

With reviews in particular both James Davis Nicoll and Charles Payseur write a lot of what I call broad-survey reviews of short fiction. Those are styles of reviews that provide core details about the work, plot summaries and then some insight into the story. With so much short fiction available, this is the kind of fannish work that’s both vital and also runs the risk of being seen as gatekeeping. Delivering reviews that are both fair and informative and in sufficient number to be useful to a reader looking for stories to read, is a difficult task. I look at the scope of what sites like Rocket Stack Rank (for example) manage to review and I don’t know how people manage it. I can barely find the time to read the stuff I’m actively wanting to read!

This kind of review writing comes down less to individual examples and more to the broad brushstrokes — something which is true when considering Best Fanzine also. How effective are these reviews to me as a reader to finding works I want to read? Note, that reviews and essays that border review and criticism often play a quite different role: that of being part of a conversation about a story. The emphasis then is more on a shared experience between the writer and the reader who may have already read the story.

Of course, that particular set of tunnels in this particular rabbit hole I’m in doesn’t get me much further as I don’t think I can rank the broad-survey style reviews of the finalists any better!

The sense of fanwriting as being something that extends beyond essays and reviews is also important. I concluded my other post on the finalists with a conclusion that the packet process itself may distort how we see fanwriting.

  • Bogi Takács — I mainly read eir Twitter account and the insights that gives into somebody participating in fandom with experiences and perspectives different from my own. I think that’s an important kind of fanwriting.
  • Foz Meadows — As well as Twitter has a Tumblr that often looks at fan-ficition and the issues around it. Again, not always SFF neccesarily but another important aspect of fanwriting.
  • James David Nicolls — His Young People Read Old SFF is always entertaining. Now, the bulk of the text in any entry is quotes from the people who read the story, so I can see why he didn’t include an example in the packet but as a project it is an excellent example of fanwriting as a kind of social glue that helps join fans together.
  • Elsa Sjunneson-Henry — I’ve already mentioned twice her Twitter thread on eugenics in SFF. Other media platforms encourage different styles of writing but also disseminate ideas in different ways.
  • Alasdair Stuart — He’s involved in some many things that I’d worry I’d miss one. I haven’t read his newsletter but that’s another interesting alternative approach, which carries with it some of the classic elements of fanzines (i.e. a subscriber base).
  • Charles Payseur — Drunk reviews of classic Goosebumps! Fanwriting should be fun (at least sometimes) and reflect the many ways we engage with stories whether critically, emotionally or sometimes intoxicatedly.

Oh and am I any closer to ranking these writers? Nope. The dilemma of a strong field is that in the end ranking s come down to small, possibly trivial differences.

*[Also, there is nothing at all wrong with just going with your gut. I’m just heading down my own overly analytic rabbit hole here.]

Hugo 2019 – Looking at Fan Writers Part 1

“Qui quos recenset recensere” is what Google Translate gives me for “who reviews those who review”. My first attempt was “who reviews the reviewers” but it wouldn’t translate “reviewers”. I wanted something closer to the famous Juvenal epigram “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes”, but “Quis recenset ipsos recensere” back translated to “Who has an account of themselves to review the”. I have no idea how Latin works of course and a smart-alec quote to start this post ended up as a pointless (but pleasurable) waste of time.

Putting my time wasting aside, there is a lot of stuff in the Hugo Packet for Best Fan Writer this year. Disappointingly not one of them have a puzzle corner in their Hugo Packet contributions! However, there is plenty of good reading from all the finalists.

The challenge of what and how much to put in the packet is clear. Of the six finalists James Davis Nicoll presents the most volume. It’s important you read his overview file first [James Davis Nicoll Hugo Overview.docx] which explains the difference between the epub document and the pdf. It also has links to much of his other writing. The epub is a collection of 16 reviews and the pdf is a collection of even more reviews. The sheer amount of writing he does is astounding and then doubly astounding because it’s excellent stuff.

The leanest packet contribution is from Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, which collates three excellent essays from Tor.com, Fireside and Uncanny. There’s also a link at the end to a Twitter thread she wrote that is well worth reading on eugenics in science-fiction [ twitter.com/snarkbat/status/1032406100400906240 ]. Links to Twitter and Tumblr and other social media platforms highlight how the Hugo packet may distort perceptions of fan writing by placing emphasis on the essay as the predominate mode of fan writing.

As well as essays in general, the Hugo packet contributions inevitably have a lot of reviews. Bogi Takács contribution is mainly reviews, which is interesting because I mainly read eir Twitter and more general commentary. Aside from reviews the essay “Why women + non-binary is not a good idea” that looks at how to include more inclusive language in calls for contribution. I also liked the inclusion of “Worldcon panel resources 1-3” as it demonstrates that collating resources and making lists is a key part of fan writing in the sense of writing for fans and writing that makes fandom work.

On the other hand, I think of Charles Payseur mainly as a reviewer but there are also more personal essays in his packet such as Feminist Futures: WisCon and Me and the opening essay Shout. His Quick Sip reviews are there as well with a round-up of Fiyah Magazine #7. The short review form is a challenging thing to write — attempting to give a sense of a story without just recounting the plot. Personally, I really struggle to write about shorter fiction and I often have to re-read a story and go-away and think about it to write anything. Payseur does an excellent job of pulling out the essence of multiple stories.

Foz Meadows offers five essays from her own blog and from The Book Smugglers that are more critical pieces. I think the most interesting piece is her review/essay of Final Fantasy XV. This is not a game I have played or have any intention of playing and have no particular interest in but Meadows’s essay really pulls you into what the game is like and why.

I feel like I’ve been missing out by not reading more of Alasdair Stuart’s writing. His packet contribution is a set of five essays as separate PDFs. They all really good but I think I enjoyed “Mr Burt” the most and was most moved by Joy and Applause.

And having read through the packet entries, I am no closer to voting beyond “I read this person regularly” versus “I don’t read this person much”. All worthy entries but I worry that the packet process gives a distorted view of fan writing as mainly reviews with some critical essays. I don’t want that to be read as disparaging reviews as part of fan writing, they are always going to be a key part of it.

Hugo 2019 Novelette Round Up

I was going to start with a comparison with last year’s novelettes but weirdly, I don’t think I read last year’s novelettes. I don’t have any reviews of them and I just had a cryptic comment about them in one post. Why did I skip the novelettes? We will never know. It will be a lingering mystery that future historians will squabble over with ever increasing levels of complexity in their explanations. I have no idea, so I must have wiped my own memory to hide the truth.

As for this year’s Hugo collection of novelettes, the membership have out done themselves. It is an impressive and substantial anthology in itself.

The downside of this crop of short-stories with extra heft, is that they are a pain to rank. Collectively, they carry a common theme of regret, decline and remembrance. Time (and deep time) is a recurring theme.

The most ambitious of the set remains The Only Harmless Great Thing, Brooke Bolander’s passionate story about exploitation, death and the way stories are both warnings and mourning. It’s also the most flawed of the set, which isn’t saying much because they are all very well constructed stories.

The least flawed, but perhaps least ambitious, is Tina Connolly’s The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections. The Ruritanian setting is conventional but the story of pastries baked with emotions tied to times and memories is both clever and effective.

I could mount an argument for any ordering really. So I’ll put aside the Hugo voting until I submit my ballot. I’d be delighted by any of these winning.

Instead, here is a different question. If these novelettes were an anthology, what would the anthology be called and what order would the stories appear in?

I’d suggest that “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” is an apt title for the whole set. Connolly’s story lays out an idea of different courses that evoke memories and emotions attached to them. That theme carries through the other novelettes but is stated clearly. From there a sequence of chapters becomes clearer:

  1. The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly. Chapter 1 in which the theme of the collection is stated and the structure of the anthology (a banquet with a series of courses) is outlined. Naturally, for an appetizer we start in the past.
  2. Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” by Daryl Gregory. Chapter 2 takes us to a time nearer the present, with a salad of growing up amid a slow alien invasion.
  3. When We Were Starless” by Simone Heller. Naturally, the next course after the present is palate cleanser of the future. Exotic and oddly shaped, with pleasing notes of hope amid decline.
  4. The Only Harmless Great Thing” by Brooke Bolander. A meaty main course that blends the deep past, the twentieth century and the future. Anger and mourning and the power of stories.
  5. The Thing About Ghost Stories” by Naomi Kritzer. After the strong flavours of the previous course, a blend of the uncanny with a sense of loss and closure.
  6. If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” by Zen Cho. Finally something a bit sweeter to finish the banquet. Love, magic and final fulfilment. Past, present and future join together.

Hugo 2019 Novelettes: Nine Last Days on Planet Earth by Daryl Gregory

Nine days over the period 1975 to 2062 in a very slow invasion of Earth. We meet LT as a child in Tennessee. An incredible meteor shower lights up the sky.

“LT was ten years old, and he’d only seen one falling star in his life. Not even his mother had seen this many at once, she said. Dozens visible at one time, zooming in from the east, striking the atmosphere like matches, white and orange and butane blue. The show went on, hundreds a minute for ten minutes, then twenty. He could hear his father working in the woodshop back by the garage, pushing wood through a whining band saw. Mom made no move to go get him, didn’t call for him.”

https://www.tor.com/2018/09/19/nine-last-days-on-planet-earth-daryl-gregory/

Each year follows LT through his life as his circumstances changes. His mother moves to Chicago, his father retreats into religion. LT follows new loves, intellectual and physical, and grows up. Meanwhile, around him the world changes in more alien ways.

The events of that night in 1975 brought alien seeds to Earth. Strange, possibly empathic plants begin to multiply and humanity has to adjust to their botanically invasive ways.

There are echoes here of the puply 1960’s movie version of Day of the Triffids or the bleak inevitability of Thomas M Disch’s novel The Genocides. The alien plants are slow invaders, who might defeat humanity through indefatigable progress and our capacity to ignore slow change. These particular plants also have some kind of empathic quality, encouraging people to adopt them as house plants and connect with them.

“The fern man stood in the dark on the coffee table. Its bulb head drooped sleepily, and its stem arms hung at its sides. The torso leaned slightly—toward the window, LT realized. He picked up the ceramic pot and set it on the sill, in a pool of streetlight. Slowly, the trunk began to straighten. Over the next few minutes, the head gradually lifted like a deacon finishing a prayer, and the round leaves at the ends of its arms unfurled like loosening fists. The movement was almost too incremental to detect; its posture seemed to shift only when he looked away or lost concentration. Slow Mo, he thought. That’s what we’ll call you.”

https://www.tor.com/2018/09/19/nine-last-days-on-planet-earth-daryl-gregory/

However, the invasion is in the background. The main melody of the piece is the changing family relationships of LT, from child to adolescent, to first romance, to marriage and parenthood himself, as well as the connection (or otherwise) with ageing parents.

The timescale and time shifting sections create a deep picture of LT through his life as well as a map of the invasion of Earth. The effect is like a time lapse film of a plant’s movements which forces us to shift our perspective of the botanical from immobile beings to creatures that shift and react and move, just not at the pace we perceive. That we also don’t see how our relationships change from day to day is an apt metaphor for the “plant speed” timeline. In the 2062 sections LT reflects: “Everything moves too fast, he thought, or else barely moves at all.”

A melancholy story mixing regret and happiness with a sense of the force of slow movements.

Hugo 2019 Novelettes: “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try, Again” by Zen Cho

Byam is an imugi, a kind of Korean proto-dragon or water serpent creature. Byam hopes to reach a level of spiritual advancement to fully become an actual dragon and ascend to the sky but this is a difficult path and over hundreds of years, Byam experiences many setbacks in it’s quest.

“If you wanted to be a dragon, dumb perseverance wasn’t enough. You had to have a strategy. Humans had proliferated, so Byam retreated to the ocean. It was harder to get texts in the sea, but technically you didn’t need texts to study the Way, since it was inherent in the order of all things. (Anyway, sometimes you could steal scriptures off a turtle on a pilgrimage, or go onshore to ransack a monastery.) But you had to get out of the water in order to ascend. It was impossible to exclude the possibility of being seen by humans, even in the middle of the ocean. It didn’t seem to bother them that they couldn’t breathe underwater; they still launched themselves onto the waves on rickety assemblages of dismembered trees. It was as if they couldn’t wait to get on to their next lives.”

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/sci-fi-fantasy/if-at-first-you-dont-succeed-try-try-again-by-zen-cho/

Byam’s struggles last over millennia and brings them to the modern age, where Byam encounters Leslie, an astrophysicists. At a particularly rough spot in her life, a glimpse of an imugi attempting to ascend into dragon-hood, inspires Leslie to complete her failed Phd and continue her career.

There are no big twists or surprises in this story and the moral (of sorts) is right there in the title. True love (and possibly learning some modern astrophysics) is what Byam has been missing and it’s no spoiler to say that Byam succeeds in the end. It really could have been quite a trite story about having people who care for you and believe in you but without really departing from a kind of romantic comedy-but-with-Korean-sea-serpents template manages to be genuinely moving.

Sweet and melancholy but it is the sweetness, successfully confectioned, that marks it out in this set of novelettes that collectively have a fair share of melancholy.

Hugo 2019 Novelettes: “The Thing About Ghost Stories” by Naomi Kritzer

Leah is a researcher who collects ghost stories. Not artfully crafted spooky tales but rather the stories ordinary people have of encounters with things that they felt were supernatural.

The most interesting thing about ghost stories is that almost everyone has one.
The other really interesting thing, to me, is that they’re nearly all terrible stories if you try to take them as stories. A good story has a beginning, some buildup, and then a resolution or a twist or something at the end. Ghost stories go, “This creepy and inexplicable thing once happened to me. The obvious explanation is that I dreamed or imagined it; I am certain that I didn’t dream or imagine it.” Or in some cases, “I used to live in this house where creepy stuff happened all the time. Then we moved.” Every now and then you’ll hear a story with a ghost that has a beginning, middle, and end, but those are most often urban legends: “One day we were driving along and we picked up a hitchhiker.” (Beginning.) “As we drove, we had this creepy conversation with the hitchhiker.” (Middle.) “Then we reached our destination and the hitchhiker had vanished from the back seat.” (Twist!) That one’s not a real ghost story. It did not happen to your cousin, no matter what he says.

https://uncannymagazine.com/article/the-thing-about-ghost-stories/

It is a brave way to open a ghost story with a discussion about how the genuine ones do not work as narratives and how the ones that do work as narratives are inauthentic.

However, Kritzer commits to her opening statement. Much of this novelette is styled as an essay or a personal reflection on its subject matter. An account of the life of somebody collecting ghost stories, the people she meets and the nature of the things she collects. The actual ghost story that is there is approached circuitously, introduced in fragments. Likewise, the thesis of the essay, that ghosts can be about grief and loss and lingering presences of emotional bonds (good and bad) is woven in slowly.

A personal essay, a ficto-critical examination of personal encounters with the supernatural, a story of one woman’s relationship with her mother AND a ghost story all sounds rather too much. When I list it out like that I can’t help think of my whining about novellas being so over stuffed that the story doesn’t fit. But there’s nothing over-stuffed here, it all fits together neatly and leisurely and with generosity.

Moving and clever, the multiple modes of the story (the short vignettes, the personal history, the discussion of ghost stories) all mesh together expertly.

Voting for novelettes this year is going to be a nightmare of indecision. Can we add “All of the Above” as an option as a kind of anti-No Award?