So I referred to the Sad Puppies “extreme politics” on Twitter the other day. Somebody questioned that and I didn’t reply immediately because there’s a lot to unpack. Instead, I offered a Twitter poll with the options of replying as
- Threaded tweets
- A linked blog post
- Talking to cat
Six people voted and each option got exactly two votes each. So much for power aw distributions. Luckily Tim tweeted me immediately allowing me to deal with the third option quickly. (more after the fold).
Worldcon events have brought out the former Sad Puppies to claim that things once again (via means never explained) prove them right (about what is always unclear). I’ve personally not had a lot to say on the Worldcon programming issue as I can’t attend due to a whole pile of things and life and the circumference of the Earth. However, I think the people who spoke up did the right thing in the best way they could.
Ah but the Sad Puppies? Well, I know my beat is varied but they are clearly within my mandate of stuff to blog about – and will be until I get completely bored of them, which doesn’t look like anytime soon.
I won’t bother linking to the various takes I’ve seen from the right. They are largely misinformed & confused at best and a nest of slurs & prejudices at worst. Calling fans ‘freaks’ and mocking their gender is inherently anti-fan and anti-fandom. The other element to these takes is various reprises of the history of the Sad Puppies and these are the usual revisionist nonsense*.
But one theme keeps coming up that I don’t think I’ve addressed before. This is not a direct quote of anyone individual pup but a composite:
“They even changed the rules to exclude us!”
The “they” being the well-known grammatical element known as the ‘conspiracy they’ to indicate the nebulous people conspiring against you. Now the rule changes aren’t specified but based on other reactions in the past, the main reference here is the nomination system known as EPH.
I’ve talked about EPH ad-nauseum and I think I may even be the first person (in 2017) to not be a finalist because of EPH when I would have been a finalist under the old rules. Which is really neat, if true. What I want to focus on though, is EPH and the Sad Puppies specifically. The Rabid Puppies is a different story because Vox Day engaged with it in a different way and clearly attempted to size up its effect in 2017.
The Sad Puppies though never engaged with EPH. By the time it was implemented Sad Puppies had withered into nothing. The causes of the Sad Puppy collapse are manifold:
- Larry Correia was already disenchanted with repeatedly losing by the end of Sad Puppies 2 (hence passing it on to Brad Torgersen & withdrawing as a finalist in 2015).
- High numbers of votes for No Award demonstrated that Sad Puppies would never have the votes to get close to winning an award and their reach was purely confined to impacting on finalists IF they were sufficiently coordinated.
- Vox Day’s Rabid Puppies kept hijacking all the attention while leaving all the attempts at positive PR to the Sads.
- There was never actually a huge reservoir of right-leaning quality fiction to nominate (put another way, any bias in results that might have been there was a supply issue before it was a voter issue).
- Organising a slate that was open and as fan based as the Puppies claimed it should be was a much harder and complex task than they imagined, resulting in low participation in the more open Sad Puppies 4.
- Post-SP3 campaigns got little support from notable male Sad Puppies. Whether that was sexism or burnout or both is an open question.
- It demonstrated that Worldcon could adapt its rule via member participation. That made the Hugos a moving target.
- The Sad Puppies had nobody within their leadership who could understand how it worked. The reaction to it was almost at a superstitious level, as if it contained some kind of Sad Puppy detection algorithm. Vox Day’s approach was more analytical and showed more understanding that it was a fairly basic number crunching algorithm that in theory could be gamed.
- It stopped the tactic of trying to sweep the nominations.
That last point was limited, EPH isn’t that great at stopping as SP3 style sweep but it is definitely an improvement.
But here is an interesting flaw/feature in EPH. There was not only nothing in it that would prevent Sad Puppy participation but in fact it had the capacity to ensure that a stable and consistent Sad Puppy faction would have been more-or-less ensured nominees. The actual change in the nomination process undermined sweeps but did so by roughly guaranteed finalist slots to large but minority voting blocks.
That isn’t a secret, it was a criticism made of EPH at the time that it could be seen as essentially conceding ground to the Sad Puppies and giving them a proportion of finalists each year…if they participated. While EPH isn’t quite that crude, there truth there. A consistent grouping of right leaning members (with the added advantage of drawing from a small pool of works) would get a ‘seat at the table’ under the EPH. I don’t want to portray algorithms as necessarily unbiased but of all the many opinions surrounding the Sad Puppies and the Hugos, the one closest to an objective fact is that EPH actually addressed a claimed core concern of the Sad Puppies.
As I said above, Sad Puppies fizzled out for multiple reasons. However, EPH was only a minor factor** in that it helped prevent Sad Puppy *sweeps* but sweeping the nominees was something that Sad Puppy leaders said they didn’t particularly want. Put another way the concessions to the Sad Puppies contained within how EPH would operate called ‘bluff’ on the Sad Puppies. Given an opportunity to claim a fraction of the pie, the Sad Puppies cried loudly (and still do) that rules that stopped them taking the whole pie with a minority of the votes were rules that excluded them. And I’m going full circle here – they are right that EPH excludes them *IF AND ONLY IF* the Sad Puppies were always about trying to push everybody else out. “They change the rules to exclude us!” Is only true if “us” means “the people who wanted to push everybody else out.”
[There was a comment about me from a regular Puppy support who asked rhetorically why, if something was nonsense, was I so interested in it. I’d have thought even a passing familiarity with what I say, do and write is that NONSENSE is something I’m very interested in. It’s repetitive nonsense that bores me.]
[Apologies to the German language for ‘Schadnepuppies’ – I know it makes no sense.]
**[Minor factor in the Sad Puppy demise, a bigger factor in keeping the Rabids at bay and a bigger factor in an overall improvement in nomination process.]
I will say it again: this category is where the action is. I don’t want to sound disrespectful to the nominees for Best Novel, if anything it is less exciting as a category because of the consistent quality of the work but it is a year of consolidation for Best Novel rather exploring new boundaries (although Six Wakes was a delightful find).
Novella on the other hand is a banner held high for science fiction/fantasy this year. It’s a heady mix of upcoming and established writers, as well as a set of new worlds and potential long-running series to explore in the future. The least good of the six nominees are inventive and novel and push the field further. The very best have clever themes, great plots and characters you want to read more about.
Yes, the novella is emerging as form in part due to its suitability for ebook marketing and digital consumption. Great! Shorter fiction as a way of monetising longer fiction is healthy for a genre – think of the classic sci-fi novels that started off as serialised short fiction. Economics and publishing realities always shape fiction.
To te nominees. I think of them as three groups of two:
- Stand out stories: really great stories that definitely impacted on my socks.
- Solid sequels: (ok, one is a prequel) well crafted part twos from established writers.
- Inventions with the form: quirky, ambitious uses of the novella format to do something challenging.
Obviously the qualities in those groups overlap between the stories. My two top picks are obviously in that number one group: Murderbot and Murder-Sarah really are two of the best things I’ve read this year. The other ranks alternate between two and three.
- All Systems Red, by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing). At first I assumed Wells’s Murderbot was unassailable but Sarah Pinsker’s army of clones was a challenger. Even so, I’ve got to give it to All Systems Red. At one level a classic SF thriller/mystery with explorers facing danger and betrayal on an alien planet. On another level a deep dive into a unique character. Brilliant.
- “And Then There Were (N-One),” by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny, March/April 2017). What starts as little more than a fun idea becomes a humane and moving murder mystery in which literally every guest is a suspect and potential next victim. Although Sarah Pinsker may find people hiding sharp, heavy objects from her…
- Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing). I enjoyed this more than I expected and it is has been growing on me since I finished it the other day. There are no surprises but it is a masterclass in how to write from an author with complete comand of words.
- River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey (Tor.com Publishing). This is the first of my rankings that I don’t think entirely work. The story sort of crashes to a halt and it works much better with its sequel to form a novel sized story. Even so, the inventiveness of the idea caught me even from when I first read about Gailey’s concept for it. Love it, with all its flaws.
- Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com Publishing). Ah the perils of a set of good nominees! I’ve put poor Binti fifth! I felt this was more of a transitional episode than a good story in itself. Well written but not the high point of the series.
- The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing). Sixth in this collection is no shame. A huge original world, a story covering decades, two fascinating characters struggling with power and fate and love and identity – all crammed into a novella. This is a TARDIS of a story, much, much bigger than its gorgeous cover and word count.
Anyway, time is pressing! I’m not sure how many other categories I’ll cover before the deadline! All I have to do is read all* of Best Series starting from scratch tomorrow and I’ll be fine 🙂
*[I’m exaggerating because I’ve read Divine Cities already so its only (a gazillion – 3) books rather than (a gazillion) books.]
A prequel of sorts to Every Heart a Doorway, this novella fills in the backstory of two of the wayward characters in that novel but while Every Heart… was a story about what happens after a more conventional fantasy, this novella is a more straight-forward portal fantasy/contemporary fairy tale.
Jack and Jill are two identical twins, raised by ambitious parents keen to force their children into distinct stereotypes of childhood. Jacqueline (never ‘Jack’) is expected to conform strictly to the role of dainty princess girl and Jillian (never ‘Jill’) to be a tomboy to compensate for the disappointment to their parents of not being a boy. These stifling roles are up-ended when the girls find themselves descending a magical staircase to a windswept moor. The moor is the heart of a world themed around classic horror tropes of the pre-war Universal movie kind. The twins find themselves leading separate lives, one as child heir to a vampire (complete with castle and frightened village) and the other an apprentice to a ‘mad’ scientist (complete with dissected body parts and spooky windmill).
Atmospheric rather than spooky, the story follows the themes of sibling rivalry and finding yourself growing into your own individuality. The first parts manage elements of Roald Dal like satirical misanthropy in the particular way that Jack & Jill’s parents are awful people. The prose flows with the kind of confidence you would expect from Seanan McGuire. It is a well-executed tale and like three other of the Hugo nominees for the novella, it is a story that feels neither too short nor too long for the novella format.
Still, this didn’t knock my socks off. It’s a nicely told backstory and a good addition to the wider set of stories.
My Hugo reading has been somewhat disrupted by a brief overseas trip and a short shift of location. JY Yang’s novella unfortunately got particularly disrupted by that. I had started reading it, got distracted (it didn’t really grab me initially) and I returned to it a couple of weeks later feeling guilty.
The novella had got a lot better in the intervening time, a stories somehow manage to do even though they are just sitting there waiting for their reader to pick them up again. There is no easy way to distinguish “this book isn’t engaging me” from “I’m distracted”, so either the second half of the novella is better than the first or I became sufficiently focused to appreciate it. But every review can’t be a review of the reader, although in truth every review is of an event that exists between the story and the reader.
The Protector of the Kingdom is a powerful despot of a kingdom – a fantasy land with a Chinese aspect, as well as influences from South Asian and Middle-Eastern mythology. To her surprise the Protector gives birth to twins, causing a minor change in her many and complex plans. Cynical and manipulative, the twins are just chess pieces in the Protector’s many machinations but the story follows them as two people as they grow from infants to adults.
The scope of the novella is huge, and it covers a lot of ground in a short time. We learn about the magic system, aspects of the religious orders, ethnic minority groups, internal conflicts, fantastic beasts, and a broad picture of richly imagined fantasy world. It is probably too much for a novella that also has to encompass the childhood, adolescence and early adulthood of two central characters. Even so, that the novella doesn’t collapse under its own weight is a testament to the efficiency with which all this background is introduced.
As I said above, I found the second half easier to engage with than the first. It focuses more on Akeha, the surpising “spare” half of the twins, who in post-adolesence decides to be confirmed as a male (gender is assigned post-childhood in this world). Fate, prophercy, control and inevitability (whether magical or political) play out as important themes but, again, I think their impact as ideas get lost amid the scale of the story.
The Black Tides of Heaven is the first in a sequence of novellas set in the same world. I haven’t read the sequel The Red Threads of Fortune, which apparently follows the other twin Mokoya after the events of this story. I feel though I would have enjoyed this as a longer novel with a less fragmented sense of time. There were parts were I would have been happier to linger longer with the characters as they were.
Interesting in scope, and definitely Hugo worthy, it felt to me as edited highlights of a deeper story that I’d like to immerse myself in. I’ll definitely read the sequel.
Nnedi Okorafor’s young protagonist gets another adventure in her journey. Suffering from the aftermath of the first novella, Binti carries the trauma of a massacre, acquired alien DNA and a degree of celebrity she isn’t prepared for. She takes the only step she can to put her life back in balance and decides to (temporarily) leave the Oomza Uni and travel back to Earth and home. She decides as well to bring Okwu, her friend, with her but Okwu is also a member of the aggressive Meduse…
It’s not a flaw for the central character to be somewhat annoying in this kind of story. Binti is a multitalented young woman who has both natural talents and who has been caught up in extraordinary events. Growing as a person requires flaws and Binti’s are those that follow somebody who achieves academic success and fame early – including a degree of both arrogance and self-doubt. Even so, I found Binti generally less likeable in this instalment.
But maybe that’s just the nature of this particular step in her journey. This is very much a transitionary story. It starts in the aftermath of the previous novella and ends on a cliffhanger. While Binti learns some things about her family, her people and the hidden history of her land, she doesn’t change much as a person (yet). I think this will work better as part of the whole story sandwhiched between the first and third novella but as a story in itself it didn’t really gel for me.
The Hugo finalists for Best Novella are an embarresment of riches: droll murderbots, hippo riding cowboys, some sequels to previous favourites and some exciting surprises. Pinsker’s quirky murder mystery (available here https://uncannymagazine.com/article/and-then-there-were-n-one/ ) starts off in a style that I’d call ‘philosophical fiction’ i.e. it feels like the set-up for exploring the philosophical implications of a topic by using a speculative fiction frame. Partly this is because Sarah Pinsker¹ is the main character. Indeed, as we rapidly discover, Sarah Pinsker° is ALL the characters…
“Playful” is the obvious word for the novella but maybe that does it a diservice. Rather than being an exploration of what it would mean to meet your other selves from different timelines, Pinsker uses the frame of a classic Agatha Christie style murder mystery. A hotel full of people attending an unusual convention on an island cut off from the mainland by a storm. Sarah Pinsker¹ is an insurance investigator who is coopted to investigate the murder of Sarah Pinskerº by presumably one or more Sarah Pinskers³. It’s another clever choice that allows Pinskerª discuss her own life and choices against a backdrop of infinity possibilities. (Pinskerª, as in the actual author, is apparently in attendance but doesn’t make an appearance – although the murder weapon is notable.)
The story is complete and satisfying and I think the author made a wise choice in letting the story follow its own path rather than exploring all the possibilities of the premise. Having said that, it is such a gloriously wonderful idea (an invitation to a convention full of alternate-realitiy versions of yourself) that this story only scratches the surface. I’d love to read an anthology in which other authors found themselves invited and the twists of genre that would create.
Great stuff and an excellent read. This whole category will be a hard one to rate.