Watching the Hugo Awards

Just placing these links here so they are easy to find:

Live video streaming is via Vimeo and rather nicely the link tells me what time the event is scheduled in my time zone: 5 am Monday Morning Sydney time. So I shan’t be watching with a pint of Guinness in hand. Luckily that’s about half-an-hour after my usual wake-up time*.

Live text coverage is here:

I will probably post some live reactions on Twitter but otherwise I won’t have time until later in the day for any posts or analysis.

*[this is the one fact about my meat-robot self that people find horrifying. I’m an early riser, that doesn’t mean I’m necessarily an inhuman monster.]

Hugosauriad 4.4: If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur My Love” was published in March 2013 by Apex Magazine and is available here In 2014 it won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story and was a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story.

The story is a lyrical text of twelve paragraphs. Each paragraph, aside from paragraph 9, starts with the word ‘if’. A narrator addresses ‘you’ throughout placing the reader in the position of being addressed by a woman to her fiancée.

Those first eight paragraphs initially appear whimsical, a flight of fantasy as the narrator speculates on what it would be like if ‘you’ we’re a dinosaur. She sets up rhetorical questions and answers and follows a chain of apparently trivial consequences.

“If you were a dinosaur, my love, then you would be a T-Rex. You’d be a small one, only five feet, ten inches, the same height as human-you. You’d be fragile-boned and you’d walk with as delicate and polite a gait as you could manage on massive talons. Your eyes would gaze gently from beneath your bony brow-ridge.”

Rachel Swirsky “If Your Were a Dinosaur My Love”

But there is something (intentionally) not quite right from the start. A T-Rex? The tyrannosaur has been stomping through dinosaur stories throughout this project and in almost every instance they have been symbols of sudden violence and an agent of vengeance and punishment of the wicked or cowardly. Symbolically in dinosaur stories the T-rex has been a kind of saurian Fury punishing the cowardly or those who in hubris forgot to show the proper respect to time-travel or dinosaurs.

Yet, in the very next sentence Swirsky flips this around, emphasising the vulnerability and muted scale of this fantasy T-Rex. The tyrant lizard is more of a benevolent and humane despot with fragile bones like a bird and a gentle gaze. The contrast is severe and adds to the sense that there is something going on here other than a fanciful musing.

The contrast continues in the second paragraph. The narrator, imagining her lover as a T-Rex, casts herself in the role of a zookeeper. (I say ‘her’ and ‘he’ though the gender of both the narrator and her lover is not immediately obvious). Again the imagery is intentionally just a bit off. The T-Rex, fed with live goats and with a bloodstained mouth is still presented as vulnerable. The cage is for his protection and the narrator sees herself sleeping inside the cage and singing the creature to sleep with lullabies.

The rhythmic repeated structure of the story already has echoes with bed time stories. The overt connections between each paragraph are apparent trivialities. The third paragraph picks up on ‘lullabies’ and imagines the T-Rex developing a taste for music.

“If I sang you lullabies, I’d soon notice how quickly you picked up music. You’d harmonize with me, your rough, vibrating voice a strange counterpoint to mine. When you thought I was asleep, you’d cry unrequited love songs into the night.”

Rachel Swirsky “If Your Were a Dinosaur My Love”

Which introduces another intentional oddity. The story has implied that the narrator and the subject of the story are lovers. Yet here the narrator imagines the T-Rex singing songs about unrequited love, despite placing herself there in the T-Rex cage watching over him. The implication is of her imaging not just a different species on her lover but a separate life.

The singing T-Rex is inevitably a huge hit, with a show on Broadway and tearful audiences who are overwhelmed by the sad beauty of the singing. This leads to scientists exploring how to bring back the dinosaurs from fossilised DNA or birds. The direction of the effort is to create a mate for the T-Rex. That leads to another tangent for the next paragraph with a dinosaur wedding.

Throughout, there have been three elements intermingled, terror, beauty and sadness. The persistent theme of sadness undercuts the surface whimsy. The dinosaur does not just sing but sings songs that makes an audience weep. The flurry of scientific endeavour is not science for science’s sake but an attempt to heal the emotional longing of the T-Rex.

The dislocation of emotion, sadness and beauty reaches a climax, naturally, in a wedding: an event in which we normally expect everything to be beautiful and for people to burst into tears. Yet the wedding both is and is not the narrator’s wedding. She has planned out the details from the flowers to the colour of the bridesmaid’s dressers but she is only a witness to the wedding of two dinosaurs. Yet she applies the old, new, borrowed, blue requirements for a bride to herself. The dinosaurs are both old and new, she is borrowing the happiness of the couple and she only lacks something blue.

“If all I needed was something blue, I’d run across the church, heels clicking on the marble, until I reached a vase by the front pew. I’d pull out a hydrangea the shade of the sky and press it against my heart and my heart would beat like a flower. I’d bloom. My happiness would become petals. Green chiffon would turn into leaves. My legs would be pale stems, my hair delicate pistils. From my throat, bees would drink exotic nectars. I would astonish everyone assembled, the biologists and the paleontologists and the geneticists, the reporters and the rubberneckers and the music aficionados, all those people who—deceived by the helix-and-fossil trappings of cloned dinosaurs– believed that they lived in a science fictional world when really they lived in a world of magic where anything was possible.”

Rachel Swirsky “If Your Were a Dinosaur My Love”

I had forgotten that this story, whose science-fictionalness has been much questioned, explicitly raises the contrast between reality and science fiction, and science fiction and fantasy. The narrator transforms into a flowering plant (flowers themselves being things of the Cretaceous) through a magical or perhaps alchemical process and in doing so changes the genre of the narrator’s fantasy, or rather asserts that despite the scientific trappings that it has been fantasy all along.

And then the story draws to its false conclusion. “If” now applies to the world at large and if it was a magical world, a fantasy world, then the narrator’s lover would be a dinosaur, even though this would be both sad and beautiful. Cut off there and the story would be maddeningly strange. The narrator imaging a quite different life for her lover, one in which they would both be sad and where they would be separated and yet together. She has imagined a world where her lover marries somebody else at a wedding where she sees herself as the bride.

Reality intrudes with the paragraph that breaks the cycle. The fantasy of the T-Rex remains but instead of speculating forwards, the story now looks at past events. The T-Rex also is re-established in its customary role as a being of savage vengeance.

The heartbreaking twist reveals a more brutal world in which the narrator’s fiancée was brutally beaten into a coma. The contrasted emotions of the first eight paragraphs are resolved. The hidden feelings are grief, revenge and guilt. Loss and coming to terms with having to let somebody you love go have been sublimated into a fantasy in which she can imagine surrendering the man she loves to a different life. What could have been pillow talk is revealed to be (probably) at the bedside in an intensive care unit.

The economy of the story telling contrasts sharply with the complexity of emotions. Everybody who has sat in a hospital waiting for news while a loved one is treated knows that mix of intense emotions tied to long stretches with nothing to say or do but to be alone with your own thoughts. The wish that things were just different and the attempts to bargain with the universe to just not let things be as bad as they are.

Is it science fiction/fantasy? I have broad criteria and it easily fits mine but I don’t want to be too dismissive of those from whom the story is too distanced from the fantastic by that repeated “if”. However, even if it lies on the wrong side of some arbitrary border, it is a story that is deeply engaged with the question of genre and what role it plays. It is a story that understands and examines our need for wish fulfilment and the role of the fantastical in our imaginings.

In terms of legitimacy for awards, well it is not only not the least science fictional story to be nominated for a Hugo Award it isn’t even the least science fictional story WITH DINOSAURS IN IT to be nominated for a Hugo Award. I think the eventual award outcome was the right one: the Nebula Award should be more of a writers award were writer’s craft plays a bigger role.

The level of craft in the story is inarguable, there is not a spare word in the whole thing — everything plays a role. To manage a story that combines both whimsy and brutality is remarkable. The story itself would become embroiled in wider events in fandom and the Hugo Awards specifically and as a consequence became a story whose content and structure was repeatedly discussed and examined. For many reasons it is a story that I’ve re-read many times now, sometimes just skimming through to remind myself of what was said where. I am always struck by how I find new things in each time but also how I remember things being there that are not there.

This story was hotly debated for several years, sometimes in good-faith yet contentious discussions. Like a dinosaur it has its own sharp teeth and claws and can defend itself.

Next time: Puppies both sad and rabid appear and who better to represent them than John C Wright and his own take on a vengeful T-Rex at wedding, “Queen of the Tyrant Lizards”.

Hugosauriad 4.3: Doctor Who — Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

The 1960s brought a new dimension to science fiction fandom with the arrival of what would become iconic television series. In the US Star Trek had an immediate impact on the World Science Fiction convention and the Hugo awards. The 1967 Hugo Awards had three episodes of the first season nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation, one of which (The Menagerie) won the award.

There are silurians hibernating underground…

Hugosauriad 4.2: Brontë’s Egg by Richard Chwedyk

Both In the Late Cretaceous by Connie Willis and Bones of the Earth by Michael Swanwick touch upon the idea that dinosaurs are worthy of interest for their own sake. In Connie Willis’s story she does this by satirising the corporate-speak of a university manager forcing a confused concept upon a palaeontology department:

“As we move into the twenty-first century, our society is transformizing radically, but is education? No. We are still teaching the same old subjects in the same old ways.” He smiled at the dean. “Until today. Today marks the beginning of a wonderful innovationary experiment in education, a whole new instructionary dynamic in teaching paleontology. I’ll be thinktanking with you dinosaur guys and gals next week, but until then I want you to think about one word.
“Extinction,” Sarah murmured.
“That word is ‘relevantness.’ Does paleontology have relevantness to our modern society? How can we make it have relevantness? Think about it. Relevantness.” There was a spattering of applause from the departments Dr. King would not be thinktanking with. Robert poured a large glass of sherry and drank it down. “It’s not fair,” he said. “First the Parking Authority and now this.”

Willis, Connie. The Winds of Marble Arch And Other Stories . Orion. Kindle Edition.

Swanwick works the idea into his story as part of a broader rationalisation behind time travel and to parallel the related (but quite different) subject of story of the mysterious others who have granted humanity access to time-travel.

One of the many things dinosaurs can be is an idea that we love. That affection for dinosaurs in turn motivates not just the art produced about them but our scientific inquiry into them. It’s a positive example of how our societal and aesthetic preferences influences science.

That affection for dinosaurs starts young. The field of dinosaur related fiction for young children is beyond the scope of this project but is it self vast. Jane Yolen and Mark Teague’s “How Does a Dinosaur…” series of picture books uses detailed pictures of dinosaurs placed in the roles of slightly naughty children exasperating their (human) parents. It’s an excellent example of how dinosaurs are seen as not just kid-friendly but the scientificism of the dinosaur is something that will be enjoyed by children. Complex latinate names with weird spellings such a diplodocus, triceratops of pterodactyl are not off-limits words for children.

I’m not covering any children’s stories in this series (apart from the mention above) but that association between dinosaurs and our societal child-like interest in them is an important theme in dinosaur fiction. Jurassic Park touches on it but in general it is not something we’ve seen in the other stories I’ve picked out.

Richard Chwedyk’s “Saurs” series of short-fiction is not children’s literature and touches on many darker themes about death, violence and casual cruelty. However, it does explore that connection between dinosaurs as animals and dinosaurs as objects for children.

Chwedyk introduced the saurs in his story “The Measure of All Things” (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 2001):

“Most people these days hardly remember them. The smallest saur is no more than ten centimeters long. The largest one is a meter and a half tall. They’re not “real” dinosaurs—that’s another business altogether—but they were modeled after them, sometimes to painstaking detail, but more often to the cuter, cartoonish caricatures that children of many generations before wore on their pajamas or had printed on their lunchboxes and notebooks. They were an outgrowth of that vision of dinosaurs as cuddly buddies, friends to all children everywhere: moving, talking versions of the plush toys they’ve always played with. That’s what they were designed to be. That’s why they were brought into the world. Forget for the moment that the manufacturers had plans to make enormous sums of money on them, at which they succeeded (several million were sold); forget also that the designers were trying to put forward their own subtle agenda: that bioengineering and its nanotech components could be safe and fun—cuddly, like a shoebox-sized triceratops—an agenda which was far less successful. Forget all that, at least for the moment. To the saurs themselves, they had come into being to be friends, buddies, giving out love and receiving affection from appreciative girls and boys. That’s what they were designed to do—that, and nothing else. The designers fidgeted about for a name – they didn’t like “life-toy,” since it contained the troublesome “life” word. They didn’t want the saurs confused with “animals,” since that would place them under hundreds of government regulations. “Bio-toy” passed with all the marketing departments, so someone went out and wrote a definition of it: a toy modeled from bio-engineered materials, behaving without behavior, lifelike without being “alive.”

“The Measure of All Things” by Richard Chwedyk, in Kelly, James Patrick. A Fistful of Dinosaurs (pp. 75-76). Mad Cow Press. Kindle Edition.

These plush-toy sized dinosaurs defy the limits and expectations of their designers, just as the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park or Dino-Island do. The saurs are a failure as a toy because the attempts to anthropomorphise their personalities leads to beings that are genuinely intelligent and have their own characters and emotional depth.

Chwedyk’s stories take place long after the saurs are the must-have toy of the season and are set in a refuge/sanctuary for abandoned and abused saurs. The supposed toys are sentient (indeed intelligent creatures) that have suffered the inevitable physical and emotional abuse of being left in the care of small children.

I wondered if any of the saurs’ designers ever imagined their creations would end up in a house like this. They had guaranteed the investors, the executives and the buying public that the saurs were limited to a relatively few responses and reactions. They were supposed to be organic computers, and very simple ones at that. They could remember names and recognize faces, engage in simple conversations. They would sing the “Dinosaur Song” (a hideous thing that started “Yar-wooo, yar-wooo, yar-wooo/the dinosaurs love you . . .”), and if you told one you were sad he would know how to respond with a joke. Yes, the designers said, they were sophisticated creations, almost miraculous, a high point in what they had mastered by tweaking a few genes . . . but they were not to be confused with living things. They could respond to stimuli, they could retain data, but that doesn’t make something a “living” thing, they said.

“The Measure of All Things” by Richard Chwedyk, in Kelly, James Patrick. A Fistful of Dinosaurs (pp. 75-76). Mad Cow Press. Kindle Edition.

The saurs in the home have lived past their expected life span and live complex lives with complex relationships between them.

“Take their life span. They were supposed to live for five years, tops. Doc over there is twenty-eight. And Agnes under the table is twenty-five.” “How dare you!” Agnes barked. “Tell him everything, why don’t you?” There were things I wouldn’t mention to the visitor, or to anyone else. Like Bronte, sitting on the couch, warming the orphan bird eggs that Sluggo brings to her. Some of them hatch, and Sluggo feeds them—little robins and sparrows and finches—until they’re big enough to fly from the window ledge. And then there’s the egg I found Bronte with the other day, the one that doesn’t resemble any bird egg I’ve ever seen.

“The Measure of All Things” by Richard Chwedyk, in Kelly, James Patrick. A Fistful of Dinosaurs (pp. 75-76). Mad Cow Press. Kindle Edition.

The egg mentioned briefly in the above quote leads onto the second story in Chwedyk’s series: Bronte’s Egg. Further stories followed with the most recent “The Man Who Put the Bomp” in 2017.

Bronte’s Egg was a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 2003, the same year that Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth was up for Best Novel. The story did not win a Hugo that year but did win a Nebula award.

The main character of the story, Axel, is a distractable and energetic saur who sets out to build a robot. In the course of events, he also encounters a mysterious frog, helps Bronte incubate her egg and may have contacted alien life. His childlike enthusiasm both endangers and protects his fellow saurs in the refuge.

Like any story that attempts to deal with childhood and child-like enthusiasm, there is a tension between the sweetness of character and the traumatic back history of the denizens of the home. Like Axel himself, the story rushes around ideas and connections picking up threads and briefly forgetting them only to return to them later. Balancing the sentimentality with the energy and science-fiction elements is not always successful but the story as whole manages to bring its ideas together successfully.

Bronte’s Egg is utterly unlike any of the other stories I’ve covered so far and yet touches on so many of the same themes: humanity’s technological hubris, the nature of life, the nature of intelligence and the question of inquiry for its own sake.

There’s a conflict throughout multiple stories but exemplified best by Bronte’s Egg and Jurassic Park between science and technology. These aren’t normally fields we see as struggling against each other. However, science as pure inquiry (symbolised by Dr Grant in Jurassic Park or Alex’s insatiable curiosity in the Saurs series) and the perils of technology (from time machines to bio-engineering) keep repeating.

Dinosaurs for dinosaurs sake. The ‘pure’ motive of curiosity versus the messy moral consequences of making and doing. The protean capacity for dinosaurs to symbolise many things is inexhaustible.

Next time: You know what Hugo voters loved in the 2000’s? Doctor Who! But maybe they didn’t love Dinosaurs on a Spaceship that much…

Hugosauriad 4.1: Bones of the Earth and Scherzo with Tyrannosaur by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick is a prolific author with a long record of involvement with the Hugo Awards including multiple wins and far too many nominations for me to count on his ISFDB page. Given that and his equally prolific contribution to the annals of dinosaur-related fiction it was inevitable that this project would cross paths with his career. His dinosaur related stories include Triceratops Summer, 3 am at the Mesozoic Bar and Five British Dinosaurs. However, the intersection of Swanwick’s Hugos and his dinosaurs is best exemplified by Scherzo with Tyrannosaur (Winner Best Short Story 2000) and The Bones of the Earth (Finalist Best Novel 2003).

The two stories are closely connected. The novel takes some of the plot threads and setting of the short story to create a longer and more involved novel. The core scene of the short story (an expensive dinner for wealthy future visitors time-travelling back to the Cretaceous) also appears in the novel but transplanted from a view of terrestrial dinosaurs (including the eponymous tyrannosaur) to an underwater dome with a view of aquatic reptiles.

Both stories are of the species of time-travel story that I refer to as time-wimey/jeremey-bearimy i.e. stories in which there are causally connected events but due to interconnecting timelines the connections of events do not follow a strict temporal order for all concerned. Indeed some events (or even people) may be products of a bootstrap paradox.

Scherzo…certainly gives a taste of the style of Bones of the Earth but the novel is a far more complex book with deeper characterisation. The novel follows the convoluted relationship between palaeontologists Richard Leyster and Gretrude Salley who become embroiled in an initially secret time-travel project. Hinted at in the Scherzo… behind the time-travel technology are other beings with their own mysterious agenda and it isn’t much of a spoiler to say that they are from even further from the future.

A side-plot about creationist terrorism leads to a tragedy where a party of scientists are trapped in the Cretaceous after an explosion. What is unclear until this event happens is how the ripples of this event have impacted earlier events in the story. While Leyster is more central to the main narrative of the book, it is Salley who is the more complex of the two. Unfortunately, as intriguing as she is as a character, her far more complex timeline leads to a more fractured and contradictory portrait of a person. Piecing together her actions, motivations and behaviour is something that can only be done by the end of the novel and even then it requires some explanations from herself to a different timeline of herself. Like River Song in Doctor Who, the complex chains of causality in her life lead to a non-linear character which in turn makes it difficult to follow the character development.

Of the stories I’ve looked at in this project, Bones of the Earth has the most naturalistic dinosaurs. They don’t drive the action as either monsters, agents of revenge or as avatars of human character flaws but rather just are. Aside from an unfortunate stegosaurus whose head ends up in an ice-box, the dinosaurs are dinosaurs in there natural state and in their right time and place. Even the tourism (the rich and powerful getting the chance to enjoy fine dining while watching vistas of prehistoric creatures — a feature of Scherzo… as well) is presented as carefully managed to prevent any impact on the dinosaurs themselves.

The section that deals with the stranded party of scientists is partly a story of survival in a dangerous environment but it is also one about discovery. The palaeontologists must struggle to live in the prehistoric past but they don’t stop learning and theorising about the dinosaurs. In the process they make audacious discoveries and develop a new theory as to why the non-avian dinosaurs died out after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event.

Dinosaurs for dinosaurs sake is not a gratuitous role in Bones of the Earth. That we as humans might chose them and the Mesozoic over other time periods as the focus of study if given the opportunity for time travel but limited options not only makes sense but informs the mystery and motivation of the others who have granted humanity this opportunity. The symbolism of dinosaurs here is that of purity of inquiry, that our interest and excitement around dinosaurs is an aesthetic choice rather than a pragmatic one. We seek to learn about dinosaurs because we like dinosaurs and from that premise the events of Bones of the Earth unfold through its own looping causal chains.

Next time: we meet Richard Chwedyk’s saurs in “Brontë’s Egg”

Hugosauriad 4: Cretaceous

In the deep past the Cretaceous was a period with warm shallow seas and copious sea-life. Our modern continents were beginning to take shape and on land T-Rex was doing his star turn. Along with T-rex, the other new charismatic living thing were flowers. Along with flowers came bees and butterflies.

For the Hugo Awards there’s no simple defining event for me to separate my Jurassic from my Cretaceous. I’ve simply picked the year 2000, the start (or year before the start) of a new millennium.

Change was certainly coming though. Online communities had been connecting fandom for many years by this point but the sheer volume of people online was steadily increasing. The World Wide Web had given more people an incentive to connect to the internet and internet services were becoming widespread. Blogging and early social network services were becoming more common place.

Technically ebooks existed but as yet reading online was less than ideal. I’ll confess to reading a copy of the first Harry Potter book on a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant not a Public Display of Affection). Amazon had already been operating for 6 years by 2000 but the scale of its ambitions were only beginning to become apparent. Amazon’s Kindle device would not appear until 2007 but even by that point, the online retailer was reshaping book buying.

The connectedness of fans was already reshaping fandom. There had always been connections across countries but those connections were becoming simpler, easier and more everyday. The world was changing.

The calamitous terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11 would impact world politics throughout this period. On a more basic level, the immediate aftermath led to fewer people travelling by air.

The Hugo Awards were reshaped by all these things. The awards took on more international aspects but also became, slowly and sometimes erratically more diverse.

The chapters I’ll be covering in this period are:

  • 4.1 Bones of the Earth and Scherzo with Tyrannosaur by Michael Swanwick
  • 4.2 Brontë’s Egg by Richard Chwedyk
  • 4.3 Doctor Who: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship
  • 4.4 If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky
  • 4.5 Extinction event 1: Queen of the Tyrant Lizard by John C Wright
  • 4.6 Extinction event 2: Chuck Tingle versus the Alt Right – Space Raptor Butt Invasion
  • 4.7 Extinction event 3: Vox Day, Alien Stripper and Voting Reform
  • 4.8 The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters… by Brooke Bolander

The three “Extinction event” chapters deal with the Sad Puppy and Rabid Puppy reactionary Hugo campaigns. Chapters 4.4 and 4.5 look at different aspects of Rachel Swirsky’s Nebula Award winning story. I wanted 4.4 to look at the story independently of the Puppy antagonism towards it. 4.5 looks at the Sad Puppy reaction. Originally this was going to be “If You Were a Dinosaur…” part 2 but then I remembered that John C Wright had written his own ‘answer’ to Swirsky’s story. It’s pretty bad but a good basis on which to centre the Sad Puppies.

4.6 looks more at the role of the alt-right in the Puppy campaigns and also the weird and wonderful world of Chuck Tingle and how he fought his own campaign against neo-fascism. 4.7 completes the mini-arc with”Alien Stripper…” and the final demise of the Rabid Puppies.

4.8 brings up to 2019 with Brooke Bolander’s raptoriffic fairy tale.

Next time: A double dose of Michael Swanwick….