It doesn’t feel that long ago that the talk was whether the SF short story was dead or close to death. The impact of Sad Puppy campaigns and Rabid Puppy vandalism hit the short story category hard. And what an emblematic category it had been for the Hugo Awards and science fiction! American style science fiction had grown out of the short story style and some of the greats of SF were intimately connected with shorter form fiction. Ray Bradbury especially but also Issac Asimov – The Foundation Trilogy being one of many SF classics that grew from connected shorts.
The Hugo finalists this year are a set of entertaining and varied reads. There’s not one theme or style and there are elements of fantasy and science-fiction as well as some classic twists.
It is too early in the process to rank them I think and a couple I only read recently. I’d like to gestate on them a bit longer but I’m also mindful that if I don’t put my thoughts down now then I will have to do a whole bunch of things in a rush. So, some mini-reviews and thoughts but no rankings. I do have an unsurprising favourite but I may shift rankings later. Overall though I enjoyed them all.
Reminder: you don’t need to wait for the packet to read the Hugo Short Stories as they are all available free online. JJ collected the relevant links here http://file770.com/?p=41534 and I repeat them below.
Best Short Story
▪ “Carnival Nine“, by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)
The story works both in terms of its own world building (with a few unanswered questions) and also as a metaphor about life, parenthood, chronic illness, and death. The setting is a world that might be a house or a bedroom in which small clockwork people live. Each one is wound each night but their mechanisms can only be wound up so much (and some people’s more than others). Eventually they fall prey to entropy as their mainspring becomes unwindable.
The story follows the life of one character from late childhood to bringing up a child and her relationship with an absent mother who lives in a carnival on (or carried by) a train.
Poignant and wistful, the story does a lot of work in a short period introducing a world but also creating deep emotional engagement with a set of characters. It could have easily become overly twee and sentimental but I think it avoids becoming either.
▪ “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand“, by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017)
The least conventionally story like of the set. A guided tour through a museum (or is it?) of curiosities. Disturbing images and ideas – the curiosities are the voyeuristic medical views of people as ‘freaks’ of body or behaviour. The story attempts to reverse the gaze of the curious and the dehumanising. A story best read rather than described that uses setting rather than narrative to create an effective horror story.
▪ “Fandom for Robots“, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017)
Elsewhere Murderbot is doling its best to mix genre consumption with themes about Artificial Intelligence but here we have a different style of robot interact with genre fiction.
Computron lives a dull life as an aging exhibit in a museum of robot history. Clunky and classically unemotional, Computron has little to do other than a short performance for visitors. By chance the robot begins to take an interest in a TV show which also features a rather boxy robot as a main character. This in turn leads Computron into the world of fan fiction and a new life.
Nice and engaging but I did feel it more faded out at the end rather than deliver a distinct conclusion.
▪ “The Martian Obelisk“, by Linda Nagata (Tor.com, July 19, 2017)
The world has gone to shit and humanity’s attempt to colonise other parts of the solar system has failed. With little hope for a better future an architect controls machines remotely from Earth to build a quixotic monument to humanity on Mars. But is everybody really dead on the Red Planet?
More whistful than depressing but not a jolly story to put sunshine in your step. Even so there’s a stronger theme of hope in the story and the importance of doing what is right over grandiose self-indulgence.
▪ “Sun, Moon, Dust“, by Ursula Vernon (Uncanny, May-Jun 2017)
There is gardening (well, farming) and there is a cranky old woman (briefly) as signatures for an Ursula Vernon story but this is a different style than Jackalope Wives.
Allpa receives a magic sword from his grandmother who had been a famous warrior in her youth. Trapped in the sword are three spirits of legendary fighters: Sun, Moon and Dust. Unfortunately for each of them Allpa’s main concern is his potatoes.
It’s a simple story that subverts the reluctant hero trope. Allpa genuinely would rather farm his land than seek out a hidden destiny as a warrior. The story follows this idea but in a way that feels like you are reading a familiar folk tale of some antiquity.
I was a fan of Ursula Vernon’s writing before I started this blog and this story only reinforces my high estimation of her writing. The story looks simple and effortless but of the six people mentioned (one only very briefly) you are left with a sense of fully formed characters of depth. I guess that is an illusion given we don’t know really know very much about any of them but it is rather like an artist who uses a single brush stroke to imply the more complex features of a face. There is also a sense of a bigger wider world as well as brief details that give Allpa’s world more sense of place.
The story doesn’t have a twist as such, indeed in one sense it has the opposite. The ending feels obvious and natural when you reach it, even though it sits exactly opposite to the initial premise of the story (a young man is given a magic sword). Calling it a subversion is misleading – it just goes where it wants to go rather than where genre conventions demand that it should.
It is masterful in the sense of showing mastery of the form. I really liked it.
▪ “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™“, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, Aug 2017)
What is it like to be somebody else? A neat question and one of those philosophical queries that science fiction can explore through imagined technology. Here a use of mind immersive virtual technology allows people to experience the lives of others.
Told (sensibly and appropriately) in the second person “you” are a Native American who works for a company that provides people with “authentic” immersive experiences. In your case these experiences are corny vision quests in which eager tourists keen to connect with their spiritual side engage with a fantasy of Native American culture. That fantasy contrast with the realities of life and work and relationships.
But one day an encounter goes off track and…well spoilers follow.
This is both original in scope but also a classic style of twisty story in the tradition of the Twilight Zone. Mixing questions of personal identity in the setting of virtual reality with wider questions of cultural identity and personal connections. As with the other finalists, I am amazed at how Rebecca Roanhorse packs in so much into a short text.
Currently Sun, Moon and Dust and Carnival Nine are my favourites and probably Fandom for Robots is my least favourite but it’s a tough choice and I quite like Fandom for Robots!
If BDP-Short was tough because all the choices seemed a bit flawed, BDP-Long is a meaty, populist, movie marathon full of treats and still a tough set of choices.
Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form [full list]
- Blade Runner 2049, written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Alcon Entertainment / Bud Yorkin Productions / Torridon Films / Columbia Pictures)
- Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele (Blumhouse Productions / Monkeypaw Productions / QC Entertainment)
- The Shape of Water, written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, directed by Guillermo del Toro (TSG Entertainment / Double Dare You / Fox Searchlight Pictures)
- Star Wars: The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson (Lucasfilm, Ltd.)
- Thor: Ragnarok, written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost; directed by Taika Waititi (Marvel Studios)
- Wonder Woman, screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs, directed by Patty Jenkins (DC Films / Warner Brothers)
Reverse order here:
6. Blade Runner 2049 – I’ve watched it but I note that I didn’t review it. When I don’t review things it is either I meant to and events got in the way and then I forgot OR I didn’t have anything to say good or bad. Bad films can be fun to review, even mediocre films can be fun to review. I don’t know with Blade Runner 2049. I didn’t hate it. It did not actually feel superfluous as a sequel. Baby Gooseman was very good and the Harrison Ford cameo was not gratuitous. It, of course, was visually excellent.
But…it just didn’t really engage me. A carefully crafted tribute to an aesthetic.
5. Wonder Woman – My views haven’t changed much on this. It had some good qualities but it was overlong for the story it was trying to tell. Gal Gadot remains the most valuable actor in the DC Universe and is the point from which they should build outwards.
4. Star Wars: The Last Jedi – If you are going to make sequels and keep franchises continually going then at least do something both new and in keeping with the franchise. Rian Johnson took the palette of Star Wars films and assembled them into something both new and familiar. It was what I wanted out of a new Star Wars film even though I didn’t know that beforehand. Good stuff and a strong contender.
3. Thor: Ragnarok – I loved this on first viewing and loved it even more on second viewing. Mainly just a fun, disco-coloured romp which underneath has themes about colonisation and the retreat from Empire.
2. The Shape of Water – An excellent film, whose storyline is quite simple (almost overdone) but with a depth of character and compassion that really lifts it. Not a comedy exactly but there is a comedic eye to things that makes it feel lighter than it is.
1. Get Out – Not the most science-fictional of the choices but the most tightly crafted of the set of films. So much packed into this film and I’m still processing elements of it.
Those top four choices are so close that I may well swap the order of them more than once before the ballot closes. I wouldn’t take bets on a likely winner – I can see all six possibly taking the lead (although Blade Runner 2049 is the least likely to win I think).
I have read all of the novel finalists and I’ve watched all the Best Dramatic Presentation finalists. I’m waiting for the Hugo Packet to complete some other categories but in the meantime, I need to start somewhere.
The finalists are:
Best Dramatic Presentation – Short Form
- Black Mirror: “USS Callister,” written by William Bridges and Charlie Brooker, directed by Toby Haynes (House of Tomorrow)
- “The Deep” [song], by Clipping (Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes)
- Doctor Who: “Twice Upon a Time,” written by Steven Moffat, directed by Rachel Talalay (BBC Cymru Wales)
- The Good Place: “Michael’s Gambit,” written and directed by Michael Schur (Fremulon / 3 Arts Entertainment / Universal Television)
- The Good Place: “The Trolley Problem,” written by Josh Siegal and Dylan Morgan, directed by Dean Holland (Fremulon / 3 Arts Entertainment / Universal Television)
- Star Trek: Discovery: “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” written by Aron Eli Coleite & Jesse Alexander, directed by David M. Barrett (CBS Television Studios)
And overall, it’s a bit lacklustre. The clear favourite is Black Mirror’s Star Trek riff USS Callister but I had issues with it. Doctor Who traditionally gets a slot here but I found that episode overly sentimental. One of my least favourite episodes of Star Trek: Discovery got nominated. There’s just not enough of Clipping’s The Deep and two episodes of The Good Place just seems odd.
Oddly, The Good Place is my favourite show on that list and the only one I haven’t reviewed. Here is my first cut at a personal ranking:
- The Good Place: I would have prefered Dance, Dance Resolution (Season 2 Episode 2) but these are two good episodes. Michael’s Gambit (Final episode of season 1) is hard to discuss without a huge spoiler as its key story point is a revelation that reshapes the series. That revelation was a masterful piece of writing that was set up from the first episode and was always apparent but disguised as casual plot holes in the story. The Trolley Problem is the most overtly philosophical of the episodes – playing on Phillipa Foote’s famous thought experiment as a way of placing characters not just in moral dilemma’s but also creating great comedy.
- Doctor Who. A bit gimmicky and overly sentimental. There have been stronger Christmas Episodes but it was nice to farewell Peter Capaldi and also greet Jodie Whittaker (if briefly) as the new Doctor.
- Black Mirror. The longer I think on it the more I dislike this episode. Yes, it was very, very well done but it rests on a cliche of equating social incompetence with dangerous.
- Star Trek: Discovery. Everybody loves a time loop but this episode was undermined by its ending which was ethically bad and by plot holes. Episode 3 was better and some of the mirror universe episodes, while lacking a strong Star Trek aesthetic, made for great over-the-top space opera.
- Clipping. Really not enough substance there to rate this highly. I’m putting it above No Award but only just. Fine for what it is but in the end as a dramatic presentation there just isn’t enough there.
Next time: BDP-Long!
Through various circumstances, I failed to see Jordan Peele’s directorial debut movie twice at the movies. In the meantime, the critical and cultural conversation around the film could not be ignored. To some extent, several aspects of the film had been technically ‘spoiled’ (e.g. I’d read a discussion about alternate endings for the film and so knew which one was used).
Of course, you can’t entirely spoil a horror story, Psycho still works regardless if you know the twists – some of the immediate shocks may be lost but the tensions and atmosphere remain. Get Out didn’t feel spoiled for me at all but I’ll avoid spoilers if you haven’t seen it. Suffice to say that it is a horror film whose premise is an African-American man Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) visits the home of his girlfriend’s very middle-class white parents.
Despite a brief, violent start, the film mainly uses a ratchet of tension to upset and unnerve the viewer. It begins grounded in the basic anxiety of people in a newish relationship meeting one half’s parent’s for the first time. Coupled with this is Chris’s concern about how he will be received as a black man dating a white woman in modern America. That tension morphs into the uncomfortable cringe of the overly friendly parents, the unpleasant brother which is amplified by the odd behaviour of the family’s two black servants.
I don’t think I have much to add to the conversation on the themes of the film and how Peele masterfully pulls those themes together into a seamless film. This review at The Atlantic I think captures one of my main thoughts about eyes, sight and cameras are used to drive the story and also frame the themes (contains many spoilers https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/03/in-get-out-the-eyes-have-it/518370/ ).
In short, it works both as a horror film and as a film that explores the black experience of America. Which shouldn’t be a surprise? Horror has always had a strange capacity to deal with far more than its supposed subject matter. As a profitable but marginalised genre it resembles children’s television in having a odd degree of licence that more mainstream genres have – which is an excuse to site Doctor Who as series that crosses both spaces (co-incidentally Daniel Kaluuya is a Doctor Who alumni, having appeared in the David Tennant special ‘Planet of the Dead’).
Peele picked a perfect genre in which to use a satirical lens and that capacity for satire is also what allows horror to move so neatly into comedic spaces or in this case vice-versa. If anything Get Out is not particularly humour heavy considering Peele’s comedic talents but it uses humour effectively to knowingly contrast some of the absurdity of the premise with the inescapable horror of Chris’s circumstance.
But onto another issue – Get Out is also a nominee for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form Hugo Award. I think it is undoubtedly a worthy candidate. Is it science-fictional enough? Well, as discussed last year Best Dramatic Presentation is a looser category in terms of science fiction and fantasy. Having said that, yes Get Out is stylistically a horror film and makes more use of horror-movie tropes (and situation comedy tropes) than science-fictional ones. However, there is some substantial speculative content (that I’ll discuss in more depth in another post as it ties in with some recent reading) and the premise of an apparently benign environment that is actually a seductive trap is one that has substantial history in both science-fiction and horror (e.g. see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 as variety of that trope). At some point, the mask will slip and the benevolent host will be revealed to be a…well a something and it wants the hapless hero for something else other than one evening’s dinner conversation. The title itself ‘get out’ captures not only a line from the film but also the key point in the wider family of such storylines – the emotional beat that the viewer has been wanting to warn the central character of all along.
In short, I’m not remotely worried about the SFnalness of Get Out and I doubt many others will be either.
Los Angeles based experimental hip-hop group Clipping were a welcome addition to the 2017 Hugo Ballot with their album Splendor & Misery. I really enjoyed the depth of what they had created. This year they have a single song in the Best Dramatic Presentation – Short Form ballot.
I’m not adept at reviewing music beyond like/dislike but here the issue is looking at their song “The Deep” as a piece of drama. Written for an Afrofuturism special of This American Life (https://www.thisamericanlife.org/623/we-are-in-the-future ) the song is apparently based on a different bands science-fictional backstory. Michigan electro band Drexciya based their music around a fantasy backstory of an underwater civilisation in the Atlantic:
“Every Drexciya EP navigates the depths of the Black Atlantic, the submerged worlds populated by Drexciyans, Lardossans, Darthouven Fish Men and Mutant Gillmen. In the sleevenotes to The Quest, their ’97 concept double CD, the Drexciyans are revealed to be a marine species descended from ‘pregnant America-bound African slaves’ thrown overboard ‘by the thousands during labour for being sick and disruptive cargo. Could it be possible for humans to breathe underwater? A foetus in its mother’s womb is certainly alive in an aquatic environment. Is it possible that they could have given birth at sea to babies that never needed air?” https://www.globaldarkness.com/articles/drexciya.htm
Clipping’s song starts with a heavily modified electronic-style voice explaining:
“Our mothers were pregnant African women thrown overboard while crossing the Atlantic Ocean on slave ships. We were born breathing water as we did in the womb. We built our home on the sea floor, unaware of the two-legged surface dwellers until their world came to destroy ours. With cannons, they searched for oil beneath our cities. Their greed and recklessness forced our uprising. Tonight, we remember.” https://genius.com/Clipping-the-deep-lyrics
And the song then recounts the conflict.
It’s certainly an engaging idea – a reprise of resistance to colonialism and first world hunger for resources at the expense of indigenous people. However, as a five minute song it neccesarily lacked the depth of story and drama that could be conveyed in an album. There’s a basic story there but if we treat it only as a piece of drama it is lacking and that doesn’t really feel fair to it.
Here’s a review that does it more justice http://www.heavyblogisheavy.com/2017/08/22/clipping-go-deep-on-afrofuturism-with-new-track/ That’s the same blog that did such a good job of explaining Splendor & Misery. There’s also a link to the track at the end and here also:
A locked room mystery, a generation ship off-course, a snarky AI with secrets, and more clones than you can shake a food replicator at – Six Wakes has it all. The ‘clones’ are more like 3D printed people that come fully grown and complete with memories – a clever conceit that works rather like re-spawning in a video game. In effect, Lafferty’s clones have a potential infinite life-span, so long as they can afford to be re-cloned and keep their personalities backed up.
So who better to pilot a ‘generation ship’ on a long journey to another planet, than a crew of clones who can replicate themselves? Ah, well not this crew! The novel starts with the crew waking in crisis from cloning tanks and finding the murdered bodies of their last iteration floating in zero gravity in a spaceship out of control.
Murder, secrets and lies: the small crew have their fair share of each and an apparently incapacitated AI unable to explain what has occurred.
Mixing a day-by-day account of the crew’s investigation into themselves with flashbacks that flesh out the social history and legalities of clones on future Earth, the story rushes headlong into a science fiction murder mystery thriller.
Original in scope but using familiar ideas, Six Wakes feels like an updated variant on classic Philip K Dick territory. Paranoia and core questions of the nature of personal identity take centre stage, pushing the more violent mystery into the background. Motive and the fragility of memory are incrementally examined as we learn more about each crew member’s backstory.
Hard to say more without spoilers. I thoroughly enjoyed this story but I’ve some doubts about the ending (again hard to elaborate). I thought the pacing was impeccable – mind you the last book I read was like watching a glacier melt so my perspective may be distorted!
Suffice to say my Hugo ballot for best novel hasn’t got easier. Did it blow my socks off? No, but I think it is a worthy contender.
[Thank you to the friend of this blog who donated a copy for review purposes. I have vowed to buy my own when it becomes available. Orbit doesn’t have a good record with Hugo packets but in this case surely letting voters outside of the US read the book is only fair! ]
Woah this took me awhile to get through! I’m not keen on the term ‘hard sci-fi’ and anyway I don’t think it is novels like this one that people mean by the term. Let me suggest instead that some science-fiction makes more effort to reduce suspension of disbelief. Kim Stanley Robinson has taken this approach before – for example his Mars trilogy was crafted to give almost a sense of a drama-documentary of the colonisation of Mars.
With New York 2140 Robinson looks at our future with two lenses – climate changes and world finance – and to do it he picks a specimen that can convey both. Future New York is a partially flooded neo-Venice that has survived (sometimes barely) catastrophic sea-rises. While much changed from its 20th century form, it remains a city of hedge funds and high-finance even as older semi-flooded districts crumble into the sea. The city has adapted with reinforced buildings, new materials, suspended walkways and yuppies in fast boats.
The book’s global microscope zooms into a small set of characters who have made their home in New York’s famous Metropolitan Life skyscraper near Madison Square Park. Each chapter follows a character (or character pair) in sequence including:
- Vlade – the building supervisor who suspects the building has been sabotaged.
- Mutt & Jeff – two eccentric ‘quants’ whose unorthodox perspective on financial instruments has led to them having powerful enemies.
- Gen – a NYPD detective who finds that her life in the building and her work intersect.
- Roberto and Stefan – two semi-feral children making a living scavenging in the flooded parts of the city.
- Amelia – a celebrity nature documentary/environmental activist with a tendency towards accident prone adventures in her airship.
- Franklin – a financial whiz-kid with an (apparently) cynical outlook and a fast boat.
- Charlotte – Head of a NGO and chair of the building’s residence association.
- A ‘citizen’ who provides a more omniscient overview of world events and history.
Each chapter follows parts of each characters day over several months, with various incidents and events, some of which are just stuff that happens and some of which tie into a wider plot.
It took a long time for me to warm to this book. I can’t fault the writing, each chapter has its charm and they are all well crafted. Without a doubt, Robinson is an excellent writer and constructs prose that’s readable and engaging…but I really didn’t warm to the individual characters and often the book felt aimless. It is not that there aren’t major events (a storm, even a quasi-revolution of sorts) or intrigue (kidnapping, rogue private security firms, nefarious drone submarines, sunken treasure) but 50% of the way in, I still didn’t feel drawn into the story. I would read a chapter and think ‘that was quite nicely written’ and then put the book down. It wasn’t the info dumps either (which I thought were very nicely done actually) – I’ve a high-tolerance for quasi-factual stuff in the fiction I read. Basically, the book just didn’t draw me in and did not compete well with other distractions! 60% in and I considered putting it aside and reading something else but in the end I stuck with it. As plot lines resolved and the story headed towards an almost utopian wish fulfilment ending, I enjoyed it a lot more – the dreaded ‘message fiction’ aspect of the book gave it the extra spark it needed.
Maybe I would have enjoyed it more with an uninterrupted read over a lazy holiday? I’m not sure but I certainly liked it better by the end!
Hugo wise? Yeahhh…not going to top my ballot. It is a decent addition to the six finalists and helps demonstrate the breadth and ambition of contemporary science-fiction & fantasy but it’s more a book that will gently warm your socks than eject them from your feet.