Hugo Ballot 2018: BDP – Short

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!

Review: Get Out (Movie 2017)

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.

Review: The Deep by Clipping

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:

 

Review: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

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! ]

Review: New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson

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.

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

The book has a slow but entertaining start as a cast of characters, families and settings are introduced – not that many but enough to give a sense of the size of the universe we are looking at. Sharp dialogue keeps the story flowing as broad-brush strokes history of a mercantile human space-empire is introduced. You have to admire how artfully John Scalzi does this – no big info dumps just carefully rationed explanations around the time that they’ll be needed for the plot but without them feeling like they’ve been plucked out of thin air.

The influences are clear, classic space-opera plus modern space opera (there are some Banks-like moments) plus multi-character/feuding families/Game of Thrones like elements but crafted together into a book that is its own thing. It lacks the complexity or depth of an Iain M. Banks novel but then again this book is only the set up for a longer saga. As such it succeeds on its own terms – the premise of the saga is established by the end of the book: a human mercantile empire run by and for a few powerful families faces a calamitous collapse due to physical changes that will prevent interstellar travel.

How those themes will be developed, the extent to which this premise will mainly be just for the purpose of a fun space-opera or whether the world Scalzi has created will be examined in more depth (and The Expanse has proven both are possible), we don’t know yet. The Collapsing Empire is a solid foundation either way and I was keen for the next book at the end of this one.

But as a Hugo nominee? Hmmm, not going to be my top pick. Craft alone isn’t enough – also it is competing with two more unusual space operas. The Collapsing Empire just feels like a start to a story. It is not quite the same problem that Too Like the Lightning had last year (when it was basically half a very long book) but it is a related issue – I can’t really judge it because it isn’t finished enough. It is a good argument for the continuing need for a Best Series category (although I find that category difficult). It doesn’t lack other themes but they just aren’t explored yet.

So a good read that aptly demonstrates John Scalzi’s skill but in a field that includes The Stone Sky, Provenance and Raven Stratagem, it will be low on the ballot. Above No Award? Sure, it is an apt demonstration of the range of things that are potentially award worthy and it is packed full of promise.

Next up Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 and then by hook or by crook Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes.