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The Blatherings Of A Blitherer

The 2014 Hugo Ballot: The Short Story Category

July24

I felt a little let down by the novella and novelette categories, that the offerings were a mixed bag– something that other people I know have agreed with and said is how the Hugos often are. Which shouldn’t be surprising, really, as there’s a wide variety of tastes and preferences and they’re called “The Hugo Awards” and not “The Brigid Awards,” so I shouldn’t expect to love everything on offer.

And then I hit the short story category and three of the four stories deeply affected me and made me cry and the fourth was just eh. Not for me. If I could nominate three of those short stories for first place then I would. It’s a painful decision, and that’s super great.

Before I talk about the stories, I’m going to tell you something ridiculous.

I read two of the stories, couldn’t find the third I wanted to read, and then started reading “A Stranger In Olondria.” “Wow,” I thought to myself, “this is a really long short story. Huh. This sure is slow to start. My goodness, this is pretty long for a short story.” Then, uh, I realized I’d started reading A NOVEL and not A SHORT STORY. So I stopped (which was hard, actually, looking forward to picking it up again) to read the very excellent short story by the same author.

The Ink Readers of Doi Saket, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, is a story set in Thailand about Thai people and culture and Buddhism, written by a white man from the Netherlands. It reminded me very much of “The Milagro Beanfield War”: both works are very earnest, but also condescending and exotifying toward the people/cultures they are about.

Selkie Stories Are For Losers, by Sofia Samatar, is a fantastic story about loss and love. It’s a coming of age story, and it’s a story about stories. The protagonist is still reeling from the sudden loss of her mother (who may or may not be a Selkie; she may or may not have accidentally returned her mother’s skin while looking for something else) when she meets, befriends, (and falls in love with) a young woman whose mother has tried to kill herself several times and who has basically checked out of life. They are both motherless, in their own way. They are both creating their own homes, their own families, or trying to, in their own way. It’s a beautiful and deftly written book, full of longing and bitterness and sorrow and hope and fear and love, so much love. And I really love Selkies and Selkie stories. And the fact I didn’t rate this story higher speaks volumes about the quality of the short stories on this ballot.

If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love, by Rachel Swirsky, is an incredibly powerful short story about love and hate and destruction and hope and which lives are considered important. I think a lot of people are put off by the opening cadence of the story, which is a bit like a children’s story (notably, “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie,” but it reminded me of some other kid stuff I’ve read to my own kid) but that stylistic choice is very important one that gives the story a lot of its power. This is very much a social justice/social commentary piece (as, in my opinion, the BEST Science Fiction is), and it is utterly devastating. I highly recommend it, but have some tissues or a sleeve or something handy. (For some reason, this wasn’t included in the voter packet I downloaded. I’m very glad I sought it out and was able to find it online.)

The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere, by John Chu, is a stunning bit of character-driven fiction that revolves around personal relationships that are hampered by the odd fact that, suddenly and for no reason, cold water started falling out of nowhere on people when they lie. It ranges from a clammy mist, to a drizzle, to a torrential downpour depending on the severity of the lie. It’s greatly impacted the very private and closed off Matt, who loves his boyfriend and loves his traditional Chinese parents and sister, and is terrified of letting any of them down. Matt has to come to terms with what he wants, and what he needs… and he has to learn how to open himself up to his boyfriend and to his parents and let them in. The cold water falling down is a fantastic narrative device, something that has utterly fundamentally changed the world without changing human nature, something that reveals Matt’s lies to himself… as well as his truths.

It was SO HARD deciding how to rank these stories, and I’m SO HAPPY that’s the case. I utterly adored Samatar’s short (and have really been enjoying her longer work). She manages to capture characters and their world so very well. I’d like to read more about those girls. Swirsky’s short is absolutely heart breaking, wrenching, so sad and so beautiful, and so wonderfully written. But Chu’s piece? It’s so very human, and so hopeful in the end.

I want to say a special thank you to Chu for managing to break the streak of male mediocrity in this year’s ballot. What a powerhouse of a story.

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The 2014 Hugo Ballot: Novella Category

July23

The 2014 Hugo Ballot has five novellas: three by men, one by a woman, and one by a man and woman team. I’m going to review them from least-liked to most-liked.

The Butcher of Khardov, by Dan Wells, is a tie-in to the Warmachine game franchise and was poorly written enough that I didn’t finish reading it. I found myself describing the reading experience as “slogging” so I just stopped. If I were a Warmachine fan, my feelings might well be different, but probably not: this is an incredibly genretastic OMGMANPAIN story with very little that sets it apart. The writing isn’t that good, either, and the fake Russian-esque stuff irritated me (they have a powerful clear liquor called vyatka which is totes different from vodka u guis no really it is). I liked one scene early in the novella where it becomes clear that the protagonist is haunted by his dead wife, and dances with “her” (actually a huge axe) in an inn as people look on, horrified. It’s an intriguing scene, and gosh do I love ghost stories. But that scene is marred by the “you can tell I’m the good guy because I loudly object to a person insulting women, all men but me are abusive rapists” trope, and also by the protagonist going all ragey and murdering every single person in the inn for ~reasons~. After that it becomes pretty clear that ghostwife is your pretty basic idealized woman-on-a-pedestal who gets fridged for MAXIMUM MANPAIN. The negatives really outweighed the positives to this story, and I spent most of it feeling a little lost. If I were familiar (at all) with the game, I might have liked it more but, again, I didn’t think the writing was that great. And I’ve read ALL the “Vampire: The Masquerade” novel tie-ins. So trust me, I know from bad game novelizations.

The Chaplain’s Legacy, by Brad Torgersen, is a military genre piece about a chaplain’s assistant who accidentally averted human genocide after encountering an insect-like alien race. As a result of this, he was hella promoted. Now that the aliens are saying “nope nm we gonna kill u” he’s been called in to avert things again. As with Torgersen’s novelette, his military protagonist is anti-military-rank-and-protocal and has a folksy nickname and hooks up with a female character who exists primarily to motivate him, and makes really strained and unfunny sex “jokes.” Although an atheist, he adheres to some pretty stereotypical Judeo-Christian beliefs about sexual mores (if u dun love a grl u shdn’t slep w/her or its WORNG). The idea that an atheist is teaching an alien race about religion, and that he’s a spiritual inspiration to religious people, is a cool idea, but the writing is just so… blah. The characters remain shallow and uninteresting, overall. There’s a lot of “it’s in the script.” And Torgersen has a pretty anti-technology beef in the story that’s a little unrealistic. Namely, the alien race has been SO dependent on technology for SO LONG that they FORGOT they can FRAMBLE the KLURTZ!!!! Thankfully, there’s a HUMAN around to remind them of REAL LIFE and ACTUAL NATURE and INSTINCT. Oh gosh if ONLY those aliens didn’t have TECHNOLOGY preventing them from realizing how awesome faith is!!! There’s a few kernals of interesting ideas in here, but eh. Better than his novelette, but that’s damning him with faint praise. If you’re looking for military sf that reads like something written in the early 1960s, this might just be your bag.

Equoid, by Charles Stross, was a real mixed bag for me. There was stuff I really liked about it (unicorns as horrific creatures; a re-imagining of Lovecraft’s work) and stuff I didn’t like or didn’t think worked. One of the issues was that this Novella is part of a larger series, so I alternated between feeling kind of lost and feeling clumsily info-dumped. It’s not the only piece that was part of a larger series, and I wonder if the Hugos shouldn’t have a category that’s specifically for pieces of larger works. Another issue is that the story tries to be wacky humorous, like Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchet, kind of off beat and wry and whimsical, and it feels forced and often falls flat… especially in contrast to the very visceral horror. It’s not a good mix. But there were two things that bothered me the most. The first is the idea that racism, virulent BNP racism, is an external thing pushed upon humans by evil, malevolent outside forces. Look. People who are racist aren’t monsters. They are human beings. Insisting that the only reason humans act in racist ways is because of horrific external influences just… it’s shitty. The second thing I really didn’t enjoy, that left me very uncomfortable, is the incredible and sexualized violence inflicted upon women in the story. Yes, yes, it’s spinning off of unicorn mythos in which (female) virgins play a big role. But I am left utterly cold when a teen aged woman is literally being eaten alive from the inside out and a male character talks about how turned on it leaves him despite the terror of it, and is saved from inadvertently fucking her when he catches sight of the monstrous barbed tentacle her clitoris has turned into. Women– girls, really, ranging in age from 4 years old to teen aged– are mind controlled, tortured slowly, and killed in agonizing ways. A handful of men are eaten and one gets shot and killed, but it is not the same level of torture, and throughout the narrative we’re meant to empathize with the male protagonist and realize how utterly awful it is that the unicorns kill men. Not that they enslave, torture, and kill the women they use as bait. That’s just a thing that goes on, kind of in the background, oh isn’t it a shame. And it’s really frustrating for two reasons: 1) I’m tired of it. I’m just so, so tired of it. 2) I keep thinking about this story. For all its flaws, bits of it really sunk into me and I keep mulling it over in my head. And every time I do that, I also get the image of naked girls being consumed from the inside, alternately whispering for help with their own voices and tempting men closer with horrific shub-niggaruth voices. That’s how women exist in the novella, as sacrificial horrors. There’s also jabs at little girls who like unicorn stories because if there’s one group of people who isn’t mercilessly shat upon for liking stuff, it’s little girls, right? I think there’s enough here that I liked that I’d be willing to try more stuff by the author, but I’m really turned off by the way women (girls, actually. literally little girls.) are treated here. Stross has a novel up for voting as well, so I’ll sample that and see how it goes.

Wakulla Springs by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages, is a marvelous piece of American Magical Realism. Set in a very specific place over very specific time periods, the novella explores America’s history of racism (and to a degree, classism and sexism) and the concepts of invasive species, cryptozoology, and what it means to be human. The setting is described so well, so completely, that it feels familiar; the characters are wonderfully drawn and interesting; the story is an intriguing one. This well polished gem of a story was a very pleasant surprise. I really wasn’t sure what to expect when I started it, but it’s very engaging. I’ve read some comments that one needs to be familiar with the Tarzan mythos to understand the story. I’m noddingly acquainted with it, no more, and didn’t feel any lack… which was a nice change of pace from all the pieces on the ballot that are part of larger works. This is a pretty short review. It’s a good story, very solid and excellently crafted. I’ll be on the lookout for more pieces by the authors, whether working jointly or individually.

Six Gun Snow White, by Cat Valente, was the best of the novellas… but I should note that I’m already a fan of Valente’s work and also love retellings of fairy tales so I was doubly biased. This is an eloquent novella that mixes the structure and theme of both classic European fairy tales and non-European folk tales. The story is rooted very strongly in a specific time, and several specific places, locations sketched with such detail that they feel familiar. Valente does a marvelous job of capturing Snow White’s voice, and deals beautifully with thematic elements like racism, colonialism, sexism, and domestic abuse. These all sound like heavy topics, and they are, but Valente manages very deftly not to write OMG AN ~~ISSUES~~ novella. It’s just a story about a person who has a bunch of bullshit in her life, and handles it to the best of her ability. I saved the reading of this novella for last, as something to look forward to. However, again, if I could award first place to two works I would. This and “Wakulla Springs” were both fantastic.

The 2014 Hugo Ballot: Novelette Category

July22

There were 5 nominations in the 2014 Hugo Novelette category, two by women and three by men. Two were strong stories, two were mediocre, and one went unread. I’m going to review them from least liked to most liked, and omit entirely the one I didn’t read because I can’t comment on something I didn’t read.

Of the novelettes I read, I liked The Exchange Officers by Brad Torgersen the least. Part of this is simply a genre thing: although I’ve read a lot of military SF (in part because that’s what was predominantly available in my small town library when I was younger) I’m not a huge fan of it. I’m familiar enough with it, though, that it really feels like this work (and his novella, another military SF thing) have the TRAPPINGS of military SF without an UNDERSTANDING of it. Like, he’s read a bunch of Heinlein and early 1960s era milsf and is imitating the genre in a lazy, shallow way. It’s got, you know, a military man who just super hates military command and rank and also he has an Eastern European last name that gosh darn but nobody can pronounce it so he gets a nickname, and there’s a female Marine who gets nicknamed “Chesty” but hey don’t worry it’s not because she has TITS and it’s a CONSTANT REMINDER THAT SHE HAS TITS lol no she’s nicknamed after famous marine Chesty Puller so just relax already her nickname isn’t sexually loaded reminder that she’s a woman with boobs! The antagonists are Evil Communist Chinese Hoards who are sneaky and inscrutable, and there’s a woman president who’s spoken of with scorn etc. The writing itself really needed a stronger editor. The story was mediocre, the characters weak and not really memorable or likeable. It feels really dated. This novelette did absolutely nothing new with the genre or the tropes it dragged out. I’ve read other reviews saying it’s not as good as his usual work, and his novella IS slightly better, but has a lot of the same flaws. In the piece’s defense, nobody spanks Chesty or tweaks her nose, but her character’s had all the depth and appeal of a floor lamp. The protagonist wasn’t much better filled out, though. If you’re a big fan of military SF you might like this more than I did, or you might just get angry at it. My youngest brother’s a Marine, I want to float both pieces past him and see what he thinks of them.

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, by Ted Chiang, has a promising premise but a flawed execution: a journalist in the near future sets out to write a well researched, nuanced piece about a popular piece of technology that many people are claiming will ruin humanity forever. Just as we in our time have smart phones and blogs and instagrams and twitter, people of his time have “lifelogs,” which are kind of like googleglass I guess. They record every aspect of their lives, and these recordings can be used in court. However, they’re difficult to search because there’s no tags or keywords or whatever, so you wind up doing a lot of scrolling. A company figures out a way to easily index and search lifelogs, and sells their product, making it a hell of a lot easier for users to replay exact experiences in full. The narration is interspersed with an account of a young man from a “primitive” tribe taught to read and write by a European missionary, and discusses how stuff we take for granted (like reading and writing) is technology that changed how we remember, see the world, interact, etc. There’s some really interesting ideas in the story, but there’s also some lazy writing, some florid writing, and I’m really tired of the trope of poor put upon suffering male hero has a flighty bitch ex-wife who abandoned him to “find herself” and she’s so horrible and such a bitch. Yes, it’s revealed in the book that the narrator is a real dickbag who rewrites his memories to make himself the long suffering victim (as all humans do) but still. There’s a lot of real fundamental laziness going on, and despite the interesting ideas presented, Chiang doesn’t do much with them. The narrator, and his daughter, remain ciphers. The story doesn’t seem very emotionally invested in them at all. I almost didn’t finish the story… there just didn’t seem a lot of POINT to it.

The Waiting Stars, by Aliette de Bodard is an absolutely incredible story about identity and family and colonialism. (If you click the link, it should take you to de Bodard’s website, where you can download the novelette or read it right there.) In the far future, there are sentient ships, born of women, in a strongly Vietnamese culture. The story follows two women: one is a Da Viet woman trying to reclaim a captured ship, who she considers her Great Aunt, from the “Outsiders” who have captured it; the other is an orphaned Da Viet woman who was “rescued” as a child along with a bunch of other girls and raised in an orphanage where she was “civilized” and given a European-sounding name and forced to forget her culture of origin (language, food, dress, religion, family, etc). I’ve noticed that the women writers on the Hugo Ballot ALL addressed race and/or gender issues, and “The Waiting Stars” tackles racism and transracial adoption and colonialism in a BIG but not heavy handed way. The writing is deft, lyrical, and powerful. The world and the characters and the politics are incredibly real feeling. The story left me wanting more: more of the characters, more of the world, more of the writing, more. I absolutely will be seeking out more by de Bodard, she’s a talent to watch.

The Lady Astronaut of Mars, by Mary Robinette Kowal, is the story of a now-elderly woman astronaut who was one of the first to travel to Mars and set up a colony there. (once again, click the link to read the story.) This is the first novelette in the packet I read, and it utterly floored me. I was thrown, at first, by the references to Dorthy Gale and Kansas, but moving past that, it’s a fantastic exploration of what would have happened if the USA had had a functioning space program that reached Mars in the early 1950s… and had included women in the program. Elma, married to her programmer love who hasn’t much longer to live, is desperate to fly again. She’s given the opportunity to do just that, but it would mean abandoning her husband to die without her present… and without any children to support him, as they decided not to have kids because of her astronaut career. It’s a beautiful and poignant story about regret and about hope, about inspiration, and about love and devotion. I’m not going to lie, it made me tear up… and it put Kowal very clearly on my reading radar. As with de Bodard, I’m absolutely going to keep an eye out for her work.

The last two novelettes reviewed were difficult. I love them both so much, but in different ways and for different things. If I could, I’d vote for them both to be number one, but failing that, I gave Kowal’s piece the #1 slot. If I’d read de Bodard’s first, to be perfectly honest, my ranking might have been different though.

I did not read the other novelette.

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The 2014 Hugo Ballot, Some Thoughts

July21

Nesko got this awesome new job that, while challenging, also pays him literally like twice what he was making at his previous job plus we have medical benefits. Which means I can finally get some mouth stuff taken care of (including a bone infection I’ve had for over a year HA HA FUN HOW AM I STILL ALIVE) and also we have some spare scratch to do fun stuff like repaint Niko’s room (so cute!) and buy a voting membership to LONCON. I’d wanted to join previously but we couldn’t afford it, and the biggest way I was able to convince Nesko to pop for it this year was that “The Wheel Of Time” is up for consideration as a complete work which means that the ENTIRE SERIES is included in the voting packet and purchasing the electronic versions of each book individually would cost more than the membership. That went a long way toward convincing him. So we signed up, I got the voting packet, and I’ve been plowing through the material.

There’s been three things about this years’ Hugos that a lot of people are talking about.

The most minor thing is that one of the publishers is only including excerpts of novels (they had three that made the nomination cut) and not the entire novel. One of those novels I bought as soon as I heard that, because I’d been wanting to anyway. Then I bought Anne Leckie’s novel because I’d heard amazing things about it and it was $1.99. That leaves the third novel which I am going to see if I like from the excerpt and may purchase or may just judge based on the excerpt. As many people have pointed out, it’s easier to track down a free version of a novel than a short story, novella, or novelette. If it’s good enough and popular enough to be a successful nomination, then you can probably get it from a friend or the library. The voting packet is a favor and a perk, not something a voter is entitled to. Hugo voters pay for the privilege of voting, not getting a bunch of free books and stuff. I really hope these three authors aren’t hurt by their publisher’s choice, especially as they are up against freaking WHEEL OF TIME but hey.

Another relatively minor thing, touched on above, is that WHEEL OF FREAKING TIME, a F O U R T E E N novel series, is up for consideration as a whole work. For people like Nesko, that’s going be weighted based on nostalgia alone, and also perhaps pity because Jordan died while working on it and his wife has been BUSTING ASS to keep his dream alive and get the series properly finished and published. And apparently Brandon Sanderson (the new author) is a really stand up guy. So a lot of long term voters/members are discussing how to properly and appropriately and fairly change the rules to create a new category or prevent this from happening against because COME ON, fourteen books, helllllllll.

The more major thing is that Larry Correia put together a list for “the sad puppies,” authors whose WELL DESERVING AND TOTES AWESOME!!!! works never win Hugos because the gosh darn liberal feminazi jack booted socialist communist thugs are KEEPING THEM DOWN. One of the first and foremost on his list is Vox Day, the only person to be kicked out of the SFWA (for using official SFWA platforms to spread misogynist bullshit), who famously referred to N. K. Jemison as “a savage.” He is intensely racist and sexist and homophobic and very emblematic of certain old guard SFF who want all these Black people and women and assorted scumbags to get off their lawn and never write again because ew who cares about anything but straight white men over the age of 35. Correia was pretty successful with over half his suggestions getting on the final ballot. A whole lot of people have been speaking out against his actions, urging his fans who wouldn’t otherwise buy LONCON memberships last year to do so so they could nominate these works. A WHOLE LOT of people have been speaking out against his personal politics, and even more so against Vox Day. An awful lot of folks have been complaining that the Hugos are nothing more than a popularity contest.

Well, duh.

Personally, I have no issue with someone advocating, hard, for a creator or group of creators. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. Some folks have been alleging that Correia and/or Day personally invested a bunch of money in buying “fake” Loncon accounts simply to nominate and then vote. This sounds… farfetched. Not impossible, but farfetched. And I want to point out that when Mark Oshiro and his fans pooled money to buy Loncon memberships to vote in the Hugo awards, and had specific slate of people to vote for, nobody (that I’m aware of) objected to that. It was just fans being fans. (It’s also what REALLY got me interested in voting in the Hugos, btw) Is it because Oshiro is a passionate fan while Correia and Day are professional writers? Is it because Oshiro is a gay Latino raised by an Asian family who speaks out about homophobia, domestic violence, misogyny, etc while Correia and Day are deeply invested in the status quo of white heterosexual men ruling the world? I do not know. I also don’t really care, when it comes down to it.

I don’t think Correia’s slate of nominations, that him urging his fans to get a membership and vote, was a bad thing.

But I do think that every single work I’ve ready by someone who he’s nominated has been… mediocre at best and pretty dismissive toward women. And I know that I’m not going to read Correia’s work or Day’s work, because I know that the entire time I read it I’ll be braced for something casual and ugly to come out and I’m tired of reading and waiting for the casual ugliness.

Years ago, someone asked Seanan McGuire when her female characters would be raped. Not IF they would be raped, but WHEN, because the idea, the very common idea, is that rape is something that happens to women to motivate them/males in their lives. It’s just a thing that happens. Like sunburn. Like the common cold. Can’t avoid it. It’s both utterly routine and also the worst thing in the entire world worse than death. And she responded that her female characters would not ever be raped, that she would not write rape. And I started getting REALLY interested in reading her stuff. And I picked up her “Toby Daye” series and I liked it, and during one of the books Toby’s in a really tight situation and being menaced aggressively, emotionally and physically, by a much larger man. And I realized that I didn’t need to worry that she was going to be raped. And an invisible weight, one that I didn’t know I was carrying around, rolled off my shoulders. I pick up McGuire’s (she also writes as Mira Grant) works and I read them and there’s a freedom I feel as I read them. I hadn’t realized until I started reading her stuff how much I brace myself for the inevitable rape. It’s incredibly liberating and wonderful not to have to worry about that, not to carry that weight around.

Correia and Day’s work will be the opposite of that. I know that I’ll spend the entire time waiting for a woman character to be raped, or threatened with rape, or some dude will leer at a woman and the protagonist will go five rounds with him because he “failed to respect women” or some bullshit, and the women will be props and excuses and motivations and not characters. I’ll spend the entire time waiting to hear about how Black/Latin@/Asian/their equivalent are inferior to White people, that they’re savages, that non-Christian characters (or whatever the allegorical equivalent is) all deserve to be murdered. And life’s too short for that.

I’m going to review the works included under the Novel, Novella, Novelette, Short Story, and John W. Campbell award sections over the next few days. I’m not really going to touch on Correia’s or Day’s works, and if I didn’t finish something I’ll note that I didn’t and why. (I’ll also note if I’m already a fan of the author, which duh will predispose me to liking their work.)

I’m not going to be voting for best screen play, because I’m unfamiliar with most of the works, or with Best Dramatic Presentation because I don’t really give a fuck about Doctor Who, etc.

One thing I’ve noticed is that I’ve read more male authors than female authors, and the male authors have all been pretty mediocre: poor, lazy writing; shallow characters; cliched tropes that add nothing new; stereotypes galore. The female authors, on the other hand, all have produced sparkling gems of excellent tight writing about the human condition, opening existing tropes to new study, creating characters that I care deeply about. I don’t know if this is just a coincidence and I haven’t hit on the really good male writers yet, if it’s a prime example of women needing to be twice as good to get half the credit, or if it’s the effect of the ballot being larded with Correia’s hand-picked authors who… just aren’t that good but share his politics. I really don’t know. But I formed most of my opinions about these works without knowing the gender of the author.

I also want to note that it was HARD making a decision about Best Fanwriter, and I wish the fiction sections had that level of high quality writing, passion, and interest.

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