Hugo Neepery, the 2015 Edition

These past couple of posts I’ve been warning that I’ll be writing up a separate post discussing the Hugos this year. It’s a somewhat controversial topic this year. You may remember how last year we had some trouble with a few authors having an entitlement problem. Well, they’re back, and this time the lunatic fringe also showed up to the party.

The way the Hugo nomination process works is that if you have at least a supporting membership of an appropriate Worldcon, costing around $40, you get to nominate works for the Hugo ballot. Since the English-speaking world sees some 1,000 works published for the novel category alone each year and the field is very broad, ranging from fantasy of manners to hard military science fiction, the votes tend to spread out quite a bit. Because of this, were someone to write up a slate of nominations, which Brad Torgersen did and then Theodore Beale imitated and expanded upon, and tell all their friends and family and fans to vote on it, it would only take a couple of hundred warm bodies to have an effect. This is entirely legal by the rules, but tremendously unsportsmanlike.

So, we’re left with the end result that the majority of nominees on the ballot did not make it there on literary merit alone. Indeed, there are a number of works there entirely lacking in merit literary and otherwise. The short fiction categories and Best Related Work are a lost cause this year, and though there are a couple of works there that I thought were pretty decent, like Kary English’s “Totaled”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Day the World Turned Upside Down” (though last year’s “Ink Readers of Doi Saket” was much better) and one or two others, they’re still not quite what I’d think of as Hugo quality and the rest of the nominees are too weak for me to call it a contest. This is one of the more insidious things about slate voting. Even if there was something that would normally have a fighting chance on the ballot, the contest isn’t going to be fair if it’s accompanied there by stuff that’s merely okay or worse, and an award won in a category where the rest of the nominees are present only because Little Teddy wants to promote his vanity press is hollow. It’s a spectacularly shitty thing to do to writers who neither asked nor were asked to be on the slate.

Best Novella is particularly dire and contained nothing that I did not detest outright. I shall also single out John C. Wright’s Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and the Awful Truth as the worst book I have ever read, a nearly perfect intellectual, artistic, and moral failure.

That said, Best Novel has a lot of good stuff, and I think Best Graphic Story was the strongest it’s been in years.

My vote for Best Novel goes to Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, a novel about a fish out of water in a setting of courtly intrigue. It’s very much “Jane Austen’s The Lord of the Rings“. The prose is beautiful and the main character, Maia, is relatable to a degree that’s starting to feel manipulative. It’s sentimental and cozy, and somehow makes it work. It was also light in tone, which is a refreshing break from all the George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie I’ve been reading lately.

I also liked Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword and Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. Actually, Addison only edged out Leckie for first spot on my ballot because Leckie already won pretty much everything except the Pulitzer last year. Liu’s novel was interesting and a worthy successor to its models in the grand tradition of idea sci-fi, but the prose and characters felt flat to me. So sue me. I’m not a big fan of Clarke, Dick or Asimov either.

Jim Butcher’s Skin Game I can take or leave. I loved Cold Days, but this one just left me cold. I’ve been a fan of the series, and Butcher still writes eminently readable stuff. However, the focus on Dresden’s sexual frustration in this one was tremendously awkward to read, and the end resolution felt anticlimactic for all the stakes they had piled up. Also, the pop culture references went far over the top. Especially at the end.

Kevin J. Anderson’s The Dark Between the Stars I found merely dull. It’s very long, has aliens with katanas, and is simultaneously the sequel to a long series that it assumes you’ve read and the start of a new series, so it sort of assumes that you know all this stuff already and the actual payoff is going to be delivered a few books down the line.

For Graphic Story, I’m giving it to Rat Queens, Vol. 1: Sass & Sorcery. I have been reading a lot of Order of the Stick and Nodwick lately, and Rat Queens draws from the same well, the genre of D&D fantasy, where adventurers are a profession unto itself and mysterious strangers hand out quests in taverns. All three comics play with the tropes of the game and the genre, but whereas Nodwick is just a loose collection of jokes and Order of the Stick is an epic fantasy tale layered with the trappings of a role-playing game, Rat Queens captures the actual play experience like nothing I have seen before. It deftly weaves together the absurdity of a casual gaming group with the ostensible seriousness of the adventures they have. It’s also too funny to be read in public while trying to maintain decorum. And the art is pretty.

After Rat Queens, there’s the third installment of Saga, the first trade paperback collection of Ms. Marvel, and the first volume of Sex Criminals, all of which I liked. There was also a zombie comic of some sort, but it was not included in the voter package, was off the Sad Puppy slate and is a zombie story, which together killed my interest and I could not even be bothered to dig it up.

Also, it is a crying shame that Sing No Evil was not on the ballot. Or The Causal Angel, or Memory of Water, or “The Truth About Owls”, or the Southern Reach Trilogy, or The Blood of Angels, or Only Lovers Left Alive, or What Makes This Book So Great, or Sibilant Fricative, or The World of Ice and Fire or the second part of Heinlein’s biography, or nearly anything else than what we in so many categories received.

The Hugo voting is open until July 31st, and there’s still plenty of time to get your Sasquan membership and Hugo Voter Pack and see for yourself if I’m right or wrong.

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Archipelacon: A Convention Report

I was originally going to start off this post with something along the lines of “I don’t know what you did over the weekend, but if you weren’t at Archipelacon, I had way more fun than you did”, but it looks like we weren’t the only ones with a reason to be happy.

Archipelacon was a four-day sci-fi convention in Mariehamn, on the island of Åland, branded as “the most fun you can have in a demilitarized zone”. The guests of honour were Karin Tidbeck, Johanna Sinisalo, Gary K. Wolfe, Parris McBride, and following the tradition of our Åland conventions of inviting up-and-coming, lesser-known authors, one George R.R. Martin.

And it was great.

The Quinsonitus ensemble. After the intermission, they would be back. Photo by Henry Söderlund, used with permission.

The Quinsonitus ensemble. After the intermission, they would be back. Photo by Henry Söderlund, used with permission.

How Great? Pretty Damn Great

Thursday dawned grey in Tampere. This is the summer, so dawn comes at around 3 a.m., which should give you a good picture of how early I had to get up to get on the bus that’d take me to the Turku harbour and onwards to the ferry that would take us all to Mariehamn. The Tampere fandom had reserved a bus for our own use.

Actually, I didn’t even get up. Being the neurotic that I am, I never went to sleep at all and spent my time watching stuff off Netflix. For the record, A Million Ways to Die in the West cannot be recommended.

The con really started at the bus stop, with all the other sleep-deprived fen, and continued on the ferry, where I met Johanna Sinisalo and Cheryl Morgan. I’d been recruited to be Johanna’s minder for the convention and was doing both the “Fear and Loathing in Hugoland” panel and masquerade with Cheryl. In addition, I had the literary Hugo discussion on Friday morning and my talk “Science Fiction and Role-Playing Games” on Sunday.

The Hugo stuff deserves a post of its own and anyone reading deserves it to be there, since it’s a bit off topic and not particularly fun this year. I will also do a separate post on the sci-fi game talk.

Apart from my own items, I did not see a whole lot of program. What I did see, however, was great. On Friday evening, there was the Deep Space Overture, a concert where a brass and percussion ensemble from Turku called Quinsonitus played a selection of music from science fiction film and television. They were very good.

I also saw Johanna Sinisalo’s guest of honour speech. She discussed how she discovered reading at the age of around two years, became a feminist at five and was given a five-year artist grant last weekend. This, in Finland, is a very big deal. Then, she also won the Finlandia Prize in 2000 with Not Before Sundown, which was also a big deal, because back then our most prestigious literature award did not usually go to speculative fiction. Incidentally, if you haven’t read it, do so. Now. I’ll be waiting. She also read an excerpt of the upcoming translation of her novel The Core of the Sun, a scene where the narrator ate chili, one of the last sources of pleasure legally available in its dystopian Finland. The description was synesthetic, almost erotic in a way. I am a self-confessed fan of prolonged descriptions of characters’ inner lives while they’re eating (I sometimes dig up this scene from Cryptonomicon and read it aloud to myself and marvel at it), and this was right up my alley. I need to read that book. I have it somewhere, I am sure.

I saw Shimo Suntila declare himself the Last Trash Writer of Finland, in a reprise of the event at last year’s Finncon. This time, neither Boris Hurtta nor Tuomas Saloranta were there to dispute the claim.

I went to see the latest installment Jukka Halme’s quiz show “Kuis?”, where contestants are forcibly drafted from among late arrivals, scoring is only tangentially related to correct answers, and it is possible (and common) to answer the question “What is your team name?” wrong.

On Friday evening was the Game of Thrones burlesque show. “The night is dark and full of tassels”, indeed… A lot of ketchup, there. It’s been suggested that if Helsinki wins the Worldcon bid for 2017, there might be a repeat performance. (And you can vote! We can make it happen, folks!)

There's a climbing mast at the local Seafaring Museum. Yours truly at top, Hugo-nominee Ninni Aalto climbing up, Henry Söderlund behind the camera. Photo used with permission.

There’s a climbing mast at the local Seafaring Museum. Yours truly at top, Hugo nominee Ninni Aalto climbing up, Henry Söderlund behind the camera. Photo used with permission.

The Masquerade, This Time No Song or Dance

On Saturday night, I hosted the masquerade! This has become something of a tradition since I was first forcibly drafted into the job by Jukka Halme, all those years ago in Jyväskylä. Cheryl took care of wrangling the judges (Parris, Johanna, and herself), while I did all the posturing on stage. This time the technology worked perfectly and I did not need to entertain the audience with poetry recital, dances or singing while the redshirts were trying to figure out how to fix things.

People keep calling it the cosplay contest, but I think it’s useful to keep the terminology separate here. Archipelacon (and Finncon) has a masquerade show. It’s not half as serious as a major anime convention’s cosplay show. It’s whimsical. There’s a low entry threshold and only two series and the the other one is for those who need their parents to accompany them on stage. While the level can be very high, it doesn’t need to be. This year, one guy showed up with a costume he made during the convention with stuff he found in the garbage bin outside the conference centre. I accepted two new sign-ups for the show during the show.

While at Archipelacon, we had to limit our prizes to the top three, at Finncon the tradition has been to give something to everyone. While one of them is the Best in Show, I myself have an award from 2008 for “Best Sucking Up to the Judges” (we were a team of characters from Petri Hiltunen’s graphic novels, while Petri was one of the judges), and can remember from the same year “Best Use of a Toaster” (accessorizing a Battlestar Galactica costume) and “Most Unexpected” (the Spanish Inquisition). From 2010 I have the award for “Best Fool’s Dance” – and that’s the time I was hosting!

All the Masquerade participants. Prizes went to Loki and Bilbo on the far right and Miss Darth Maul, right of the centre. Photo by Simo Ulvi, used with permission.

All the Masquerade participants. Prizes went to Loki and Bilbo on the far right and Miss Darth Maul, right of the centre. Photo by Simo Ulvi, used with permission.

What Makes This Fandom So Great

Finally, I saw the panel “My Life in Fandom” with George R.R. Martin, Parris McBride, and Gary K. Wolfe. They talked about their experiences in the fandom over the decades, such as how Gary had gone to a convention dressed in a normal academic fashion – you know the type, wool sweater with leather elbow patches – and very soon someone asked him which Doctor he was. Parris and George related the tale of how they’d first met, in a sauna in a Cleveland convention. On the ladies’ side. Joe Haldeman was on hand to introduce them. Parris ended the panel with a note that resonated with me and summed up why I do this and why Archipelacon was one of the best conventions I’ve been to. She asked us to go and meet someone new.

It’s about the community. It’s about friendship. It’s about being able to hang out with a like-minded crowd without fear of being judged for who we are or what we like (Unless it’s Highlander 2. But we judge with love.). The reason I saw relatively little programming was that I spent most of my time at the bar, meeting new people. We talked literature, politics, gaming, comics, science, academics, conrunning, languages, beer, history, and everything else with people from a dozen countries. We had fun together. There was karaoke, and a chocolate tasting, and we all bought bags of books without even denting the selection at the Alvarfonden book sale. I ended up with a folder full of Swedish filk and a bottle of twelve-year-old ouzo from a Swedish fan fund auction. It’s kinda like Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, except in real life (and I’m suddenly struck by the suspicion that in fact, it may be the other way around). A lot of the online discussion within fandom has these past couple of days been less than happy, and Archipelacon was a helpful and welcome affirmation that there’s a real reason why we’re doing all this. To quote the Fan Guest of Honour Jukka Halme of Finncon 2014: “Fandom is love.”

My book haul. And this was cheap. Photo by Jukka Särkijärvi.

My book haul. And this was cheap. Photo by Jukka Särkijärvi.

Finncon 2014, Part II: The Obligatory Literary Snobbery

Continuing from my previous post, this is a sort of appendix about my thoughts on the Hugo fiction categories. Quite a few of them are available online, and links have been supplied.

The panel. Note my thousand-yard stare from reading a million words of Wheel of Time in the space of two months. Photograph © Johan Anglemark.

From left to right, Tommy Persson, Marianna Leikomaa, Jukka Halme, yours truly, and Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf. Note my thousand-yard stare from reading a million words of Wheel of Time in the space of two months. Photograph © Johan Anglemark.

I tried to read all the material before the panel. I got everything else done but had to give up on Wheel of Time after the fifth book. I simply cannot see the appeal of the series, and I object to the length. I think that in a novel, the first 300 pages are free. That’s a good length for a novel. It may suck, but it’s a decent pagecount and whatever else its successes or failings, will not feel too long. After that, though, you have to earn every page with something more than just “entertaining”. You need to have themes, depth, ideas, beautiful prose, something to bring it meaning. Neal Stephenson can pull it off. Eleanor Catton can pull it off. Umberto Eco, George R.R. Martin, Thomas Pynchon, and yes, J.R.R. Tolkien himself can pull it off. Should Hannu Rajaniemi someday be possessed by the imp of the perverse and pen an 800-page doorstopper, I am sure he would pull it off and look good doing it. Robert Jordan did not, in his first five novels, even remotely pull it off. The length of the series is respectable, yes, but apart from the distinction of numbering among the longest works of literature ever written, it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. There’s your Chosen One, complete with whining about his destiny, your Prophecy, your guiding Obi-Wan dudes, your orcs and your Dark Lord and your plot coupon collection. To top it off, it’s so damn humourless. David Eddings told the same story, but he only took five to three novels per telling and he could be funny when he tried.

I admit that I cannot speak for the Brandon Sanderson novels that cap off the series since I never got that far. Perhaps they are better, perhaps not, but I am separated from them by a gulf of thousands of pages I’ve no intention of reading.

That said, the Wheel of Time is not the most objectionable thing on the ballot this year. It merely bores me and takes up far too much space. It does not actively offend me in the way that Vox Day’s “Opera Vita Aeterna” does, for instance. Apart from what thoughts I have of the author’s political views (he’s something of a caricaturish embodiment of all the negative stereotypes about Christian fundamentalists), it’s some remarkably bad writing, with clumsy English, clumsier pseudo-Latin, and a vestigial plot that has the tension of an overcooked noodle. It feels like background worldbuilding for a larger series and the entire payoff of the story is tied to that some other series. There are also enough descriptions of medieval monastic interior decoration to make a novelette-length story somehow feel bloated. Then, it’s probably necessary for the story because it would never have made the shortlist at short story length.

I am also not entirely taken by Brad Torgersen’s stories, “The Exchange Officers” and The Chaplain’s Legacy, which read like someone found a couple of unedited first drafts written in 1956 and decided to print them as-is.

Larry Correia’s Warbound, on the other hand, I was predisposed to dislike, but the entire trilogy was in the voter’s packet so I read it all and was quite entertained. The 1930s superhero setting works, and reminds me of Godlike in a number of very positive ways. It feels gameable. The story keeps going, it maintains a sense of humour about how goofy it is (Count Zeppelin was an Active supergenius) and has a nice touch in Hitler getting executed for his troubles after the Beer Hall Putsch and the bad guys being Imperial Japan. I’ll read any novel where Ishii Shirō gets offed. That said, I still don’t think Warbound has much of a place on the ballot. It’s not nearly as strong as the trilogy’s first part, Hard Magic, and for all its virtues as fun entertainment, it simply has no depth. I am also not enamoured with the occasional gun porn or the overly gory descriptions of violence. They feel off and out of place.

Read this.

Read this.

Ranting over. Like I said, we all thought Ancillary Justice was the best of the lot. It’s science fiction doing what it was born to do, exploring the what ifs and why nots of the human condition. The novel focuses especially the concepts of identity and language. The main character is actually a part of a spaceship, whose native language has no gendered pronouns – and she defaults to she in English (it also just occurred to me that “Radch”, the name of the empire that is the main character’s home, is probably pronounced /ɹɑːdʒ/). It is a simple and elegant way of highlighting and problematizing something that we take for granted, the male as the default. It also probably renders the novel untranslatable into any language that doesn’t do gendered pronouns, like Finnish.

It’s also a bit of a send-up of Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, another favourite of mine. It’s already deservedly picked up pretty much every other major award in science fiction, and the Hugo would be a logical extension of the series. I mean, I won’t cry if it loses to Neptune’s Brood (Charles Stross at his internet puppiest, complete with an extended Monty Python joke, clever ideas by the bushel and a rather too abrupt an ending), but it really shouldn’t.

In the novel category we also have Mira Grant’s Parasite. I do not have a lot to say about it since it brings together medical horror, which I dislike, and zombie horror, which I hate, and the pacing is off. Almost the entire first half of the novel consists of doctor’s appointments, treatments and the protagonist’s everyday life. It does pick up once the zombie outbreak gets going, but it’s too little, too late. Additionally, there is a revelation at the end that was implicitly told to the reader a hundred pages previously. Even I caught it and I was skimming at that point. Sometimes figuring out the big reveal ahead of time makes the reader feel smart, but this one was too obvious and felt like sloppy writing. Personally, I think the zombie novel has jumped the tapeworm.

In the novella category, we get Catherynne M. Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White, which is a fascinating blend of western and fairytale. The story is beautifully written in this frontiersy, Deadwood kind of voice, and I ended up reading it aloud to myself to better appreciate it (as well as the sound of my own voice).

There’s also Equoid by Charles Stross, which is a worthy instalment to the Laundry series, with H.P. Lovecraft and the coolest unicorns anywhere. my favourite thing about the story is how the writing dates it between the second and third novels of the series, sometime in 2007 or 2008 – someone has a MySpace account. The category also features Wakulla Springs, an evocative story of the early days of filmmaking. And swimming. It has a very strong atmosphere and a powerful sense of place, but I find the speculative fiction elements kind of lacking. Someone commented that it should be read as a work of American magical realism, which I guess works, but does not quite do it for me.

This, too.

This, too.

In the novelette category, my favourite is Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, a sentimental, beautiful and sad retro-futurist story about getting old and the pull of the final frontier. It’s just good enough to pull it off without becoming cloying. Aliette de Bodard’s “The Waiting Stars” was interesting and well-written, with an intersting way of tying the two seemingly unrelated narratives together. Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” I felt was somewhat distancing and cold, a very methodical exploration, perhaps even a dissection, of its themes. It was too explicit about them, and I think I would have preferred a subtler approach.

Finally, there are the short stories, the only category where I did not feel the necessity to field the dread “no award” option. My favourite was John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere”, very closely followed by Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”, which is seriously funny. I think too many writers forget that humour is sometimes necessary to offer contrast to the bleakness and even more often that something being legitimately funny in its own right is a valid thing to aspire to. Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” and Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” don’t quite do it to me in the same way, but neither is bad.

The darkly funny thing about the inclusion of Correia and Vox Day and Torgersen on that list is that they’re all known for being politically somewhat to the right (sufficiently to come around into being politically wrong), and there is a certain temptation to frame this particular year’s ballot as a true test for the fandom, to reject the bigotry and the outdated values of yesteryear, to once and for all declare that science fiction and the people who love it truly stand for progress, for looking into a better future. However, it really isn’t. If it were Orson Scott Card or Dan Simmons on the ballot, that argument could possbily be made. What we are up against here, though, is one decent entertainer and a couple of guys whose work has the subtlety of a political manifesto, the finesse of a boot to the head, and a grasp of language easily rivalling that of an an eight-year-old English-as-second-language student. I can come up with no metric of literary quality that would see any of these men walking away with a rocket statuette. It is defeat enough that they’re on the ballot. While I would have no problem voting No Award over any of their works simply because there is a point in political discourse where I can no longer in good conscience agree to disagree, it is not relevant to the situation because their works are not the Best Novel, or Novella, or Novelette of the year, or even among the ten best, or in most cases any good at all.

Rant over, hopefully for good this time. We’ll see next month.