Review of Death’s End by Cixin Liu

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Okay, I’m finally done with this novel. It’s a finalist for the 2017 Hugo Award, translated by Ken Liu and published by Tor. It runs about 600 pages.

Cheng Xin is an aerospace scientist. The Earth has been in contact with the Trisolarians and has benefited from their science, while a program of dark forest deterrence ensures the two civilizations will respect one another. The Trisolarian fleet is on the way to Earth, and scientists there send out a probe with the brain of the cancer patient Yun Tianming. Cheng Xin goes into hibernation and wakes to find the probe has gone missing and the deterrence Swordholder Luo Ji is retiring. Cheng Xin is elected the new Swordholder, but when the Trisolarians launch an invasion, she falters, setting the human race up for extermination. A backup system on an interstellar ship acts, and the Trisolarians flee. This it to no avail, as their home world is destroyed by a dark forest strike against their sun. The interaction also exposes the Earth’s position to dark forest cleansers. A surprise contact with Yun Tianming provides possible defenses against a strike, so scientists start to prepare. Will the human race be ready in time?

This is a narration that crosses centuries to the end of time, addressing Earth’s attempt to join the community of outer space and the challenges that have to be overcome. It’s a tour de force of theory and ideas, as Liu imagines threats and technical responses on a grand scale. There’s probably still a lot lost in the translation, but some of the elegance of Liu’s prose comes through in this novel. His imagery is front and center this time, including descriptions of technical matters and some moments that are just for pure enjoyment. It’s definitely hard SF, as the problems, solutions and developments are all based on hard scientific theory.

On the negative side, Liu’s characterizations still tend to be weak, as he’s clearly more interested in the historical sweep and the technical details. Cheng Xin feels passive and doesn’t seem personally involved in any of the conflicts. I can’t see why people defer to her, as she seems to have no particular authority and tends to pass off responsibility or obligation. I suspect this might be a Chinese view of modesty and selflessness, but I think she needs a stronger power base in order to be the main protagonist.

Four and a half stars. Recommended.

NOTE: The dark forest is explained in the previous volume of this series, titled, appropriately, The Dark Forest. It’s based on the Fermi Paradox, i.e. there should be other civilizations out there, so why haven’t we heard a peep out of them?

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Still More Thoughts on Diversity and the Awards Cycle

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One interesting thing that caught my attention in the discussion on diversity in the current Hugo finalist list is that supporters of the Hugo system don’t seem to think (or don’t want to admit) there’s a diversity program going on in the awards system. If this is true, then the swing from ~90% white men as Hugo finalist in the early oughties to ~90% women and minorities in the late teens is an entirely natural trend, based on increasing diversity in the SFF community and increasing appreciation for minority writers. This is paralleled by language about the recent activism of the Sad/Rabid Puppies, where the Puppy votes are negatively called “slate” votes in the analyses, while non-Puppy votes are called “organic,” as if they result from a natural, unbiased process.

At the same time, the increasing diversity of the awards is celebrated in the press, for example The Guardian here and here with articles that frame this as a victory. This framing (and other celebratory language) suggests there has really been some kind of battle going on to increase the representation of diverse authors on the awards ballots at the expense of white men. So, everybody might as well admit that.

My position in the last couple of post has been that, in the drive to increase the diversity of race and gender on the ballot, voters have advanced a particular intellectual agenda that reduces real diversity in the awards. For example, a brief look at recent winners shows what repeat WorldCon voters prefer is fantasy or science fantasy stories with high emotional content and current progressive themes. This agenda tends to exclude male writers of “traditional” SF, as everyone has noticed. Tellingly, it also tends to exclude groups like the US counted Native American and Latino minorities because these authors tend to prefer writing according to their own cultural worldview instead of to power broker agendas. This refusal to accept cultural worldviews is the big failing of standard diversity programs. Companies like Facebook, for example, want to hire diverse employees for the sake of compliance, but then they fail at inclusion, rejecting the actual results of their diversity campaign.

Admittedly the Sad/Rabid Puppies mounted a radical challenge to the Hugo’s in recent years, but WorldCon’s response has been to double down on their apparent agenda. There might be a lot of diverse names on the ballot this year, but what is WorldCon doing about real cultural inclusion?

Notes on Accomplishing Greater Diversity

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The current initiative for diversity falls out of the policy of multiculturalism. In recent decades, this policy has replaced assimilation, where individuals give up their cultural values to take on those of the dominant culture. Under multiculturalism, the expectation is that society will celebrate the diversity that different cultural values bring. All has not gone well with the effort to incorporate diversity within the dominant culture. In other words, there’s a lot of friction.

One of the big complaints about the issue has been that people talk about diversity a lot, but in practice, the dominant culture remains rigid and unaccommodating. For example, here’s a 2008 blog post where writers of color complain about being forced into writing stereotypes in order to get published. In the SFF community, it’s true that we see a greater variety in races, religions, sexual orientation, disability status, etc., among writers, but there’s actually a difference between counting beans (i.e. publications, statistics on the awards ballot) and establishing real diversity. So, what is real diversity? How would this look on the award ballots, for example? I have a few suggestions to throw out there.

For one thing, I’d expect a broad difference in content and theme. I’ve complained before about the preference publishers seem to have for emotional content over intellectual inquiry. As I’ve already mentioned in a previous blog, there were entirely too many stories out there this year on the theme of child abuse. This tends to crowd out serious SF in favor of emotional stories with a minimal SF or fantasy setting. The quantity of blatant political message fiction in contention for the awards this year is also troubling.

Second, I’d expect settings from different cultures and viewpoints. Real diversity should include more writers from outside the Western dominant culture, for example, writing stories based on Chinese, African or Pakistani culture. It’s true that there are more diverse names on the awards ballots in recent years, but has this really resulted in a diversity of viewpoint? And one of the Sad/Rabid Puppies’ complaints has been the dominance of liberal/progressive themes. Shouldn’t real diversity include other political viewpoints, as well?

Third, I’d expect diversity to include a broad sampling of ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations, both among the writers and the characters. One of the characteristics of recent ballots is the complete absence of white men, for example. Hispanics and Native Americans are also consistently shut out of the awards ballots. In some cases, preference for LGBTQ writers and characters may be at the point of displacing the straight and cis-gendered.

A while back, I got comments that recommended I look at the diversity on the Hugo ballot this year. So, how does it stand up under this kind of analysis? There are some good points here. First, there are four black writers and two trans writers on the ballot, both of which are under-represented minorities. There are also both men and women on the ballot, even if they’re not arrayed according to demographics. There are writers with disability. There is variety in the type of works, including fantasy, science fantasy, dark fantasy, space opera and hard SF.

On the critical side, this ballot tends to lack in intellectual diversity, suffering the usual preference for emotional over intellectual content. Although 8 of the works are nominally SF, Cixin Liu provides the only serious, hard SF, and is also the only writer from outside the dominant UK/American English culture. The contenders lean heavily to women writers of fantasy or science fantasy, and without Vox Day’s activism, there would be no white men on the Hugo ballot at all. Half the finalists were published by Tor, which means the company’s particular brand dominates, shutting out small presses and independents that might be publishing more diverse and cutting edge work.

The Hugo is a fan-based award, and by now it’s clear the rules allow particular groups to dominate the voting. So how could WorldCon increase the diversity of the results using these criteria? Broader participation?

More thoughts on whether the Hugo actually represents SFF fandom

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My recent blog about whether the Hugo actually represents SFF fandom generated a lot of traffic. Since everyone may not have read through the comments, I thought it worth summarizing some of the issues here. I’m sure participants in the discussion might like to see other issues addressed, as well, but this is what stood out for me.

  • A challenge to the idea that the Hugo is just a “popularity contest” and a proposal that the WorldCon voters instead try to pick the “best” work of the year in each category when they nominate or vote.
  • A question of whether the ballot should be expected to represent SFF readership demographics, or whether other factors like social/political trends have a more important effect on what’s nominated and what wins.
  • A suggestion that the likelihood for a particular work to win depends on the “intensity of support” for it.
  • A question of whether WorldCon should try to represent the whole world, or if we should admit it’s really just representing English-speaking fans.
  • A suggestion that a group of overlapping, active “voting” fans might control all the major US-based SFF awards.

These are all interesting comments that I think reveal how the Hugo Award is viewed and what members of the SFF community expect it to do. However, these issues generate other questions. If fans try to pick the “best work” for the Hugos instead of what they enjoy reading, what criteria do they use? Well written? Literary? Science based? Representing popular social/political trends?

If the award tends to follow popular social/political trends, does it mainly reward people who best represent these topics? For example, if (fill in the blank) is a current social issue, will the awards system reward (fill in the blank) authors and representations of (fill in the blank) on the ballot? Does this mean anybody else who is not (fill in the blank) is completely out of the running?

What lends to “intensity of support”? Is this a work that speaks to a lot of voting fans? Something that they feel is important for the SFF community to reward? Something novel and different? Something that indulges emotion?

The question of whether WorldCon ought to say it represents the whole world is an issue that recurs. It was probably an unfortunate conceit that led the founders to call it that back in the day. Likely in 1953 they had ambition to represent the world, but the various sub-genres have greatly multiplied since then, as has the diversity of writers/fans. People in China and Spain read science fiction. That makes it really hard to be inclusive. Plus, who’s going to handle the translations?

I was accused of singling out the Hugo’s for criticism, but I think I’ve covered literary awards in general in this series. They have their good points as well as their faults. I’ll try to look more closely at some others in the near future.

Thanks to all for the discussion on the issues.

Review of Heathens by Jonah Bergan

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I’m actually gone on vacation again, and there’s going to be a delay while I work through Cixin Liu’s Death’s End at 600 pages. To fill in, here’s a review of one of those underrepresented voices that would be hard to find in offerings from the big publishers.

Things in the US have come apart. The Free Republic of Texas holds most of the Central US, and the Kingdom of God holds most of the North and East, except for a strip right along the coast where UN Peacekeepers hold ground they call the “colonies.” Only the Deep South of Florida, Georgia and Alabama is still called the United States. Holden lives in a disputed, ruined city, and like many young LGB people has a talent developing. His is telekinesis, but others have different talents which make them targets for people who consider the powers demonic. When Holden’s lover is killed by hostiles, he leaves home and is taken in by Sol as part of his family. Sol is for trying to reestablish peace, but he is opposed by Clarissa who wants to fight against the enemy. Motivated by anger and hate, Holden grows more militant. He moves to Clarissa’s camp, where he finds other young people like himself who want to fight back. Eventually Holden has to make a decision about what’s right.

This is a young adult novel in the popular dystopia sub-genre. It’s written in first and second person, as Holden narrates events for us and also speaks to the enemy as “you.” The political divisions presented by the book echo the slash and burn tactics of current politics, where the extremes of right and left attack the voices in the center. It’s well-written, with Holden’s narrative providing both the flow of his thoughts and feelings and a clear picture of both the city and what goes on within it.

On the negative side, a lot of people die here. It’s a dark vision that isn’t likely to encourage hope in younger generations. Also, I can’t see where any but LGB teens are developing the talents, though some straight kids do get ground up and/or join the fight. This means the book is tightly aimed at a particular audience when broadening the cast of characters would increase the audience size.

I like the message. Four stars.

Does the Hugo really represent fandom?

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I’ve already commented on the extreme diversity that appeared on the Nebula ballot this year. There’s also quite a bit in the Hugo ballot if you’re looking for the usual author characteristics. For example, the Hugo Best Novel category includes two trans authors, a black author, two Asian authors, two LGB authors and two disabled authors. There are no white men there. This outcome is considered progressive, but somehow I suspect there are some very popular white male writers out there. Note that the two white men who appear on the ballot as a whole are due to Vox Day’s activism. Stix Hiscock I’m not going to mention.

Here’s the Hugo ballot again:
Best Novel
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor Books / Titan Books)
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager US)
Death’s End by Cixin Liu (Tor Books / Head of Zeus)
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris Books)
The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit Books)
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer (Tor Books)

Best Novella
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (Tor.com Publishing)
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson (Tor.com Publishing)
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum Literary Agency)
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com Publishing)
This Census-Taker by China Miéville (Del Rey / Picador)

Best Novelette
“Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex” by Stix Hiscock (self-published)
“The Art of Space Travel” by Nina Allan (Tor.com, July 2016)
“The Jewel and Her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde (Tor.com Publishing, May 2016)
“The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon (Apex Magazine, January 2016)
“Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld Magazine, April 2016)
“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong (Uncanny Magazine, May 2016)

Best Short Story
“The City Born Great” by N. K. Jemisin (Tor.com, September 2016)
“A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” by Alyssa Wong (Tor.com, March 2016)
“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine, November 2016)
“Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press)
“That Game We Played During the War” by Carrie Vaughn (Tor.com, March 2016)
“An Unimaginable Light” by John C. Wright (God, Robot, Castalia House)

So, what are the chances that SFF fandom as a whole would elect this ballot? Remember that taste is never random, but with equal participation I’d expect the SFF readership demographics should roughly match the ballot for a popular award. Assuming that everyone participates, of course.

Well, it’s hard to say what the current demographics are. I’m having trouble finding any studies to consult on the matter. When I checked, the latest demographic study on SFF readership I found took place in 1977. This should be a great opportunity for research. Doesn’t the industry conduct surveys to keep track of fan demographics at all?

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