What should we expect SFF awards to do?

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The large mainstream awards like the Nobel and the Pulitzer try to identify important literary works. But in the smaller world of SFF, what should we expect the Nebula and Hugo awards to do? Because the Nebula is presented by industry professionals and the Hugo supposedly by fans, one would expect that the Nebula should elect an “important” work that has literary value for advancing the SFF genre. Alternately, the Hugo ought to represent fandom and elect a popular work. But then, whose taste in reading is it going to represent?

SFF fandom has diversified, and this is no longer a simple choice. As I understand the Puppies’ complaints, they think the results in recent years have not been representative of the genre as a whole. Additionally, some have alleged that industry professionals and/or special interest groups have gained control of the awards. Why do they think so?

Not so long ago, the Hugo was awarded by the small group of people who attended WorldCon or who went to the trouble to snail mail in a fee for a “supporting membership” and wait patiently for a ballot to arrive. We can assume this group included dedicated fans willing to fork over cash to participate, plus industry professionals expecting to sell books at the con. However, the advent of the Internet has changed all this.

When WorldCon started offering supporting memberships online, then it’s easy for anybody to buy supporting memberships so they can vote without the expense of attending. This has the nice advantage of making money for the Con; however, it’s also mainly what has led to the recent problems with control of the award. Supporting memberships mean that any special interest group can influence the direction of the awards through the simple method of buying memberships. This exposes the award to influence by vested interests and activists, for a couple of examples.

I gather the Puppies tried to point this out, and when WorldCon ignored the issue, Vox Day conducted a demonstration of how it works. WorldCon’s response has been to institute measures to reduce the influence of coordinated voting campaigns, but given the presence of porn in the list of finalists again this year, this effort has had limited success.

But should this really be WorldCon’s problem to solve? Why not just accept that special interest groups will try to influence the awards? If fans of traditional SFF want greater control of the Hugos, then shouldn’t they just be more active in the awards process?

Review of Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

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This novel is a Hugo finalist published by Tor Books. It’s promoted as science fiction but doesn’t include much technology. It reads instead like sociology.

In the 25th century, narrator Mycroft Canner is a Servicer/convict/slave because of crimes he committed in his youth. He can do high quality analyses, so his Servicer position gives him access to the circles of power. He documents a history for the reader, giving us glimpses of how the wealthy and powerful live. The theft of an important document sets an investigation into motion that threatens to reveal more than anyone wants.

This is an ambitious work, very complex and intricate. As you might expect with works of this scope, it succeeds amazingly in some ways, and falls short in others. Mycroft’s narration provides us a low-key review of human history, some fictional and some not, including the philosophical and sociological underpinnings of society. We’re treated to a jaw-dropping projection of how the world might be organized in the 25th century. Nations have been replaced with hives and noble houses with the ibash’ as the transit time across the Atlantic drops to about an hour. Recognition of divisive topics is discouraged, including the existence of gender and religion. People are a mish-mash of nationality and commonly genetically engineered. Set-sets are human-AI hybrids. About 2/3 of the way through, the novel develops suddenly into a political intrigue as it moves into revelation of what kind of crimes we’re dealing with.

On the con side this is another 400 page book that starts off at a glacial pace. The first 250 pages consist of brief scenes separated by pages-long blocks of exposition, and the author withholds information, meaning that the reader has to be pretty dedicated to slog through this part. Palmer then resorts to the 16th century and the Marquis de Sade to sharpen things up. The result is pretty messy, with inconsistencies in both the content and presentation. For example, Mycroft makes up excuses to describe gender and use gender pronouns, and unless there’s genetic engineering we’ve not seen yet, there are supernatural powers afoot. The world-building addresses the general organization and the houses of the powerful, but it ends up resorting to the past for specifics, i.e. ancient Rome and Paris. There’s a big emphasis on transit, but no clear indication of how this economy functions or how the government works or the common people live. The novel just stops; there’s no resolution.

The big pro for this book is the effort Palmer has put into the projections and world-building. It’s something missing from almost all the SF on the market these days, as writers tend to be overwhelmed by the rate of social and technological change and just roll belly-up. Regardless of the inconsistencies, the author has put together a reasonable sketch of how unrecognizable our world might be in 400 years. I guess that means it takes a social scientist to chart the change.

I can’t say much about the plot or action line as this has hardly started to develop by the end of the novel. Stay tuned for the next installment.

Four and a half stars.

What does “important” mean for lit awards?

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In his 2016 article for the Daily Beast, Tom Leclair indicates he thinks literary awards should be for works that are “the most ambitious and important nominee—a major work, wide-ranging in subject, ingenious in form, and profound in its treatment of…history.” This is an interesting philosophy, as it says nothing about the quality of the writing or the writer’s skill in putting the novel together. Additionally, Leclair suggests that popularity, or even likability, should not be important for choosing a winner.

This, of course, is a philosophy for judging great literature. Examples from the 20th century might include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, The Lord of the Flies and The Color Purple. These are all profound works, and everyone pretty much agrees on their landmark status. The question is, should this kind of philosophy apply to judging genre works, too?

Genre works like romance, mystery, science fiction and fantasy are splinters from mainstream literature that originally formed to tell entertaining stories—as popular fiction, in other words, without any ambition to become fine literature. Of course, some genre fiction was bound to become landmark works. The Lord of the Rings, Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 come to mind.

Novels like this don’t come along every year, but you never know when one will break through into landmark status in a mainstream literary sense. So, do the SFWA professionals look for these “important” works for the Nebula Award?

Leclair goes on in his article to suggest we’re really better off not knowing what goes on behind the scenes of a literary prize. We’re assuming the SFWA members take their responsibility for the Nebula seriously, read all the works on the ballot (or at least critical reviews), and avoid voting on things like name recognition, friendship or reputation of the publisher.

What about this year’s winners make them important for the SFF genre?

Review of “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman

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This novelette is a Hugo finalist published by Clarkesworld Magazine in April 2016.

Aliens have arrived. The people of Earth can tell because pearly domes have appeared out of nowhere. The domes sit there for a while, and then open to release translators, apparently abducted children, who assure the authorities that the aliens don’t want anything. Avery is a driver who gets a call from her boss asking if she will drive an alien and his translator from D.C. to St. Louis on a converted tour bus. She takes the job and picks the two of them up. There’s no rush, so she takes the scenic route, stopping here and there and getting to know Lionel, the translator. He’s strange, as is his connection with the alien. When the alien turns out to be dying, they make a stop at a cemetery outside St. Louis.

On the pro side, this story is really science fiction, as it wouldn’t work if the alien wasn’t there. Plus, it’s thoughtful and absorbing. This is a real alien, not some anthropomorphic creature that’s sort of like humans, and its alien quality leaves Avery investigating the very nature of consciousness. The story moves smoothly through the Eastern US, trailing men in black, and ends with an interesting twist.

On the con side, the characters don’t quite ring true. We meet Avery’s brother at the beginning, but he doesn’t give me the impression of Avery that her bio later reveals. For that matter, Avery as revealed by her thoughts and actions doesn’t match the bio. Gilman’s effort for an emotional outpouring at the end doesn’t quite ring true for me, and I don’t see any motivation for Avery’s final decision. This is also a bit low on description—I ended up without much idea of what Avery looks like, for example, or the layout of the bus. Regardless of these drawbacks, I like this one because of the central question about consciousness.

Four and a half stars.

Comparison of All the Birds in the Sky and Ninefox Gambit

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Generally the contenders for the Nebula Award are fairly easy to identify on the Nebula Reading List at the SFWA Website. The way this list works is that authors/editors/publishers/agents can provide copies or links to works for the SFWA membership to read and recommend. Often the recommenders leave their names, which is interesting because you can see who likes what. Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky was an early favorite. The page is down now, but this novel ended up with 18 recommendations, which I think put it at the top of the list. Lee’s Ninefox Gambit fell much lower, with 7 recommendations as far as I can tell through the Wayback Machine. Jemisin’s novel put in a strong showing, too, but since she won last year, voters might have discounted this year’s follow-up as more of the same. That leaves Ninefox Gambit as the outstanding contender.

If you look back through my reviews, you’ll see that I thought Anders’ novel was just average—I gave it three stars. I rated Lee’s Ninefox Gambit at four and half, which means I thought it was above average. Both these authors are strongly diverse, and this was the first novel for both. So why was Anders’ book such a strong favorite? Let’s look at the strengths and weaknesses of the novels again.

Anders’ novel starts off very strong with a presentation of how talented children are bullied and persecuted. In Part II, it abandons this theme to present an apocalyptic situation where nature and science are at odds and the humans end up impotent. The ending is predictable. The writing is interestingly quirky and absurdist, but the novel sags badly in the middle and never recovers. What it ends up saying is murky, maybe that we are at odds with nature and on a path to destruction.

Lee’s novel starts off with a space battle clearly based on an alien system of reality. The protagonist works her way through an understanding of the politics related to who will establish the reigning system, and ends up finding herself attached to a highly talented, dead subversive. Besides having a strong plot, a strong action line and a twist ending, this work also has excellent characterization, imagery and artistic effects. The question it asks is about the nature of reality. It has a slightly tongue-in-cheek quality that detracts, which is all that kept me from giving it 5 stars.

In my humble opinion, Lee’s novel is the more entertaining. It has a great plot and a strong action line. The underlying philosophical questions and the world-building are first rate. It’s highly professional as a first effort, and should hold up much better in the coming years. So why was it passed over? Does Anders’ work look to be more important?

Review of “The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon

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This novelette is a Hugo finalist published by Apex Magazine in January 2016.

Grandma Harken lives on the edge of the desert and tends her garden. As her tomatoes ripen, they begin to disappear, so Harken waits up at night with her shotgun. The thief turns out to be shapeshifter mocking bird woman that is enslaved by an unnamed enchanter. Harken lets her go in the morning, but follows her a distance into the desert. When the bird disappears, Harken sees train rails, so she realizes she needs to consult with the train gods. Her friend Anna’s grandson is a priest that hooks her up, and armed with knowledge of where to look, Harken sets off again into the desert. She meets a coyote, negotiates folded reality, frees a Gila dragon and finally locates the decaying house of the misplaced god. Does she have the strength to free his captives?

This seems to be standard Vernon fare, as all I’ve read from her includes similar themes of magical realism and the mystic properties of everyday people and things. This particular story references last years’ Nebula finalist, “The Jackalope Wives” and uses the same setting and some of the same characters.

Pros: The story features a strong elderly woman as a protagonist, which we certainly need more of. It has a folksy, authentic Western feel to it, and the characters are suitably magical. It includes good world-building with the folding realities. This is very readable, and the characters and images well-drawn.

Cons: I can’t believe the description of the cat. Any feline that lives on the edge of the desert like that is going to be just as ornery and magical as everything else. There’s not much development of the captives’ characters, and I ended up not knowing where they’re from or what might happen to them after they’re freed—especially the Gila dragon. Are we going to meet that creature wandering around on our next trip to the desert? Hm.

Three and a half stars.

Award Winners that Don’t Hold Up over Time

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In her 2014 article on literary awards, Barbara Cohen notes: “Cultural prizes notoriously reward the wrong works for the wrong reasons: On the long list of worthies deprived of the Nobel for literature are Tolstoy, Proust, and Joyce.” I’ve been discussing influences on the awards over the last few blogs, and of course these issues are likely to result in some winners that don’t hold up over time.

Checking around, I found The Hugo Award Book Club (HABC), which has a page discussing the issue of poor choices. The group awards the “Worst Hugo Award” title to 1973, when Isaac Asimov won his first Hugo for a novel with The Gods Themselves. Here was the lineup of finalists that year. As was standard in those times, there were no concerns about diversity, so the finalists are all white men.

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov [Galaxy Mar/Apr,May/Jun 1972; If Mar/Apr 1972]
When Harlie Was One by David Gerrold [Ballantine, 1972]
There Will Be Time by Poul Anderson [Signet, 1972]
The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg [Scribner’s, 1972]
Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg [Galaxy Jul/Aug,Sep/Oct 1972; Scribner’s, 1972]
A Choice of Gods by Clifford D. Simak [Putnam, 1972]

The HABC briefly reviews all these works, along with some other worthy contenders that year. Asimov’s winner was a three-part series published in Galaxy Magazine where aliens in a different dimension steal energy from ours, causing the sun to go nova. The HABC notes that the physics is interesting, but that the end result was dull and boring and the book has not aged well in comparison to the other contenders that year. In the comments Steve Davidson mentions that the work was recognized at the time for its risks with sexual content, but that isn’t anything exceptional these days, so the novel’s shortcomings are what stand out.

So what affected the WorldCon membership that year to make this choice? Asimov’s reputation as a short story writer? Frederik Pohl’s reputation as the editor of Galaxy? The ascendancy of hard SF? Promotion? Some kind of groupthink issue? Whatever it was, the vision affected the Nebula and Locus voters, too. The novel also won the Nebula in 1972 and the Locus Award in 1973.

Getting back to the present time, which of recent choices in the awards will hold up best over time? It’s an interesting question, eh?

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