Review of “Little Widow” by Maria Dahvana Headley

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This short story was a finalist for the 2017 World Fantasy Award. It was originally published by Nightmare.

Natalie is the Littlest Wife of the Preacher, a cult leader in Miracle. She’s at a sleepover when the cult suicides and the compound goes up in flames. Along with her surviving widows Reese and Scarlet, she is adopted by the Stuart family, and starts school. When the carnival comes to town, the girls go to what looks like a strip show, but the woman in the skimpy costume turns out to be Valerie, an angel from heaven who has come to contact them. Valerie has the Preacher in a cage and the girls confront him. She has also brought a shipment of T-Rexs from heaven that she lets loose to take care of some mistakes on the Earth. The four of them escape in a crop duster.

Good points: This story takes on a serious subject, which is how girls and women are often mistreated in patriarchal religious cults. It also takes a jaundiced view of miracles in general that fuel this kind of cult. It’s features good characterization, as we get background on the girls. They’re immigrant children, which suggests the problem with human trafficking.

Not so good points: This has a touch of surrealism, as the story moves from what could be reality to clear unreality when the girls meet Valerie. At this point, it’s actually less interesting. I was hoping it would follow through on the dramatic opening. Instead, this looks like another attack on the patriarchy. There are no male characters that don’t leer, and all the women are avengers. Even the dinosaurs are all female. Also, I’m not sure what the pterodactyl is about.

Three stars.

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Review of “The Fall Shall Further the Flight In Me” by Rachael K. Jones

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This short story was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. It was originally published in Clockwork Phoenix 5. The title (and maybe the idea) is taken from a George Herbert poem titled “Easter Wings.”

Ananda is an earthbound holy woman, attempting to rise through repentance and self-denial so she can carry prayers upward to the heavens. She eats only seed cakes and works in her thorny garden. In this way, she expects to eventually become thin enough, and light enough, to step into the air like her grandmother. One day one of the winged sky people falls into the garden, bringing a message. Ananda rescues the creature Sano and tends her wounds. Sano kisses her, and Ananda locks her in the hut. It takes a week to purge the defilement. It took Ananda’s grandmother 40 years to rise, and her mother failed in flight, but Ananda is already so light that she puts rocks in her pockets to keep herself grounded. Her mother discovers this, and then Sano in the hut. Can Ananda and Sano escape?

Good points: The best thing about this story is the creative idea. It seems to be surreal fiction about the clash of conflicting worldviews, as the sky people think earth is heaven and the earthbound think the sky is heaven. Neither can answer the prayers of the other. The imagery is excellent. I can’t find any overt political message here (as has been popular lately), but maybe this is a vote for harmony.

Not so good points: The surrealism thing makes this pretty nebulous. There’s not much plot–it’s mostly philosophy–and the little glimpse I got through the imagery seems to be about the extent of the world-building and characterization. Ananda’s grandmother has risen skyward, and somehow this has invoked an impending war? Hm. I ended up with a lot of questions.

I’ll give it extra points for the creativity. Four stars.

What If? Attacks on Rocket Stack Rank

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A furor erupted this week in SFF cyberspace about pronouns and how reviewer Greg Hullender of Rocket Stack Rank has made light of them. For anyone just tuning in, Rocket Stack Rank (RSR) is a review site run by Hullender and Eric Wong that provides brief reviews of stories eligible for the major SFF awards, including the Nebula, the Hugo, and presumably the Bram Stoker and other awards.

The site has received a lot of positive notice, and recently Hullender was tapped to serve on the Locus panel that feeds the major awards. In response, a group of SFF authors posted an open letter complaining about the pronoun issue and Hullender’s take on trans and non-binary characters in the reviews, also calling him a racist for good measure. Since I’m not trans or non-binary, I’m going to refrain from commenting on this. Everybody is entitled to their own feelings. However, I just wrote the last blog on virtue signaling, so I’m looking at this dust up through that lens.

Hullender promptly posted an apology to “all readers and authors we’ve harmed and offended.” This was judged unacceptable because he also wrote a response to the charges with evidence to demonstrate how they were questionable. Of course, it’s unsupportable to discriminate against people because of their race, gender or trans status, but what if this is actually about something else?

David Gerrold recently made some interesting comments at Amazing Stories. He basically says that members of the SFF community have to stand up and take sides in the progressive/conservative fight in order to save their reputations. This is troubling because it suggests you can’t just remain neutral. Instead, you have to take sides, and then to signal your virtue through word and action in order to be accepted in the community. So why are Hullender and Wong being attacked? Have they not done this properly?

The authors of the open letter think they’re insensitive racists. Hullender seems to think they‘re thoughtful progressives. So, are they posting discriminatory reviews, or are they just posting equal opportunity bad reviews for stories they don’t like?

Trans is the current cause célèbre. Is critiquing the stories not proper virtue signaling? What are members of the community expecting instead?

Review of DAS STEINGESCHÖPF by G.V. Anderson

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This is the short fiction winner of the 2017 World Fantasy Award. It was published by Strange Horizons.

In 1928 Herr Hertzel has recently been made journeyman, and the Schöpfers’ Guild has given him his first commission. Frau Leitner has written from Bavaria to request a small restoration. Hertzel makes the journey and finds Frau Leitner in a small village. She is an older woman with a bad cough, and she takes him to the piece that needs work, a Steingeschöpf housed in her attic. The piece’s name is Ambroise, and he was carved in Queckstein by the French Master De Loynes during the seventeenth century. Ambroise’s eyes are so deteriorated that he can hardly see to paint, and he shows other signs of decomposition, as well. Hertzel feels inadequate to restore a piece of this history, and he tries to refuse the job, but Frau Leitner talks him into it. There are dangers. The Queckstein dust can destroy the lungs and working it absorbs life and memory. Is Hertzel up to the task?

For anyone wondering, Steingeschöpf roughly translates as “stone creature” or “stone golem.” The imagery and characterizations here are first rate. You can smell the snow, and feel it crackle underfoot. Hertzel is a Jew in the years between the World Wars, and working the Queckstein reveals his story of love and loss. The tale also reveals the love between Ambroise and Frau Leitner, and how little time they have left. It’s a very touching story, without a lot of plot, but filled with subtle, understated emotional content. Recommended.

Four and a half stars.

World Fantasy Awards

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While I’ve been doing my own thing, the World Fantasy Awards have happened. Here’s the list of nominees. Many of these are the usual suspects, but I’ll try to do some reviews to fill out the rest of the fiction categories. Many congrats to the winners!

Novel
• Winner: The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North (Redhook; Orbit UK)
• Borderline, Mishell Baker (Saga)
• Roadsouls, Betsy James (Aqueduct)
• The Obelisk Gate, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
• Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff (Harper)

Long Fiction
• Winner: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson (Tor.com Publishing)
• The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle (Tor.com Publishing)
• Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
• “Bloodybones,” Paul F. Olson (Whispered Echoes)
• A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com Publishing)

Short Fiction
• Winner: “Das Steingeschöpf,” G.V. Anderson (Strange Horizons 12/12/16)
• “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies,” Brooke Bolander (Uncanny 11-12/16)
• “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood)
• “Little Widow,” Maria Dahvana Headley (Nightmare 9/16)
• “The Fall Shall Further the Flight in Me,” Rachael K. Jones (Clockwork Phoenix 5)

Anthology
• Winner: Dreaming in the Dark, Jack Dann, ed. (PS Australia)
• Clockwork Phoenix 5, Mike Allen, ed. (Mythic Delirium)
• Children of Lovecraft, Ellen Datlow, ed. (Dark Horse)
• The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, Karen Joy Fowler & John Joseph Adams, eds. (Mariner)
• The Starlit Wood, Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe, eds. (Saga)

Collection
• Winner: A Natural History of Hell, Jeffrey Ford (Small Beer)
• Sharp Ends, Joe Abercrombie (Orbit US; Gollancz)
• On the Eyeball Floor and Other Stories, Tina Connolly (Fairwood)
• Vacui Magia, L.S. Johnson (Traversing Z Press)
• The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, Ken Liu (Saga; Head of Zeus)

Artist
• Winner: Jeffrey Alan Love
• Greg Bridges
• Julie Dillon
• Paul Lewin
• Victo Ngai

Special Award, Professional
• Winner: Michael Levy & Farah Mendelsohn, for Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction(Cambridge University Press)L. Timmel Duchamp, for Aqueduct Press
• C.C. Finlay, for editing F&SF
• Kelly Link, for contributions to the genre
• Joe Monti, for contributions to the genre

Special Award, Non-Professional
• Winner: Neile Graham, for fostering excellence in the genre through her role as Workshop Director, Clarion West
• Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies
• Malcom R. Phifer & Michael C. Phifer, for their publication The Fantasy Illustration Library, Volume Two: Gods and Goddesses (Michael Publishing)
• Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, for Uncanny
• Brian White, for Fireside Fiction Company

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?

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?

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