Wrap up of the 2018 Ideation Ratings

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In his 2016 article for the Daily Beast, professor, writer and literary critic Tom Leclair says 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.”

As a political battle has developed over the SFF awards in recent years, somehow this approach to the nominations seems to have gotten lost for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Some of the recent finalists and/or winners have been called out as political propaganda, having little or no substance beyond emotional appeal, poorly written, etc. Things have settled down a little this year, as the traditionalist have made their point and pretty much left liberals in control of these two awards. The finalists for the Nebulas, given by industry professionals, seems to have been a serious striving for diversity of genre as well as author in the nomination process–an effort to be fair. Still, the list of winners ends up with crowd appeal, but not much to contribute to the “literature of ideas.” Totaling up the scores, I’ve given the winners an average Ideation score of 2.05. The Nebula finalists included Autonomous, “a major work, wide-ranging in subject, ingenious in form, and profound in its treatment of…history,” but it didn’t win.

The differences between the Nebula and the Hugo finalist list mostly subtracted ideas and quality works rather than adding to them. I suppose this is something we can expect, as the Hugo finalists are elected by a close group of WorldCon members and their tastes are, for this reason, very limited. However, they did come up with the five star idea man, Kim Stanley Robinson. I may revisit this when the list of winners is available. Robinson won the Nebula the last time he put out a novel, but he didn’t even appear in the list of finalists this time. We’ll see how much the climate has changed since 2013.

I’m thinking Robinson may not win for the same reason Newitz didn’t win—his book is hard to read. It’s long, it’s got small print, and it’s full of economics. Nobody wants to deal with that anymore. I’m expecting WorldCon members are going to go for Scalzi or Jemisin instead.

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Putting the Ideation Scale to Work – Rating the 2018 Hugo finalists

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If you’ve followed the last couple of blogs, you’ll know that I’ve developed an Ideation Scale to rate SFF stories as “the literature of ideas.” In this post, I’m going to have a look at the Hugo finalists. Since we have no winners at this date, I’ll just have to pick out the works I think stand out for their ideas. Here’s the scale:

1 Our heads are empty
2 Political message fiction
3 Rehash of common themes
4 Decent points here
5 World shaking ideas

Best Novel
The clear heavyweight here is New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. If I could squish this into the mold, I’d call it hard SF because Robinson has analyzed social, environmental and economic problems and offered real world solutions. It does lack engineers and clanking technology, though, so it’s a tough fit for what’s normally called hard SF. Still, the concepts are first rate, so this is the five star world-shaking-idea winner. None of the other finalists really stand out for ideas. I have to give Scalzi a mention for doing his homework on plausible science for The Collapsing Empire, but the story is a political intrigue without much in the way of different ideas. It scores an average 3.

Best Novella
We’re looking at the same list here as in the Nebula with only a couple of differences. I’ve already awarded “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker a three and a half. Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor gets a mention for being about racism and dealing with change. Again, three and a half. Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire gets a mention for framing the conflict between good and evil as a battle between death by vampirism and life via STEM. Nothing earth-shaking but worth three and a half stars.

Best Novelette
More repeats of the Nebula list here. Again, I have to mention “Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker, which was about whether or not we need history and how we can be frozen by tradition into refusing innovation. It gets 4 stars.

Best Short Story
This is again very similar to the Nebula finalists. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” is a political message, so it gets 2 stars. “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon turns the usual epic fantasy message upside down, where the farmer refuses his chance to become a heroic warrior in order to tend to his crops. Three and a half stars.

Next, a wrap up of the ratings.

Putting the Ideation Scale to Work – Rating the 2017 Nebula Finalists

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If you’re read the last blog post, you’ll see I’ve proposed the Ideation Scale to rate ideas presented by SFF stories. If we’re to believe that SF is the “literature of ideas” and that the best/most important stories are those that present provocative and/or innovative ideas, then we need some way to rate this. So here’s the scale:

1 Our heads are empty
2 Political message fiction
3 Rehash of common themes
4 Decent points here
5 World shaking ideas

One caveat—this scale may have little to do with the literary quality or entertainment value of the work.

So, first let’s look at the Nebula finalists. According to the SFWA members who voted, these are the best/most important stories published in SFF for the year 2017.
I’m not going to go back and specifically rate every story, but I’d like to recommend that readers do their own rating for discussion purposes. I’ve likely provided enough information in the reviews for anyone who hasn’t read the actual Nebula finalists books/stories. However, I do want to have a look at the winners, and also a few of what I thought were stand-out pieces.

Best Novel
In the novel category, The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin won the Nebula, and I thought Spoonbenders and Autonomous were stand out pieces. There were some good points illustrated in The Fifth Season, the first installment of Jemisin’s Broken Earth, that being the enslavement and torture of talented individuals in order to maintain living conditions for everyone else—the most good for the most people, right? However, this is already well established for the last installment, so I didn’t see anything really in the way of new ideas here. The novel was mostly about the confrontation between Essun and her daughter. I’ll give it 3 stars on the Ideation Scale as a rehash of The Fifth Season.

I really liked Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory, but this was mainly because of the entertainment value. This is about the human condition and a projection of how psychic gifts might screw up a person’s life. The most serious point was a subplot on how the government pursues Maureen and her children for their espionage value. This means it doesn’t score very high in ideation, either. Regardless of its all-over attractiveness, it would rate about 3 stars.

That leaves Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, the satire. Here we’ve got ideas out the kazoo. Newitz attacks the drug industry, anarchists, fascists, hackers, intellectual property thieves, student loan indentures, military SF, trans SF characters and a few other choice targets. This is equal opportunity satire that points out the failings of ideologies, from capitalism, to anarchism to fascism. I’m going to go four and a half stars on it for the ideation rating. Good job, Newitz.

Best Novella
The Nebula winner here was All Systems Red by Martha Wells and I thought the stand out piece was “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker. All Systems Red was highly entertaining, a first person account from not-quite-human construct about running away from its master. This isn’t terribly original, regardless of the entertainment value of this particular rendition. It gets 3 stars. “And Then There Were (N-One)” is about the same women from alternate universes meeting at a Pinsker convention. Not only was this a very creative idea, but it was also pretty mind-boggling. What do you say to endless iterations of yourself? It’s also a literary allusion. It’s not world shaking, but I’ll give it three and a half stars.

Best Novelette
The Nebula winner in this category was “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson. This story was pretty messy, as it went for effect over logic. I didn’t see any ideas in it at all, so I’m going to give it 1 star. The standout work was probably “Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker, which was about whether or not we need history and how we can be frozen by tradition into refusing innovation. Regardless of any complaints about the presentation, this is an interesting theme. It gets 4 stars. “Weaponized Math” by Jonathan P. Brazee gets an honorable mention because of a brief ethics speedbump. If this had been pursued, it would have formed the basis of an interesting discussion. Three and a half stars.

Best Short Story
The winner here was “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” by Rebecca Roanhorse. This one has to go in the political message category: 2 stars. I thought the standout work was “Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls about a man thawed out from cold storage after the Singularity when everybody is only a digital copy of themselves. This is mild, humorous satire that comments on social media, cos players, over-obsessive fans, smug perfect people, gamers and various other airheaded devotees of popular culture. Four stars for the satire.

Next, rating the Hugo finalists for ideation.

Rating the Literature of Ideas

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One reason given as to why fiction written by women is suddenly so much more popular in the awards is that tastes in fiction have radically changed over the last few years. In the bad old days when men dominated the market, hard SF was the in thing. This term “hard science fiction” was apparently originated in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller, book reviewer for Astounding/Analog, who was looking for a way to describe stories with a strong science base. This caught on, and Miller’s legacy term is still broadly used. A while back, I wrote some posts on how to rate SF on the “hardness scale” to determine how well based it is on real science.

However, since the 1950s, the popularity of hard science stories seems to have dropped off considerably, and it’s getting harder and harder to find this kind of story. I’ve written some posts on the decline, and I notice these were joined by various others suggesting the obsolescence of hard SF. Here’s Jasyn Jones, for example, at Castalia House blog who calls it a “delusion.” Tor.com also published a discussion by various authors. I recall there was one publisher (Somebody help me—Superversive? Amazing?) which announced they would no longer even use the term.

So, if we’re not going to rate SF stories on the science content any longer, then what remains to help us pick out which are really the important stories? For one thing, the notion is still hanging out there that science fiction should be the literature of ideas. So, maybe we need to come up with a scale for this? Maybe the Ideation Scale? That would work for fantasy, too, or actually any kind of speculative fiction.

Using the new Ideation Scale, we could rate stories from 5-1 based on what kind of ideas they present:

1 Our heads are empty
2 Political message fiction
3 Rehash of common themes
4 Decent points here
5 World shaking ideas

Next, having a look at the 2018 award finalists on the Ideation Scale.

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Wrap up of the 2018 Hugo Reviews

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Now that I’ve reviewed all the works, it’s time to take a look at the Hugo finalists, and how they fell out this year. Most notable is the absence of Vox Day’s Rabid Puppy inputs, which in the past couple or three award cycles has provided the male diversity. That means ordinary cis men were totally shut out of three of the four Hugo fiction categories for 2018, with Best Short Story, Best Novelette and Best Novella featuring only women, trans and non-binary authors. The Best Novel category also featured two finalists who are possibly political appointees meant as a slap-in-the-face to Vox Day, these being his nemeses N.K. Jemisin and John Scalzi. That leaves the white-male-masterful-crusader Kim Stanley Robinson as the really big wild card in the whole thing.

The next notable feature was the high rate of correspondence between the finalists for the Hugo and the Nebula Award. For the Best Short Story category the only difference was that two men nominated for the Nebula were replaced by women or trans writers. In the Best Novelette category, the same thing happened, but one additional woman was nominated. The most significant difference was in the Best Novel category, where only two of the finalists were the same. This strongly suggests how the same limited system produces both sets of nominees.

Next, the Hugo Awards drew from the same restricted number of publishers as the Nebula. In the novel category, this included: 4 from Orbit, 1 from Tor and 1 from Solaris. In the novella category: 5 from Tor.com and 1 from Uncanny. The novelette and short story categories showed slightly more diversity, drawing from Uncanny, Clarkesworld, Tor.com, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Apex. Looking at these results, it’s clear why Rocket Stack Rank only reviews particular magazines. This is pretty much the list of shorter-than-novel publishers with inputs into the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Print magazines are doing so poorly, RSR can probably leave Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF off pretty soon without missing anything important.

Looking at what’s normally counted for diversity, the Hugo has done reasonably well. Best Novel includes 3 women, 2 men, 1 trans, 1 Asian and 1 African American writer. Best Novella includes 5 women, 0 men, 1 non-binary, 1 Asian and 1 African American writer. Best Novelette category includes 4 women, 0 men, 2 trans and 3 Asian writers. Best Short Story includes 6 women, 0 men, 3 Asian and 1 Native American writer. Those who recall my comments from last year will know I’m glad to see a Native American writer appear in the finalists, but we’re still short of Hispanics. These figures work out to be 75% women, 12.5% trans, 8% men and 4% non-binary. Looking at the counted racial categories, it works out to be 55% whites, 33% Asian, 8% African American and 4% Native American. Clearly the preferred finalists are young white and Asian women, while men, African Americans and Hispanics are all hugely underrepresented based on their population demographics. The one finalist works out okay for Native Americans, who are about 2% of the US population.

A couple of things stood out in the themes. First, the list included several repeat appearances from previous years, and also followed the Nebula tendency to nominate the same author in multiple categories. These included Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Sarah Pinsker and Yoon Ha Lee. The list of Hugo finalists avoided the tendency the Nebula finalists showed for editors, publishers and other industry insiders, but included at least a couple of short works written by popular novelists within the universe of their novels. I took this as unduly promotional. Like the Nebulas, there seemed to be a strong preference for stories with non-binary or trans characters.

This list leans heavily to fantasy and soft science fiction, with a serious lack of ideas and/or hard science fiction. I don’t think Nagata’s work qualifies, regardless that it’s set on Mars. The real stand-out, different work here, again, was Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, which actually attempted to deal with hard science, real politics and real threats to humanity’s future. This is the kind of important work I’d prefer to see appear on the awards ballots.

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Review of “Children of Thorns, Children of Water” by Aliette de Bodard

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy, based on the author’s Dominion of the Fallen series and apparently falls between the novels The House of Shattered Wings and The House of Binding Thorns. The novelette was published in 2017 in Uncanny Magazine.
This review contains spoilers.

The House of Hawthorne is running its annual test for the Houseless where successful candidates will be taken in and escape the dangers of the streets. Thuan and Kim Cuc are dragons from the underwater Seine kingdom and charged with infiltrating the House. They join the candidates and are placed on a team with a Maghrebi girl named Leila. The test supervisor Sere gives them a hodgepodge of materials and instructions to produce something, so they decide to cook pastry. Part way through the recipe, the house’s wards fail and it’s invaded by the Children of Thorns. The candidates are evacuated, but Kim Cuc goes missing. Can Thuan rescue her, save himself and Leila and cement a position with the house?

This read like the tip of a really big iceberg, which would be the series where these characters live. I was impressed with the creativity and apparent structure of the universe, where the kingdoms of dragons and fallen angels juxtapose in the ruined city of Paris. The imagery and otherworldly feel of the house are very well done.

On the not so good side, this doesn’t really provide enough information for me to understand the world and how these characters fit into it. Despite the rich promise of the universe, this turned out to be more action than character driven. There was little background on the angels or the master of the house. Also, the characters didn’t quite seem to match what they’re supposed to be. Sere acts more like a company employee than a magical being, and Thuan and Kim Cuc didn’t come off very dragonish, either. Instead, they seem comfortable as humans, joking around in a competitive way without much depth. If Thuan is 300 years old, then he must be developmentally delayed—he comes off as very young and inexperienced. The description of the test said the team performance would be weighed as a whole, so I thought everyone on the team would be accepted; then I was surprised when Kim Cuc wasn’t.

This is a good introduction to the book series, where readers get a taste of what the novels are like. I expect some will be go on to try out the books.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of “The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction and was published by Clarkesworld, September 2017. This review may contain spoilers.

Multi Bot 9 is wakened from storage to remove a “biological infestation” on the ship. It sets to work pursuing the vermin, which is highly destructive, something like a rat and something like a bug. Bot 9 is obsolete, and notices its job is 944 in the maintenance queue. This suggests the ship needs a lot of work. There are lots of newer bots working on the maintenance and Bot 9 makes their acquaintance, as well as chatting with the ship’s AI. Soon it realizes that the ship is a junker, has a minimal human crew and is on a final suicide mission to save humanity from an alien invasion. Can Bot 9 fix that problem, too?

Bot 9 is endearing because of its totally positive attitude, regardless of how nasty the vermin. Its abilities might be limited compared to later models and Captain Baraye calls the model “unstable,” but its primitive manufacture also allows for reconfiguration and improvisation. When you transfer this theme to the real world, the story demonstrates the kind of gung-ho spirit and creativity that solves even the toughest problems. The narrative switches back and forth between the desperate humans trying to carry out their mission on a crippled ship and the bots trying to fix it well enough to carry out the planned suicide. The bot interactions add humor, and of course the humans are totally flabbergasted when 9’s activities are revealed. The plotting and execution here are both creative and entertaining.

On the not so great side, this has the fairly standard failing of making the bots and the ship’s AI too human in their interactions. That means it fails on suspension of disbelief. The ship’s AI, especially, comes across as an indulgent parent figure that makes good-hearted threats to the bots and lies to the human crew. At the end of the story, we get the impression that 9 plans to ignore its orders like a willful child. Besides that, I didn’t think there was enough of a rising action line to support the story’s length. Nine’s pursuit of the ratbug gets routine fairly quickly and seeing the incident from its perspective insulates the reader from the drama of the human’s situation.

Four stars.

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