Review of “Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim


This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award. It was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Zee has a silver key in her back that the maker uses to wind her up every day. She has a strong mainspring and so a lot of energy. She lives in Closet City with her Papa, who never has any turns left over for adventure because he works so hard to help Granny and Gramps. When the carnival comes to town, Zee meets a carny boy named Vale. On her 200th day, she gets adult limbs and new paint on her face, and soon afterward Granny and Gramps wind down for the last time and are recycled. Since her Papa has only himself to take care of now, she leaves with Vale on carnival train 9 to make a life for herself as a carny. The two of them build a child they name Mattan, but the boy has a weak mainspring. Vale refuses to accept the child’s disability, so Zee takes Mattan back to her Papa in Closet City. Can she find a way to support her special needs child?

Good points: This is a very creative idea. I’m visualizing a toymaker somewhere with a whole village of windup dolls and model trains. The story, of course, takes us into the life of the dolls, limited as it is by the number of turns their mainsprings will hold. It has an inspiring message, as Zee gives up her dreams to care for her disabled child.

Not so good points: The world building here is limited, and I don’t end up with much of an idea of what the setting looks like. I gather there are carnivals on at least nine trains, houses for the dolls and recycling centers. Because of the limited background, the characters also tend to be flat. Mattan, especially has little personality because of his disability. Winding down is fairly matter-of-fact, and there’s not much investigation of the emotional issues behind the characters’ actions. True, these are dolls, but I’d like to understand their motivations, regardless.

Three and a half stars.


The Pressures for Positive Reviews


Here’s the second installment on the subject of reviews and what’s expected from the contemporary book or film critic. There were a few more interesting opinions that came out of my recent readings on the subject, generally related to those explored in the last blog.

Writing for Salon, Laura Miller describes the traditional model of literary criticism where critics pretty much made the classics by pointing out which books should matter for a cultivated, educated audience. This meant the critics were the arbiters of taste, and the audience took their advice because they wanted to be seen as cultivated and intelligent. Publishers were also, presumably, swayed by these critics’ opinions which slapped down anyone unsuitable who thought they could write a novel. Miller thinks this is an outdated model, and that critical readings should be saved for the classroom. Her view of the critic’s role is to point out the books he or she likes in particular so the audience can find them.

Of course, the problem with this is that authors and publishers quickly get the idea they should offer inducements for critics to point out their books. Writing for The Baffler, Rafia Zakaria calls reviewers an “extended marketing operation” who are expected to “arrange the book in a bouquet” like blooming flowers to help attract an audience.

Writing for Slate, Ben Yagoda gives us a current classification of critics:
• Over-intellectual nitpickers – Try to rate popular books as something they’re not.
• Soft touches – In the pockets of publishers.
• Quote sluts – Write notices for display ads.
• Chummy logrollers – Relentless enthusiasm for the blogosphere.
• Careerist contrarians – Try to stand out with unpopular opinions.
Yagoda also suggests a reason for large audience vs. critic discrepancies in ratings. He thinks this means the work is unpleasant to sit through in some way. In other words, reviewers will hold out because they’ve got to write a review, while causal readers or film viewers will take off and find something better to do.

Also writing in Slate, Jacob Silverman describes the “safe space” atmosphere of the Twitter/blogosphere where all books are wonderful and every writer is every other writer’s fan. He calls this shallow, untrue and chilling to literary culture. After all, he says, what critic will write an honest review in an environment where authors are valued more for their social media following than for what they write? What he doesn’t say is how fast this social media following can turn into trollish attack dogs. Silverman says it’s not publishing that’s threatened; instead, it’s the body of reviewers who are trivialized and endangered by this system.

Another issue Silverman doesn’t identify in this analysis is generational characteristics at work. Everyone likes praise, but a constant need for it is fairly well identified with millennials. Writing in the New York Times in 2015, Alex Williams points out some of the tendencies we can expect from Generation Z (aka post-millennials), now displacing the millennials as the largest, richest and most sought-after generation of consumers. Gen Z is generally the children of Gen X, who are coming of age post Millennium. Compared to millennials, this group has grown up in uncertain times, so they tend to be more conservative than millennials and heavily concerned with privacy, risk and safe spaces. They tend to be less binary and more biracial, are heavily oriented toward technology and social media and tend to lose interest in things more quickly.

Is this the group Silverman has identified as so intolerant of critical reviews in the Twitter/blogosphere? When will the upcoming Gen Z start to change what sells in the marketplace?

Review of “Bloodybones” by Paul F. Olson

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This novella was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. It was published for the first time in the author’s collection Whispered Echoes.

David’s friend Amy disappears from her property at Vassey Point during a violent storm. David helps her father close up her home in the old lighthouse, but six months later, he’s drawn to return. He meets Amy’s sister Karen wandering on the property, and the two of them strike up an acquaintance. They begin reading through Amy’s journals, finding creepy things. Can they solve the mystery of what happened to her?

Good points: This is a psychological horror, a ghost story that takes shape as the supernatural closes down slowly but surely on the two protagonists. It’s very smooth and offhand, so I gather Olson is very practiced at this. It includes a lot of information from David (as the narrator) that gives us local color and background on Amy, Karen and the history of the point that’s led to its haunting. Also, I can see the film in my head. This is very cinematic.

Not so good points: The narrator’s casual, matter-of-fact tone keeps the events here from becoming really scary. It’s very white bread and traditional. The techniques for generating horror are fairly standard—enclosed spaces, violent storms, ghostly presences, etc. I appreciate Olson’s technique and subtlety, but this just shivered my nerves a little. It didn’t really scare me.

Four stars.

More on Virtue Signaling vs. Independent Thinking


In the last blog about social issues, I commented on David Gerrold’s essay ”Humanity’s R&D Department: Science Fiction.” where he discusses the requirement to virtue signal in order to preserve your reputation in the SFF community. My response was that this prevents independent thinking, or even any kind of reasonable discussion about the current direction of the publishing community. I also mentioned that it was an example of “groupthink” where a desire for conformity leads to dysfunctional outcomes. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree about this, so let’s look at some examples:

  • Readers recently complained on the Tor website about K. Arsenault Rivera appropriating Asian culture in her recently published novel The Tiger’s Daughter. This fell into silence when some more perceptive individuals pointed out that Rivera isn’t white. I gather that means it’s an attack that should be reserved for white people.
  • Writer Jenny Trout led a child rape and racism campaign against Fionna Man for writing a fantasy novel titled Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. The campaign succeeded in getting the book removed from book shelves, but then it turned out that Man is an activist African American woman writing about her own cultural history.
  • Speaking about the results, author N.K. Jemisin complained about the 2013 SFWA election in her Guest of Honor speech at the convention Continuum in Australia, “Imagine if ten percent of this country’s population was busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges,” she said, “not even dignity, but your most basic rights. Imagine if ten percent of the people you interacted with, on a daily basis, did not regard you as human.” This seems like a stretch as an attack on the SFWA, but other people piled on regardless.
  • Generally virtue signaling provokes an avalanche of “me, too” responses, some of which can turn into vicious attacks like the one against Fionna Man. This is where the conformity problem comes into play. Everyone knows they need to publicly express certain views (as Gerrold pointed out), so once an issue is suggested, they pile on the opportunity to show their conformity. This is regardless of whether they have put any thought into whether the attack is justified or what effect it might really have in the long term. Some people really don’t care.

    Last year there was an argument at File770 where posters discussed freedom of expression and how it should be used to dictate morality. Posters apparently supported the idea that it’s fine to attack people regardless of the accuracy of your claims because this publicizes you own views (virtue signaling) and also indicates what views should be considered morally wrong and unacceptable to the public. This also assumes any injury done by the attack is socially advantageous because it will intimidate others who might be tempted to express the “wrong” views. There was no concern about what kind of personal damage this does to individuals who are erroneously attacked.

    Meanwhile, Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, says in his new book Principles: Life and Work that independent thinking is the most important principle for an “idea meritocracy” to rebuild our society in a better way. What should we do about that?

Still more shameless self-promotion!

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A while back I sold a story to Afromyth, an anthology from Afrocentric Books edited by J.S. Emuakpor. It looks like the e-book became available on December 9, and the paperback will soon follow. You can pick up a copy here. My story is “Death in Nairobi” about a Miami detective on holiday roped into investigating a local crime. Have fun reading!

What If? Attacks on Rocket Stack Rank


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 More Happy than Not by Adam Silvera


This novel is near future science fiction and published by Soho Teen in 2015. It runs 306 pages. Silvera is a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent. This was his debut novel.

Aaron Soto is pretty happy. He lives in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment with his mother and brother. He had a tough time after his dad committed suicide a while back, and tried it himself but he’s over the depression now. He’s got a great group of friends and a girlfriend that loves him. He runs into a new guy named Thomas in the neighborhood and the two become best friends. However, things start to go a little weird when Aaron begins to feel this friendship could be something more. He admits his interest to Thomas, but is rejected. When his friends find out Aaron is gay, they jump him and beat him up. He wakes in the hospital with two sets of memories because the beating has reversed his memory suppression procedure. Will he ever be able to get his life back on track?

The best thing about Silvera’s work is his entertaining humor. He also has a knack for writing dialog that takes the abject terror out of teen experiences and leaves the reader thinking everything is going to be okay, after all. Also on the positive side, Aaron provides a consistently positive role model for teens, even when things start to go really wrong.

On the negative side, there wasn’t any clear action line in this novel. This left it sagging badly in the second quarter, and Silvera’s long description of street games left me bored. Things picked up about half way through when Aaron recalls the memory procedure, but the plot still didn’t rise to the usual climax. This left the structure sort of muddled.

The most striking thing about this novel is the awful experiences Aaron goes through, mainly because of his sexual orientation. Is this standard for the Bronx?

Three and a half stars.

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