Wrap-up of the 2019 Dragon Reviews


The Dragon Awards are pretty much impossible to review before the vote because of the short time between the announcement of the finalists and the end of the voting period. However, I don’t want to neglect them in any way, so this year I’ve gone on to review the 2019 fiction winners. For a look at the whole list of finalists, see my blog on it here.

First, here are the winners again:
Best SF Novel: A Star-Wheeled Sky, Brad R. Torgersen (Baen)
Best Fantasy Novel: House of Assassins, Larry Correia (Baen)
Best Young Adult Novel: Bloodwitch, Susan Dennard (Tor Teen)
Best Military SFF Novel: Uncompromising Honor by David Weber (Baen)
Best Alternate History Novel: Black Chamber by S.M. Stirling (Ace)
Best Horror Novel: Little Darlings by Melanie Golding (Crooked Lane)

As usual in my analysis, here the diversity count of the finalists:
Best SF Novel: 2 women, 5 men, 2 LGBTQ, 2 Jewish (Note: James S.A. Corey is 2 men)
Best Fantasy Novel: 3 women, 3 men, 1 LGBTQ, 2 Jewish, 1 Hispanic
Best Young Adult / Middle Grade Novel: 4 women, 3 men, 1 Jewish
Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel: 2 women, 6 men, 1 Hispanic
Best Alternate History Novel: 2 women, 4 men, 2 Jewish
Best Horror Novel: 2 women, 5 men, 1 Jewish.

Apologies if I missed anybody or mixed anybody up; it’s sometimes hard to tell about diversity from online biographies. There are other names in the list that look Jewish, for example, but I couldn’t confirm. The gender issue is complicated by the number of cowriters among the finalists, all men, as it turns out. Comparing on the numbers, the gender count works out to be 15/41 (37%) women and on the books 15/37 (41%). The minority count includes 3/41 (7%) LGBTQ, 8/41 (20%) Jewish and 2/41 (5%) Hispanic. I know there’s an argument about whether European Spanish/Portuguese should be considered Hispanic—this category in the US generally counts Latino writers, who are typically mixed race—but I’ve just noted the names here as Hispanic, as I’m not sure how they identify.

So, the ~40% gender count on female-written books isn’t bad, considering that the categories separate SF and fantasy and include a military SF category that you’d expect might skew the results. The LGBTQ count turns out very low compared to say, the Hugo Awards, but it’s actually sitting fairly close to the 4.5% self-identified US demographic. Like most of the awards this year, the count for Jewish writers is much higher than their US demographic of 2%. Other than this, the diversity count really sucks. I’ve had to really stretch for the Hispanic names, as Corriea and Cordova are both likely of European extraction, and there aren’t any apparent black, Arab, Asian, Native American, trans or non-binary writers in this list at all. It’s clear that white writers were strongly preferred by the voting population, leaning to men, especially in the winners (4/6 or 67%). This isn’t unexpected for a popular award; the Hugos, for example, also leaned heavily (75%) to white winners this year, only to women instead of men.

Because of the way the categories are set up, there’s more diversity in the subject matter and type of work in this award than some others, with science fiction getting equal standing against fantasy, and military SF, alternate history, young adult and horror each getting their own categories. There was more diversity in publishers in the Dragons than in some other awards I’ve looked at, too. Tor had the highest count of finalists 5/37 (14%), with Orbit and Baen coming in next, both at 3/37 (8%). Two of the finalists were self-published (5%). On the other hand, all three of the Baen publications came in as winners.

I notice there’s been discussion online about the “legitimacy” of the Dragon Awards, questions about how they are administered and suggestions they’re a vehicle for the Sad/Rabid Puppies faction of the SFF community. Although Vox Day and the Rabid Pups made a good showing in the first year (and actually brought greater diversity), at this point I don’t see any indication this group has any real control of the awards. The award administrators encourage campaigning and voting by avid fan groups, so organization by particular groups to try and vote their candidate in isn’t against the rules. The results strongly suggest a different audience is voting on this than the Hugos, Nebulas and World Fantasy Award, but given the nature of the convention and the categories of fiction, I think that’s pretty much to be expected. The Dragon Award does seem to be suffering from the widespread tendency of the awards voting populations to nominate the same names every year. James S.A. Corey, Chris Kennedy, Mark Wandrey, David Weber, Kacey Ezell and S.M. Stirling were also finalists in 2018. James S.A. Corey, Becky Chambers, Larry Corriea and Mark Wandrey were also finalists in 2017.

As far as literary quality of the work goes, my reviews noted the same kind of wide variation I’ve seen in other awards systems. These novels are popular favorites, fairly straightforward, and only Little Darlings has the kind of strong subtext that I’d consider “literary” writing, though Black Chamber might be satire. The repetition of names from year to year suggests the voting population tends to vote for their favorite author, and maybe not for the particular book that’s up for an award. The short time between announcement of the finalists and the final vote likely encourages this, as there’s not really enough time to read and evaluate all the candidates.

Review of A Star Wheeled Sky by Brad Torgersen


This novel is traditional adventure science fiction and won the 2019 Best Science Fiction Novel Dragon Award. It was published in December 2018 by Baen and runs 382 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Earth is lost in the distant past. Fleeing a terrible war, humanity launched arks that took them to the stars, where they discovered a network of Waypoints operated by Keys that give access to Othespace, and through it to different star systems. However, the number of Waypoint nodes and keys is limited. Humanity has divided into Starstates that operate on different political systems and contend for control of the available systems. In particular, the democratic Constellar system competes with the authoritarian Nautilus system, but is slowly losing ground. Then a new Waypoint opens to a system including a habitable planet. Both Starstates rush to stake a claim. Nautilus sends a military fleet and Constellar drafts civilian spacecraft to beef up their military flotilla, sweeping up Wyo Antagean, son of a shipping magnate, Garsinia Oswight, daughter of a First Family, and infotainer Zoam Kalbi. Can they secure the system for Constellar, or is something else going on that they need to deal with instead?

On the positive side, this is solid traditional SF. It’s strongly plotted, a strategy game between the two fleets that projects how established spaceflight technology and techniques could be used implement travel and set up the space battles. Torgersen goes into detail about the technology. There are a couple of major twists that raise the stakes on this and lead into what I expect will be a series of novels as the issues play out.

On the not so positive side, there are some serious problems here. First, this is mired solidly in mid-20th century technology. The author states that humanity has lost a lot in their years in space, but that doesn’t really excuse this, and I ended up with a lot of questions about how these people are doing things. In an age where I have a link to high-functioning AIs right in my pocket, these characters wonder if thinking machines are really possible. Hey Google tells me where I parked my car in a completely normal voice, so why are these people thousands of years in the future still using a keyboard to type at their onboard computers? Plus, I’m unsure how their fusion systems and weapons work. We don’t currently use fusion because of the high energy requirements and the associated high temperatures—so how did they solve these problems? Why is Constellar launching starships from the ground without shuttles to get back and forth? And Nautilus has only one shuttle? Why are they even using their starships to fight battles? Star Wars pretty much set the standard for smaller, more maneuverable fighters all the way back in 1977. And last, where did these people get the Waypoint Keys and how did they learn to work them? Etc. Lots of questions here.

The second issue I have is with the characters. These people must all be suicidal. They’re throwing the starships at each other like there’s no major cost in resources and human lives, the commanders willing to sacrifice their entire crews without really much promise that they’ll influence the outcome of the battle. Only the recovery of the lost Keys seems really important to them. I can see why humanity is not doing well in space. In particular, Wyo is conscripted and has little choice in the matter, but Garsinia and Zoam come across as really stupid. Oblivious to the fact this is a military operation and that Nautilus forces will be shooting nukes at them, both characters stick their lips out and insist on their right to go along with the expedition. Then, when things get scary, they panic and go off in all directions. They are represented as inconsistent, childish and immature, and this kind of character manipulation is a major eye-roller.

Still, it’s a great plot. Three and a half stars.

Tribalism in the SFF community


In 2015 Brad Torgersen wrote a an interesting piece about tribalism in the SFF community. According to Torgersen, much of what is taken for racism and sexism in the US is actually a form of cultural tribalism, where people from different cultural backgrounds distrust and disrespect one another because of their difference. He lists some fundamentally different groups as examples, including religious groups, regional groups, progressives and conservatives, and notes that even people who think they are the most open-minded often exhibit sharp limits, if not open hostility, which faced with opposing cultural viewpoints.

Torgersen goes on to discuss the current battle over the Hugos, noting that the organizers of WorldCon and the Hugo Awards are a very exclusive group of trufans who consider themselves the in-tribe of science fiction and fantasy. According to him, this explains the small size of the convention and the elitist title, which suggests its members represent all real SFF fans in the world. Torgersen’s explanation of the current situation is that the Sad Puppies represented a different tribal group which was seen as a threat to the convention culture by WorldCon insiders. Of course the situation deteriorated from there. This explanation makes me wonder what the small group of core WorldCon fans thought about opening up the membership to a broad swath of Internet “supporting memberships?” Doesn’t this dilute the trufan blood?

As a side note, Torgersen calls himself a perpetual out-tribe because of never fitting in anywhere. He may have written this blog in response to attacks on Twitter, where one poster called his African American wife and biracial child “racist shields.”

Has the Hugo Turned into an Affirmative Action Award?


Another point that came up during the recent discussion at File 770 was how the Hugo Award winners are now regarded. There was commentary on this well before the 2016 awards cycle. For example, various bloggers have noted that the awards are increasingly dominated by women and minorities. In 2015 Brad Torgersen posted his  view of this trend, which is that the Hugos are being used as an “affirmative action award”. For anyone vague on what that means, affirmative action is defined as “an action or policy favoring those who tend to suffer from discrimination.” The fact that anyone sees it this way is another suggestion (see previous blog) that the award voting has become politically motivated. Of course, any reasonable exchange on the idea is impossible. As one poster at File 770 noted, it is “inherently racist” to discuss the results in this way.

This is not to suggest that the winning works are not deserving. The makeup of the SFF community has clearly changed over the more than a century that SFF has been recognized as a genre. This means that readers’ tastes have changed, as well. I tend to lean progressive, and I love the interesting and creative elements that diverse authors bring to the genre. I reviewed all the winners this year and pointed out deserving elements well before the awards were given (as well as undeserving ones). However, the political squabble tends to obscure the positives. For an idea of how the response to this year’s awards went, check this exchange on Twitter.

Because of the virulence of the politics, no one these days can be sure whether they’ve won a Hugo Award based on the quality of the works or because of the politics. It looks to be a damaging experience. The Twitter exchange is another example of Internet bullying of someone who had little to do with allocation of the awards. Regardless of the Hugo committee’s efforts, you have to admit the Puppies are now right about a taint in the awards system.

Note: Mike Glyer has asked me to note that discussions that take place at File 770 don’t necessarily represent his personal views.

Discrimination against the Puppies?

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Edward Lear
Given a few days to find themselves on the Sad/Rabid Puppies’ lists, people are now into arm-waving mode. The list seems to have struck some people as an honor, but others as a crisis. So what’s that all about?

I notice that some individuals who are in strong position for the Hugo nomination (or nice sales contracts) have taken offense. That suggests they think appearing on the Puppy list will reduce their chances of success, or maybe taint their triumph if they, for example, get an award. Other more modest people have announced they appreciate the support of fans, of whatever persuasion. Various bloggers have checked in with snarky comments.

Kate Paulk, who requested and collated recommendations to make up the Sad Puppies’ list, has dug in her heels, declaring that fans of the writers submitted their names, and she expects to honor their choices. Various people have followed up with more snarky comments.

So, is this crisis-mode response discrimination against the Puppy faction? Have their activities of previous years done enough damage to warrant this kind of reaction? Is Kate Paulk telling it straight?

Let’s look at it. The listing has more in common with other lists of recommendations than a slate. If lists of recommendations were a problem, then everybody should be in crisis mode. See Chaos Horizon for an analysis of the various lists and their effects on the awards. Therefore, publication of a simple list shouldn’t be a problem. Fans will vote how they want to vote, and I suspect the “honored to be recognized” response will play better than “you dimwits, get me off your list.”

But, is Kate Paulk telling it straight? I don’t quite think so. Unfortunately I’m not going to have time to read the whole list of recommendations before the award nominations are due, but I have worked through the short stories and some of the related works. I can’t speak for the novels, but much of what I’ve read are not neutral recommendations. If you’re keeping up with my reviews, these works are slanted to present the Puppies side of the recent conflict. That means they are written by SJW’s on the Puppy side.

Who’s right? I suspect the SFF community needs to consider the Puppies’ point of view. If you’re reading along on my social commentary, you’ll note that the 50-year era of multiculturalism has closed, and we are now entering a period where community is becoming more important. This means the actions of divisive activists will be less well received than in the past—on all sides. I know people like to fan the flames, but wouldn’t community building be time better spent?

More on how to separate bullying from activism


55327_girl-writing_mdHere’s another article on bullying versus activism from the MacKenzie Institute, with no byline in this case. The author divides people into two categories, reformers and people who are comfortable with things as they are. S/he notes that sometimes these roles are identified with liberal and conservative views, but not always. The author also identifies situations that result in conflict about change. One is when it’s clear that some kind of change is necessary, but people disagree on ways and means. Another is in response to personal tragedy. Last is the division between activists and their “targets.”

According to the author, activists may or may not have praiseworthy goals. Activism becomes terrorism when the person is acting for personal gain and/or causes real harm to others. Terrorists tend to shop around for an ideology that permits them to engage in this kind of violence and then allow the ideology to shape their actions. The role of bullies in a social situation is to enforce conformity and defend the correct social order. They are generally people of low to middle status who expect this activity will raise their social standing in the group. For this reason, bullies tend to become the tool of dictatorial regimes. The author gives examples that include Nazi Germany, The Ku Klux Klan and the 19th century Temperance movement.

It’s fairly easy to fit some of the cases I’ve listed of author bullying into this model of how bullying works. When you accept that the role of bullies is enforcement, then it’s easy to understand that authors who get out of line somehow will be attacked. This suggests that there IS a reigning ideology in the speculative fiction field, although it may have come about without anyone realizing it was forming up. In the days where editors worked as gatekeepers, few stories or novels that challenged the reigning ideology would have slipped through. Not all editors are infallible, so Kate Breslin’s romance novel For Such a Time made it all the way to an awards nomination before being challenged as anti-Semitic. Given the recent attack on the Sad Puppy authors, they’re apparently seen as trespassing, too.

Men being bullied

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Edward LearSo, just as I was deciding that bullying of authors in the SFF community was something that happened mostly to women, an item hit the news about male authors being bullied. This came through a report on File770 which was picked up by Breitbart.

Apparently someone in Toronto approached independent bookstores to inform them about the alleged homophobic views of authors who were identified with the Sad Puppies movement. These included Larry Correia, John C. Wright, Brad Torgersen, Mike Williamson and others. The issue seems to be, however, that the Sad Puppies movement has not put forth any kind of platform that could be identified as an anti-LGBTQ agenda. None of these authors except John C. Wright seems to have made any statements about the LGBTQ community that could be considered questionable. So, either we have to believe someone made an assumption these authors will hold homophobic views because they have identified as being Sad Puppies, or this is another case of author bullying.

Of course, some people think there’s a war going on for the heart and soul of SFF. Maybe someone thinks they’ve done a good thing here.

Left vs. Right, Now vs. Then

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royalty-free-writing-clipart-illustration-1146779Looking through the reviews I’ve recently posted, you can see the different sides of the current Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies debate fairly clearly represented. On the left/SJW side, we have Ann Leckie’s gender-neutral space opera and Monette’s goblin novel with its warm, fuzzy inclusiveness and women seeking to be scientists. On the right/traditionalist side, there’s Wright with his characters’ search for Christ and sexist views of Marilyn Monroe. In between there’s a lot of other stuff, presumably aimed at entertainment. Reading through the main part of this, I can see why there are some issues.

I gather that Leckie is considered a problem. Since Leckie’s novel is space opera with slightly leftist views, I have to think this is an example of the “unreliable packaging” Torgersen was complaining about back in February (link from File 770). You’ll notice I’ve given it more stars than, for example, Anderson’s “more traditional” novel. Leckie is interesting but not preachy, and the SJW slant seemed to be about gender, imperialism, reforms and stamping out corruption. The gender thing is eventually funny, as we get to watch the protagonist AI struggle with gender identification in various unfamiliar languages. The imperialism is front and center, but Leckie uses this to explore the costs of human expansion and on whose back this will be built. She asks philosophical questions about man vs. superman and whether reform becomes a “weakness” in the drive to expand the Dyson sphere of human civilization outward. There is nothing wrong with this as space adventure. I would have voted for Ancillary Justice for the award, but Ancillary Sword comes across weaker as a stand-alone novel.

In response to comments, I have to admit I’ve scratched my head a few times at past Hugo winners, well before this year. I’d expect the winners should say something especially creative, profound or hard-hitting. Instead, recent winners have sometimes tended more toward sentimental, feel-good works without any real, serious inspection of costs and human tragedy. Compare Connie Willis’s win for Doomsday Book (1993) to her Blackout/All Clear (2011), for example. Compare Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” (1960) to Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie” (2012). There’s just no comparison for the gut impact in these earlier stories. Does this represent a change in who’s been voting at WorldCon? I suspect so, and of course that affects the nominations, too.

Tomorrow: More on the condition of traditional SF.

Truth in Advertising


WarriorChecking in on the Hugo debate, I notice the bad behavior is still going on, and the people doing it predict this will continue past the WorldCon awards. That seems to mean these are either closely held issues, or that people just like to fight.

I’m reminded of a George Carlin plan from a few years back on traffic control. Everyone in the debate should be equipped with a plastic dart gun. Whenever someone calls names, SWATs, or otherwise engages in unacceptable behavior, they should be shot with a dart that unfurls a “stupid” sign. Once they have enough of these signs stuck on them, they are easy to identify as a public hazard and the police can take them away. Lou Antonelli definitely earned a couple of “stupid” darts for recent attacks on David Gerrold and Carrie Cuinn.

On to the actual debate: Checking in on File 770 today, I’ve found a link to a blog Brad Torgersen published back in February. Since the comments are closed on it, I’ll give my opinion here. Torgersen is commenting on what he calls the “unreliable packaging” problem. In his analogy, people who love Nutty Nuggets cereal have been getting something else in their box. They see the standard, generic spaceship on the front and expect to get Nutty Nuggets space adventure, but instead they get some off-brand diatribe on racial prejudice or oppression of women. According to Torgersen, this has been driving away the lovers of Nutty Nuggets, which is presumably his audience.

So Brad, truth in advertising is a fairly standard consumer problem, and the answer to this is always “buyer beware.” Once disappointed in my box of Nutty Nuggets, I would certainly go to Amazon and take advantage of their “look inside” and review features to make sure what I was getting in my cereal box. In times before Amazon, my strategy was to follow particular authors, or else go stand in the bookstore and read the first page of every novel on the SF&F shelf until I found one that suited me.

Torgersen has noted a problem that has more to do with publishers sticking generic covers on SF novels than about quality content. The same thing happens in the fantasy genre where everything has either a dragon or a wizard on the cover. The elephant in the room that Torgersen can’t see, though, is change in the market. When I started reading SF, there were very few choices of what to read—a few offerings on the book shelf and a few in the library and that was it. You could also get a subscription to magazines like Analog, Amazing, F&SF or Galaxy. This meant a dedicated audience. Now, SF&F readers are staggered by the difficulty of sorting through millions of offerings to find what they want to read.

In the Golden Age, a few brilliant writers, mostly with a science background, dominated the hard SF field. You got good stories, but also good science. Hard SF was a way to learn about advances in physics, theories of how to colonize outer space, projections of how a war might be carried out. Now the SF&F field has been invaded by serious writers, including MFA’s who have a command of literary technique and a strong desire to make a living as a writer, while the quality of content in hard SF and space opera has declined and stagnated. Assuming the writers nominated for this year’s Hugos are tops in the field of “traditional” SF, it looks like there’s kind of a big skills gap. The hard truth is that traditional SF&F is going to have to up its game before it will be worthy of any real awards. Cruising along with the same old thing isn’t going to work against accomplished literary-type writers.

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