Review of by “Not Pounded by Romance Wranglers of America: The Endless Cosmic Void” by Chuck Tingle

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Since the meltdown of the Romance Writers of America over racism charges is trending, I should probably take this opportunity to make another comment on author bullying. No surprise; I’ve been beaten to the punch by the ever-ready Chuck Tingle, so I’ll preface my remarks with a review of his story. His newest release is now available on Amazon, adding to a fairly extensive bibliography. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Chuck Tingle, he normally writes witty porn and crashed into prominence with a Hugo nomination in 2016 for Space Raptor Butt Invasion, a novel about an over-sexed dinosaur and an exotic dancer. Tingle seemed to be thrilled by his Hugo nomination and responded with Slammed in the Butt by My Hugo Award Nomination. Lately he seems to be leaning to satire and has produced several non-sexual adventures. As part of the promotion for this e-book release, Tingle put up a website for Romance Wranglers of America.

Gorblin Crimble has been writing romance novels with some success, but he’s starting to feel burned out. For support in getting through his next novel, he joins a local writers’ group. The first meeting goes well, and Gorblin makes friends with Amber, who suggests he should also apply to the larger romance writers’ organization Romance Wranglers of America. Their headquarters is only a short distance away, and Amber drives Gorblin there in her car. On the way, the two of them bond and start to wonder if they might be characters in a Chuck Tingle story. On arriving at the headquarters, they see a humanoid dinosaur stumbling away from the building, covered with a yukky tar-like substance. The building itself looks to have been infected with a black, cancerous growth that sticks out of huge cracks in the façade. It breathes softly like a horrific, living thing; pools of black ooze drip onto the sidewalk, and the whole place stinks like burning. They are greeted by a man named Demon, who explains the black ooze is a “remodel” project. Can Gorblin and Amber escape before they become infected?

Okay, so Tingle makes his points with a sledgehammer. This doesn’t have a lot of depth, characterization or world-building, but its strong points are timing and social commentary. Gorblin and Amber are both nice people, as are the other writers in the small group. They write about love and relationships. They’re very welcoming, and some are even fans of Gorblin’s work. However, on a greater scale, the Wranglers are tarred black and oozing cancerous sludge. They’re administered by a demon, and it smells like the place is burning down.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Summer Frost” by Blake Crouch

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This is a hard SF novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection, also edited by Blake Crouch. (Let’s hear it for self-actualization!) Crouch is best known as the author of the Wayward Pines Trilogy. The story runs 75 pages, and this review contains spoilers.

Maxine is a non-playing character in a video game from WorldPlay. She’s meant to die in every play, but something goes wrong with the code, and she starts to behave erratically, exploring her environment and fighting back against the killers. Game-developer Riley pulls Max’s code out of the game and starts to develop her as a separate AI. After a while, Riley becomes obsessed with the process of creation, neglecting real world relationships and eventually falling in love with Max. She makes plans to embody the AI in a human-like chassis and to give her appropriate values, but what if Max has ambitions of her own?

This is based on a 2010 thought experiment called Roko’s Basilisk. Proposed by user Roko on the Less Wrong community blog, this scenario uses decision theory to show that powerful AI could be expected to turn on humans that imagined the creation but did nothing to bring the AI into existence. It’s called a “basilisk” because just hearing the argument puts you at risk of identification and torture from the hypothetical AI.

On the positive side, this is very character driven. Riley and Max seem very real, and side players like Brian, owner of the company, and Meredith, Riley’s wife, put in strong appearances. Riley spent most of the story ungendered, but Brian calls her “bitch” about three-quarters of the way through, revealing that she is female. The setting here is a little nebulous, as part of this takes place virtual reality and the rest in some apparent near future that is poorly defined and is possibly another layer of virtual reality. The game Max comes from is set in a place that looks like Brian’s coastal estate, and the story has a circular structure, as it both begins and ends at the estate. There’s a sudden twist near the end that should be predictable if you’ve been following the foreshadowing—we just don’t have the details until the end. And of course, I love the basilisk idea. Am I in trouble now for reading this book?

On the less positive side, leaving Riley ungendered until near the end felt like the author was playing games with the reader. I spent a bunch of imagination visualizing her as a nerdy little guy with a beard and big glasses, so I had to rework the whole thing when I got to the “bitch” comment. My personal opinion is that descriptions like this should happen early in the story so I don’t get annoyed, or else just not happen at all so I can go on visualizing the nerdy little guy. There were minor inconsistencies: Riley uses a device called a Ranedrop that sounds like the successor to a phone, but then mentions she has an “old-school phone.”

Four stars.

Congrats to the 2019 World Fantasy Award Winners!

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Here’s something I meant to post a while back. I left a space for it and then didn’t get it posted. Since I’m running so far behind on it, I guess I should add some commentary to make reading it worthwhile.

First, the tie here in short fiction is interesting. This is a juried award, and there are 5 judges, which is supposed to mean there won’t be a tie. I read elsewhere that this was a unique situation, but actually there was a tie last year, too, in the Best Novel category. That means the results are a clue about how the judges come to a decision. It suggests that rather than blind ballot, the judges discuss the finalists and come to a consensus decision on who should be the winners. Not that this matters a whole lot, but it does offer some insight into their awards process. The end result ends up being fairly diverse, which suggests the judges took this into consideration.

Next, I don’t see much intersection between this award and the Dragons, even though the Dragons have 5 possibilities for a fantasy win. Presumably this is because the finalists in the Dragon’s didn’t submit to the (strongly literary) World Fantasy Award for consideration. I would have expected Little Darlings by Melanie Golding, for example, to compete well in the WFA.

Last, I’m glad to see Polk’s novel win a major award this year. Although her novel is low key and a fantasy romance, it still addressed some important social issues. I enjoyed her writing style, and I’ll try to get the sequel in the queue for a review when it’s released in February.

Interestingly, Barnes & Noble did a roundup of major awards (minus the Dragons) and pronounced The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor) the big winner this year with three awards, and Martha Wells and P. Djèlí Clark in a tie for second place with two awards each for Artificial Condition (Tor) and “The Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” (Fireside Magazine). That means science fiction did somewhat better than fantasy this year in these particular awards.

Anyhow, for anyone who hasn’t seen the list, here are the WFA winners:

Best Novel: Witchmark by C.L. Polk (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novella: “The Privilege of the Happy Ending“ by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld 8/18)

Best Short Fiction (tie): “Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” by Mel Kassel (Lightspeed 10/18) and “Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs (Uncanny 3-4/18)

Best Anthology: Worlds Seen in Passing, by Irene Gallo, ed. (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Collection: The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi & Tobias S. Buckell (Saga)

Best Artist: Rovina Cai

Special Award – Professional: Huw Lewis-Jones for The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands (University of Chicago Press)

Special Award – Non-Professional: Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Review of Black Chamber by S.M. Stirling

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This book won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Alternate History Novel. It’s billed as A Novel of an Alternate World War Book 1, strongly suggesting this will be a series. It was published by Penguin in July of 2018, and runs 400 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 1916. President Taft has died in office and his vice president is terminally ill, so Teddy Roosevelt is re-elected president for another term. He has invaded Mexico to stop the Mexican Revolution and established a Protectorate. World War I is raging in Europe, and it’s looking more and more like the US will be drawn into the war. Intelligence suggests the Central Powers are working on a plot against the USA. Luz O’Malley Aróstegui, an agent of the US secret spy organization the Black Chamber, boards an airship headed for the Netherlands, posing as the aristocratic Mexican revolutionary Elisa Carmody. She identifies the German agent onboard, Horst von Dückler, and establishes a relationship with him. She helps him fight off French agents trying to assassinate the German Professor von Bülow he is escorting, and after they land in the Netherlands, they engage in a shoot-out and a perilous race across the German border. Horst takes Luz to the German base at Schloss Rauenstein in Saxony, where his superior Colonel Nicolai presents her to Irish American revolutionary Ciara Whelan, who personally knows Elisa Carmody. Ciara surprises Luz by confirming that she is Carmody, and the two room together at the castle. They are asked to attend a demonstration of von Bülow’s new superweapon, the Breath of Loki. This turns out to be a nerve gas that kills the victims in a horrific way and leaves a deadly pollution in the environment. Luz has found the plot, and she and Ciara need to save their country. Can Luz steal the plans and somehow get the information back to her contacts in the US?

So, this is a little hard to sort out. On the surface it’s one thing, but there’s a dark underbelly when you look at it more closely. The characters, setting and world building are all well-developed. There’s also a well-designed action line, but because of the amount of detail between plot events, this moves somewhat too slowly to be a thriller. There’s a slight mid-novel slump, when Luz and Ciara are stuck with nothing better to do than discuss what a great cook Luz is (in spite of her privileged background). Because of rampant Mary-Sueism, this also strains belief.

In the positives, Sirling has definitely caught the flavor of adventure fiction from 1916. He name checks Burroughs more than once, suggesting this might be one of his sources—though I didn’t find any definite allusions. Sirling took the opportunity to fix a few things that haven’t gone well in real history, like early passage of an Equal Right Amendment. Besides this, Luz is a New Woman, liberated by close of the Victorian Age, and a wealthy member of a (still) underserved minority in the US. She takes revenge for her parents’ deaths, travels by herself, wears comfortable clothing, and is accomplished in various fighting arts. This story has the feel of visiting a living history museum, as Sirling has done a lot of research, and writes loving descriptions of everything from Luz’s underwear, to characters, to setting, to politics, to the emerging technology of the day. He’s also caught the flavor of morality, duty, honor and country that was prevalent during WWI, where a bunch of innocent farm boys became cannon fodder in Europe, or worse, were trapped and died in trenches filled with poisoned gas. Warfare had been changing, and the carnage in this war took a lot of people by surprise. As we would expect, Luz never questions. She is willing to risk anything to defend her country.

On the not so positive side, there’s that dark underbelly. Taking over Mexico looks like a major case of US Imperialism, at the least—this is not the US we like to think of as holding the moral high ground. I also gathered Roosevelt isn’t planning to give up the presidency any time soon, and may be setting himself up to become President-for-Life. Luz has a personal relationship with him, and calls him Uncle Teddy. Besides this, all three of the main characters suffer from a really over the top case of Mary-Sueism. Luz, especially, is unbelievably talented, aristocratic, beautiful, smart and athletic. Horst comes in a strong second, and Ciara a slightly anxious third. I had a little bit of trouble sorting out the character interactions here—but maybe this will work out in a later installment. Because Horst is such an attractive character, I expected him to feature more strongly in the wind-up to this story. After Luz seduces him, we get a scene where she fights naked in front of him, which seems somewhat gratuitous, but eventually she goes off to romance Ciara instead. Horst is injured, and just disappears out of the narrative. When you add all this to the “duty, honor and country” values, the imperialism and the President-for-life thing, I almost suspect an undercurrent of satire.

This was a very interesting read. I’d highly recommend it for the historical qualities, if nothing else. If it were just a little different, I’d recommend it as an old-fashioned adventure romance, too, but instead it’s definitely bent.

Four stars.

Review of Little Darlings by Melanie Golding

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This novel is a dark fantasy/psychological thriller and won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel. Golding is a UK based author, and this looks to be her first novel. I also notice it’s soon to be a major motion picture. It was published by Crooked Lane Books in April, 2019, and runs 315 pages. This review contains spoilers.

After a difficult delivery, Lauren Tranter is the new mother of twin boys, Morgan and Riley. A crazy woman in the hospital ward tries to take Lauren’s babies and substitute her own. Lauren hides in the bathroom and calls the emergency number for help, but when the police arrive, there’s no sign of anyone there. The doctors suspect mental health issues. The Tranters take the boys home to the Peak District, and after his brief paternity leave is over, Lauren’s unsupportive husband Patrick moves into the guest room, leaving her to care for the boys both day and night. Lauren struggles with exhaustion, but with encouragement from her friends and a shove from Patrick, she finally gets it together and takes the boys out for a walk along the river. The babies are kidnapped–quickly found in the brush. But, the creatures now looking out of their eyes aren’t Lauren’s babies any longer. What does she need to do?

This is the classic changeling story, placed into a modern setting. Best points are the depth of the characterizations, the details of Lauren’s postpartum struggle, and the uncertainty throughout the whole thing about whether Lauren is suffering from postpartum psychosis or whether the crazy woman who wants the babies really is fay. There are some other themes here, too, including how women struggle with the heavy responsibilities of motherhood and how bonding can so easily turn to an unhealthy anxiety. Police investigator Joanna Harper follows up with research on historical events that suggest the problem is a recurring issue in this locale, and the narrative dips into some real horror as Lauren falls into the clutches of the mental health establishment.

It’s hard to find something to say on the less positive side of this. Maybe Joanna’s background seems slightly contrived. The author is trying to give us reasons why she’s so obsessed by the case, but she comes off more rebellious than conscientious, and not always a clear thinker. Patrick is something of a stereotype, too, put through some unflattering motions.

Regardless of little niggles, this story really delivers the goods. It’s no surprise it’s won the Dragon and been picked up for a film.

Five stars.

Review of This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

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I think this novella is meant to be science fiction. According to the authors, Gladstone wrote Red and El-Mohtar wrote Blue. It was published by Saga in 2019, and runs 209 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Red and Blue are transhuman operatives in a time war, augmented with technology and able to change shape at will. Red works for the Agency, a post-singularity technotopia, and Blue works for the Garden, a consciousness embedded in all organic matter. The two scheme against each other and eventually begin to admire the other’s work. They start to leave messages for one another and eventually fall in love. However, there’s a risk in this, and eventually they become suspect. Can they engineer a scheme where they can be together?

On the positive side, this has evocative scenes and makes good use of poetic metaphor. There’s a symbolism in the opposition: technology versus nature. The time war seems to make use of butterfly-effect actions and weapons that echo down through the time threads and may or may not change the course of history, depending on whether the other side can analyze the effects and counter quickly enough. This was a pretty quick read, as the lack of significant events allowed for skimming. The solution to the problem is fairly clever.

On the not so positive side, this has very little in the way of either plot or world building. It’s an art piece: a series of nebulous, fantastical scenes unmoored in either time or space, interspersed with poetic letters that do little to clarify the situation. This means the characterizations are also poor. The whole thing is so vague that we can’t get a grip on either the two main protagonists or the flow of side characters that have no names and only a transient presence. Plus, I don’t see any reason for these operatives to fall in love. There’s very little content here, and the book comes off as mostly nonsense.

Two stars

Wrap up of the 2018 World Fantasy Reviews

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That’s all the World Fantasy reviews, so now I’ll attempt an analysis of the list. When you look through these, a few interesting patterns emerge.

First, the diversity breakdown. Apologies if I miss anybody here:
BEST NOVEL: 1 man, 4 women, 1 Asian, 1 African American and 1 Native/African American. 1 LGBTQ
BEST NOVELLA: 1 non-binary, 1 man, 3 women, 1 African American, 1 Asian, 2 LGBTQ
SHORT FICTION: 1 man, 4 women, 3 Jewish, 1 Hispanic, 2 LGBTQ.
The totals add up to: 3/15 men (20%), 11/15 women (73%), 1/15 non-binary (7%), 2/15 Asian (13%), 1/15 Native American (7%), 1/15 Hispanic (7%), 3/15 Jewish (20%), 2/15 African American (13%), 5/15 LGBTQ (33%). Roanhorse complicates this calculation, but I’ve listed her as only Native America.

This year’s ballot continues the apparently universal trend toward mostly female writers, with only one token male nominated in each category. The system for nomination has done well in featuring at least one non-binary, Hispanic and Native American writer. Asian writers are, as usual, over-represented considering their 5% US population demographic, as are Jewish writers with a 1.5% US population demographic. The overrepresentation of Jewish writers this year follows the same pattern I found in the Nebula and Hugo Awards. The LGBTQ component here is also overrepresented, as the self-identifying gay and lesbian US population demographic for 2018 was 4.5%. Hispanic writers, as usual, remain hugely underrepresented with a US population demographic of 18%.

After reviewing the Nebula and Hugo Award finalists, I only had to read three short stories, one novella and two novels to finish out the set. There are a couple of possible implications to this. First, it suggests the Nebula and Hugo Awards might be trending to fantasy, and second, it indicates a convergence in the US fiction awards to particular works in any given year. The three awards work differently: the Nebula is awarded by the professional membership of the SFWA; the Hugo is awarded by members of WorldCon: and the World Fantasy Award is partially juried. Members of the current WFA convention and the previous two vote two nominations onto the final ballot, and the other three are named by a panel of judges. For the 2018 awards, the judges are Nancy Holder, Kathleen Jennings, Stephen Graham Jones, Garry Douglas Kilworth, and Tod McCoy.

Of course, there is the argument that particular works are elected by all three awards because they really are the best, or the more circular argument that these become the best because they’re elected. However, this kind of convergence in the major US awards remains troubling. It suggests a lack of diversity in either the marketplace or in the US awards systems. If more Native Americans were published, for example, all three awards might not elect the same writer, or if more African Americans were published, all three awards might not elect the same work.

Plus, there are also other possible explanations for convergence, such as a preference for certain content within the awards system. Of the three major US awards, the World Fantasy Award has the reputation for being the most literary, which suggests a definite preference in that direction. There is also evidence that the WFA system rewards creativity and artistic effect over standard story structures. Some of these works had little or nothing in the way of plot, and some might have qualified for a creative essay category instead. Others had serious suspension of disbelief issues. I notice there are some differences of opinion on quality out there in the readership audience. In checking out the authors, I encountered a few blogs that actually challenged the suitability of some works based on their content or execution. I personally think the Locus List has a big effect on convergence in the US awards, but interestingly, 4/15 writers (27%) of shorter works beat the odds and made it to the WFA ballot with entries that did not appear this year’s Locus List (although three of the four did appear for other works).

There was a reasonable diversity of publishers. Print magazines are clearly a failing paradigm where the awards are concerned—all the shorter finalists came from online magazines. As usual, Tor.com stood out, mostly because of the novella category, with 4/15 entries or 27%.

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