Identity politics bullies versus SFF Con management 2018

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At the end of July, WorldCon became another in the list of SFF conventions that experienced partisan conflict this year about programming, guests or treatment of guests. Special interest groups have apparently moved on from insisting on strict Codes of Conduct for the conventions to insisting on excluding certain guests and demanding particular programming as part of the same agenda. The complaints flying around are the same ones honed for use in the Code of Conduct campaign, words like “unsafe,” “disrespected” and “harassment.” These loaded words are apparently based on such ordinary things as fiction releases and errors in biographies. It seems mostly a problem on the progressive left, but after conservative author Jon Del Arroz didn’t get what he wanted from a kerfluffle at BayCon, he filed suit for defamation—an indication of how far people will go to get their way.

Most of this problem is just victim/identity politics, where people maneuver for advantage through bullying tactics. If you’re a minority and want recognition, then the best way to do it these days is to make noise about being victimized and disrespected and otherwise causing a stink. Progressives are trained to respond with abject apologies and to jump to make adjustments that give you what you want. Because the cons have limited resources and can’t afford massive disturbances and bad press, most have folded to demands. This has led to complaints from other groups harmed by the changes, such as conservatives or older writers. This must have been a particularly aggressive group of activist bullies at WorldCon. See Mary Robinette Kowal comments on trying to work with them. The only failure of this strategy so far seems to have been DragonCon, which ignored guest withdrawals and fired agitators from their positions on staff.

Whatever, WorldCon management busily tried to accommodate the complaints and save their reputation as progressive. There was quite a scramble going on in the last weeks before the con, where the staff completely tore apart the programming and started over. Sensitive guests withdrew to make room for minorities. Teams were called in to help. But, the truth is, they can’t satisfy the demands because it’s not just about appearing on a panel. The progressive ground has moved out from WorldCon members’ feet. An article in the Daily Dot actually classifies their standard demographic as “overlapping” with the Sad Puppies. Who would have thought?

Next, interesting questions about the Hugo voting that emerged in the crisis.

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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 “Extracurricular Activities” by Yoon Ha Lee

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction and was published by Tor.com. This is a stand-alone story that falls into Lee’s Machineries of Empire series. Novels in this universe include Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, both from Solaris, and Revenant Gun, coming soon.

The young Shuos Jedao is promised a promotion to moth commander if he can successfully carry out a special ops mission to rescue a crew captured by the Gwa-an and held at Du Station. Incidentally, Jedao went to space academy with the crew leader, Shuos Meng. Jedeo joins a merchant group which provides a cover, but apparent pirates turn out to be Gwa-an military. He allows himself to be arrested in order to infiltrate the station. Can he rescue Meng and the crew? And what should he do about that lusty fellow Techet?

This is more humorous than serious, starting with the shipment of goose fat from his mom that Jedeo takes for a bomb at the beginning, and ending with a final joke about the use Techet finds for the goose fat. The plotting is decent if not dramatic, including a twist ending. Lee drops the reader right into the universe without any explanation, so this becomes an experience in creative world-building. Since I’ve read a couple of Lee’s novels set in the universe at this point, it’s no longer new to me, but fresh readers are likely to be entertained by the complexity of the culture and the gender roles. The running joke about the goose fat and other lubricants is also amusing.

Not so good points: The complexity and lack of explanation will be hurdles for some readers. Also, I understand this is supposed to be humorous, but the particulars of the execution really stretched my suspension of disbelief—it’s just not convincing and actually comes off a bit slap-stick. Plus, the story didn’t generate much in the way of drama or investigation of the human condition, either one.

Presumably it’s just for fun.

Three stars.

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Are Pronouns Really that Important?

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Recently I’ve gotten, not just one, but two surveys from organizations asking about my gender identity/sexuality and what pronouns I’d prefer to use. Presumably this is so groups I’m affiliated with can 1) make a count of non-binary and/or genderqueer authors and 2) keep track of how everybody wants to be addressed. This makes it seem like an opportune time to discuss pronouns.

For anyone who is totally out of the loop on this, I’ll make an effort to explain—not that I’m an expert, of course, or even keeping up. Correct usage seems to shift significantly over time. “Genderqueer” is a term for people whose gender identity lies outside of what is considered normal male and female genders—gender being a role, as opposed to a sex, which is based on equipment. Someone who is genderqueer might express femininity, masculinity, neither or both as part of their gender identity. Related to this, gender neutrality is a movement to reduce gender-based discrimination through establishment of gender-neutral language, including pronouns.

This explains the recent innovation of “Latinx” instead of “Latino” or “Latina,” for example. There is also a considerable list of pronouns which have been advanced as gender-neutral. Because of the extensive variety of individual preferences, progressive organizations are apparently finding they need to set up databases to keep track of who prefers what. For anyone interested in the associated discussion, Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson recently made an entrance onto the international stage by refusing to go along with this at the University of Toronto where he works. The review site Rocket Stack Rank was also called out recently for complaining about the non-standard usage.

There has been a flow of books and stories recently that use these non-traditional pronouns. Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series is one example, as is Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota, both recognized with major awards. On the short story side, examples include “The Worldless” by Indrapramit Das, “Deep Waters Call Out to What is Deeper Still” by Sarah Frost and “The Pigeon Summer” by Brit Mandelo.

So, how do these non-traditional pronouns actually work out in practice? Do they accomplish what they’re designed to do? Do they improve the readability of the story or novel where they’re used?

Use of “they” and “their” has become so prevalent that I see Liz Bourke recently imposed this form on the genderless Murderbot, who is not a human being and correctly designated as an “it” by its creator Martha Wells.

Comments on the issue are welcome.

Review of Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s fantasy and was published by Knopf.

Teddy Telemachus is a con artist. Always has been. Always will be. He’s getting kind of old now, so it’s time he took care of some things. He approaches the wife of a local crime boss in the grocery story, and as usual, his charm pays off. With her on his side, he’s got leverage to deal. Besides this, Teddy is a widower and the head of a family of dysfunctional psychics. He, himself, is a card reader. His daughter Irene can’t keep a husband or a job because she can tell when people are lying. His telekinetic son Frankie is in debt to the mob. His youngest Buddy is a clairvoyant that is terrified of somehow changing the future. His grandson finds that masturbation causes astral projection. And then, there are the twins. Can this family ever find happiness and success, or is the future going to end for all of them on September 4?

Looking at this from Buddy’s point-of-view, it’s a steaming, tangled pile of past, present and future. For most of the novel, he’s working hard, trying to make preparations for Zap day, when the future ends in his consciousness. Luckily we have information from other points-of-view, too, which help us make sense of what’s going on. Because of Buddy’s aptitude and Teddy’s con artist leanings, this is tightly plotted in many ways. Because of the wild card character of the family gifts, we also get a lot of human failings. Besides this, government agents are lurking about, hoping to replace Teddy’s dead wife Maureen as their greatest weapon. Plus, the mob.

This is a smooth, delightful read with absorbing characters and slightly over-the-top humor. It has a tendency to carry the reader along to the satisfyingly tied up ending, so it’s hard to be aware of not so good points. I did wonder a couple of times about Teddy’s ploys, especially in his and Frankie’s contacts with the mob. Zap day turned out to be sort of manic, and Buddy’s trans girl/boyfriend looked a bit artificial, like an editor’s insert to make the book more attractive as award material.

Regardless of these little issues, I’m going five stars on this one. Highly recommended.

Review of Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s billed as “vintage alternate reality” and was published by Tor. Presumably this is going to be an ongoing series, as it’s described as book 1 in the Amberlough Dossier. Book 2, Armistice, is due on May 15, 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Cyril DePaul is from a wealthy family and works as a spy for the government of Amberlough. Since a mission gone wrong, he’s been working a desk at headquarters in Amberlough City and enjoying a torrid affair with cabaret performer and smuggler Aristide Makricosta. Cyril’s boss pulls him off the desk to take over an emergency assignment, and his cover is blown before he even gets started. He’s forced to make a deal with fascists agents planning to take over the government. Returning home, he breaks off his affair with Aristide and takes up with Cordelia, a stripper at the cabaret, trying to carry off a plan. Is there any way to stop the fascists and preserve Amberlough City? Can Cyril save himself, Cordelia and his lover Aristide? Can he even protect himself?

This book feels like the 1930s or 40s, and it’s notable for its detail and sensuality. We get to feel the early spring breeze, smell cologne and sweat mingled at the club, walk in a carpet of cherry petals in the park and even catch the butcher-shop scent when the dead bodies start to pile up. The story gets increasingly more gripping as the fascist’s plot advances and the main characters end up fighting for life and liberty. They’re pretty much down and out by the end of the book, but it’s clear that Cordelia, at least, is going to be real trouble for the bad guys.

Not so good points: I can’t see any science fiction or fantasy either one in this book. Also, if it’s an alternate reality, I don’t see what it’s alternate to. It’s a great intrigue set in in imaginary place, but not really SFF at all. Also, I think the sensuality is a little overdone so that it interferes with readability and obscures thin world building. I ended up with a really clear idea of who was sleeping with whom and what cologne they use, but not much about foreign politics and how this impacts Cyril’s decisions. There’s a logical issue here that makes his actions seem really questionable.

Four and a half stars (but not SFF).

Review of Autonomous by Analee Newitz

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s science fiction, published by Tor and runs 301 pages. This review includes spoilers.

Jack is a subversive. She started her career as a student opposing a pharmaceutical system that produces cures and lifestyle drugs for the wealthy at the expense of the poor. She ended up serving a term in prison when a protest went wrong, worked for a while in a lab that produced open source drugs and then drifted into piracy to fund her own research. Jack reverse engineers a recently released drug and finds that people are dying from her sales. Worse, IPC agents are now hot on her trail, specifically the violent and ruthless Eliasz and his robot partner Paladin. The two of them seem perfectly willing to cripple or kill all Jack’s friends and colleagues to get to her. Can Jack produce an anecdote to the dangerous drug she counterfitted? Can she escape with her life? Can Eliasz and Paladin find happiness with each other?

So, this is a pretty complex novel. First, although I’m not that great at identifying the fine points of political ideologies, I expect the subversives are anarchists. The pharmaceutical system sounds oddly familiar, something we might find in the US capitalist system, for example, and the notion that there should be no intellectual property rights isn’t exactly libertarian. In opposition, presumably the IPC agents are fascist.

Second, I also suspect there’s some meaning in the particular drug that Jack pirates. It’s a productivity enhancer that gives people pleasure in their work. Uncontrolled, as Jack has issued it, this produces a deadly addiction that causes people to work themselves to death. This also sounds familiar in the current landscape, where some states and countries are now passing laws that provide workers a right to work-life balance and freedom from the expectation they will always remain on call. Once Jack breaks the addiction, the people in the novel find they don’t really like to work at all.

Third, there is a subplot related to slavery. Jack picks up an indentured kid called Threezed (from the number branded on his neck) after she kills his master. The laws allowing humans to become indentured in this world parallel laws allowing the indenture of robots. As we follow Theezed’s experiences, it becomes clear this is a system for human trafficking, especially of disadvantaged children, with shades of student debt. Again, it’s impossible not to draw parallels with our own society. And, of course, the intelligent and self-aware Paladin is also enslaved and trafficked, a more obvious parallel.

Last, the relationship between Eliasz and Paladin comes across like some kind of weird Stockholm syndrome. Paladin is a hulking military model, with a human brain in its belly and gun ports in its chest. I wasn’t surprised that the violent Eliasz got off on this, but he mutters about not being a “faggot.” When he finds out Paladin’s brain is donated by a human woman, the relationship blooms, and he suggests that the genderless Paladin should choose to be female. In the end, the two of them run away together to find a new life on Mars.

The subversive counter culture that Newitz presents as challenging the pharmaceutical industry with open source drugs is initially attractive, except that the kids and researchers involved seem to be addicted to drugs the same as everyone else. I can’t trust any of them because I suspect they’re doped up and driven by the system. All efforts will come to naught, of course, because Big Pharma has such a stranglehold on the political system. Next, there’s the issue of intellectual property. For example, Newitz’s copyright on the novel is intellectual property, right? And then, there’s that thing with Paladin and Eliasz. So, this is satire.

Newitz is actually making fun of all these things? That’s refreshing. But it’s fairly complex fiction, of course, so probably there’s not that much risk that people will take offense at her treatment of trans robots.

Not so good points: The novel is intellectually very interesting and the characters are reasonably well-developed, but the larger world setting, including the political and economic sphere, is not well defined. There are a few points, suspiciously symbolic, which are not well supported. Also, the prose here is on the dry and matter-of-fact side. If there was supposed to be a hook, I couldn’t find it. Because of these issues, I had a really hard time getting started. I suspect the book would be a lot more readable with a different rendition.

Four and a half stars.

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