Review of “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Lightspeed Magazine in January of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Jamie feels like both a girl and a boy, which seems to come from a confusion of past lives where they lived as one or the other. Jamie’s friend Alicia tells them a murderer Benjamin Avery and his family are moving in down the street. When Jamie sees the man, it jump starts a train of memory. After some research, they remember this is the man who was supposed to have killed them in their last life when they were a girl named Janie. But that’s not right—it was someone else. Benjamin rescues Jamie from the neighborhood bullies, and they talk. Memory strikes again, and Jamie remembers who the murderer really was. Is there any way to clear Benjamin and make the real murderer pay?

This is a very well-developed story with a great plot and great characters both. The description is first rate, and the neighborhood and age-level kid details feel real. The plot Jamie and Alicia come up with to track down the real murderer is highly entertaining. There are also some interesting asides here, too, where Jamie refers to his dog Meetu as a teddy bear trapped in a pit bull’s body. Hm. A touch of satire there? The ending is also satisfying, where Jamie decides to act on their feelings for the lesbian Alicia.

Regardless that this is both touching and entertaining, it has something of a forced feel because of all the sexual and gender diversity. I don’t think it necessarily follows that being born as both a male and female in past lives is going to lead to gender confusion in this one. It seems like a characteristic that would carry over fairly clearly from one existence to another.

Four stars.

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Who controls SFF?

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One interesting study result I reported in my last blog is that conservatives are more likely to read popular or “low-brow” type fiction while liberals are more likely to read “sophisticated” or literary type fiction. This suggests an interesting way to identify the ideological worldview of fans for various purposes.

First, I think this explains why the Sad/Rabid Puppies have complained about the major SFF awards not serving the whole community. A quick sort of the top 20 Science Fiction Best Sellers at Amazon this week shows about 66% conservative, versus maybe 33% liberal if you consider the classics literary (i.e. A Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, The Man in the High Castle). If you knock out books with recent media tie-ins, then the percentage of apparent liberals drops to 10%. Both these results support my previous suggestion that liberals are a distinct minority in the community. Because the major SFF awards tend to be literary in nature, this means they’re likely run by and voted on by a small minority, which suggests the most visible and most highly promoted works via these awards are also aimed at a small minority of fans.

This will vary by the award, of course. Since I’ve been doing reviews of the winners and finalists for some of these, I think I’ve ended up with something of a feel for how literary they are. Following the method above, this will give me an idea of who’s voting. Based on the artistic quality of the finalist group, the World Fantasy Award runs most literary. The SFWA, as I’ve mentioned in past blogs, seems to have made a serious effort to make the Nebula Award more representative in the last couple of years. That means the nominees are a mix of styles and subgenres, some literary and some popular. The Hugo award actually seems to run fairly conservative (as pointed out by the Daily Dot), and often as not, the nominees seem to fall into a fairly non-literary category. There are a few works on the list with depth and subtext, but not that many. Currently, the Hugo Award seems to be most most vulnerable to political influence of these three. (See individual reviews for more information on the ratings of individual finalists.)

So what does this say about publishers? I think this suggests that major publishers are actually struggling to reconcile their pursuit of awards with a pursuit of sales. It’s true that awards can help promote a work, but they’re also a double-edged sword. If a book is too literary, then most of the audience won’t read it. Amazon is the great leveling force—six out of the top 20 of the SF Best Sellers I recently reviewed look to be self-published. These fall squarely into the conservative popular taste, including military SF and SF romance. Five others were published by presses I didn’t recognize. This leaves only nine of the 20 top sellers released by major publishers. And yes, I know the Amazon Best Sellers list is affected by the vagaries of new releases, other media releases, various promotions, etc. I’d like to look at the SF & Fantasy Best Sellers list, too, but right now it appears to be swamped by Harry Potter.

These results also suggest that the Dragon Award, based on a broad popular vote, might actually be more accurate at reflecting a) tastes of conservative readers, b) tastes of the majority of readers and c) projected sales of various genres of SFF books.

So who’s in control? The liberal/literary crowd is clearly most visible in the awards systems. But, having gone through the research, I’m thinking conservatives, moderates and “other” are still really in control of the popular SFF taste. That’s the population that’s still driving most of sales.

Conservative vs. Liberal in the SFF Community

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Following up on the last blog, why do liberals/progressives feel like they have to force change? Why does N.K. Jemisin, for example, feel like she has to stand up in front of the WorldCon audience and accuse the SFF community of grudging acceptance of minorities (i.e. racism)? Is she right? And once she’s been privately called “graceless” because of this, why do some members of the community feel they have to leap to her defense?

I’d like to suggest this is because liberals remain in a distinct minority within the community, and the fact that liberals remain a minority means they have to try harder to be heard. Minority status for liberals in the SFF community somewhat defies conventional wisdom. There’s been quite a split in the community in recent years along political lines. I’ve seen a ton of articles about how the community is now more progressive because it’s inclusive of minorities and women. Supposedly there has been a big swing in publishing toward works these members read and write. Meanwhile, the big seller this year was classed as hard SF, Andy Weir won the Dragon Award, and I met an engineer last night who asked me for a list of authors who wrote books he might like.

So, have the demographics actually changed that much? Since there aren’t a lot of studies about readership in the SFF community, I’ll have to look at general demographics. In the US Gallup says conservatives and moderates heavily outnumber liberals; about 42% of the population identify as conservative, 35% as moderate and 20% as liberal, with 3% other. If you assume the SFF community also breaks out this way, then liberals are actually a huge minority. Even if the community has a much bigger liberal faction than the general population, this still likely leaves this group well into minority status. The Daily Dot recently identified WorldCom as a conservative organization. Because of all noise about diversity in the Hugo Awards, this may seem a little surprising, but maybe it’s not, after all.

Are Hugo finalists suffering from affirmative action?

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Now that it looks like the cat is out of the bag on how WorldCon members feel about the Hugo finalists, maybe we can analyze what went on with the programming. For anyone who missed it, WorldCon staff sent out the following about finalists who weren’t included on the program: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” Then I had a conversation with a WorldCon member who admitted she didn’t really read anything, but actually nominated and voted based on the authors’ minority status.

Because of the volume of material out there, I suspect this is a standard practice for WorldCon voters. You feel obligated, so you look through the lists of recommended works, check the biographies and pick out the writers who advertise the most minority status. This discharges your responsibility as a progressive, and then you can spend your time at the con enjoying activities and authors you really like. (In this case, that looked to be panels full of white men.)

The problem is, this leads to a reality gap. It means that various authors are being promoted by a literary award system based on who they are rather than the quality of their work. It also means that quality now means pretty much zilch in the award. Certainly as a faithful reviewer of Hugo finalists, I’ve noticed wide variance in the quality of works nominated (both by Puppies and “organic” WorldCon voters). So, do members ever get around to reading these books at all? Will they get bored and impatient if they have to listen to too much from those darn finalists? After all, they got voted in, right? What else do they want?

Meanwhile on the other side of the story, a group of authors thinks they’ve been recognized because people appreciate their work. They’re excited to go to the con and interact with their fans, and instead, they’re being brushed off into back rooms by the programming committee. This is disrespectful considering their status as finalists for a prestigious award—and they feel like their careers will suffer as a result.

So, are these finalists actually being harmed? Affirmative action has been around long enough for people to judge the results, and a few research studies have investigated both the short and long term affects. The conclusion is that affirmative action policies do generally work in increasing diversity within a population, but not always how you’d expect. For example, the most noticeable result is that affirmative action tends to strongly benefit white women. Meanwhile, minorities who are targeted by the worst discrimination, like black and Hispanic men, may actually lose ground.

Currently there’s some soul searching going on because of an Asian class-action suit against Harvard University alleging discrimination in admissions. This has brought up the topic of “mismatch,” a theory that suggests some minorities might actually be harmed by promotion into an environment where they don’t really have the skills to compete. This would be beginning authors, for example, who are nominated before they’ve really gotten control of their skills as a writer. This means people might lose respect for them, stop reading their work, etc. So, is this happening to minorities who win the Hugo?

So far, it doesn’t look that way, complaints from this year’s finalists notwithstanding. They still get the name recognition, and appealing winners have gone on to become poster children, nominated again and attractive for film and TV deals. For example, see recent winners Nnedi Okorafor, Nora Jemisin and Victor LaValle. There’s also at least a small bump in readership.

Maybe it’s a question of whether the ideas actually stand up?

Review of Incredibles 2 

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This is an animated film written and directed by Brad Bird, starring Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson and Samuel T. Jackson. It was produced by Pixar, distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, and released to theaters June 15, 2018. This is the second animated film in this series. For anyone who missed it, the first film titled The Incredibles was released in 2004. This review contains major spoilers.

This film picks up right where the last one left off. The Parr family are “Supers” who are hiding out under a government enforced program of secret identities called the Super Relocation Program. The Underminer bores into the Metroville Bank and the Parr family (a.k.a. The Incredibles) tries to stop him from vacuuming all the money out of the vault. There’s a lot of property damage but they fail to stop the robbery. This leads to bad press. Man-in-Black Rick Dickers informs the Parrs that the Super Relocation Program has been discontinued, which means, at this point, they’re on their own in maintaining their secret identities. The program will only pay for two more weeks at a motel, so the family is facing homelessness. Bob and Helen are approached by media mogul Winston Deavor and his sister Evelyn, who admire superheroes and want to launch a media campaign featuring Elastigirl to get them back to work on stopping crime. Bob agrees to watch the three kids, Dash, Violet and baby Jack-Jack, while Helen takes the job. This turns out to be more than Bob bargained for, as he has to deal with math homework, budding romance and Jack-Jack’s emerging powers. He gets support from his buddy Frozone and super-costume designer Edna Mode. Meanwhile, Helen finds her job isn’t what she thought. Can Bob and Helen figure out what’s going on? Can the kids save the day again?

So, Brad Bird made his point about superheroes hiding out in the first film, and the messages here are a little different, leaning heavily to the adult philosophical. Some of it comes out in straightforward conversations between Helen and tech talent Evelyn, and between Helen and Bob, while more of it is embedded in the characters and plotline.

Message #1: Can you help people too much? Evelyn thinks superheroes make everyone weak and unable to fix their own problems, while, as a Super, Helen thinks it’s right to help people in any way she can. When asked what people really want, Evelyn thinks it’s always ease over quality, and to be taken care of by Supers, which will lead to disaster. Again, I’m not the greatest on ideologies, but this looks like libertarianism vs. socialism with some overtones of Social Darwinism. How much should we help others? Does too much help really keep people from reaching success on their own?

Message #2: What should you do if laws are wrong? If laws are immoral, is it more right to follow the rules or to break the rules? Helen decides on breaking the law to appear as Elastigirl, with the hope her actions will bring about a change in government policy.

Message #3: Role reversals are tricky. Everybody needs to respect the jobs other people do to make the world run—especially moms. Bob really struggles through the family thing, but eventually gets it under control.

Message #4: Beware of social media. Evelyn turns out to be a social media activist. In her role as Screenslaver, she hypnotizes anyone who looks into her screens and forces them to become her minions in a bid to destroy the Supers. Besides this, Winston looks suspiciously like someone who recently testified before the US Congress about the use of social media in the last US presidential election.

Highly recommended. High five on the Ideation Scale.

Five stars.

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.

Review of New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction, is published by Orbit and runs 613 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The lower end of Manhattan is now intertidal, flooded by two major pulses of sea-level rise. However, people still live and work there, assisted by new waterproofing technologies to keep basements dry, plus sky bridges and boat docks to assist in getting around. The intertidal economy has been stable for some time, but it’s becoming obvious to residents of the Met Tower that the structures not grounded on bedrock will eventually fall—they need a better housing solution. Hurricane Fyodor appears on their horizon, certain to leave destruction in its wake. Can they take advantage of the disaster to establish a new world order?

This is a fairly complex book. First, there is a broad cast of main characters, all of whom live in the Met. This includes coders Mutt and Jeff, market trader Franklin, cloud star Amelia, building manager Vlade, police inspector Gen, Householders Union rep Charlotte and two kids who live under the docks, Stefan and Roberto. Everybody has their own busy life, but their activities start to overlap as they fend off a hostile takeover of their building, find lost treasure for financing and come up with a workable scheme to remake the world. The book includes a lot of history, economics, finance and science, which weaves through the text, but this is actually character driven. The characters offer each other acceptance and support, and conflict and failure are minimal, which means it comes off as fairly warm and fuzzy. The amount of knowledge and research that must have gone into this is highly impressive, as it covers all of the above, plus the various occupations of the characters, all with detail and authority.

I have to assume the scheme they come up with is the author’s recommendation, as well, which might actually be workable with enough grassroots support. It challenges the way we view politics and business, and suggests the central conflict of our time is between democracy and capitalism. Although many of the elements point to liberal, anarchist, communist or libertarian ideology, events tend to send up these interest groups, as well. Cloud star Amelia is a prime example, the bleeding heart that slept through all the ecology classes in school and thinks it’s a great idea to drop polar bears off in the Antarctic with all those unsuspecting penguins. Other elements make better sense. Europe is pretty well ahead of the US in the ecologically based housing, wind and solar changes recommended here, and we should take note. Robinson has a history of this kind of activism and it looks like he’s reviewing actual theories. I’m suspecting he might be a dedicated revolutionary. As a result, this is the kind of serious, important text that should win awards.

On the not so great side, this moves slowly and is highly idealized. In real life, there would be more conflict and failure. For example, I don’t believe that everyone in the Met tower is a wonderful, caring person, or that the Met can continue to take in and keep refugees without fairly serious plant breakdowns. It’s also hard to believe that the adaptations people have made in the novel (solar, wind, local farms) will have been enough to counter the enormous climate change that the author describes. As a result, this is politically and intellectually provocative, but lacks the kind of emotional impact that would really drive the message home.

Highly recommended.

Five stars.

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