Horror infesting the awards ballots?

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As I was doing reviews for the awards cycle this year, I got some comments about the popularity of works recently that lean to horror. I’ve just never really understood horror as a genre, though I’m better at managing to be less disturbed by it now than I used to be. Part of the problem is that I have tendencies toward depression and anxiety myself, and I really don’t like wallowing in it—there are better ways to deal. Reading about boiling babies in hot water, for example, just doesn’t help me to cope. No offense to people who like that kind of thing, of course.

Various people have made statements recently about the political content of SFF literature reflecting the interests and viewpoints of readers. So, I guess we can say the same thing about horror, right? It’s infiltrating science fiction and fantasy awards ballots because that’s what the majority of fans want to read? All right. So why?

One possible theory is that this reflects the mental health state of the readers. Supposedly the mental health status of teens and young adults in the 21st century (not to mention that of older adults) has seriously declined. About 50% of teens between the ages of 13-18 now have at least one diagnosed mental health disorder, and about 17% suffer from depression. I’m suspecting this is about average for most generations because of changing hormones and the tendency of the current mental health system to want to diagnose and medicate you if at all possible, but still that’s what the articles say. So maybe people with mental health disorders find horror strikes a resonant chord?

It turns out there is some research on the subject. A 2005 study by Hoffner and Levine found that people respond to horrific stories according to levels of three variables: empathy, sensation seeking and aggression. In other words, individuals with low levels of empathy and high levels of sensation seeking and aggression really like those stories about baby torture. There are also gender and age splits, as teens and men are more likely to enjoy horrific works than older fans and women.

Another researcher, Zillman (1980, 1996), developed a paradigm about excitation transfer. According to his theory, readers or viewers experience “fearful apprehension about deplorable events that threaten liked protagonists” and then feel relief when the threats are resolved. However, he doesn’t say what happens when everybody dies. Worse mental health?

Hm.

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Review of Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

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This is the fourth novella in the series titled The Murderbot Diaries. It was released 2 October 2018 by Tor. This has been a highly successful series, including the Hugo and Nebula winner All Systems Red, followed by Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol. A full length novel continuing the story is scheduled for release in 2020. This review contains massive spoilers.

At the end of Rogue Protocol, Murderbot has safely escaped Milu on Ship. Since Ship isn’t all that bright, it monitors Ship’s inputs as they approach HaveRatton Station. When Ship is directed to divert from its usual dock by Port Authority, Murderbot uses an evac suit to leave through the cargo module airlock and enters the station through another docked ship. The diversion turns out to be about a large security force waiting for some rogue SecUnit. Hm. Safely on its way, Murderbot checks the newsfeeds and finds that GrayCris has charged its owner Dr. Mensah with corporate espionage and that she is now missing. Intensive research suggests this is about the data Murderbot collected on Milu, and that she’s being held on TranRollinHyfa Station where GrayCris has its corporate headquarters. Murderbot uses an ID chip and a hard currency card it took from hired killers Gerth and Wilken and catches a fast passenger transport for TRH. Once there, it identifies a bond company gunship sitting off the station. Pulling a status report, it finds the ship has been refused dockage by the station, but a shuttle from the ship has docked. Drs. Pin Lee, Ratthi and Gurathin are on the station attempting to negotiate Mensah’s release. Can Murderbot get her out of GrayCris’clutches without getting caught itself? If so, then what?

This continues the story arc with the same great features of the other novellas. The world building is notably excellent, as are the characters. Because it’s written in first person, we have the advantage of Murderbot’s wonderfully entertaining viewpoint. Not only is it getting much better at impersonating a human, but I’m suspecting that “comm interface” component ART made up for it provides a lot of extra processing power. We’re also finally seeing why rogue SecUnits really are dangerous, as Murderbot casually hacks its way through the station’s protected systems while simultaneously outwitting GrayCris’ security force and carrying on an apparent love affair with Dr. Mensah (just like on the media shows). Once it’s trapped, the violence escalates, and it doesn’t want to shut the aggression down. Only Mensah’s tenuous hold on it keeps things together. There’s been a rising action line through the whole series, and this caps it off nicely.

On the not so great side, I’ve got some nits to pick with the whole story arc at this point. I suspect the series was written fairly quickly, as Wells has said it’s a short story that got out of control, and after the huge success of the first novella, she quickly got in gear to produce the rest. Tor was also in a hurry to follow up on the initial success, and went light on the editing. That means there are some inconsistencies in the content. 1) ART’s modifications included reducing Murderbot’s height by either one or two centimeters; we’re not sure which. 2) The sampling device that tried to capture Don Abene in Rogue Protocol snatched her helmet away, but later she has it again. 3) In Exit Strategy, the Preservation group plans not to mention Murderbot is a SecUnit so there will be no questions about citizenship, but somehow Mensah’s daughter knows. Also, the plan to produce a documentary (presumably what this series is) will also reveal this issue. Hello? 4) At the end of Exit Strategy, what happened to Murderbot’s projectile weapon? I can’t believe it left that behind, but it just sort of disappears. 5) At the end of Exit Strategy, was it struck by shrapnel or a projectile? It says both in different places. 6) In Exit Strategy, I didn’t quite believe the scenario that led to system failure. It seems like a processing overload would have just led to burnt out capacitors. Extending into a different system should be done with copied code, right? Like a virus? And that shouldn’t jumble up the original code, right? Somebody who knows about AI architecture help me out on this one.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

Making A List of Anthologies Edited by Women and POC for 2018

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Okay, following up on the last blog, I’ll try to compile a list. If you’re a woman or POC who has edited an anthology that will be released in 2018, send me your info. If you know of a woman or POC who has edited an anthology in 2018 that’s not listed below, let me know. Also, let me know if I’ve made a mistake anywhere below. I’ll also be happy to include non-binary editors/publishers. This is for promotional purposes only, and it’s unlikely I’ll be able to review all the entries. Here’s what I found with just a few minutes of searching:

  • The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018 (The Best American Series) Oct 2, 2018 by John Joseph Adams and N.K. Jemisin
  • Blacktastic!: Blacktasticon 2018 Anthology Jun 25, 2018 by Linda Addison and Sheree Thomas
  • Fell Beasts and Fair: A Noblebright Fantasy Anthology Mar 20, 2018 by Leslie J. Anderson and C.A. Barrett
  • The Colored Lens: Winter 2018 Jan 2, 2018 by Michael Best and Michelle Kaseler
  • New Voices 004: July-August 2018 (Short Story Fiction Anthology) by C. C. Brower
  • The Attractive American Science Fiction and Fantasy: Classic Science Fiction Stories For New Generation Reader in Future Aug 30, 2018 by Annie Corol
  • The Best of the Best Horror of the Year: 10 Years of Essential Short Horror Fiction Paperback – October 2, 2018 by Ellen Datlow
  • Beyond the Stars: Unimagined Realms: a space opera anthology Aug 22, 2018 by Patrice Fitzgerald
  • Worlds Seen in Passing: Ten Years of Tor.com Short Fiction Kindle Edition Sep 4, 2018 by Irene Gallo
  • Great American Science Fiction Short Stories: Stories from the Golden Age (Science Fiction & Fantasy Stories Collection) Aug 19, 2018 by Kimmy Hammond
  • Hues of Hubris: Stories from the Age of Turbulence (2018 Bay Area Teen Writers Anthology) (Volume 4) Mar 7, 2018 by Shu-Hsien Ho and Royd Hatta
  • Flash Fiction Online March 2018 Feb 27, 2018 by Maria Haskins and Samantha Murray
  • FTL, Y’all! August 28, 2018 by Amanda Lafrenais
  • The Best & Attractive Science Fiction Stories of the Year: Amazing & Greatest Science Fiction Stories Collection for All Time Aug 3, 2018 by Connie Lawley
  • The Colored Lens: Summer 2018 July 17, 2018 by Dawn Lloyd and Daniel Scott
  • Mystery!: The Origins Game Fair 2018 Anthology Jun 18, 2018 by Chantelle Aimée Osman and Donald J. Bingle
  • The Colored Lens: Spring 2018 Apr 3, 2018 by H. Pueyo and Imogen Cassidy
  • Terra! Tara! Terror! (Third Flatiron Anthologies Book 24) Sep 30, 2018 by Juliana Rew
  • Galileo’s Theme Park (Third Flatiron Anthologies Book 23) Jun 15, 2018 by Juliana Rew
  • Monstrosities (Third Flatiron Anthologies Book 22) Mar 10, 2018 by Juliana Rew
  • Flash Fiction Online January 2018 by Suzanne Vincent
  • The Future Is Female! 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women, from Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. Le Guin: A Library of America Special Publication Oct 9, 2018 by Lisa Yaszek
  • Nebula Awards Showcase 2018 Aug 7, 2018 by Jane Yolen

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?

WorldCon’s Voting Problem

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WorldCon has considered itself a bastion of the progressive in the face of the recent Sad/Rabid Puppy traditionalist siege, so the recent programming crisis has blindsided a lot of people. For anyone who’s missed it, some of the high points played out on Twitter like this:

  • Bogi Takács complains about errors representing their name and gender in the WorldCon bio.
  • After responses from the WorldCon team, the staff is accused of lying about the errors.
  • Some guests complain about bios and photos being taken from their private accounts.
  • The programming schedule is issued and several Hugo Award nominees are not represented, although some members of the staff are listed on multiple panels.
  • WorldCon issues an explanation about programming as follows: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.”
  • JY Yang calls out WorldCon staff for not providing program space for #ownvoices (later amended to not a good enough space).
  • Management continues to apologize and promises to rework the schedule.

A lot of this likely has to do with standard inefficiency and delegating the work to clueless but enthusiastic volunteers way down the food chain. Dealing with the nominees and panel applicants also looks like a matter of herding cats, where potential guests, in time-honored fashion, totally fail to RSVP. However, there are a couple of interesting issues that showed up in the discussion about this at File 770.

The first is the revelation that out of 4630 attendees to the con, 2000 of them applied for positions on the program. This is 43%, or almost half. This suggests that these 2000 are either industry professionals with something to promote, or else they consider themselves professional fans with an opinion worth listening to. Of course, this means the staff in charge of programming have a huge pile of applications to wade through, trying to sort out who might be interesting to the larger body of attendees.

The real mind-bender from the above, of course, is that comment: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” Since this comment was not well considered, I think we can assume it represents an unfiltered assessment of the situation from someone on the programming staff who is struggling to sort out those 2000 applicants. The reason it’s not well considered, of course, is that it strongly implies the WorldCon attendees either haven’t read or don’t much care about the work of the Hugo finalists.

This is a huge crisis of faith. At File 770, it led to questions about the reliability of the new EPH voting system installed last year, which was meant to ensure “diversity” by reducing the impact of slate voting. But actually, this isn’t a problem in reliability of the nomination and voting system, or even a question of cheating. I talked to a WorldCon member who told me what she does. Because she’s very busy, she doesn’t really have time to read ahead of the vote, so she just checks lists of recommendations and chooses prominent minorities and women for the ballot. I’d like to suggest this is why the WorldCon membership isn’t really excited about the work of this years’ finalists. They were chosen for who they are rather than for what they wrote.

At this point, I hope this isn’t a surprise to anybody. After all, isn’t that why people put up those biographies that describe their minority status in such detail?

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.

Review of Solo: A Star Wars Story

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This film was directed by Ron Howard, written by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan and stars Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson and Emilia Clarke. It was produced by Lucasfilm and released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures in July 2018.

Han and Qi’ra are orphaned children trying to escape indenture to a crime boss on the planet Corellia. They make up a plan to get away, but Qi’ra is caught just on the threshold of freedom. Han escapes and signs up for military service, hoping to become a pilot, but he deserts when this doesn’t work out. He takes up with a band of freelance thieves led by a man named Beckett, who introduces him to Chewbacca the Wookie in the worst possible way. Beckett is trying to steal coaxium fuel for Dryden Vos, a crime boss of the Crimson Dawn syndicate. When they arrive at his penthouse, Han finds that Qi’ra has escaped Corellia by taking employment with Vos. She introduces him to smuggler Lando Calrissian, and on his second try at sabacc, Han catches Lando cheating and wins his ship the Millennium Falcon. Rebels capture the coaxium, causing mayhem. Can Qi’ra and Han get out alive? Can they rebuild their relationship? Can Han make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs?

So, Howard has done a workmanlike job of incorporating everything that had to go into this film. Because Han, Chewbacca and Lando are well-known characters with established histories, the film had to go back and provide scenes and details that were already described. Even with generous actions scenes, it’s not that exciting, moving from point to point like a checklist.

There was a controversy before the film even got to theaters, as director Howard was hired to replace Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who were fired for “creative differences.” A lot of the film was then reshot, at considerable expense. Box office receipts were dismal, the first real failure of a Star Wars film in the history of the franchise. This may have been about poor word-of-mouth, but it was more likely a boycott by fans unhappy about the Disney-controlled films and especially annoyed by The Last Jedi. The result has been mutterings from Disney about maybe not making any more Star Wars films. Is this a demo of how to kill a cash cow?

The biggest problem with this film, of course, was Alden Ehrenreich trying to step into Harrison Ford’s shoes. Ehrenreich did a workmanlike job with the character, but workmanlike just isn’t Han Solo. Donald Glover as Calrissian got glowing reviews, but it was really the charismatic Woody Harrelson as Beckett who lights up the film—an understated, low key performance notwithstanding. Also prominent was Lando’s annoying co-pilot L3-37, an animated character fighting against the slavery of droids, who got quickly squashed. Was this a message about SJWs?

The casting issue brings up another question. Why isn’t Disney investing in flashier talent for these movies? I think some of the Marvel films have had the same issue, where it looks like they went down to the local acting school and hired a bunch of young kids and then suppressed whatever talent and individuality they might have. Even weeks of promotional hype about what stars they are doesn’t make up for their lack of presence on the screen. Howard did a good job making his cast carry their weight here, but really, why is Disney so hell-bent on mediocrity?

Average film. Three stars.

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