Review of The Changeling by Victor LaValle 

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It’s dark fantasy, published by Spiegel & Grau and runs 431 pages. This review includes spoilers.

Apollo Kagwa lives in Manhattan and works as a vintage book dealer. He finds his true love Emma Valentine and becomes the doting father of baby Brian, named after Apollo’s father, a white man who disappeared mysteriously when Apollo was a child. Emma develops postpartum depression, and when Brian is about 6 months old, she starts to insist the boy isn’t her baby. She chains Apollo to the steam pipes, cooks the baby with boiling water and then disappears. Apollo serves a stint in Rikers for holding Emma’s co-workers hostage, and when he’s released, he starts a search for his missing wife. He finds a coven of witches living in the East River, minions of a troll living in Queens, and finally locates his wife, who has staked out the troll’s cave. Can the two of them destroy the troll and rescue the real baby Brian?

So, this is a pretty impressive novel, including multiple themes and motifs. It’s a post-modern work and also feels slightly surreal. The story is apparently based on Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Outside Over There, which makes recurring appearances in the novel. In the Sendak book, Ida’s little sister is stolen away by goblins. Her parents don’t notice, so Ida enters the magical world herself to bring her sister back.

Accordingly, the first hundred pages of The Changeling are a pretty normal, positive story set in New York City, covering themes of marriage and family, work and missing and present fatherhood. Then it suddenly plunges into an alternate reality and we start to see the underlying currents of magic. This is socially and technologically up-to-date, with the troll’s minions hacking through Facebook into the private lives of families, watching their children. The troll’s minions have a contract to provide children to the troll in return for prosperity and white privilege. They make alt-right noises and oppose the witches, symbols of female power. There are also themes of living while black, and how parents damage their children. LeValle makes a few casual comments in the book that are really cutting. One that really struck me was how magical glamours hide the suffering of the weak. Apollo’s name is symbolic. He is the involved father, the sun god against the forces of darkness.

On the not so great side, LeValle doesn’t employ much in the way of style here, meaning we don’t feel a lot of foreboding, threat or suspense. The prose is fairly straight-forward and matter-of-fact, as are the descriptions and narrative. Some of the detail seems really unnecessary, like a section on breast-feeding. Touches of humor are very mild, mostly associated with being black in the wrong place. The post-modern approach is sort of scattered (as always), and takes away from the power of the story.

Final impression: Smooth, easy read. The social commentary here is first rate. Best for lovers of horror.

Five stars.

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Review of In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It was published by Tachyon and runs 174 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Claudio Bianchi is an aging farmer and sometimes poet in Calabria, Southern Italy. His farm is remote, generally visited only by the postman, and he’s gotten used to having no company but his own. That means it’s a surprise when a unicorn begins to build her nest under his chestnut tree. After a period of gestation, she drops a black colt. The secret gets out and suddenly news reporters, tourists, unicorn hunters and animal rights activists are trampling over Bianchi’s farm, looking for the mystery beasts. The unicorns are elusive, and eventually the horde of people thins, but then Bianchi gets a visit from a representative of the local crime syndicate. Bianchi refuses to sell the farm, which puts everything he has at risk, including his newly discovered love for the postman’s sister Giovanna. The crime syndicate ups the pressure, but there’s something no one has considered. Where is the male unicorn?

This story is character driven and is a positive, enjoyable read. It has a simple plot, and Beagle’s prose has a magical, Old World feel to it. Bianchi is a simple man who enjoys his wine, his cows, his cats and his poetry. We get a good feel for the farm and the old house, plus revelations about what made Bianchi the near recluse that he is. The best thing about this is the symbolism, though. As soon as we see that demure little unicorn on the front cover of the book, we know it’s going to be about sex, right? Bianchi is revitalized by his developing relationship with Giovanna, and the ending is very powerful. Beagle is a pro, after all.

On the not so great side, there’s not much in the way of action here—it’s not that kind of book. I didn’t come away with a good feel for the village, either, or the surrounding countryside. Also, there’s not much character development for anybody but Bianchi. Giovanna comes across fierce, but we don’t know anything much about her but that.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

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Rogue Protocol is a novella, the third in the Murderbot Diaries series, following All Systems Red and Artificial Condition. It was released by Tor/McMillan in August 2018. Exit Strategy, the last installment of this series, is due in October 2018.

Finished with investigating its half-memories of a massacre at Ganaka mining pit, Murderbot hitches a ride on a passenger transport this time, planning to look into the activities of the GrayCris Corporation that attempted to assassinate Dr. Mensah’s team. Because it’s representing itself as a security consultant, it has to endure and mediate the conflicts the human passengers on this trip, but finally makes it to the transit station for Milu. It appears that GrayCris is illegally mining alien artifacts, and Milu is an abandoned terraforming operation that could easily have been used as a cover. The facility’s new owners have sent a team for assessment, and Murderbot catches a ride to the venue with their human security team. The security team has ulterior motives and the facility is hazardous, so problems quickly develop. Can Murderbot rescue the assessment team? Can it find evidence against GrayCris to help Dr. Mensah with her charges against the corporation? Stay tuned.

This installment of the story has many of the same good points as the original novella, including great characters and lots of strategy and action. This installment also makes more sense in the overall arc of the series than Artificial Condition did, as Murderbot has a specific objective related to Dr. Mensah and GrayCris.

It appears that Murderbot is getting more comfortable in the human world, and it’s starting to feel confined in small storage lockers. I’m not sure if this is evolution of the character or just that somehow it’s crossing over the line and becoming a little too human. The industrial machine quality of its personality is part of its charm, and I’ve not been thrilled with its emotional issues. Whatever, we seem to be working through those.

For a novella, this installment is still not worth the price, but almost (total cost of 4 e-book versions will be about USD$35). As a full-length novel, I’m thinking the series arc will be episodic, something like a TV mini-series that has to entertain weekly, but still make sense on a larger scale. This quality makes it hard to implement character development and world building, and I think both are suffering a bit from the structure of the work. It would be great if Wells could provide us a more in-depth adventure for the same characters.

Four stars.

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 Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

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This film is the fifth installment in this franchise. It was directed by J.A. Bayona and written by Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly and released 22 June 2018 by Universal Pictures, It stars Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, B. D. Wong and Jeff Goldblum. Like most of the Jurrasic films, it’s been very successful at the box office.

DNA pirates on a stealth mission to the island park provide fodder for the local fauna. It turns out a volcano is about to destroy the island and kill all the dinosaurs. Dr. Malcolm speaks to a Congressional committee and recommends they let nature take its course, but Claire, who is running a non-profit to preserve the animals, gets a call from Eli Mills, now running Lockwood’s corporation that originally cloned the dinosaurs. Mills offers a new sanctuary and shows a special interest in Velociraptor Blue, who was successfully trained by Owen in the last film. Claire finds Owen, and with her assistants Zia and Franklin, sets out to locate and save the dinosaurs. The four of them are double-crossed and face dangerous hazards. They manage to stow away on Mills’ ship carrying a few rescued dinosaurs away from the island, but eventually get captured. Meanwhile, Lockwood’s young granddaughter Maisie overhears Mills and auctioneer Gunnar Eversol planning to auction the reptiles off to highest bidders with nefarious plans. Dr. Henry Wu wants Blue’s blood to create a new genetically engineered Indoraptor. Can Maisie help Claire and her friends save the dinosaurs? What then?

This is a fairly simple plot, mainly consisting of action sequences interspersed with heart-warming moments and scenes of the bad guys getting a comeuppance. The whole thing, of course, is an excuse for dinosaurs to stomp around and chomp on people. It carries this off admirably, if not very realistically. Claire and Owen are suitably decorative, somehow avoiding any muss to their hair or makeup, Zia and Franklin are entertaining, and Maisie is appropriately scared and vulnerable. The results here weren’t really a surprise, considering all the greed and irresponsible behavior going around. We’ll have to wait for the next movie to see how the team deals with things.

Decent action film. Cloning issues. Brief statement about global warming. Three stars.

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