Review of Numbercaste by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

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I was sort of taken by “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi, a finalist on the 2019 Nebula ballot, so I went looking for more of Yudhanjaya’s work. This novel was originally self-published in 2017 and runs 300 pages. It was the winner of the 2017 Virtual FantasyCon Award. Yudhanjaya is Shri Lankan and has worked as a programmer, tech journalist and social researcher. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 2030 and Patrick Udo lives in Chicago where automation means jobs are scarce. At his mother’s funeral, he meets Julius Common, who wants his father to do marketing and publicity for NumberCorp. About the same time, Patrick’s banking app asks him to log in with his number and UN-ID, and to supply social media accounts. When he checks to see what’s behind the app, it’s NumberCorp, a six billion dollar financial tech company based in Silicon Valley. The UN-ID is a global blockchain-based ID system, and the number rates your social worth. Fascinated, Patrick takes the job instead of his dad, where he goes to work in the Communications department. They do battle with Facebook and win, go on to capture America. Patrick is transferred to a project in Sri Lanka, where he helps launch the number in South-East Asia, then Europe. Patrick becomes the company’s man as they launch campaigns to take India and China. The number will build a new world order, but is what they’re doing right?

This book isn’t exactly a page turner, but it’s well-written, inquiring and a little scary. It’s the flip side of Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope , but instead of the protagonist looking at the elitist rating system from the outside, Udo works for the company that’s building it. The plotting, world building and characterizations here are excellent, as the author outlines the people, events and campaigns that build the company into world dominance, and then shows its dark underbelly. Another item of interest: Although this is initially based in Silicon Valley, it doesn’t have an America-centric feel. Instead, it’s very global. Commons is an immigrant, and much of the story takes place in Europe and Asia. It ends, as it began, with the UN.

On the not so positive side, there’s not much of an action line here. The story just cooks along at a leisurely pace as the characters interact and the company mounts various campaigns that finally prevail. What is probably the climax passes, and Yudhanjaya, maybe needing to fill out more length for the manuscript, adds articles at the end that Udo wrote about the founder Julius Commons. In the end, this just gives you something scary to think about.

Recommended. Four and a half 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%.

Dragon Award Finalists 2019

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The Dragon Award final ballot is out, revealing the finalists. The awards will be presented the first week in September and there’s not much overlap with other awards. That means I won’t really be able to look at many of the finalists I’ve not already reviewed. I will try to review the fiction winners in September.

Interestingly, there does to be more intersection this year, which shows the fan groups that normally drive the Nebula and Hugo Awards are becoming more active in voting for the Dragon Awards. This is especially visible in the fantasy category. However, the Dragon still looks to be a heavily male-driven award.

P.S. On August 31 time to vote on the awards is getting short. I’m happy to see that various people have done some background work on the finalists. See a helpful rundown by Cora Buhlert here also includes links to other analyses.

Best Science Fiction Novel
Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson
Europe at Dawn by Dave Hutchinson
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
A Star-Wheeled Sky by Brad R. Torgersen
Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey

Best Fantasy Novel (Including Paranormal)
Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch
Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
House of Assassins by Larry Correia

Best Young Adult / Middle Grade Novel
Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand
Armageddon Girls by Aaron Michael Ritchey
The Pioneer by Bridget Tyler
Bloodwitch by Susan Dennard
Imposters by Scott Westerfeld
Archenemies by Marissa Meyer
The King’s Regret by Philip Ligon

Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel
Uncompromising Honor by David Weber
Order of the Centurion by Jason Anspach, Nick Cole
Marine by Joshua Dalzelle
The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley
Sons of the Lion by Jason Cordova
A Pale Dawn by Chris Kennedy, Mark Wandrey

Best Alternate History Novel
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
Black Chamber by S.M. Stirling
The World Asunder by Kacey Ezell
Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Iron Codex by David Mack

Best Media Tie-In Novel
Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn
Darkness on the Edge of Town by Adam Christopher
Big Damn Hero by James Lovegrove, Nancy Holder
Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray
The Replicant War by Chris Kennedy
The Way to the Stars by Una McCormack

Best Horror Novel
We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix
Little Darlings by Melanie Golding
Riddance by Shelley Jackson
100 Fathoms Below by Steven L. Kent, Nicholas Kaufmann
Zombie Airman by David Guenther
Cardinal Black by Robert McCammon

Best Comic Book
Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, Dave Stewart
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples
Mister Miracle by Tom King, Tony S. Daniel
The Batman Who Laughs by Scott Snyder, Mark Simpson
Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man by Chip Zdarsky, Adam Kubert
Batman by Tom King, Tony S. Daniel

Best Graphic Novel
Berlin by Jason Lutes
On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden
Hey, Kiddo by Jarret J. Krosoczka
X-Men: Grand Design – Second Genesis by Ed Piskor
I Am Young by M. Dean
Monstress Vol. 3 by Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy TV Series
Game of Thrones, HBO
Good Omens, Amazon Prime
The Umbrella Academy, Netflix
The Orville, Fox
Star Trek: Discovery, CBS All Access
Lucifer, Netflix

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Movie
Spider-Man: Far From Home by Jon Watts
Alita: Battle Angel by Robert Rodriguez
Aquaman by James Wan
Avengers: Endgame by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Captain Marvel by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy PC / Console Game
Life is Strange 2 by Dontnod Entertainment
Apex Legends by Electronic Arts
World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth by Blizzard
Assassin’s Creed: Odysssey by Ubisoft
Red Dead Redemption 2 by Rockstar Games
Outer Wilds by Mobius Digital

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Mobile Game
Reigns: Game of Thromes by Nerial
Elder Scrolls: Blades by Bethesda Softworks
Cyber Hunter by NetEase
Grimvalor by Direlight
Sega Heroes: Puzzle RPG Quest by SEGA
Harry Potter: Wizards Unite by Niantic, WB Games San Francisco

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Board Game
Nemesis by Awaken Realms
Root by Leder Games
Cryptid by Osprey Games
Everdell by Starling Games (II)
Betrayal Legacy by Avalon Hill Games
Architects of the West Kingdom by Garphill Games

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Miniatures / Collectible Card / Role-Playing Game
Fallout: Wasteland Warfare by Modiphius Entertainment
Magic: The Gathering War of The Spark by Wizards of the Coast
Keyforge: Call of the Archons by Fantasy Flight Games
Magic: The Gathering Ravnica Allegiance by Wizards of the Coast
Call of Cthulhu: Masks of Nyarlathotep Slipcase Set by Chaosium Inc.
Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team by Games Workshop

Congrats to the 2018 Nebula Award Winners!

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Novel: The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal

Novella: The Tea Master and the Detective, Aliette de Bodard

Novelette: “The Only Harmless Great Thing,” Brooke Bolander

Short Story: “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington”, Phenderson Djèlí Clark

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Screenplay by: Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman

The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book: Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Comparing Brazee’s Fire Ant to Kowal’s The Calculating Stars

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For readers following along, I’ve just finished reviewing the works on the ballot as finalists for the 2018 Nebula Award. When I started looking at patterns, I noticed that many of the authors used similar literary devices and plotlines. I’d like to take a closer look at a couple of these. In the first comparison, Jonathan Brazee and Mary Robinette Kowal have used the same plotline to write their books on the ballot this year, while expressing completely different worldviews in the results. I thought it would be interesting to have a look at what they’ve started with, what they’ve done with it, and how this affects the message they’re sending with their books.

Here’s how the plotline goes: There’s a threat to the survival of the human race. A minority woman who happens to be a pilot is front and center for the threat, and as a result gets an opportunity to advance her skills and experience in order to be instrumental in saving the human race.

Brazee’s heroine is Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay. Her name suggests mixed racial ancestry: O’Shea is of Irish origin, Salinas is Hispanic and Dalisay is Tagalog/Filipino. Floribeth seems to be from an humble background, and she works hard so she can send money home to her family. When she encounters an alien spacecraft, she uses her wits and skill to survive and escape. The company she works for refuses to believe her story and fines her for damages to their equipment. However, word gets out, and Floribeth is approached by government officials who offer her a chance to enter the Royal Navy as a pilot. Floribeth takes the chance and goes through the training. When she does poorly in the first live exercise, she acknowledges the damage to her reputation, but doesn’t let it affect her drive and belief in herself. She ignores snide comments about her qualifications and concentrates on doing her job. She goes on to heroically rescue a member of her unit as a last ditch effort in a real firefight with the aliens.

Kowal’s heroine is Elma York, a Jewish woman from a comfortable background with PHDs in physics and math. She has wartime experience as a pilot and works as a human computer for NACA, the space administration where her husband Nathaniel also works as an aerospace engineer. When a meteor strikes the Northeastern US and threatens life on Earth, NACA starts an accelerated program to develop space flight and establish a colony on the moon. Elma’s PHDs are aimed at research and teaching, but she has applied for a job well below her qualifications. She suffers from panic attacks when asked to make presentations of her work in public, takes tranquilizers and hides to puke in the bathroom. When her husband asks her to help him with a presentation before Congress, she totally freezes up and leaves him to labor through it alone. While the people around her try to give her opportunities to promote her abilities and expertise, Elma complains constantly about discrimination in the space program. When the astronaut corps is opened to women, she applies and is accepted. Once there, she carps about other women being advanced above her and bullies others in the group she feels are less qualified than she is. When an emergency arises, Elma successfully demonstrates her ability to make complex mathematical calculations in her head and is installed as pilot on the upcoming moon launch.

So, what do the writers mean to accomplish with these works? Brazee’s book has a very positive, you-can-do-it vibe. We get to follow along with Floribeth as she experiences terror in space and anger at the company. Then, given the opportunity, she takes risks and builds on her skills. She is rewarded by success and warm acceptance into her naval unit. On the other hand, Kowal’s book is meant to provoke anger at how Elma and her minority friends are mistreated by the society around them. We’re led to believe that Elma’s activism makes the space program more accepting of women, and that she ought to be recognized for her brilliance and promoted regardless of her poor career performance. Kowal has written the book as an alternate reality, drawing on real historical documents and events that blur the line between fiction and real history, and produced a very slanted story that serves as a condemnation of NASA and the US Apollo program.

Which is more fun to read? That depends on your reading taste, of course. If you want to read a success story in a universe that doesn’t discriminate based on sex or minority status, then choose Brazee’s work. It’s experiential and leaves you with a nice warm feeling that Floribeth is going to make everything okay, regardless of the huge hurdles in front of her. If you want to get angry about how women and minorities might have been treated at the end of World War II, then read Kowal’s work, which provides fictionalized examples designed to provoke you. (One note about this: It’s not that I don’t think the US space program was discriminatory in the 20th century, but any analysis of the program should include a look at World War II, the Cold War and the politics and huge societal changes that took place during these years.)

And last, which of these women characters is a better role model for young women considering military, technical or science careers? Elma and her paralyzing anxiety about performance, or Floribeth and her I-can-do-it attitude?

Wrap up of the 2018 Nebula Reviews

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I’ve already reviewed Artificial Condition by Martha Wells and Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, so this finishes up the works in the 2018 Nebula fiction categories—I may get to the Norton works later, but I won’t get them done before the voting deadline on March 31. I already wrote a blog on patterns after accusations of irregularities in the voting flew around a while back, so now I’ll look for a few more.

Similar to last year, this list of fiction finalists contains what I think is real diversity. There’s a wide variety of different voices, styles and types of fiction, though some categories feature more than others. For the demographic breakdown, there appear to be 4/24 (17%) writers of African ancestry, 4/24 (17%) writers of Asian ancestry, maybe 3/24 (12.5%) Hispanic/Native Americans and 5/24 (20.8%) Jewish. That leaves about 32.7% other. For the gender breakdown, it looks like 14/24 (58%) are women and 10/24 (42%) men. It’s a little harder to pin down sexual orientation, but about 4/24 (17%) look to be LGBTQ. This is a pretty good fit to US population demographics except for Hispanic/Native Americans, currently about 35% of the US population and underrepresented again this year. I don’t see any writers of Arab ancestry on the ballot, currently about 1% of the US population and 6% of the EU population.

A rough breakdown by genre looks like 10 (42%) works of science fiction, 12 (50%) works of fantasy and 2 (8%) hard to classify/sort of alternate reality. Three were military SF and maybe 2 to 3 would qualify as hard SF. Nine of the works (37.5%) would likely qualify as “own voices” where the writer presents a viewpoint from his or her particular ethnic background. Interestingly, I’m wondering if this trend in the marketplace may have encouraged Jewish writers to feature their ethnic backgrounds more prominently.

There was also pretty decent variety in the themes and devices this year, although these seemed to me a bit too predictable. Four out of six of the short story finalists (17% of the total), for example, used endangered children as a device to create emotional content. Eight of the works (30%) used threat of climate change or environmental poisoning as a device to create conflict. Five of the works (21%) included gender, sexual orientation or sexual abuse as devices to create progressive content. There were also a couple of folks who used the same basic plot lines, or plot lines similar to recent winners. I’ll get to that comparison in future blogs.

As far as quality goes, these are generally well-written stories with the standard devices, plot lines and themes meant to appeal to the writer’s particular audience. I don’t think anyone could point out that indy or traditionally published works, for example, were any worse or better than others. The increase in military and hard SF over recent years has reduced the amount of “literary” work on the list, but that just reflects the current makeup of the SFWA organization. I do think some of the works could have used an editorial reality-check, but that’s not a problem you can pin down to any one particular group.

Review of Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It runs 466 pages and was published by Del Rey/Macmillan. This review contains spoilers.

Miryem comes from a family of moneylenders, but her father is really poor at it. He’s lent out his wife’s dowery and can’t collect payment, so the family falls into poverty. Winter seems to extend longer and longer. When her mother Panova Mandelstam gets sick, Miryem takes things into her own hands. She goes through her father’s books and begins to make collections for him. This angers the people in the village, but Miryem continues to work at it until her family is back on the road to prosperity. When one angry, alcoholic debtor says he can’t pay, she contracts for his daughter Wanda and later his son Sergey to work off the debt as servants in her family’s house. After her success, Miryem makes an unfortunate boast about being able to turn silver into gold, which attracts the fay Staryk king. He sets her three tasks as a test, and in a panic Miryam carries the Staryk’s silver to the city of Vysnia where her grandparents live. She asks her cousin’s fiancé Isaac to help, and he fashions the silver into a ring, a necklace and a tiara that he offers to the duke. The duke buys the fay works for his daughter Irina and then presents her to the young Tsar Mirnatius as a bride. Because Miryem has passed his tests, the Staryk king carries her away to his frozen kingdom to be his queen, leaving Wanda to manage the Mandelstam household and business. Mirnatius is possessed by the demon Chernobog who wants to devour Irina, but she has a strain of Staryk blood and uses the silver to pass through into the Staryk kingdom every night when the demon manifests. Miryem and Irina meet and develop a plot to be rid of their evil husbands. Can they make it work without destroying both worlds?

On the positive side, this uses Russian folklore to create a complex and suspenseful tale that’s both strongly plotted and character driven. It also provides great role models for girls. Miryem and Wanda both grow into excellent businesswomen and managers at a young age and Irina develops into the power behind the possessed tsar that will deal with politics and keep the kingdom running on an even keel. It’s clearly about women taking care of things themselves and not waiting for someone else to do it for them. There’s also a certain symbolism underneath: As Miryem becomes colder, more prideful and harder-hearted, the winter king comes for her. Also on the positive side, Novik has come out in support of capitalism for women when other authors seem to be fairly unsupportive just lately.

On the less positive side, there’s never much chemistry that develops between these characters. The secondary characters are the warmest and most caring, while the three female protagonists remain cold and hard-hearted through the whole thing. Regardless of the strength of the role models they present, I’m not sure this coldness is a great message to send to young girls. Miryem and Irina also seem fairly single-minded, coming up with their plot without actually investigating what’s going on behind the scenes, where the Staryk king is trying to balance the effects of the tsar’s demon. Irina’s father suggests this, but I thought his sudden acumen and respect for Irina at that meeting was inconsistent. He’s not been represented as highly intelligent, politically incisive or respectful of her up to this point.

Four stars.

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