Putting the Ideation Scale to Work – Rating the 2017 Nebula Finalists

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If you’re read the last blog post, you’ll see I’ve proposed the Ideation Scale to rate ideas presented by SFF stories. If we’re to believe that SF is the “literature of ideas” and that the best/most important stories are those that present provocative and/or innovative ideas, then we need some way to rate this. So here’s the scale:

1 Our heads are empty
2 Political message fiction
3 Rehash of common themes
4 Decent points here
5 World shaking ideas

One caveat—this scale may have little to do with the literary quality or entertainment value of the work.

So, first let’s look at the Nebula finalists. According to the SFWA members who voted, these are the best/most important stories published in SFF for the year 2017.
I’m not going to go back and specifically rate every story, but I’d like to recommend that readers do their own rating for discussion purposes. I’ve likely provided enough information in the reviews for anyone who hasn’t read the actual Nebula finalists books/stories. However, I do want to have a look at the winners, and also a few of what I thought were stand-out pieces.

Best Novel
In the novel category, The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin won the Nebula, and I thought Spoonbenders and Autonomous were stand out pieces. There were some good points illustrated in The Fifth Season, the first installment of Jemisin’s Broken Earth, that being the enslavement and torture of talented individuals in order to maintain living conditions for everyone else—the most good for the most people, right? However, this is already well established for the last installment, so I didn’t see anything really in the way of new ideas here. The novel was mostly about the confrontation between Essun and her daughter. I’ll give it 3 stars on the Ideation Scale as a rehash of The Fifth Season.

I really liked Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory, but this was mainly because of the entertainment value. This is about the human condition and a projection of how psychic gifts might screw up a person’s life. The most serious point was a subplot on how the government pursues Maureen and her children for their espionage value. This means it doesn’t score very high in ideation, either. Regardless of its all-over attractiveness, it would rate about 3 stars.

That leaves Autonomous by Annalee Newitz, the satire. Here we’ve got ideas out the kazoo. Newitz attacks the drug industry, anarchists, fascists, hackers, intellectual property thieves, student loan indentures, military SF, trans SF characters and a few other choice targets. This is equal opportunity satire that points out the failings of ideologies, from capitalism, to anarchism to fascism. I’m going to go four and a half stars on it for the ideation rating. Good job, Newitz.

Best Novella
The Nebula winner here was All Systems Red by Martha Wells and I thought the stand out piece was “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker. All Systems Red was highly entertaining, a first person account from not-quite-human construct about running away from its master. This isn’t terribly original, regardless of the entertainment value of this particular rendition. It gets 3 stars. “And Then There Were (N-One)” is about the same women from alternate universes meeting at a Pinsker convention. Not only was this a very creative idea, but it was also pretty mind-boggling. What do you say to endless iterations of yourself? It’s also a literary allusion. It’s not world shaking, but I’ll give it three and a half stars.

Best Novelette
The Nebula winner in this category was “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson. This story was pretty messy, as it went for effect over logic. I didn’t see any ideas in it at all, so I’m going to give it 1 star. The standout work was probably “Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker, which was about whether or not we need history and how we can be frozen by tradition into refusing innovation. Regardless of any complaints about the presentation, this is an interesting theme. It gets 4 stars. “Weaponized Math” by Jonathan P. Brazee gets an honorable mention because of a brief ethics speedbump. If this had been pursued, it would have formed the basis of an interesting discussion. Three and a half stars.

Best Short Story
The winner here was “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” by Rebecca Roanhorse. This one has to go in the political message category: 2 stars. I thought the standout work was “Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls about a man thawed out from cold storage after the Singularity when everybody is only a digital copy of themselves. This is mild, humorous satire that comments on social media, cos players, over-obsessive fans, smug perfect people, gamers and various other airheaded devotees of popular culture. Four stars for the satire.

Next, rating the Hugo finalists for ideation.

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Rating the Literature of Ideas

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One reason given as to why fiction written by women is suddenly so much more popular in the awards is that tastes in fiction have radically changed over the last few years. In the bad old days when men dominated the market, hard SF was the in thing. This term “hard science fiction” was apparently originated in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller, book reviewer for Astounding/Analog, who was looking for a way to describe stories with a strong science base. This caught on, and Miller’s legacy term is still broadly used. A while back, I wrote some posts on how to rate SF on the “hardness scale” to determine how well based it is on real science.

However, since the 1950s, the popularity of hard science stories seems to have dropped off considerably, and it’s getting harder and harder to find this kind of story. I’ve written some posts on the decline, and I notice these were joined by various others suggesting the obsolescence of hard SF. Here’s Jasyn Jones, for example, at Castalia House blog who calls it a “delusion.” Tor.com also published a discussion by various authors. I recall there was one publisher (Somebody help me—Superversive? Amazing?) which announced they would no longer even use the term.

So, if we’re not going to rate SF stories on the science content any longer, then what remains to help us pick out which are really the important stories? For one thing, the notion is still hanging out there that science fiction should be the literature of ideas. So, maybe we need to come up with a scale for this? Maybe the Ideation Scale? That would work for fantasy, too, or actually any kind of speculative fiction.

Using the new Ideation Scale, we could rate stories from 5-1 based on what kind of ideas they present:

1 Our heads are empty
2 Political message fiction
3 Rehash of common themes
4 Decent points here
5 World shaking ideas

Next, having a look at the 2018 award finalists on the Ideation Scale.

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The Continuing Feminization of Major SFF Awards?

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If anyone noticed, all four of the 2017 Nebula fiction winners were women. In 2016 William Ledbetter was the single male winner in the novelette category. In 2015 all the winners were women. In 2014 Jeff VanderMeer was the single male winner in the novel category. In 2013 all the winners were women. You have to go back to 2012 to find equity, when Kim Stanley Robinson and Andy Duncan won in the novel and novelette categories and Nancy Kress and Aliette de Bodard won in the novelette and short story categories. At least the 2017 Nebula finalists indicated an effort toward sexual diversity, as the list included at least one man in each category, with the total ending up at 5/25 or 20%.

For the 2018 Hugo, only the novel category has even the possibility of a male winner. In 2017 all the Hugo winners were women. Same for 2016. 2015 was a weird year, when No Award won two of the categories and Liu Cixin and Thomas Olde Heuvelt won the other two. You have to go back to 2014 to find equity, where Charles Stross won the novella category and John Chu won the short story category, while Ann Leckie won in the novel category and Mary Robinette Kowal won for the best novelette. For the 2018 Hugos this year, the number of men in the list of finalists is 2/24 or just 8%.

In 2017 the World Fantasy Award short and long fiction winners were all women. Same for 2016. In 2015, the winners were all men, and in 2014 there was a mix of 2 women and 1 man. You’ll never get equity in this one, as there are only three categories.

I’ve not done a statistical analysis, but just looking at the results, especially for the Nebula and Hugo Awards, suggests a definite trend for female winners. Last year I noticed a flurry of articles about the triumph for diversity in the awards because of all female winners in the face of continued prejudice, etc., but this year I haven’t seen much of that type comment, although one article did note that women had dominated “yet again.” Instead, the remarks seemed to be more about racial diversity and Jemisin’s third win in a row.

So, can I gather from this result that there’s a certain discomfort growing about the continued domination of women in the awards? Even Jemisin might be getting suspicious. She didn’t bother to show up to collect her third Nebula, apparently preferring to stay home and write on her current project instead.

In the early years of the science fiction awards, men always dominated, of course. So, why are men suddenly writing so poorly? Clearly this isn’t just a problem with white men, since in 2017 Asian, Hispanic, black and Native American men didn’t measure up, either. So, why not? Why is what the women wrote so much better?

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Congrats to the 2017 Nebula Finalists

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Interestingly, more than one of the names repeat this year. Vina Jie-Min Prasad and Sarah Pinsker both appear in more than one category. This year, the Nebula Recommended Reading List did pretty much accurately predict that the top recommended stories would end up as finalists.

As is usual recently, the list leans heavily female. Here’s a quick diversity count, as well as I can figure it:
Best novel – 6 women, 1 man, 1 African American, 1 Asian, 1 LGBT
Best novella – 4 women, 1 man, 1 non-binary, 1 Asian, 1 Jewish
Best novelette – 2 women, 2 men, 1 trans, 2 LGBT, 1 Asian
Best short story – 4 women, 2 men, 2 Asian, 1 Native American/African American, 2 Jewish

Four of 7 of the Best novel finalists come from Orbit, and 4 of 6 of the Best novella category come from Tor.com, plus one of the novelettes and one of the short stories.

For those who have been keeping up with my blog, you’ll know I’m happy to see a Native American writer represented this year. Many congrats to all! Reviews to follow soon.

Best Novel

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly (Tor)
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss (Saga)
Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory (Knopf; riverrun)
The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (Orbit US)
Jade City by Fonda Lee (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz (Tor; Orbit UK 2018)

Best Novella

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey (Tor.com Publishing)
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages (Tor.com Publishing)
And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 3-4/17)
Barry’s Deal by Lawrence M. Schoen (NobleFusion Press)
All Systems Red by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novelette

“Dirty Old Town” by Richard Bowes (F&SF 5-6/17)
“Weaponized Math” by Jonathan P. Brazee (The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3)
“Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 9-10/17)
“A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld 1/17)
“A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson (Tor.com 1/4/17)
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time” by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny 5-6/17)

Best Short Story

“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17)
“Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls (Strange Horizons 6/5/17)
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17)
“The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel (Tor.com 3/15/17)
“Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/11/17)

Thoughts on the 2017 World Fantasy Awards

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I’ve pretty much finished all the reviews of the World Fantasy Awards fiction nominees. I’m not going to look at the collections, so it’s time for a wrap up of what I thought.

What really jumps out is the considerable overlap this list has with other major SFF awards, especially the Hugos. In order to complete reviews of the whole World Fantasy list, I had to read 2 novels out of 5 nominees, 1 long fiction out of 5 and 3 short stories out of 5. All the others I had already reviewed as part of either the Nebula or the Hugo Awards. This makes my reviewing job easier, but again, it points out the inbred nature of the SFF awards and the lack of diversity in sources the works are drawn from.

Speaking of diversity, this list is notable for leaning heavily to black and white nominees and totally shutting out both Asian and Hispanic/LatinX/Native American authors. Counting up the ethnicity, it looks like there were three black authors out of fifteen or 20% of the nominees, which well beats the approximately 12% African American population demographic in the US. The list gets extra diversity points for having one nominee of Arab descent, but Arabs are currently designated white in the US.

There are a couple of folks who are LGBTQ and advertize disability diagnoses. Again, the absence of Asian and Hispanic/LatinX/Native Americans could have to do with the lack of diversity in sources the fantasy audience draws from. Gender breakdown was 4 women to one man in the novel category, 2 women to 3 men in the long fiction category and 5 women to 0 men in the short fiction category. This adds up to 10 women to 5 men, following the current trend to strongly favor women writers in the awards nominations. There was also fair diversity of publishers except in the long-fiction category, where Tor.com published 4 out of 5 of the nominees.

I’ve already reviewed each of the works for quality, content and logical coherence. All of these were well written, with a few real standouts. I don’t have any complaints about the winners. They were first class in all categories. I did note some strong political messages in some of the works. This is a troubling issue. Doesn’t it affect readability when the author’s political views are so obviously promoted that they take over the story?

Again, many congratulations to the World Fantasy Winners!

Comparison of All the Birds in the Sky and Ninefox Gambit

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Generally the contenders for the Nebula Award are fairly easy to identify on the Nebula Reading List at the SFWA Website. The way this list works is that authors/editors/publishers/agents can provide copies or links to works for the SFWA membership to read and recommend. Often the recommenders leave their names, which is interesting because you can see who likes what. Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky was an early favorite. The page is down now, but this novel ended up with 18 recommendations, which I think put it at the top of the list. Lee’s Ninefox Gambit fell much lower, with 7 recommendations as far as I can tell through the Wayback Machine. Jemisin’s novel put in a strong showing, too, but since she won last year, voters might have discounted this year’s follow-up as more of the same. That leaves Ninefox Gambit as the outstanding contender.

If you look back through my reviews, you’ll see that I thought Anders’ novel was just average—I gave it three stars. I rated Lee’s Ninefox Gambit at four and half, which means I thought it was above average. Both these authors are strongly diverse, and this was the first novel for both. So why was Anders’ book such a strong favorite? Let’s look at the strengths and weaknesses of the novels again.

Anders’ novel starts off very strong with a presentation of how talented children are bullied and persecuted. In Part II, it abandons this theme to present an apocalyptic situation where nature and science are at odds and the humans end up impotent. The ending is predictable. The writing is interestingly quirky and absurdist, but the novel sags badly in the middle and never recovers. What it ends up saying is murky, maybe that we are at odds with nature and on a path to destruction.

Lee’s novel starts off with a space battle clearly based on an alien system of reality. The protagonist works her way through an understanding of the politics related to who will establish the reigning system, and ends up finding herself attached to a highly talented, dead subversive. Besides having a strong plot, a strong action line and a twist ending, this work also has excellent characterization, imagery and artistic effects. The question it asks is about the nature of reality. It has a slightly tongue-in-cheek quality that detracts, which is all that kept me from giving it 5 stars.

In my humble opinion, Lee’s novel is the more entertaining. It has a great plot and a strong action line. The underlying philosophical questions and the world-building are first rate. It’s highly professional as a first effort, and should hold up much better in the coming years. So why was it passed over? Does Anders’ work look to be more important?

More on Awards Pressures

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Following up on award pressures, here’s an article in the Guardian that claims British literary fiction is actually being undermined by a handful of powerful book prizes. You’d think that high-profile prizes would be good for the industry, as they recognize excellence and point readers to where the best fiction is. Winning the prize generally gives a big boost to sales for the book. However, this article suggests that the costs associated with entering a lot of books into the larger competitions tend to limit the submissions to publishers with deep pockets. That means small, independent publishers that might actually be publishing the most cutting-edge work are sidelined and the larger publishers set the standard for what the public reads.

According to literary agent Jonny Geller in this same article, “Literary fiction is under threat…due to a combination of factors – reluctance by major houses to take risks; a bottleneck in the distribution chain [and] diverse voices being ignored by a predominantly white, middle-class industry.” Geller goes on to note the pressures on the prize juries. “Every major literary prize is under the same pressures – the balance between picking books that break new ground, challenge readers and those books that will be popular.”

There are other issues, as well. Past literary judge Tom Leclair notes in another article that the different tastes, criteria and loyalties of judges mean that disagreements can lead to horse-trading type compromise. He also relates experiences where fellow judges tried to give awards to their friends or to other authors represented by their own literary agent.

These people are talking about large, national awards, of course, which are normally juried. However, one can draw parallels with the SFF industry awards. We’ve seen the recent move by the Puppies to promote Hugo slates. This is very visible promotion, but how much does less visible promotion affect who wins? And what effect does author/publisher reputation have?

Brandon Kempner at Chaos Horizon notes the tendency of award winners to be re-nominated. In a similar vein, Natalie Luhrs recently completed her annual “slice and dice” of the influential Locus Reading List and commented on repeat appearances. Her review notes that white men continue to dominate the list, while the same small group of women and people of color appear year after year. Is this a tribute to their reputations, or just a form of tokenism?

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