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 “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi

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This novelette is a finalist in the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is military SF/fantasy and was published in the anthology Expanding Universe, Vol. 4, edited by Craig Martelle and published by LMBPN Publishing. Virdi has been a finalist twice for a Dragon Award, once in 2016 for the fantasy novel Grave Measures, and again in 2017 for Dangerous Ways. Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is an established novelist, and this appears to be his first major award nomination. This review contains spoilers.

An asteroid called Messenger passes Earth; then another crashes into the moon, followed by an alien landing in Bangalore, India. Arjun Shetty is caught in the destruction and loses his wife and daughter. He is called up to fight and becomes one of the first Shikari called Vishnu, a giant cyborg warrior designed to fight the alien war machines. He brings down one of the machines in the ocean, drags it to shore where scientists are gathered to analyze it, and then suffers a malfunction—for a second he sees only the enemy, starts to fire on it again. Diagnostics can’t find anything wrong. An emergency in Bay 6 needs his attention. Bay 6 houses the Kali-Skikari, which has desynced and run amuck. Vishnu-Skikari destroys her, reports for debriefing and is sent in a transport back to Base. The transport is intercepted by war machines. Can Vishnu-Skikari defeat them?

I can see why these guys made the list of finalists. This is great stuff for a usually dull sub-genre—full of imagery, style and fire, featuring the Shikari cyborgs crashing over the line into violent godhood psychosis. Hm. Or are they? It’s is all pretty much steam-of-consciousness from Vishnu’s viewpoint, which gives us depth in understanding what goes on inside his systems. The other characters are poorly developed, but considering what Vishnu has become, their flatness and insignificance from his viewpoint is sort of understandable (and gets worse as the story goes on).

On the not so positive side, I’m not sure whose war machines attack Vishnu in the final battle. I suspect these are friendly forces, but a few better hints about this would have been helpful. And another little niggle: how many arms does Kali have? Four? Six? Or does she just sprout more as she needs them? Hm.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Patterns in the Nebula finalist list

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I had mentioned in the comments section of my announcement of the Nebula finalists that I thought recent shifts in the makeup of the SFWA membership had led to changes in the ballot. To clarify, this is the sudden appearance of indie press military/hard SF on the finalists list when it had been recently trending (as in most awards) to primarily female and fantasy nominees. As it turns out, some other people noticed this pattern shift, too. In the last few days, there has been a huge and embarrassing battle raging on Twitter about a recommended reading list posted before the vote at 20booksto50K a self-publishing writers co-op. Although the post stated that this was NOT intended as a slate, it was still taken that way by some readers who claimed it had unfairly influenced the results.

Annie Bellet and Marko Kloos (apparently still suffering from PTSD acquired from their experience with the 2015 Hugos) challenged the list on Twitter and demanded that the finalists whose stories had appeared on it withdraw. Author of the post Jonathan Brazee immediately issued an apology and offered to withdraw his novella from consideration. Other nominees hunkered down in horror and kept their mouths shut, as did the SFWA Officers and Board of Directors. However, Sri Lankan writer Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, angered by racist accusations that he cheated because he couldn’t otherwise make it as a POC, stepped up to fight it out. Welcome to the SFF community Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Bellet and Yudhanjaya eventually kissed and made up on Twitter, but not before fairly serious damage was done to both their reputations.

I’m sure no one knew who Yudhanjaya was before his name appeared on the Nebula finalist list. For folks still in the dark, he is an established novelist and a hybrid writer, with both traditional and self-published works. His novelette “Messenger” with R.R. Virdi appeared in the anthology The Expanding Universe 4, and scored 15 recommendations on the 2018 Nebula reading list, plenty of votes to get the nomination without any slate. So, this comes off like another case of bullying successful POC writers.

See File 770 for a roundup of posts on the issue here and here. See Yudhanjaya’s blog here about this enlightening experience with the Nebulas so far.

Moving on to some other observations, once you get to looking for patterns in the Nebula finalist list, then there are at least a couple more that show up. I had meant to discuss this after the reviews, but since it’s been pointed out on other venues, this seems to be a better time. The dominance of certain traditional publishers on the list is troubling, for example, Tor. In the categories where Tor publishes (novelette, novella, novel) about half of the finalists this year were released by Tor. I’ve discussed this issue in the past, and the most likely explanation is the system of promotion, which includes give-aways, recommended reading lists, and reviews and recommendations in elite publications. I really almost think I could predict the finalists from a review of these promotions, and the same choices tend to appear in the Hugo Awards. The promotions determine what books everyone has read, so they become the award-winners, too.

The last pattern that shows up in the Nebulas is the inclusion of SFWA insiders on the list. This year, four members of SFWA Board of Directors out of five appear on the list of finalists, including: Sarah Pinsker, Andy Duncan, Lawrence Schoen and Kelly Robson. According to the rules, officers are ineligible for Nebula nominations because of their administrative access, but board members remain eligible. Mary Robinette Kowal, in line for president next year, is also a finalist. When asked about this on the SFWA forum, board members brushed it off as inconsequential.

There are also some patterns in the themes and styles this year, but I’ll get to that in my wrap up after the reviews.

Congratulations to the 2018 Nebula Finalists!

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It’s that time again, and the SFWA has come through with a really varied list. I’ll start some reviews with the next blog.

Novel
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager US; Harper Voyager UK)
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller (Ecco; Orbit UK)
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik (Del Rey; Macmillan)
Witchmark by C.L. Polk (Tor.com Publishing)
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)

Novella
Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee (Semper Fi)
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean)
Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield (Tor.com Publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson (Tor.com Publishing)
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)

Novelette
“The Only Harmless Great Thing” by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com Publishing)
“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” by Tina Connolly (Tor.com 7/11/18)
“An Agent of Utopia” by Andy Duncan (An Agent of Utopia)
“The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” by José Pablo Iriarte (Lightspeed 1/18)
“The Rule of Three” by Lawrence M. Schoen (Future Science Fiction Digest 12/18)
“Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi (Expanding Universe, Volume 4)

Short Story
“Interview for the End of the World” by Rhett C. Bruno (Bridge Across the Stars)
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark (Fireside 2/18)
“Going Dark” by Richard Fox (Backblast Area Clear)
“And Yet” by A.T. Greenblatt (Uncanny 3-4/18)
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex 2/6/18)
“The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed 1/18)

Wrap Up of the 2017 Nebula Reviews

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First, I have to admire how the SFWA manages to produce this much of what I think is real diversity in the finalists. I’ve been assured that the list is not produced by committee, but it does seem that some kind of grassroots movement must be working to make sure the organization is well represented and that no one much can complain about being left out. The list includes humor, military SF, urban fantasy, high fantasy, Asian fantasy, Native American fantasy, alternate reality, historical fantasy, satire, horror and absurdist fiction. This kind of representation is a big step, considering the political strife about inclusion that’s recently afflicted the SFF community. There was also a lot of diversity in the list of authors. The list of publishers/magazines includes both print and online sources.

Regardless of this bounty of diversity, themes did tend to repeat. For example, a high proportion of the works featured trans or non-binary characters and/or non-standard forms of marriage. In a couple of cases, this seemed peripheral and extraneous, as if an editor had recommended the additions. Several works addressed sentience in robots or similar constructs.

As is usual in the last few years, ordinary white men were frozen out of most categories. Several of the finalists (especially the men) had credentials as publishers or editors, which suggests they may have attracted nominations because of these connections. I’m also wondering why Amberlough was accepted for the list of finalists. Like last year’s World Fantasy finalist Roadsouls, this just didn’t seem to meet the requirements for SFF.

Also, the way names and publishers repeat among the finalists is troubling. For example, Sarah Pinsker and Vina Jie-Min Prasad appeared in more than one category, and some of the names repeated from last year. 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. This outlines an inbred, elitist system. The SFWA recently broadened their membership qualification requirements, but the award finalists still look to come from a very small number of favored publishers. Surely there are other authors and publishers out there putting out deserving works.

It can be argued these publishers are the market leaders and so are attracting the “best” works, but this also speaks of how the list of potential candidates is put together. Small publishers and little known authors are often shut out by the “right” reviewers, so their releases have little chance of attracting notice. Somehow the SFF community needs to create a system to promote excellence in small presses and lesser known publishers who are doing good work in the shadows. Since major publishers have dropped the midlist, an award for self-published works might be helpful, too.

Analysis of the Nebula Novel Finalists

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A couple of blogs back, I mentioned that recently a friend pronounced that the outstanding diversity among the 2017 Nebula finalists indicated a committee had composed the ballot. This was a surprising charge, but my friend is a poet and not a prose writer, so she doesn’t have a dog in the fight. That means her assessment could be fairly objective. The Nebula ballot is supposed to be made up from member nominations rather than by a jury, but one would expect a fairly unorganized result from that kind of process. Not quite random, because taste in books is never random, but at least fairly loose. So, does this result indicate that kind of process? Hm.

Here’s the description of the nominations from the Nebula Website:
• The official NOMINATION PERIOD will open on November 15th and continue until February 15th. Nominations will be accepted via a secure web-based form.
• Only Active and Associate members in good standing shall be eligible to nominate works for the FINAL BALLOT.
• Nominations shall be treated as confidential information and only the names of the works and numbers of nominations will be available for viewing by eligible members after the awards ceremony.
• Each eligible member may nominate no more than five different works per category and may not nominate any work more than once.
• The nominations will be counted by the Nebula Awards Commissioner, who shall compose the FINAL BALLOT.
• The FINAL BALLOT shall be comprised of the top six works in each category that receive the most nominations.

And here were the 2017 novel results:
All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
Borderline, Mishell Baker (Saga)
The Obelisk Gate, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris US; Solaris UK)
Everfair, Nisi Shawl (Tor)

The diversity here really is staggering. These five finalists represent two trans authors, two black authors, an Asian author, three LGB authors and three disabled authors. There are no average plain-vanilla writers here at all. So is my friend right? What are the chances that the active/associate membership of the SFWA would produce this lineup from all the books out there this year?

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