Wrap up of the 2018 Ideation Ratings

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In his 2016 article for the Daily Beast, professor, writer and literary critic Tom Leclair says he thinks literary awards should be for works that are “the most ambitious and important nominee—a major work, wide-ranging in subject, ingenious in form, and profound in its treatment of…history.”

As a political battle has developed over the SFF awards in recent years, somehow this approach to the nominations seems to have gotten lost for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Some of the recent finalists and/or winners have been called out as political propaganda, having little or no substance beyond emotional appeal, poorly written, etc. Things have settled down a little this year, as the traditionalist have made their point and pretty much left liberals in control of these two awards. The finalists for the Nebulas, given by industry professionals, seems to have been a serious striving for diversity of genre as well as author in the nomination process–an effort to be fair. Still, the list of winners ends up with crowd appeal, but not much to contribute to the “literature of ideas.” Totaling up the scores, I’ve given the winners an average Ideation score of 2.05. The Nebula finalists included Autonomous, “a major work, wide-ranging in subject, ingenious in form, and profound in its treatment of…history,” but it didn’t win.

The differences between the Nebula and the Hugo finalist list mostly subtracted ideas and quality works rather than adding to them. I suppose this is something we can expect, as the Hugo finalists are elected by a close group of WorldCon members and their tastes are, for this reason, very limited. However, they did come up with the five star idea man, Kim Stanley Robinson. I may revisit this when the list of winners is available. Robinson won the Nebula the last time he put out a novel, but he didn’t even appear in the list of finalists this time. We’ll see how much the climate has changed since 2013.

I’m thinking Robinson may not win for the same reason Newitz didn’t win—his book is hard to read. It’s long, it’s got small print, and it’s full of economics. Nobody wants to deal with that anymore. I’m expecting WorldCon members are going to go for Scalzi or Jemisin instead.

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Putting the Ideation Scale to Work – Rating the 2018 Hugo finalists

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If you’ve followed the last couple of blogs, you’ll know that I’ve developed an Ideation Scale to rate SFF stories as “the literature of ideas.” In this post, I’m going to have a look at the Hugo finalists. Since we have no winners at this date, I’ll just have to pick out the works I think stand out for their ideas. 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

Best Novel
The clear heavyweight here is New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. If I could squish this into the mold, I’d call it hard SF because Robinson has analyzed social, environmental and economic problems and offered real world solutions. It does lack engineers and clanking technology, though, so it’s a tough fit for what’s normally called hard SF. Still, the concepts are first rate, so this is the five star world-shaking-idea winner. None of the other finalists really stand out for ideas. I have to give Scalzi a mention for doing his homework on plausible science for The Collapsing Empire, but the story is a political intrigue without much in the way of different ideas. It scores an average 3.

Best Novella
We’re looking at the same list here as in the Nebula with only a couple of differences. I’ve already awarded “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker a three and a half. Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor gets a mention for being about racism and dealing with change. Again, three and a half. Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire gets a mention for framing the conflict between good and evil as a battle between death by vampirism and life via STEM. Nothing earth-shaking but worth three and a half stars.

Best Novelette
More repeats of the Nebula list here. Again, I have to mention “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. It gets 4 stars.

Best Short Story
This is again very similar to the Nebula finalists. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” is a political message, so it gets 2 stars. “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon turns the usual epic fantasy message upside down, where the farmer refuses his chance to become a heroic warrior in order to tend to his crops. Three and a half stars.

Next, a wrap up of the ratings.

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.

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.

Review of Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s fantasy and was published by Knopf.

Teddy Telemachus is a con artist. Always has been. Always will be. He’s getting kind of old now, so it’s time he took care of some things. He approaches the wife of a local crime boss in the grocery story, and as usual, his charm pays off. With her on his side, he’s got leverage to deal. Besides this, Teddy is a widower and the head of a family of dysfunctional psychics. He, himself, is a card reader. His daughter Irene can’t keep a husband or a job because she can tell when people are lying. His telekinetic son Frankie is in debt to the mob. His youngest Buddy is a clairvoyant that is terrified of somehow changing the future. His grandson finds that masturbation causes astral projection. And then, there are the twins. Can this family ever find happiness and success, or is the future going to end for all of them on September 4?

Looking at this from Buddy’s point-of-view, it’s a steaming, tangled pile of past, present and future. For most of the novel, he’s working hard, trying to make preparations for Zap day, when the future ends in his consciousness. Luckily we have information from other points-of-view, too, which help us make sense of what’s going on. Because of Buddy’s aptitude and Teddy’s con artist leanings, this is tightly plotted in many ways. Because of the wild card character of the family gifts, we also get a lot of human failings. Besides this, government agents are lurking about, hoping to replace Teddy’s dead wife Maureen as their greatest weapon. Plus, the mob.

This is a smooth, delightful read with absorbing characters and slightly over-the-top humor. It has a tendency to carry the reader along to the satisfyingly tied up ending, so it’s hard to be aware of not so good points. I did wonder a couple of times about Teddy’s ploys, especially in his and Frankie’s contacts with the mob. Zap day turned out to be sort of manic, and Buddy’s trans girl/boyfriend looked a bit artificial, like an editor’s insert to make the book more attractive as award material.

Regardless of these little issues, I’m going five stars on this one. Highly recommended.

Review of “Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s science fiction and was published in Asimov’s September/October 2017 issue. This review contains spoilers.

Rosie Clay is a resident on a generation ship who teaches history and plays traditional fiddle in a weekly OldTime gathering. Rosie is third generation and never saw Earth, but she tries hard to maintain the history the ship has left. A few years out, a disgruntled programmer erased the databases of art, literature and history the ship carried, leaving the residents with nothing but memory to use in recreating them. Now the younger generations are starting to question why they’re required to learn and maintain this history when it is in no way useful to their own way of life. One group totally withdraws to form an artistic enclave and produce only new works. Is there any reason to save the past?

This isn’t just a question that people on a generation ship are asking. When should people expend resources trying to preserve the past and when should it all go in the trashcan? It’s a conflict between conservatives who want to preserve tradition and progressives who want to create a totally new future, all of it framed in music within this story. When Rosie accidentally creates a new song, she decides to document it carefully, creating a middle path. In the current political climate, this is a radical statement.

The music and efforts to recreate the past become the major players in the work. The story rambles, with Rosie’s narration moving from memories of her Grandmother Windy to music to events on the ship to encounters with students in her classroom. The author’s love of music comes through clearly, and anyone who has played in this kind of traditional group will share in her experience.

Not so good points: Because the narration centers so heavily around the music, generally the world building and the characters are poorly developed. We hear a lot about Windy and how she became a legend to the ship’s musicians, but know almost nothing about Rosie’s current family, the organization of the ship, the technology that runs it, etc. The conflict here is weak, too. The programmer’s act and the effort at recreation are both in the past, and at the point of the story, there’s nothing for Rosie to fight against except a minor rebellion in her classroom.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Dirty Old Town” by Richard Bowes

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This novelette is fantasy and a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was published by F&SF magazine. The title of the story comes from a song by Ewan MacColl.

The narrator describes his childhood years growing up in an Irish neighborhood of Boston. He is bullied by boys from school, and his grandmother gives him a magic charm to protect himself. One of the boys is Eddie Mackey, but after his grandfather intervenes, the two become friends. Later Eddie goes off to the Vietnam War and then goes to acting school. When they meet again, the narrator is a playwright and Eddie is a young actor getting started. They become lovers, but then separate as Eddie goes off to Hollywood. Later they get back together after Eddie wins a Golden Globe for his work in a TV series called Dirty Old Town. Can they make one of Eddie’s dreams come true together?

This story is heavily character driven, without any real plot. The narrator talks about his childhood and the magic his grandparents shared, about struggling as a playwright and meeting Eddie off and on over the years. It’s a rambling reminiscence that comes together suddenly into a meaningful story at the end. It’s also metafiction to an extent, as the narrator includes sections he’s apparently written about similar characters.

Not so good points: The main complaints I’d have about this story is the length of the reminiscence and the liberal inclusion of metafiction, which I thought confused the storyline. Also, the magical workings here aren’t very well defined. Grandmother’s charm clearly works, but the rest of what the narrator considers magic is pretty nebulous. I’m thinking the dreams are symbolic rather than magical.

Four stars.

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