(not the) Hugo Awards: John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

Awarded with the Hugos, but not a Hugo Award, the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer has been awarded since 1973, in honour of the editor who for better or worse has shaped American science fiction the most. Writers are eligible for two years after their first sale and indeed three of the candidates below are in their second year of eligibility, indicated by an asterix:

  • Wesley Chu
  • Max Gladstone *
  • Ramez Naam *
  • Sofia Samatar *
  • Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Save for Wesley Chu, whose The Lives of Tao I’d seen in the local sf bookstore, none of these were writers I knew before I got my hands on the Hugo Voters Package (hurhur). I’ve been slowly working my way through the books and stories in it and have now almost finished reading through the Campbell nominees. I’m still reading Ramez Naam’s Nexus but I already know that he, though not a bad writer, is the least of the five candidates.

To determine the best was more difficult. Sofia Samatar, with her excellent fantasy picaresque A Stranger in Olondria quickly went to the top, but Benjanun Sriduangkaew, represented with three excellent short stories Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade, Fade to Gold and The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly, was a strong challenger. Sriduangkaew has a vivid imagination andis at home in both science fiction and fantasy, but in the end I still had to give the nod to Samatar.

In the middle of the pack are Wesley Chu, who wrote a decent but not spectacular first novel and who I ended up putting in fourth, while Max Gladstone wrote a much better steampunk fantasy novel. I wouldn’t mind seeing him win the Campbell either, though I do think Sriduangkaew and Samatar both are a quantum leap ahead of him. If either Chu or Naam win thought that would be a disappointment, as their work is no more than competent adventure science fiction. My final ranking therefore:

  1. Sofia Samatar
  2. Benjanun Sriduangkaew
  3. Max Gladstone
  4. Wesley Chu
  5. Ramez Naam

Hugo Awards: Novelettes

Novelette is one of those categories that seem largely unnecessary to me: too long for a short story, too short for a novella, what’s the point here other than length? Can anybody really tell the difference between a short story and a novelette or at the other end, between it and a novella? Better split this category up between the other two and be done with it.

However, since it still exists, let’s take a look at the candidates:

  • “The Exchange Officers” by Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jan-Feb 2013)
  • “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal (maryrobinettekowal.com / Tor.com, 09-2013)
  • “Opera Vita Aeterna” by Vox Day (The Last Witchking, Marcher Lord Hinterlands)
  • “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” by Ted Chiang (Subterranean, Fall 2013)
  • “The Waiting Stars” by Aliette de Bodard (The Other Half of the Sky, Candlemark & Gleam)

The two entries I struck through I won’t judge, as I explained before, leaving three candidates. Below I’ve listed them in the order I’ll vote for them.

The Waiting Stars” — Aliette de Bodard
An excellent slice of Banksian space opera, a story of love, family and two incompatible views of the world.

The Lady Astronaut of Mars” — Mary Robinette Kowal
A retired astronaut on Mars, in an alternative history where an asteroid landing on Washington DC in the early fifties meant a much strong space programme, is asked to go on one last mission to a newly discovered extrasolar planet, but it would meaning leaving her husband behind to die, as he only has a year left to live. This is an unabashedly emotionally manipulative story, in that the dilemma at the heart of it does not make sense — why not wait a year if she’s the only one who can undertake the mission, why insist on her having to go right now– but the truth at the core of it, of watching a loved one, a husband, in the final stages of a terminal disease with all that entails, that truth is real.

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” — Ted Chiang
A story in which Chiang draws parallels between the introduction of literacy in a tribal society and the near future takeup of almost perfect lifelogging and recall software. Not entirely convincing.

All three stories are good in their own right, but the Aliette de Bodard story stands out head and shoulders for me. I definately need to read more of her.

Cons should worry about victims, not harassers

Thinking more about Wiscon, I came back to the point Rose Fox made two years ago, in the wake of the harassment problems at Readercon:

When someone does something we find noxious, they become the focus of attention: how will they be punished? Will they apologize? Can they be brought back into the fold? Meanwhile, the person they targeted with their noxious behavior is forgotten, dismissed, or scorned. Harassers are often charismatic, which is how they get close enough to harass, and they often target the shy and vulnerable, who are that much easier to ignore if they manage to speak up at all. We are all intimately familiar with the narrative of sin-repentance-redemption, and it’s startlingly easy to try to follow someone through it while all but forgetting that they wouldn’t have even started down that road if they hadn’t treated another person badly.

That is, that too much of the focus in this is on the harasser and that cons even when starting to address harassment do this, sometimes with the best of intentions. As with Wiscon, you get all those pseudolegal procedures and folderol to make sure that harassment policies are fair and balanced and while having due process is important in the justice system, if you run a con it should be more simple to expell people who hassle and harass other congoers. There’s no need to reinvent the legal system.

And at the forefront of every conrunner’s mind should be the simple idea that for every harasser treated with kid gloves and not expelled, several victims or potential victims will feel unsafe and not go to their convention.

Wiscon still favouring harassers

As you know Bob, Wiscon has had problems getting its house in order after Jim Frenkel was accused of harassment. After Elise Matthesen reported being harassed by him last year you would’ve expected him not to have been welcome this year, but that turned out not to be the case. Fianlly, after lots of anger online and elsewhere and more incompetence from the con, Wiscon finally established a subcomittee to look at the Frenkel case and come to a decision about what to do with him. Today it reached its decision:

The WisCon committee announces the following actions:

WisCon will (provisionally) not allow Jim Frenkel to return for a period of four years (until after WisCon 42 in 2018). This is “provisional” because if Jim Frenkel chooses to present substantive, grounded evidence of behavioral and attitude improvement between the end of WisCon 39 in 2015 and the end of the four-year provisional period, WisCon will entertain that evidence. We will also take into account any reports of continued problematic behavior.

Allowing Jim Frenkel to return is not guaranteed at any time, including following WisCon 42; the convention’s decision will always be dependent on compelling evidence of behavioral change, and our commitment to the safety of our members. If he is permitted to return at any time, there will be an additional one-year ban on appearing on programming or volunteering in public spaces. Any consideration of allowing him to return will be publicized in WisCon publications and social media at least three months before a final decision is made.

Based on the policies adopted by WisCon’s Harassment Policy Committee before WisCon 38 in 2014, Jim Frenkel has the right to appeal this decision to SF3, WisCon’s governing body. If he enters an appeal, we will make public statements both when he does so and when the appeal ruling is issued.

Which really isn’t good enough? Because if I read this right, in the worst case scenario, if Frenkel is really really sorry, he could be back at the con in two years time, the year after it back as volunteer. Even a straight four year ban seems too little for somebody who harassed at least one woman at Wiscon, perhaps more. How could his victims feel safe there with this resolution? In everything this statement seems more concerned with Frenkel’s rights than with that of his victims, especially as it offers some sort of vague rehabilitation process he could undergo to be allowed back in less than two years.

Note that Elise Matthesen has already said she’d rather not come back to Wiscon regardless of the economic consequences for her business; I can’t imagine this ruling will change her mind. By bending over backwards to give Frenkel options for redemption, Wiscon keeps driving away his victims, not to mention those who have no desire to become his victim. The con had an opportunity to make a statement here, by banning Frenkel either for life or for a long enough period that it would actually have inconvenienced him; by not doing this they confirm that his rights to come to their con trumps the ability of any woman to feel safe at it.

This is not how a serious con deals with harassment.

Lagoon — Nnedi Okorafor

Cover of Lagoon

Nnedi Okorafor
306 pages
published in 2014

There has been a bit of a spat about the use of dialect and “non-standard” English in science fiction lately, as various people were critical about using dialect all together, finding it gimmicky or too difficult. As Juan Diaz put it “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over” which is more true than it should be. A novel like Lagoon therefore, which is not only set in a city and country –Lagos, Nigeria — unfamiliar to the average science fiction reader, but which is (partially) written in Nigerian English, using Nigerian vocabulary and grammar, may be somewhat of a challenge. Because while we as science fiction readers supposedly crave the shock of the new, often it’s only if it’s cloaked in familiar language and cultural expectations.

And I have to admit, I did have to struggle a little bit with Lagoon, getting used to the language and the setting, though to nowhere near the extent I had to get used to Feersum Endjinn. For me this was a turn-on rather than a turn-off; I don’t mind working harder for my entertainment if a book is worth it and Lagoon certainly is. This is a novel of first contact where the people encountering the alien are not square jawed space marines but a marine biologist (Adaora), a troubled soldier (Agu) and a world famous rap star (Anthony), taken as representatives of humanity into the sea as the aliens landed there, to be returned to Lagos with Ayodele, an envoy from the aliens who needs to meet up with the president of Nigeria to discuss the future of the country now they’ve made their home there.

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Hugo Awards: Best Fan Writer

Oh boy this is a hard category. Some very deserving people have been nominated this year, many of whom I’d already been following. This is another category in which whoever it wins will have deserved it, though I still have opinions. One of which is that we shouldn’t be surprised to see that the ballot is 4/5ths female, as in my experience most of the interesting voices last year were female, some of which, but by no means all, represented here. At least two of the nominees (Hurley and Meadows) have been involved in driving the debate about gender, harassment and feminism in science fiction fandom and it’s good to see this rewarded.

  1. Kameron Hurley is one of those wretched pros slumming in fandom and some nitwit will surely raise an outcry if she’s nominated, but she deserves to win this category if only for we have always fought.
  2. Abigail Nussbaum is perhaps the best, most incisive critic and reviewer in science fiction today.
  3. Foz Meadows, like Kameron Hurley, has written a lot about feminism and sexism in fandom as well as reviewing all sorts of science fiction, written or otherwise. It’s telling of how serious an issue sexism in fandom was and still is that top ten posts of 2013 are devoted to it.
  4. Liz Bourke is another great critic/reviewer for Tor.com and Strange Horizons; I tend to run across her reviews when writing my own.
  5. Mark Oshiro does readings/reviews of sf and fantasy books. What he does, he does very well, but I still think he’s the weakest of the nominees, though it’s a tight race

So yeah, all of these are people worth following.

Hugo Awards: Best Short Story

The next Hugo Awards category is the short story because, well, those take the least time to read. This year the category has only four candidates, as none of the other nominees cleared the five percent of total ballots threshold. Which either speaks to the health of the short story market, that apparantly there were so many good stories to nominate, or its splintering, as no clear consensus exists about the top stories, depending on your outlook.

As I think I set before, I personally don’t pay much attention to short stories (or any non-novel length stories to be honest). I do read the occasional short story anthology or author collection, but don’t seek them out on their own. The Hugo Voters Package therefore was a godsend, as it enabled me to at least make an informed choice from amongst the nominees. (Though of course I have no idea how they compare to all the non-nominated stories).

Interestingly, all the nominated stories are fantasy and all were published online, two at Tor.com. None of these are traditional fantasy stories, though “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” has the structure of a fable or fairy tale; the other three are more on the magic realistic end of the fantasy spectrum, where you could take the fantastic as metaphor rather than something real.

What’s more, each of “Selkie Stories Are for Losers”, “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” and “The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere” are grownup stories about relationships and family. grief and loss. It’s interesting to see Hugo voters, of all groups in fandom, go for such mature stories.

Below are my choices in order. There’s little difference in quality between the first three, with “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” somewhat disappointing. That story was somewhat too smug for my tastes. But read all of them if you haven’t yet.

  1. Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons, Jan-2013)
  2. If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky (Apex Magazine, Mar-2013)
  3. The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu (Tor.com, 02-2013)
  4. The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Tor.com, 04-2013)

Hurricane Fever – Tobias Buckell

Cover of Hurricane Fever

Hurricane Fever
Tobias Buckell
272 pages
published in 2014

On Twitter,Tobias Buckell asked for reviewers for his latest novel, Hurricane Fever, so I took him up on it. Buckell is a writer I’ve heard a lot of good things about and who in the usual sf fandom squabbles has consisently been on the right side, so I was keen to try his work out. Hurricane Fever is being promoted and indeed reads like a technothriller, though the setting, — a near future Caribbean menaced by almost constant hurricanes — is science fictional, if barely considering the actual state of the world. The focus of the story itself though remains solidly in technothriller territory and it wouldn’t take much to make it over into a contemporary thriller.

Prudence “Roo” Jones is a retired agent of the Caribbean Intelligence Group, now focusing on sailing his boat Spitfire and keeping his orphaned cousin Delroy in school and out of trouble. That all changes when Zee, an old friend of his spying days sends him a final message. His instincts tell him to ignore it, but he was a friend so he feels he has no choice but to go and pick up the package he died for. Not long after, decidedly Aryan looking, shaven headed thugs with a fondness for nazi tattoes attack him; there may be a connection.

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Hugo Awards: podcasts

I’m not a big follower of podcasts, but it’s been a pleasure to follow the nominated ones this past week. The Podcast category is fairly new to the Hugo Awards but at least judging from this year’s candidates the average quality is high. The differences between the various podcasts are small and a win for any of at least the first four listed would make me happy.

Below are the candidates in the order I’ll vote for them:

  1. The Writer and the Critic – Kirstyn McDermott and Ian Mond: insightful, reviews books I actually read.
  2. The Skiffy and Fanty Show – Shaun Duke, Jen Zink, Julia Rios, Paul Weimer, David Annandale, Mike Underwood, and Stina Leicht: nice chemistry, great subjects
  3. Galactic Suburbia Podcast – Alisa Krasnostein, Alexandra Pierce, Tansy Rayner Roberts (Presenters) and Andrew Finch (Producer): interesting, broad ranging.
  4. The Coode Street Podcast – Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe: Jonathan and Gary are amiable, chatty and knowledgeable about science fiction
  5. Verity! – Deborah Stanish, Erika Ensign, Katrina Griffiths, L.M. Myles, Lynne M. Thomas, and Tansy Rayner Roberts: Doctor Who is not my thing, but what this podcast does, it does well.
  6. Tea and Jeopardy – Emma Newman and Peter Newman: A decent steampunk setup, but not for me.
  7. SF Signal Podcast Patrick Hester: the least interesting of the bunch.

One thing I noticed and liked is how many women were involved in this category.

The Lives of Tao — Wesley Chu

Cover of The Lives of Tao

The Lives of Tao
Wesley Chu
393 pages
published in 2013

I read this because Wesley Chu was nominated for the 2014 John W. Campbell Award for best new writer and it was available in the Hugos Voters Package. I’d also seen it recommended at the local science fiction bookstore and had picked it up once or twice to sample it, though was never convinced enough to buy it. Because I was visiting my hometown for a couple of birthdays this weekend I took the opportunity of two long train journeys to read this, which worked out well.

From Myke Cole’s cover blurb — pulse-pounding, laughout-loud funny and thoughtful — you might guess that this was meant to be an action comedy story, which it was, but without the humour. This just wasn’t funny, I’m not sure it was actually ever meant to be funny and if you read this, set your expectations accordingly. The Lives of Tao actually is a geek wish fulfilment sf thriller, where the fat, underachieving, nerdy slop is taken out of his comfort zone and thrust into a worldwide conspiracy and finally gets the girl he’s been silently lusting after but was afraid to ask out. There may be a bit of pandering in this, you may have guessed.

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