Puppy proofing the Hugos

So now we’ve had three years of increased Puppy manipulation of the Hugos, culminating in this year’s disaster in which a clique of rightwing whingers functioned as cover for a fascist bellend to get his vanity publishing project on the ballot. Cue much justified outrage, but what are we going to do about it so next year won’t be a repeat? For this year we all should vote no award over all Puppy entries, but how to make sure next year we don’t have to do it again?

To be honest, Worldcon fandom has been caught with its pants down by the Puppies, too slow to react to the first two attempts to game the Hugos. We all thought, and I was no exception, that after the Puppy nominees were trashed in the actual voting last year, the spoiled brats behind it would get the hint and fuck off. Instead they doubled down. And because of the deliberately slow ways in which Worldcon rules can be adapted, any change now will take two years to come into effect. Though I’m not sure any rule change will eliminate the Puppy threat, there are a couple of interesting proposals, the most complicated one at Making Light. But again, even if that one passed, it would still need confirmation at next year’s Worldcon and only come into effect in 2017.

The other method of preventing slate voting has been social control: until the Puppies, few people have tried it because it’s Just Not Done. Only outsiders, like the Scientologists, attempted it and those were punished quickly. With the Puppies though, that isn’t working anymore, or at least not to the extent it used to. They’re caught up in their rightwing culture war victim complex and hence insensitive to these kind of appeals. It’s still worth keeping that pressure up though, so nobody approached for participation in a Puppy slate has ignorance as an excuse. Meaning only those fully invested in the Puppy narrative will be onboard and fewer “innocents” are hurt.

But what we really need to realise is that the Puppies are just a symptom of the problems the Hugos have. An exceptionally annoying symptom, but a symptom nonetheless. The real problem is, and has been for years, is the number of people voting and especially nominating. Less than 1900 people voted for the Best Novel Hugo, the category with the most votes; 2122 ballots in total were sent in. That’s not much for a potential voting audience spanning last year’s, this year’s and next year’s Worldcon membership. This is where we need to improve and this is something that can be improved almost immediately.

LonCon3 had over 10,000 members: get all those to nominate and slate buying becomes slightly more expensive. But how do you get them to vote? Once LonCon3 was over, it was up to Sasquan to rally voters, but that only started in January, or four months later, far too late for those not into core Worldcon fandom to remember to nominate. What’s needed therefore is for the nomination process to open earlier, something which the WSFS rules don’t say anything about, so which can be done without needing that lengthy rule changing process. And while it is easier for a Worldcon to only start considering nominations in January, I think this is important enough to justify that added difficulty.

What I would like to see is having electronic nomination ballots open as soon as possible, either in January of the eligible year (e.g. January 2015 for 2016 nominations) or, if that’s too confusing, too much of a hassle, perhaps after the previous Worldcon has finished (September 1 for the most part). That way it also becomes easier for those already involved to keep a running tally for the year. It would also need not just opening the nominations, but promoting the nomination process as well. Get the members of the previous Worldcon involved, get them enthusiastic about nominating. It’s something next year’s Worldcon, MidAmeriConII, could start up already.

So let’s see if they’re up for it.

2014 noticable SFF novels

UPDATE 22 May: Added the Lambda LGBT sf/fantasy/horror nominees minuse the two short story collections to the list of nominations.

What with most of the major SFF awards having announced their nominees, or even winners, save for the Gemmel Award for Best Fantasy and the World Fantasy Award, it’s possible to make a list of the most critically acclaimed novels published last year. The Puppy candidates for the Best Novel Hugo have of course been omitted, as they cheated to get on the list. I’ll update it once more nominations and winners are known.

Looking at the list and the large number of singularly nominations, there’s a large spread in what the various awards think is noticable science fiction and fantasy, with not much overlap between the UK and US based awards. Genderwise there are thirty men nominated and twentyfour women, with the latter so far having the upperhand six to one in actual wins. What’s interesting if slightly disappointing is that Sarah Tolmie’s The Stone Boatsmen, one of the best novels I read last year, hasn’t been nominated anywhere. At least Corinne Duyvis’ Otherbound got a honourable mention at the Tiptrees.

Award Winners (with nominations and which award won in parentheses0:

  • The Girl in the Road — Monica Byrne (1, Tiptree)
  • The Book of the Unnamed Midwife — Meg Elison (1, PKD Award)
  • Viper Wine — Hermione Eyre (1, Kitschies)
  • Ancillary Sword — Ann Leckie (4, BSFA)
  • Grasshopper Jungle — Andrew Smith (1, Kitschies)
  • Station Eleven — Emily St John Mandel (2, Clarke)
  • My Real Children — Jo Walton (1, Tiptree)

Multiple Award nominees – in order of number:

  • The Three-Body Problem — Cixin Liu (5)
  • Memory of Water — Emmi Itäranta (4)
  • The Goblin Emperor — Katherine Addison (3)
  • The Race — Nina Allan (3)
  • Elysium — Jennifer Marie Brissett (3)
  • The Peripheral — William Gibson (3)
  • Europe in Autumn — Dave Hutchinson (3)
  • The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August — Claire North (3)
  • Lagoon — Nnedi Okorafor (3)
  • Area X Trilogy — Jeff VanderMeer (3)
  • A Darkling Sea — James L. Cambias (2)
  • Wolves — Simon Ings (2)
  • Lock In — John Scalzi (2)

Singulars:

  • Half a King — Joe Abercrombie
  • The Doubt Factory — Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Steles of the Sky — Elizabeth Bear
  • City of Stairs — Robert Jackson Bennett
  • The Girl with All the Gifts — M. R. Carey
  • Waistcoasts & Weaponry — Gail Carriger
  • The Clockwork Dagger — Beth Cato
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet — Becky Chambers
  • FutureDyke — Lea Daley
  • Child of a Hidden Sea — A. M. Dellamonica
  • The Bullet-Cather’s Daughter — Rod Duncan
  • The Book of Strange New Things — Michel Faber
  • Trial by Fire — Charles E. Gannon
  • Full Fathom Five — Max Gladstone
  • Afterparty — Daryl Gregory
  • The Magician’s Land — Lev Grossman
  • Afterparty — Daryl Gregory
  • Cuckoo Song — Frances Hardinge
  • The Mirror Empire — Kameron Hurley
  • Ascension — Jacqueline Koyanagi (actually a 2013 novel)
  • Coming Home — Jack McDevitt
  • Empress of the Sun — Ian McDonald
  • Defenders — Will McIntosh
  • Clariel — Garth Nix
  • The Bees — Laline Paul
  • Raising Steam Terry Pratchett
  • Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches — Cherie Priest
  • The Memory Garden — Mary Rickert
  • Bête — Adam Roberts
  • A Better World — Marcus Sakey
  • The Emperor’s Blades — Brian Staveley
  • Influx — Daniel Suarez
  • Butcher’s Road — Lee Thomas
  • Echopraxia — Peter Watts
  • The Martian — Andy Weir
  • The Way Inn — Will Wiles
  • The Moon King — Neil Williamson
  • The People in the Trees — Hanya Yanagihara

Below is the list of awards I’ve taken into consideration. I’ll add the results for the WFA and Gemmel once they come out. Only finalists or winners have been looked at. Because some awards have multiple novel categories (e.g. the Kitschies have two: one for best novel, one for best first novel) the number of winners will be greater than the number of awards.

Omdat



Bloem was a Dutch band who had their greatest hit with a somewhat corny song a couple of years before this one, a true one hit wonder. I stumbled across this one on one of those nostalgia tv channels; it’s been years since I last heard it. Only a minor hit, a darkly cynical pisstake off the inferiory complex of Dutch language pop singers, “because French is so much more romantic and English more mature”, at a time when the Nederpop boom was just gathering steam. The eighties were a time when a new generation of Dutch musicians, inspired by punk and its d.i.y. ethos no longer wanted to imitate English or American pop but went to sing in their own language. But sadly for Bloem it was too late. A couple of decent songs, two albums and lack of support from their record company meant they called it quits in 1983.

The Baen fallacy

Eric Flint is one of Baen’s old guard of authors, somebody who has been writing and editing for Baen since at least the nineties. He’s also one of the more insightful of Baen’s stable of authors, being an old lefty rather than a rightwinger, though it’s only noticeable in his fiction because his gun toting heroes defending the American way of life are unionised. Whereas a Larry Correia or Brad Torgersen show little evidence of thinking things through, acting purely on rightwing reflexes, blaming everybody else for their failures to get Hugo nominations, seeing conspiracies in the everyday actions of fandom, Flint thinks much more nuanced and sophisticated about why the Hugo Awards have failed to reward much of the sort of science fiction Baen publishes. Unlike them, he isn’t so much looking for excuses as for looking for explanations. He’s still wrong though, but he’s interestingly wrong and he provides as clear headed a defence of what I like to call the Baen fallacy as is possible:

But, sooner or later, that stops being sufficient for the in-crowds. At first, they want more than just a good story. Which, in and of itself, is fair enough. The problem is that as time goes by “more than just a good story” often starts sliding into “I really don’t care how good the story is, it’s the other stuff that really matters.”

Eventually, form gets increasingly elevated over content. “Originality” for its own sake, something which the mass audience cares very little about—and neither did Homer or Shakespeare—becomes elevated to a preposterous status. And what withers away, at least to some degree, is a good sense of what skills are involved in forging a story in the first place.

To put it another way, every successful author has to master two skills which, although related, are still quite distinct: they have to be good story-tellers; and they have to be good writers.

Of those two skills, being a terrific story-teller but a journeyman writer will win you a mass audience, and is likely to keep it. On the flip side, being a journeyman story-teller but a terrific wordsmith will win you critical plaudits but won’t usually get you much in the way of an audience.

Before I explain why Flint is largely wrong about the Hugos, I do want to acknowledge that he gets two things right, in that I mostly agree with him that a) the SFF field has become too big for any one award to keep its finger on the pulse off and b) that the way the awards are structured exacerbates this, with various categories that perhaps made more sense historically than they do now. But he goes further than that.

His idea is that the Hugo Awards have lost their relevance not just for the above two reasons, but also because the Hugo voters have become elitist and out of touch with popular tastes in science fiction, something the Puppies have also alleged, but which Flint is smart enough to know isn’t through conspiracy, but rather for perfectly natural reasons. The problem remains that this just isn’t true and doesn’t explain anything that couldn’t have been explained by his first two arguments.

If anything, the Hugo Award over the past three decades has always trended towards rewarding middlebrow books or stories; just look at that list of Best Novel winners and nominees. You can say a lot about winners like Scalzi, Willis or Jo Walton, but not that they “elevate form over content”. Even last year’s winner, Ancillary Justice is a familiar sort of space opera only enlivened by its novel use of pronouns.

Neither does his implied comparison of Hugo voters to jaded art critics hold water. Even apart from the fact the Hugo voters renew themselves each years solely through Worldcon moving cities each year, the hardcore Hugo voters are largely ordinary fans, not professional critics and even if a large portion of those are professional SFF writers, as the Nebulas have shown, this is no guarantee for enlightened tastes. If there’s any conclusion you can make about Hugo voters, it’s that by and large they like familiar sorts of SFF, ambitious but safe, by authors they already know. Also that this tendency perhaps is worse at smaller Worldcons based in the American heartland. Case in point: Scalzi’s Redshirts won when the Worldcon was held in Texas.

But there’s more wrong with Flint’s argument than that neither the Hugo track record nor its voters fit his characterisation and this is the Baen Fallacy: that idea that critically acclaimed is always and forever in conflict with popular taste, as if Dhalgren never sold a million copies. It’s a core tenent of what you might call the Baen philosophy of publishing science fiction, which leads to the idea that sales figures are the only true measure of quality and that “story telling” always trumps any other consideration. There’s also this idea that there’s this silent majority of Baen readers out there not bothering with the Hugos or much of SF fandom who are the true fans because they buy the books, and, in its pernicious form, that “elitist” fans and publishers keep them down, content to take their money but sneering at them all the time.

Course, it was Baen itself which said their readers liked their books to have the same sort of consistency and interchangeableness of Del Monte canned fruit, so who is sneering at who exactly? It fits in well with Torgersen’s idea that real fans like books that are the same as every other book they’ve read, just like their cereal. Again, it’s the supposed populist sneering at his own readers tastes and they lapping it up. But the Hugo voters are elitists?

What seems to have started as a commercial strategy by the late Jim Baen to distinguish his new publishing venture from other science fiction publishers has metastasised into a massive inferiority and persecution complex. Baen himself, conservative as he was in his politics, has never let those stand in the way of publishing both good and commercially viable science fiction and fantasy, was never under any illusion about the qualities of his bread and butter authors like Flint, Ringo or Weber. He aimed his advertising at those who just wanted a good yarn and damn the writing qualities, but his followers seem to have mistaken this advertising for reality and worse, seem to believe everybody thinks this way or lies.

But if we come back to Dhalgren, the most difficult book by one of the most literary minded writers of science fiction, who’d go on to write a series of postmodern fantasies and yet this was a million seller. In the Baen worldview, this was only possible because everybody bought it to look cool or hip or intelligent and not because they genuinely liked it. Hard to believe, isn’t it?

Rather, Dhalgren is the poster child for the idea that critically acclaimed, difficult books can be bestsellers and often are. Sometimes the Hugos even recognise them.

Going boozing with the parents

the abbey garden at the beer festival

So I went back to Middelburg this weekend for Mother’s Day, not because the first Abdijbierfestival was going to be held on Friday and Saturday. Nu-uh. But since I was in town anyway it wou;d’ve been a shame if I didn’t go. Luckily my parents enjoy their tipples too and because as they’re fond of the stronger Belgian beers and as the name hints at, the focus was on abbey brewed beers, this was right up their street.

cloister halls at the beer festival

The Middelburg abbey hasn’t been used as such since the Eighty Years War and currently is used by the Zeeland Province government; the festival was held within the cloister walls around the herb garden. It was a great setting for a trappist/abbey beer orientated festival and all the great Belgian names were represented: La Trappe, Maredsous, Affligem, Rochefort, Westmalle, Achel, Chimay, Orval, etc. What’s more, the local beer enthusiasts club had gotten a lot of much more obscure beers in bottle, including Westvleteren 8 and 12. There were also several tables with hobby brewers and small, regional brewers. And because this is Zeeland, one of those was Emelisse, not to mention Brouwerij Kees, started by an ex-Emelisse brewer and which for me had the best beers of the beerfest. Evidence for which can be found in my Twitter timeline

It was a fun little festival, but it was noticable this was the first time it was organised. At times the hallways were slightly too narrow, especially around the more popular stands. What was lacking were seating/standing areas away from bbeythe stands themselves, apart from the cloister garden, which would’ve been too small too if more people had discovered it. Also lacking: food stands. There was the abbey’s own catering, but that was located before the main festival itself, at the entrance which didn’t invite to go get something, having to run the gauntlet of people entering and exiting. Finally, a very novel complaint for a festival: the glasses were too big, almost normal beer glasses size, which is great value for money but does mean you get pissed a lot quicker than at say a Borefts.

All in all a fun way to spent an afternoon, but not quite something you could spent a whole day at. Mum and dad liked it as well, but there was no need to buy more coins. Hopefully it will be held again next year, with more participants and hopefully outside in the abbey square, weather permitting.

No Award All the Things

Hugo Awards voting is open. Last year I was late with reading and voting because I’d only decided a couple of months before the con to actually get involved. This year it’s slightly easier as I prepared better, but mostly because the Puppies made it pointless to do anything but vote No Award in the following categories, either completely Puppy swept or with a majority of Puppy candidates:

  • Best Novella
  • Best Novelette
  • Best Short Story
  • Best Related Work
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
  • Best Editor, Short Form
  • Best Editor, Long Form
  • Best Professional Artist
  • Best Fanzine
  • Best Fancast
  • Best Fan Writer
  • John W. Campbell Award (not a Hugo)

No Award All the Things!

Sorry Thomas Olde Heuvelt, you may actually get your Hugo this year, but since you’re the only candidate there on merit I felt uneasy voting for you by default. Better luck next year.

Sunday Showcase: The Flash

cover of Showcase Presents: The Flash Volume One


Showcase Presents: The Flash, Volume 1
Carmine Infantino, John Broome, Robert Kanigher, Joe Giella, Murphy Anderson, Frank Gaicoia, Joe Kubert and friends
Reprints Flash Comics #104, Showcase #4, #8, #13, #14, The Flash #105-119
Get this for: The comic that kickstarted the Silver Age

Once upon a time, in the cultural wasteland men call the nineties, getting to read Silver Age comics was actually kind of hard. Not as hard as it had been in the seventies or eighties, when it was basically getting the back issues themselves or hope for a reprint series to come out, but still the only really comprehensive reprint programmes were the Marvel Masterworks and their counterpart at DC, the DC Archive Editions. These were expensive, library quality hardcovers, fifty bucks for ten issues of a key Silver Age series, not very accessible for the average reader. That all changed when Marvel came up with their Marvel Essentials line, big black and white trade paperback slabs of comics, anywhere from twenty to twentyfive or more issues of a series, or comics featuring a particular character, from all parts of their history. As an idea it was of course ripped off from the way Manga publishers in Japan published their collections, by way of the Cerebus phonebooks, but it was still a great step forward in making comics history available. Longtime readers may remember I did a fifty Essentials in Fifty Days review series back in 2010.

Now DC only started its comparable reprint series in 2005 and unlike Marvel, they mostly focus on Silver Age titles. And until recently, I only had a few Showcase titles myself, not having run across them much here in the Netherlands. Comics retailers seem to dislike them for the same reasons I like them: they’re big and relatively cheap, hence less attractive to stock. However, I recently discovered a new source of cheap comics online and splurged out on a job lot of Essentials and Showcases, so I thought why not do a regular series of Showcase reviews like those earlier Essential ones? Not at the same insane rate, but why not a weekly series? Hence Showcase Sunday.

And what better title to start with than the one that kickstarted the whole Silver Age in the first place? The Flash’s appearances in Showcase, followed by his own series, numbered from the original Golden Age Flash Comics (which in fact only ended seven years before the S.A. Flash’s first appearance), is what sparked the interest in resurrecting other old DC heroes, culminating in the Justice League of America, which in turn made Marvel start a copycat title to which Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put their own unique touches, The Fantastic Four. There are other candidates for first Silver Age superhero like the Martian Manhunter, but the Flash was the one that really lit the touchpaper. It took a couple of years though: his first appearance in Showcase was in October 1956, his last before he got his own title was in June 1958, with The Flash 105 coming out in February 1959. Guess things moved slower in those days.

Reading these stories more than sixty years after first publication it’s both easy to see why these strips were so successful back and realise they’ve aged badly, much more so than their Marvel equivalents. On the whole, these are simple stories: a criminal or supervillain causes havoc in Central City, has some gimmick that defeats Flash the first time they meet, but in the last two-three pages Flash has the upper hand and explains why. Inbetween the battles there’s some soap opera with Iris West, Barry Allen girlfriend, complaining that he’s never on time and comparing him unfavourably with his alter ego. Nothing really changes in these stories and reading them back to back in a day really shows that. It doesn’t help that each issue has two 11 to 12 page stories, rather than one story per issue, as in the early Marvel titles. There’s less room for characterisation and plotting in such a limited space, let alone proper continuity, though there is a rudimentary form of it here, with villains returning for a second shot at the Flash.

Mostly though these are standalone stories, reinforced by the fact that e.g. in this volume there are half a dozen or so stories in which Flash has to deal with undersea or subterrean invaders, that none of the villains know of each other yet, or the fact that many of them have roughly the same order: criminal with engineering bend tinkers his way into supervillainy by inventing some sort of superweapon. That’s Captain Boomerang, Mirror Master, Weather Wizard, Mr Element/Doctor Alchemy and Captain Cold. All already established criminals, all inventing their signature weapon in their first appearance.

Now these are actually enjoyable stories, for all their simplicity. None of the nonsense you’d associate with Silver Age DC like in the worst Superman/Superboy stories; they are actually remarkable modern save for their approach for continuity. And what I also found noticable is that Barry Allen and Iris West are clearly adults, with adult responsibilites even if those aren’t milked for soap opera like Marvel would do. John Broome has a knack both for creating villains and for creating scenarios in which to showcase their powers, without cheating.

As for the art, if there’s one artist who is synonymous with the Silver Age Flash, the penciler on all of the stories in this volume, it’s Carmine Infantino. Now I first encountered his artwork on a much later title of his, the Marvel Star Wars series, where his elongated, rubbery characters and blocky space machinery where actually the perfect match for the movies’ aesthetic. His version of Star Wars is still the one in my head when I think about it. Here however his style is much more realistic, missing the trademark elongations and perspectives he’d become infamous for. It is gorgeous though and you can see it evolve through the stories, as well as the influence his various inkers: Joe Kubert, Frank Gaicoia, Joe Giella and Murphy Anderson have on the finished art. Joe Giella especially seems to have a positive influence on his faces, much more expressive even than with Murphy Anderson inking, no slouch himself. The black and white printing shows up the line work beautifully. Though straitjacketed in a fairly conservative page layout there’s plenty of gorgeous work to keep your interest.