Sunday, 29 March 2020

Cold Comparisons

By Michael Hoskin, friend of the blog
Science fiction has long been a genre that is rife with references to previous works. As Jo Walton has noted, the genre is often in conversation with itself.

The new ideas of the genre are often ones that are built upon decades of previous works. As I’ve previously written, to a great extent the genre depends on it; if Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. were the only created work on robots, we would have been denied the works of Asimov, Star Wars, and more.

Some works make no attempt to camouflage the works which inspired them – look at any number of
L. Sprague de Camp at Boskone 9
(Image via NESFA)
the pastiche works in the genre, from Manly Wade Wellman’s Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds to L. Sprague De Camp’s Conan of the Isles.

It is interesting to note however, that some works are written even more directly as a commentary on another piece of speculative fiction. There is value in examining how these works offer direct counterpoints to the works they interrogate. 

Tom Godwin’s 1954 story ‘The Cold Equations’ is among the most heavily criticized works in the genre because so many people are unsatisfied by the very premise of the story. It tells of an astronaut who finds a stowaway aboard his ship; due to the precise fuel calculations of his vessel, he cannot afford to bring the stowaway to his destination – therefore, the stowaway must die.

The dilemma of the story is that the astronaut has no other option but to let the stowaway die. There is no clever solution to the dilemma, no deus ex machina to thwart the dilemma – and so, it has been a subject of great debate over the decades.

In 1991, Don Sakers published his short story ‘The Cold Solution’ as a direct response to ‘The Cold Equations.’ This newer story exists in a universe which explicitly references Godwin’s story as an existing piece of fiction. Once again, an astronaut faces a similar dilemma – but not an identical one – and a solution is found (because of the difference in the nature of the stowaway between stories). Sakers wrote the story because he felt “Just as SF once needed to hear that there were times when the girl had to go out of the airlock, in 1991 SF needed to hear that the girl didn't always have to go out the airlock.” It won the Analog award for Best Short Story of 1991.

L. Sprague De Camp was even more prone to criticizing previous works through his fiction. His best-known novel (Lest Darkness Fall, 1941) and best-known short story (‘A Gun for Dinosaur’, 1956) were each written in response to existing works of speculative fiction that De Camp disagreed with, much like Sakers did to Godwin’s story.

Lest Darkness Fall was written in answer to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). Twain’s comedic novel concerns a 19th century man who finds himself in Medieval England and uses his knowledge of the future to alter the past, introducing 19th century inventions hundreds of years in advance. Twain intended to satirize tales of romantic chivalry, but De Camp, at least, was not amused. In De Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, a 20th century archaeologist time travels to 6th century Rome and uses his foreknowledge to prevent the Roman Empire from collapse.
The Cold Equations by
Tom Goodwin may be
one of the most debated
SF stories of all time.
(Image via Goodreads)


The difference between the two is that De Camp earnestly believed in the romance of the fallen Roman Empire and in the ability of a red-blooded intelligent American to alter history for the better.

Similarly, ‘A Gun for Dinosaur’ was written as a response to Ray Bradbury’s ‘A Sound of Thunder’ (1952), both tales being concerned with time traveling safaris where men hunt dinosaurs using advanced technology. The difference between the two lies in their approach to time paradoxes – Bradbury’s tale is very clear on the rules of time travel and depicts how even a slight inadvertent change to history has unforeseen consequences.

Again, De Camp rejects this; in his version, time paradoxes are impossible, but in a fuzzy sort of way… the forces of time itself prevent one of the hunters from being assassinated via time travel. Yet at the same time, we’re assured that going to the past, massacring dinosaurs and hauling their trophies back to the future does not create any paradoxes. That in itself feels… paradoxical.

Unlike ‘The Cold Solution,’ it is very possible for a reader who has neither read nor even heard of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to read and enjoy Lest Darkness Fall without being aware of any connective tissue between the two. Likewise for ‘A Gun for Dinosaur’ and ‘A Sound of Thunder’. The story of ‘The Cold Solution’ is not, I think, of any interest to people who are unfamiliar with ‘The Cold Equations’.

Beyond Sakers’ meta-references to Godwin’s story within his text, the dilemma of his tale and its seemingly-simple solution is not liable to be interesting to anyone unless they recognize it as a critical response to Godwin. Lest Darkness Fall and ‘A Gun for Dinosaur’ are proper stories; ‘The Cold Solution’ is a letter to the editor in disguise.

What these examples hold in common proves Walton's thesis on science fiction's conversation with itself. Science fiction is richer for the interplay between different authors' works, like what a jam session between rival jazz artists or a rap response are to music. The art of science fiction is richer for having a sense of one-upmanship.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Open Discussion — What's worth considering for the ballot in 2021?

The following list will be updated over the next few months as we read, watch, and listen to Hugo-eligible works for 2021. These are not necessarily what we plan to nominate, but rather works that at least one member of the Edmonton Hugo Book Club has enjoyed and believes to be worth consideration. We appreciate any additional suggestions in the comments.

Novel
Beneath The Rising — Premee Mohamed
Bridge 108 — Anne Charnock

Novella
Finna — Nino Cipri

Series
Embers Of War — Gareth Powell

Best Professional Artist

Dramatic Presentation - Long Form
Underwater — directed by William Eubank, written by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad
The Invisible Man — written and directed by Leigh Whannell

Dramatic Presentation - Short Form
Star Trek: Picard S1 E01 — "Remembrance"


Fan Writer
Cora Buhlert

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Ruin Of Kings

Ambitious and compelling, Jenn Lyons’ debut novel Ruin of Kings plays with modes of narration and
Image via Amazon.com
structure in ways that enrich what might otherwise have been a standard fantasy adventure. The ambition and quality of the book makes a compelling case that Jenn Lyons should be on the short list for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer.

Ruin of Kings introduces readers to Kihrin, a lower-class child from Quur’s slums who is raised up to the highest echelons of a medievalist fantasy kingdom.

In Quur, noble families have lost the right to rule but retain the direct power they lost by becoming merchant princes, each noble family owning the rights to some sector of the economy. The emperor — an immortal mage who fights demons — has also lost the right to direct authority. It is in fact a council that does the day-to-day business of government.

Anyone can be voted into the ruling council, but councilors almost always are the unacknowledged offspring of the merchant families (another way the merchant families skirt the law about not ruling). All of this information comes out naturally and shapes motivations and behaviours throughout the story.

Of particular interest is how Lyons frames the narrative through Kihrin’s recollections first to his jailer, and then to a magic rock that records his words. Because of this framing, the story is told in alternating chapters that flip back and forth between past-tense third person, and present-tense first person.

The fact that these two narrating voices — younger Kihrin and older Kihrin — are in different tenses serves to highlight the mutability of selfhood. He is not the same person he once was, and he therefore thinks about himself differently.

Those of us who had read the dust jacket felt that this marketing copy had spoiled major revelations
We look forward to reading further
works from Jenn Lyons.
(Image via Twitter)  
of how these two time frames relate to each other, and this did unfortunately take away from the enjoyment of puzzling it out.

Despite having a whole new world to describe, at no point does the world building feel extraneous to the plot. Instead, the mechanisms of the political structure do a lot to move the plot forward while introducing a strange yet believable political structure.

A well-developed and unique portrayal of religion is integral to the story — gods are not omnipotent or omniscient and they are not limited to the odd deus ex machina. The gods are immersed in the story as characters, powerful and flawed with their own motivations.

Ruin of Kings is at times confusing. Especially when starting off the book, readers may be perplexed by the switching narrative voices and the jumping back and forth to different points in the story. Several members of the book club failed to finish the novel, giving up in the first 100 pages.

Although it is the first in a five-part series, Ruin of Kings stands on its own. In fact, given its length, and the depth to which Lyons explores the setting, we wondered whether there was any need for subsequent volumes.

We’d be quite keen to discover how Lyons’ approaches some other settings, and what else she might imagine. But with her schedule filled with writing 2,500 more pages set in Quur, it unfortunately seems unlikely we’ll get to see this for several years.

Excessive marketing hype and exuberant comparisons to classics of the genre gave us some trepidation when approaching The Ruin Of Kings. It is nonetheless an intriguing book that has ended up on some of our Hugo nominating ballots, and earned Lyons a spot on all of our Astounding Award nominating ballots.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

"The Light Of Impossible Stars" Shines Brightly

Compulsively readable, The Light Of Impossible Stars is the engaging capstone to Gareth Powell’s
Image via Amazon.com
delightful Embers Of War trilogy.

Following the events of Embers Of War and Fleet of Knives, this concluding novel finds the crew of the Trouble Dog and their allies fleeing from the ancient alien armada they unleashed over the previous two books.

Each sequel in the Embers Of War trilogy takes a hard 90 degree turn from the previous book, both thematically and narratively. The universe changes and lines of conflict are redrawn, providing characters with opportunities to explore loss, grief, and redemption.

The rapid-fire short chapter structure of these novels, along with the breezy first-person narration, continues to provide momentum. Although some point-of-view characters (Nod, Trouble Dog) stand out for their noticeably different voices, there are times when other narrators sound confusingly similar in approach.

More than the previous volumes, The Light Of Impossible Stars seems to oscillate between the military SF subgenre, and the xenoarchaeology subgenre. While the chapters dedicated to Trouble Dog’s crew are largely the former, the introduction of a new setting and a new protagonist, Cordelia Pa, gives Powell the chance to don an Indiana Jones fedora.

One of the most delightful aspects of the Embers Of War trilogy has been revelling in the quirky xenoarchaeology locations and artefacts: The Gallery, The Marble Armada, The Generation Ship “Restless Itch for Foreign Soil.” The chapters featuring Cordelia Pa delve deeper into these ancient aliens and big dumb objects in space, than either previous book does.

Set on a series of artificial metal worlds called “The Plates,” Pa’s adventures (and those of her
Gareth Powell has a reputation for
being one of the nicest people on Twitter.
(Image via Twitter)  
brother) provide welcome details of the now-long-extinct Hearther civilization, and a perspective on what life is like outside of the House of Redemption. It is evident that the author has put a lot of care and thought into the history of this universe. This care pays off in The Light Of Impossible Stars.

There are portions of the novel that seem extraneous to the overall plot; Trouble Dog’s detour to the Druff homeworld seemed irrelevant, and the few chapters dealing with Cordelia Pa’s brother Michael feel a little out-of-place. Thankfully, the short chapters and accessible prose keep the narrative pace up even during these odd detours.

One of the great joys of getting invested in a well-planned and thoughtfully crafted trilogy like this one is seeing the characters grow and evolve over time. Powell has the storytelling maturity and courage to guide readers through character actions with drawn-out consequences that resonate across multiple novels. Easy resolutions to character arcs are avoided, creating tension and moments of drama.

As a trilogy, Embers Of War deserves a place on Hugo ballot for Best Series. Works like this — ones that use the longer-form series arc to craft stories that wouldn’t hold up in in shorter-form works — are exactly the sort of work that should be honoured in that category.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

The Textual and the Intertextual

Are Best Dramatic Presentations celebrated too much for their context, rather than on their text?

In 2018, Westworld’s second season was lifeless, but for those who waded through the robotic acting and pedestrian plotting, the eighth episode of the season “Kiksuya” stood alone as an exploration of loss, grief, and cultural genocide. Kiksuya’s text was excellent, the context sub-par.

Fuelled by nostalgia and avarice, X-Files returned to television screens in 2016 with two new seasons that have been described as bewildering, threadbare, and out-of-touch. But amidst a morass of repetitive and pointless episodes, writer-director Darin Morgan managed to craft a near-perfect parable about the fallibility of human memory with his one-off episode “The Lost Art Of Forehead Sweat.” Again, an excellent text is found in a sub-par context.
One of the weirder episodes of X-Files
aired in 2016, and was better than
anything the show had delivered
in several seasons.
(Image via xfiles-fanclub.blogspot.com)

If an audience had still been paying attention to The X-Files or Westworld, one of those episodes might have garnered awards attention. Conversely, it is hard to imagine works like Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, or “The Family Of Blood” being recognized on their own merits rather than on the strength of the series of which they were a part.

Which raises the question of whether the Hugos for Best Dramatic Presentation are awarded based on the textual or on the intertextual. In essence, many dramatic presentations seem to serve as avatars of their respective Cinematic Universes, rather than being judged strictly on what is in that individual episode or film.

This leads to many excellent one-off works being overlooked in favour of run-of-the-mill entries of popular franchises. With the benefit of hindsight, is Dr. Who’s “Planet Of The Dead” really better than Misfits “Episode Six,” or Sarah Connor Chronicles’ “Adam Raised A Cain”? In our eyes, the answer is a resounding “No.”

Of all TV series, Dr. Who might mean the most to fandom overall because of the weight of 50 years of goodwill built up by stories like "Blink", "Fury From The Deep", "Delta and the Bannerman", and "The Happiness Patrol". It is understandable then, that there is a block of voters for whom Dr. Who will always be on their nominating ballot, because it is first considered on the basis of being Dr. Who, rather than being assessed as whether or not it is absolutely the most sterling example of science fiction.

We would suggest that two of the most egregious examples of honouring a work based on associations that have little to do with the work itself were on the ballot just last year. These were the cacophonous mcguffin quest Avengers: Infinity War and the execrable and racist Batman film that made the Retro Hugo ballot. Batman is clearly a popular franchise with a strong fanbase, but we highly doubt that most Hugo nominators had actually seen the character’s first foray into cinema. Avengers: Infinity War is three hours of visual noise that capitalized on the good will generated by 10 years of good MCU movies.
Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
(image via NME.com)

We have previously argued that annual awards are in some ways the ‘first draft’ of the cultural canon. The shortlisted works are often the standard by which science fiction is judged, and are an important vehicle for continued rediscovery of classic works by future SF fans. With this in mind, imagine how mystifying Avengers: Infinity War might be to someone who watches it 40 years from now, and experiences it without the context of 18 previous movies: Steve Rogers’ reunion with Bucky would fall flat; Peter Parker’s death would be stripped of impact; the revelation that The Red Skull is guarding an Infinity Gem would have little resonance.

In terms of directing, let’s compare the movie that built the emotional weight of Gamora’s relationships to the other characters (Guardians of the Galaxy) with the movie that offers us the “payoff” (Avengers: Infinity War). GoG’s directing provides some thoughtful and interesting camera work (remember those amazing opening shots of a tiny figure dancing in the ruins of an ancient civilisation?), at every turn Infinity War’s directors offer pedestrian tried-and-true techniques like snap-zooms on falling figures and jerky camera work for fights. More importantly, major moments in Avengers: Infinity War (such as the death of Gamora) aren’t meaningful unless the viewer assesses them with knowledge of texts other than Avengers: Infinity War.

In December, the New York Times’ published a list of what they considered the best individual episodes of television to have aired in 2019 — its an interesting list with a lot of hidden gems in it (including a reminder that in an otherwise critically scorned season, Game Of Thrones turned in one excellent episode). Tellingly, there’s very little overlap with a separate article published a few days earlier in which the same critics had selected their list of the best overall series to have aired in 2019. Perhaps it is worth recognizing that there is a difference between what is a ‘best series,’ and ‘best individual episode.’

Some might suggest reorganizing the Best Dramatic Presentation categories into ‘Best Series,’ ‘Best Episode,’ and ‘Best Movie’ … but this risks both adding to the confusion, and could exacerbate the already unmanageable amount of media consumption needed to make informed choices as a Hugo voter.

As with many aspects of Hugo Award voting, we suspect that more discussion of these systemic biases is the way to address these issues.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

The Bookcase Dimension

If you've ever been disoriented by an IKEA’s cavalcade of showrooms and design arrangements,
Cover design by Carl Wiens.
(Image via Tor.com)
you'll feel at home in the pages of Finna, the new anti-captialist portal fantasy from Nino Cipri.

LitenVärld (Swedish for ‘Little World’) is a fictional big-box chain of furniture stores whose flat-pack modular designs are displayed in faked-up little rooms. The problem is that the set-up is so confusing that shoppers occasionally fall through the cracks and into parallel worlds with alternate versions of the store. Some of these worlds are inhabited by carnivorous Poäng knock-off chairs, others by high-ocean adventurers.

Navigating this multiverse are Ava and Jules, two minimum-wage workers at odds with each other over a recent break-up. As they scour the universe for a lost shopper, they are confronted with possibilities, and paths not taken.

We’ve previously argued that the genre needs more stories about workers and workers’ rights, so it often felt like Finna’s clever lampooning of thoughtless corporate decisions and consequence-blind cost-cutting could almost have been tailor-made for this book club.

Not only does Cipri show the consequences of LitenVärld’s cost-cutting decision to eliminate its wormhole-defense department, they satirize mindlessly cheerful company culture through an evil hive-mind version of corporate-drone Swedes. The book is consistently on-point.
 Almost exactly 20 years ago, in his cult classic comic strip
Bob The Angry Flower, cartoonist Stephen Notley imagined
travelling to dangerous alternate universes while shopping
for a bookcase at IKEA. Until now, we’ve never wished
we could have followed Bob through those IKEA wormholes
and gone on multi-dimensional furniture adventures.
(image via AngryFlower.com)


What makes this work particularly well is Cipri’s deft ability to alternate between moments of high drama, low comedy, and fast-paced action. These changing tones give the book a sprightly rhythm, with the weightier elements made more meaningful by the author’s choices. At a slight 120 pages, Finna never overstays its welcome - several members of our book club powered through it in under an afternoon, deeply engaged in the storytelling.

Nino Cipri’s age is evident in how they write, with a tone that can best be described as “millennial.” The dialogue has a breezy levity to it that feels youthful and fresh. The use of they/them pronouns for one of the protagonists feels both meaningful and natural to the narrative (possibly because Cipri uses those pronouns themself.) One of our book club members said she enjoyed reading a book with a, “millennial voice.”

We approached the book with enthusiasm, and were not disappointed. Finna offers a compelling blend of adventure, relationship drama, and corporate criticism. This is an early favourite for our Hugo ballots in 2021.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Retro Hugos 1945: Best Graphic Stories

Over the past 75 years, few types of storytelling have evolved more than the graphic story. This is
Top picks for comic books
published in 1944:
1) Superman #30
2) Plastic Man #2
3) Donald Duck - Mad Chemist
4) The Spirit - Clara Defoe
(Image via CBR.com)
evident in form, style, marketing, writing, and content. The stories told in 1944 are much shorter than modern comics, often just eight to 15 pages per story, with multiple stories in an individual edition of a comic book. In addition, the pages are significantly denser, with more exposition packed into a given comic panel.

It’s difficult not to see these differences when revisiting contenders for the Best Graphic Story of 1944, which likely presents a barrier for many audiences. That said, it can also give us perspective into which artists and writers were pushing the medium forward at that time.

Having quit Disney animation the year before, a then little-known writer and artist Carl Barks had begun producing the first Donald Duck stories to be first-published in print (rather than originating as film). His dynamic layouts, deceptively simple figure work, and effective use of paneling in story pacing quickly made his work stand out. Contractually unable to sign his name to any comics he produced, for two decades Barks was known to the public simply as “the good duck artist” of Donald Duck.

Two of the classic stories of Barks’ 20-year-run on Donald Duck were published in late 1944, the
second of these “The Mad Chemist” is both the more memorable and the more science fictional. The plot sees Donald developing super-genius intellect, inventing a new chemical, and travelling to the moon. While the layouts are less dynamic than Barks’ experiments of just a year later, you can already see him chafing against the constraints of the medium. In 1999, The Comics Journal ranked Barks’ run on Donald Duck as seventh on their list of the 100 greatest comics of the 20th century, and it is difficult to argue with this assessment.

Another of the great comic creators of the era, Will Eisner, had his career interrupted by the Second World War. In his absence, publisher Quality Comics brought in Hugo-shortlisted author Manly Wade Wellman to script with Lou Fine doing pencils of their top-selling book The Spirit (which still bore Eisner’s name). The results are a mixed bag, though the July and September editions of the book contain stories worth noting. I’m likely to include “For the Love of Clara Defoe” on my ballot.

Carl Barks' classic Donald Duck comics
have been endlessly reprinted, and for
good reason!
(Image via CBR.com)
Fearing for the fate of their business in Eisner’s absence, Quality had also hired a young creator named Jack Cole, whose most famous creation Plastic Man was given his own comic book in 1943. Due to wartime paper shortages, only one edition of the Plastic Man solo book hit the shelves in 1944, but his adventures continued to appear in the anthology book Police Comics.

Cole’s effervescent visual imagination and dynamic pencil work redefines what was thought possible in a comic book. As Comicbook.com puts it, “These stories helped invent the tools and style that would push comics forward throughout the 1950s, and are still a lot of fun today.”

There are so many great Plastic Man works to choose from that year and it’s hard to narrow it down to a single issue. Police Comics 31 offers us a great story about the wartime draft, in issue 34 Plastic Man is forced to take a nonviolent approach to in a metafictional narrative about appeasing his censors. In terms of narrative construction and art, these works hold up better today than almost anything else published that year. For my ballot, I’ll have the only issue of Plastic Man’s solo book that was published that year; “The Gay Nineties Nightmare” shows better use of colour, more dynamic layouts, and a willingness to work text into the frame that would inspire countless imitators over the decades.

Throughout the 1940s, the most popular comic book on the market remained Captain Marvel Adventures. The success of last year’s Shazam! movie, based on these comics, shows why this character has enduring appeal; the childlike glee of Otto Binder’s creations, the celebration of the families that we build for ourselves, and the empowerment of the underprivileged and strong themes that still resonate.

Despite being one of the best-loved Captain Marvel stories of the era, long-running serial “The
As an aside, if I had my druthers,
the 1945 story that introduced Black Adam
would have been granted a Retro Hugo,
but since the 1946 Retros were handed out
in 1996 prior to the creation of
the Best Graphic Story category,
that is not possible.
(Image via Comic Book Herald)
Monster Society Of Evil
,” which ran for two years in Captain Marvel Adventures, has significant flaws (including depictions of Japanese Americans and Africans). This makes it a difficult inclusion on a ballot, though it also pushed the genre forward, being one of the first examples of long-form storytelling in American comic books. Though it’s lesser-known, the short but delightful romp “Dr. Sivana’s Twin” from issue #59 is likely to be on my ballot.

Possibly my top pick for the Retro Best Graphic Story trophy is Superman #30, which introduces us to classic villain Mr. Mxyztplk. This is a memorable story about an extradimensional prankster who torments Superman, and would turn up numerous times over the decades (eventually killing Superman in Alan Moore’s 1986 two-part story “What Ever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow.”)

Mxyztplk’s (that’s not a spelling error, later writers changed the name to Mxyzptlk) reality-warping powers provide Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel with an opportunity to play with the medium. The story ends with a weird abruptness, and Joe Shuster’s art is a bit stiff compared with some of the other artists working in that era, but the playfulness of the story and joy of scenes where Mxyzptlk animates an ambulance make it a classic gem.

As a category in the Retro Hugos, Best Graphic Story presents larger barriers than many other categories. In part because of the evolution of the medium, and in part because so many of the classic stories have been reinterpreted so often that modern audiences might be far more familiar with wildly divergent versions of what was originally published. I would urge those nominating to at least take a look at the original stories before nominating and voting.