Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Spin stands out

In retrospect, Spin seems like an improbable winner for the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Novel.
Spin is a novel whose
appeal may be limited
outside of fannish
circles, but that's also
what makes it great.
(Image via Goodreads)


From 2001 – 2010, the Hugo Awards converged with the mainstream literary establishment in a way that they usually hadn’t in previous decades. Six of the Hugo-winning novels from that decade sat atop the New York Times bestseller list and sold millions of copies. Three others were written by perennial Hugo favourites.

Which is why Robert Charles Wilson’s win in 2006 stands out. Wilson is certainly not as big a name as George R. R. Martin. He hasn’t enjoyed the same level of sales as John Scalzi. And he hasn’t been Hugo shortlisted as often as Charles Stross. But Spin beat out Accelerando, Old Man’s War, and A Feast For Crows to take home Wilson’s to-date only Best Novel Hugo Award.

And it’s a win that, with the benefit of a dozen years of hindsight, looks better and better.

Spin is a novel about a mysterious event that separates the Earth from the rest of the universe. All at once humanity is cut off from its telecommunications satellites, and observations show that time is moving thousands of times more slowly on Earth than outside the barrier. The protagonist Tyler Dupree grows up in the shadow of this mysterious event, all the while searching for answers.

Spin faced tough competition in 2006, in what was possibly one of the most stacked Hugo shortlists in recent memory. Old Man’s War is perhaps John Scalzi’s most famous work, spawning five sequels, a variety of short stories, and earning the author a blockbuster literary deal. It’s probably Scalzi’s best book to date, engaging and fun, but Spin aims higher in terms of nuance and imagination.

A Feast For Crows was the first George R. R. Martin novel to top the New York Times bestseller list,
Robert Charles Wilson may not have
as high a profile outside of fandom,
but his work is worth celebrating.
(Image via Goodreads)
a success that helped convince HBO to greenlight the TV show. The book develops fan-favourite character Brienne, and delves into Cersei’s motivations. But as the fourth book in a series, it is impenetrable to outsiders, and perhaps a bit redundant.

Charles Stross’ Accelerando has been described as the gold standard of singularitarian works. It’s a very interesting book, offering a series of vignettes that show how the world changes over three generations. But Stross’ everything-and-the-kitchen-sink cavalcade of sci-fi ideas gets in the way of the human aspects of the story.

Ken McLeod’s Learning The World is a moderately good novel that is undermined by a deus-ex-machina ending. It remains one of the more puzzling Hugo-shortlisted works in recent memory. McLeod is an excellent writer (The Execution Channel should not be missed), and this book has interesting ideas about assimilation and cultural norms, but the ending is deeply unsatisfactory.

Spin bested all of these, and in retrospect I think it deserved to. It is a deeply human story of growing up, set against a backdrop that explores a unique and science-fictional idea.

While the central mystery of the novel is well imagined, and explored seriously and satisfyingly, it is probably not something that would have been noticed by the mundane literary establishment.

This is a novel that deserves to be celebrated, but unlike most other Hugo winners in that decade, would never have been recognized outside of genre awards.

To us, it may be the platonic ideal of what a modern Hugo Award winner should be.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

A Return to Nowhere

Guest post by constitutional lawyer and human rights advocate Rob Normey.

In our current Age of the Autocrats, it could be suggested that reading a daily newspaper paints a
News From Nowhere is well-regarded
enough as a utopian work that
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan
Williams wrote the introduction to
the most recent edition.
(image via the Victoria and Albert Museum)
fairly dire picture of what lies ahead if we cannot dramatically alter the course of our 21st century ships of state.

If we wish to avoid going down with the Titanic (so to speak), we need to consider alternative social and political visions that might just afford us some hope. The 1890 novel News From Nowhere does just that.

The Who Killed D’arcy McGee History Club — a book club with a member that is also a member of the book club that hosts this blog — considered this utopian work at our recent meeting.

This novel — considered by many to be the best utopian fiction since Thomas More’s Utopia —was written by William Morris, a radical democratic socialist.

In the novel, written in 1890, Morris introduces us to William Guest, a time traveler from late-Victorian England. Guest offer the reader a window on the land of Nowhere, set around 2050. Although, some aspects of the new world are not particularly persuasive, there is much to commend this new society that has emerged in a transformed England after a revolution called the Great
Born in Walthamstow,
William Morris became
famous as an artist and
fabric designer.
(Image via
WilliamMorrisSociety.com)
Change (following a Civil War around the 1950s).

Morris wrote the book as a reaction to the repression, massive inequalities and environmental degradation he saw in late-Victorian society.

His radical approach to political and social problems was controversial in his time and yet possesses a certain poetic justice, as Morris was born in the midst of the The Age of Revolution, as described by Eric Hobsbawm in his brilliant account of the nineteenth century (published in 1962).

Some in our book club felt that the book misses the mark on gender relations and technological advancements that obviously could not be foreseen but make the work laborious to read in 2018. Of course, utopian fiction is not intended as a blueprint for the future. The tale provides an imaginative vision of one possible alternative to the late 19th-century world of Victorian hypocrisy and oppression of the poor and of the working class.

This novel can be read together with the essays on art and democratic socialism that Morris wrote in the 1890s to understand the rage and frustration of this remarkable visual artist, poet and novelist who became a dedicated revolutionary.

Police brutality towards striking workers and protesters was a recurring pattern. Morris himself was arrested during a demonstration.

One of the highlights of the novel is the way it imagines the world of meaningful and pleasurable work, and the supreme values of equality and community, based on cooperation, that are inscribed at the heart of Nowhere.

They are discussed by many of the time-displaced protagonist’s new friends, including by the woman who enchants him, Ellen, and the historian, Henry Morsom.

It is refreshing to think of a world where people actually have time to talk at length with one another, with no digital distractions, no tyrannical television screens and computer screens and cellphones. William sits down with his friends after helping prepare a meal and reflecting on a day in which more than likely they have worked together on a project that they have voluntarily participated in.

The citizens of this utopia, it seems, will always have work to enrich their lives. They have achieved a balance between mankind and machinery and need not fear the displacement caused by automation that features in the capitalist dystopias that litter modern science fiction.

Gradually readers are given an account of the main features of the society and of the commitment all citizens have to ensuring that workers, not the owners of capital and the corporations of old, are in control of their own fate.

This society has developed schemes to ensure that all work is as pleasurable and varied as is reasonably possible. So they take turns with both the less pleasant janitorial and laboring jobs and the more stimulating kinds of work. Most citizens have developed into superb craftsmen.

One of the most striking sections of the novel takes place near the old town of Wallingford, which
Wallingford as it appears today.
(image via VisitOxfordshire.co.uk)
was in Victorian times a synonym for poverty and squalor. In this future, Wallingford has become a delightful, well planned village.

Henry Morsom, the historian, tells the inquisitive protagonist that a major debate occurred amongst citizens in the dramatic era just after the Civil War, between those who wanted to increase production levels through industrialization and reliance on machines and those who favored the handcraft movement, and a minimal reliance on automatic machinery. Recognizing that the move towards industrialism contained within it the seeds of inequality and possible exploitation of man by man, they ultimately opted for a commitment to “handicrafts.” Only work that would be irksome to do by hand is accomplished by machines. All other work that can be done by “heart and mind” is done by hand. The result is a much happier workforce, with no difficulty ensuring that sufficient numbers are willing to seek out employment. 

Both Marx and Morris shared
disdain for the way Victorian
England treated the working
class. (Image via Wikipedia)
You may have guessed by now that the capitalist order that Morris and other radical socialists like Karl Marx so despised in the era that the novel was written has been destroyed and a socialist economy has taken its place.

Speaking of Marx, Morris shared his near-contemporary’s disdain for an economy that contained within it the conditions which led to widespread alienation of labour. Both Morris and Marx offered insights into the inevitable discontents that flow from the commodification of all elements of modern life.

Students of Marx will find much to appreciate in Morris’ vision of a utopian society where the aggressive competition for ever-higher returns on capital investment, and the concomitant alienation of workers who are conceived as simply impersonal cogs in the commodity-making machine, has replaced money and profit-making with what would be termed by later socialists as the “cooperative commonwealth.”

Despite some improbabilities in its world-building, News From Nowhere provokes the reader to consider at the very least the fundamental values of a fairer, joyful society built on trust and fellow-feeling. 

Hopefully some readers will indeed be inspired to fight for a new world, based on the very qualities that underpin Morris’ utopia.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Retro Hugo Best Graphic Story — 1943 (Part 2: Recommendations)

This is the second of a two-part discussion on the Best Graphic Story Retro Hugo for 1943 (which recognizes works first published in 1942). The first part can be found at this link.


It takes a lot of work for a comic book fan to stay up-to-date and to have
Nelvana is simply one of the best
comics of the era, while also being
ahead of its time in representing
a non-white, non-male hero.
(Image via expertcomics.com)
read a wide enough slate of publications to nominate knowledgably.


Most – and perhaps all – of the people who will be nominating and voting on the Retro Hugo awards weren’t reading comic books in 1942. It is therefore even more difficult for most readers to assess what works might deserve consideration for the award.


Prior to 2018, the only time there was a Retro Hugo for Best Graphic Story was in 2016, when the Retro Hugos for 1941 were awarded. That ceremony saw Batman #1 take the trophy ahead of Captain Marvel and The Spirt, both of which are superior comic books. Joe Simon’s superb first 12 issues of Blue Bolt didn’t even make the final ballot.


Batman as a character may have had more popular appeal in the long-term, but those early stories are not as dynamic or innovative as The Spirit. Batman may have some science fiction elements today, but in 1940 Blue Bolt told better science fiction stories. Batman may be more popular today, but in 1940 Captain Marvel was the leading comic book character.  

One of the all-time great Retro Hugo
snubs is the omission of Blue Bolt
from the ballot for the 1941 award.
(Image via james-vance.com)
In our last post, this blog provided a broad overview of notable works from 1942, noting the merits of each without making specific recommendations. But there are three comics that in our minds stand as the exemplars of science fiction comics in 1942. It is not our intention to offer a ‘slate’ of works that should make the ballot, but rather to suggest a few works that Hugo voters should consider reading.


Captain Marvel's use of colour
is spectacular for the era.
The modernity of the storytelling
and innocence of the characters
is exceptionally charming.
(Image via comicarchive.com)
Canadian black-and-white classic Nelvana of the Northern Lights will be at the top of our ballots. This is a book that modern readers should take a look at not only for its sharp-edged illustrations and its inventive storytelling, but also because it offers readers both the first super-powered female character and the first Indigenous superhero.


Plastic Man by Jack Cole is one of the most inventive books of the era. Pulitzer-prize winner Art Spiegelman so admired this comic that he wrote a book titled “Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits.” In it he aptly describes the ‘manic spritz of images’ that leavened the pages of Plastic Man, and compares Cole’s work to such greats as Laurel and Hardy, Tex Avery and The Marx Brothers. This title will also appear on our ballots, and we encourage other Retro Hugo voters to consider it.


For those seeking conventional superheroics, in 1942 Captain Marvel was the cream of the crop. The wide-eyed optimism of the book has often been imitated, parodied, or deconstructed, but never equaled in their simple, honest joyful fun. Particularly worth noting is how this comic used colour more effectively than most other publications of the era.


There will always be a gap between the modern popular understanding of these works and the context in which they were published, and this will always be one of the inherent tensions of the Retro Hugo Awards. It is difficult for a modern audience to understand the world in which these comics were published, and it is hard to know where to start reading when considering works for the award. It is worth reading widely in advance of nomination — these three books are a good place to start.



Monday, 5 February 2018

Retro Hugo Best Graphic Story — 1943 (Part 1: Overview)

This is the first of a two-part discussion on the Best Graphic Story Retro Hugo for 1943 (which recognizes works first published in 1942). The second part can be found at this link

In 1942, the modern American comic book was still in its infancy. Sequential art published on pulp paper with gaudy CMYK illustrations was hitting the shelves at a furious pace, led by the success of best-selling books like Captain Marvel, The Spirit, and Archie. But for every Mort Meskin, Basil Wolverton or Jack Cole working in 1942, there were dozens more, often filling pages with inflexible five- and six-panel layouts, stilted dialogue, and rigidly posed figures. 

Many of these stories — especially those that don’t feature popular characters like Batman or Superman — are nearly forgotten. Some of the most exemplary works are little-remembered by the modern reader. 

Of those that are still well remembered, the greatest is probably The Spirit by Will Eisner. This classic
No discussion of comics from
1942 would be complete
without talking about The
Spirit. But it's not Sci-Fi.
(Image via WillEisner.com)
series features masked criminologist Denny Colt, who comes back from the dead to fight crime. The art is spectacular and artist-writer Wil Eisner plays with text and narrative in a way that drove the medium forward. There is little in the history of comics that compares with The Spirit

There is a reason why the highest honour in comic books is named the Eisner Award. But it might be difficult to justify The Spirit’s inclusion in the Retro Hugos because there are only minor fantastical elements. 

Editor Everett M. Arnold, from The Spirit’s Quality Comics, hired artist Jack Cole to create a knock-off character just in case Eisner was drafted into the army. Dave Clark a.k.a. Midnight, is also a costumed detective but while Eisner’s style is detailed and realistic, Cole toyed with the absurd.

Midnight’s adventures reached their most fantastic — and possibly their high point — in October 1942 with the story “Midnight Goes To Hell,” published in Smash Comics #36. True to the title, Midnight is killed in the opening pages, only to lead a revolt against the devil, defeat Satan’s Nazi plot, and return to the land of the living. 

Writer and artist Jack Cole’s more famous creation Plastic Man made his debut two years previously, but was hitting new heights in 1942. There had been previous characters with the power of elasticity, but until Jack Cole, no artist had explored the visual potential of such a character — it could be argued that no one has since. It is almost inconceivable to imagine a Retro Hugo ballot that excludes the work of Jack Cole — Plastic Man’s adventures from Police Comics #6-14 are certain to make our nominating ballots. 

One of the better early Superman comics was Jerry Siegel & Ed Dobrotka's "Case of the Funny Paper Crimes," published in September 1942 in Superman #18. The story has Superman fighting a mad scientist who could bring comic strip characters to life — a commentary on Superman's own meta-existence as a two-dimensional being.

But it is often forgotten is that in the 1940s, Superman was not the most popular superhero comic book. From 1941 – 1949, Fawcett Press’ Captain Marvel regularly outsold the rival book. 

With dynamic art by C. C. Beck, and scripts from writers such as Otto Binder, Captain Marvel was
Which of these two comics looks more
dynamic and modern? Both of these
issues were published in 1942.  
unlike almost any other comic books that fans had ever seen. The issues of Captain Marvel Adventures published in 1942 (Issues 6-18) and Whiz Comics (Issues 26-38) feature the addition of new members to the Marvel Family, and art that would be imitated again and again over the decades. The storytelling is ahead of its time in its pacing, its relationships, and its plotting. 

Basil Wolverton’s mostly forgotten science fiction adventure series Spacehawk ran from 1940 to 1942. Propelled by an evident love of big outer-space adventures, writer-artist Wolverton used alien worlds and big technology inventively. Unlike other early science fiction comics like Flash Gordon, space was more than a backdrop interchangeable with the Wild West. 

Basil Wolverton's Scacehawk
played with SF concepts
with verve and with joy.
(Image via Amazon.com)
Unfortunately in 1942, publisher Target determined that for propaganda reasons all their comic heroes had to fight against Axis powers here on Earth, which led to stories about Spacehawk fighting against the Japanese in the Pacific. Some of these final stories do not use the character to his best effect, and contain an unhealthy dose of racism. But racism was nearly ubiquitous in comic books from 1942. Superman and Batman both fight racist caricatures of Japanese soldiers. Captain Marvel Adventures had an unfortunate storyline featuring a Totem-Pole wielding evil Native American stereotype. Plastic Man faced off against The Sinister Swami.

When judging these comics, one must remember that the racism seen in comic books of 1942 reflect the values of the times. But this makes Adrian Dingle's Nelvana of the Northern Lights all the more remarkable, as the title character was an Inuit heroine who defended the north from Axis aggressors.

During the Second World War, the War Exchange Conservation Act prevented American comic
Famed Canadian painter
Franz Johnson helped
inspire Adrian Dingle
to create an Indigenous
Canadian superhero.
(Image via Amazon.com
books from being sold in Canada, leading to the creation of numerous new superhero comic books for the domestic Canadian market. Of these, Nelvana is the highlight. Appearing in Canada's Triumph Comics, Nelvana was the daughter of a mortal woman and the Inuit god Koliak. Gifted with abilities by her divine heritage, she is charged with guarding the people of Canada’s north with the assistance of her brother Tanero. 

A Kickstarter-supported hardcover edition of the early Nelvana stories was published by IDW in 2014, making this classic available to a new generation of readers.

The issues published in 1942 (Triumph Comics 7-12) begin her journey into Glacia, a hidden futuristic world beneath the Arctic ice. This is one of the finer moments in Nelvana’s adventures.

Nelvana’s creation predated by a few months another more well-known female superhero rooted in cultural mythology. Wonder Woman first appeared in December of 1941, with her origin story concluding in Sensation Comics in January of 1942. 

The early Wonder Woman issues, the first 12 of which were published in 1942, are written by creator William Moulton Marston and drawn by Harry G. Peter. Marston’s goal was not simply to develop a superhuman female but to demonstrate his personal philosophy of feminine superiority. This gave the initial Wonder Woman comics an energy — and kinkiness — the series would never maintain without these creators. 

Of all the comic books published in 1942, the most enduring, and probably the best-selling, was not originally published in English. Belgian comics legend Hergé’s 10th Tintin adventure The Shooting Star was the first one to be first published in colour, it is also one of the two most science-fiction inspired. Although well-known, it suffers from significant controversy. 

Tintin had first appeared more than a decade earlier and Hergé’s style had evolved to its recognizable
Many Tintin aficionados try to forget
just how bad the original 1942
version of The Shooting Star is.
(Image via Tintin.com)
form by this point. The adventure chronicles Tintin and his comrades' race to the arctic in an attempt to be the first to find a large meteorite that has fallen to Earth. The fantastical elements come from the radiation of the meteorite that causes small creatures to grow to enormous size. 

It is tempting to include The Shooting Star on our Retro Hugo ballots because it is an artistic success on a number of levels, with iconic illustrations and a dreamlike rhythm to the storytelling. But the anti-Semitism that is evident in the work is frankly intolerable. 

Written and published during the Nazi occupation of Belgium, The Shooting Star has often been described as the propaganda piece that stains the legacy of Tintin comics. Despite its many strengths, it should not be considered for the Retro Hugo. 

Overall, there are a plethora of options to choose from when considering the Retro Hugo for 1943. Despite a comics industry that was still finding its footing, there are growing signs of maturity in the work of several creators. Thanks to the work of fans and archivists at comicbookplus.com, digitalcomicmuseum.com, aibq.com, and openculture.com, many of these works are readily accessible to those of us who intend to nominate works in this category.

(Part two at this link

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Beyond The Standard Palette

More than any other long-standing Hugo category, the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist has
In North America, Jean Giraud
(A.K.A. Moebius) may be
most famous for the
movie Valerian. But his work
has enormous range.
BBC aired a documentary on
his extraordinary work.
Image via Lambiek.net
often been dominated by a few big names. Just three artists account for almost half of all the Best Pro Artist Hugos awarded – Michael Whelan with 13, Frank Kelly Freas with 11 and Bob Eggleton with 8. Meanwhile, legendary science fiction artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud (1938-2012) never even received a nomination.

The most recent winner, Julie Dillon, has won three of the last four awards presented. Four of the six shortlisted artists in 2017 had previously appeared on the ballot.

This is not to diminish the work of any of those artists – Dillon was high on our ballots last year. But it does indicate that when it comes to art, our voters and nominators have tended to look at a fairly narrow pool of artists.

Jay Shaw's poster for Get Out
is one of his more high-profile
works from 2017.
(Image via Mondo.com) 
Thanks to the Internet, digital print-on-demand services, small-press
art books, alternate art posters, the availability of new artistic tools, and the fact that science fiction has gone mainstream, we are in the middle of a boom in science fiction art. Over the past decade, there have likely been more artists making science fiction art than there have ever been before. Some of the work that is flying under the radar of Hugo voters is breathtakingly imaginative, technically accomplished, and worthy of consideration.

The name Jay Shaw is probably not one that many World Science Fiction Society members will
Apparently, Predestination
directors Peter & Michael
Sperig preferred Jay Shaw's
poster for their movie over
the one that was used more
widely.
(Image via Mondo.com) 
know, but some of his work will be familiar to them. Last year’s Hugo-nominated concept album “Splendor and Misery” by Clipping featured his artwork on the cover, and the Hugo-nominated Heinlein adaptation “Predestination” had a modernist alternate poster designed by Shaw which was exhibited by the Heinlein society at Worldcon 73.

This year, Shaw upped his game with a poster for “Get Out,” an evocative and minimalist piece that created a connection between two motifs of Jordan Peele’s horror masterpiece, while his use of black and white in the design reinforces the racial commentary. He is an in-house designer at Mondo, but freelances for other organizations. This year, Shaw also designed the artwork for the board game “The Thing: Infection At Outpost 31,” based on John Carpenter’s classic 1982 movie, which is a beautifully detailed piece (despite not being a particularly great board game.) We recommend that you check out his portfolio website KingdomOfNonsense.com to view a wide range of his work and techniques, including both genre and mainstream works.

One of the 2017 alternate Potter
covers by Olly Moss parallels the
lightning bolt on Harry's forehead
to the skyline of diagonally.
(Image via Ollymoss.com)
Shaw’s colleague at Mondo, Olly Moss, is probably a bigger name in the mainstream art world. He made headlines in the New York Times in spring 2017 when his designs were selected for the poster of Disney’s “Frozen: The Broadway Musical.” Moss has focused most of his career on genre work, from depictions of Robocop riding a unicorn to well-loved alternate versions of Star Wars posters. In 2016, he was selected to do the covers for a digital re-release of all seven Harry Potter novels, each using a visual pun that encapsulated the ideas of the series. A follow up of his Harry Potter work was a 2017 series of posters based on his rejected designs. For an artist who has just turned 30, Moss has compiled a surprisingly diverse and impressive portfolio. His website Ollymoss.com showcases a variety of his iconic works, though few of his recent ones.

A more unusual artist whose work is evidently science fictional is
Vancouver sculptor Brendan Tang. As far as we are aware, no artist whose work is primarily sculptural has ever been nominated for a Hugo Award, but a good argument could be made that Tang should be the first. His recent exhibition,
Brendan Tang's mixed media sculptures
play with the tension between traditional
forms and new technologies in a clearly
science fictional way.
(Image via designtodesign.com)
which toured through the Western United States features more than 80 ceramic works that meld traditional Chinese styles with fantastic mechanical devices reminiscent of Neon Genesis Evangelion. In these works, the mechanical seems to deform the traditional, while ceramic overflows steel. They’re impressively detailed pieces that have an interesting balance to them, while playing with science fictional themes of modernity in battle with the past. Tang’s previous exhibitions have focused on video games, body modification, and the technological redefinition of identity. A fair selection of Tang’s work can be found on his website brendantang.com.

Another artist whose work marries the traditional with the contemporary is Comox First Nation artist Andy Everson.
Comox artist Andy Everson
explores contemporary indigenous
identity through pop culture.
(Image via infocusmagazine.com)
By combining traditional motifs with the characters and iconography of Star Wars, Everson explores how indigenous cultures are appropriated. The resulting work comments on the tension between cultures, and about a search for identity. His work has received national attention in Canada. His web site AndyEverson.com hasn’t been updated with his most recent work, so voters will have to seek out media coverage of his shows to be able to judge his output from 2017.

The appreciation of visual art is one of the most subjective experiences we have and, like all art forms, it is at its best when it challenges us. Art is iterative and emergent and therefore strengthened by diversity. Here’s hoping this year’s nominations for Best Professional Artist expand our horizons.

Friday, 15 December 2017

The Stone Sky is the echo of a great book

Some reviews of N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky offer ebullient praise and predict an unprecedented
The Fifth Season is a great
novel. We're less convinced
that its sequel deserves
another Hugo Award.
(Image via Goodreads)
third
back-to-back Hugo win for Jemisin. While this is a fine book, it is much harder to say it is the most deserving science fiction or fantasy novel of 2017.

The first book in the series, The Fifth Season, was innovative and unique. It offered a refreshing take on science fiction and fantasy that unquestionably deserved the Hugo Award. But The Stone Sky does not stand on its own. It is good, but mostly because it is an echo of a truly great book. 

It might be more appropriate to honour N.K. Jemisin with a Best Series Hugo this year, rather than another Best Novel, because that would recognize how The Stone Sky works as part of a larger whole.

If there hadn’t been so much astonishingly good science fiction and fantasy published in 2017, we might have been rooting for N.K. Jemisin to complete her Hugo Award hat trick. But there are numerous novels at least as good.

The third book in the series picks up immediately on the conclusion of the second, and despite the brief recap those of us who hadn’t looked at The Obelisk Gate since last summer had difficulty picking up the narrative threads.

This volume is the story of a mother doing whatever it takes to save her daughter, willing to sacrifice herself and the entire planet if necessary. Over the course of the novel, we learn the origin of orogeny, roggas, stone eaters, and Guardians. Jemisin reveals the history and mystery of the world in a way entirely believable for the all-too-human motivations. This background and world building is what was most enjoyable about the book, but also what made it so dependent on the previous works.

That being said, Jemisin is in fine form as a wordsmith. This novel may be her most quotable, with
The quality of NK Jemisin's
prose is outstanding.
(Image via Wired.com)  
lines such as “For a society built on exploitation, there is no greater threat than having no one left to oppress,” and “If you love someone, you don’t get to choose how they love you back.”

As the final book in a trilogy, The Stone Sky ramps up the tension and the stakes, and serves as a fitting conclusion to the story. It’s a good book that satisfyingly concludes the story of Essun, Nassun, and an alternate Earth.

As a trilogy, The Broken Earth’s environmental metaphors, cautionary tales of hubris, and racial allegories are powerful. And while this book reveals the history of the broken Earth and nicely wraps up the various plot lines, it retreads and develops the ideas introduced in the first two books without presenting anything groundbreaking. The metaphors are made more obvious, but not more incisive.

It seems inevitable that Hugo voters will nominate The Stone Sky, but with so many other strong novels written in 2017 it will likely not make it to the top our ballot.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Retro Hugos 1943: Novels

It was with no small degree of excitement that we greeted the news that there would be Retro Hugo awards presented at next summer’s Worldcon. Just on principle, we love Retro Hugos, and will take any opportunity to do a deep dive into the science fiction published in a particular year. The Hugo year of 1943 (which would cover works published in 1942) has some excellent novels to choose from. We will explore other fiction categories for these awards in later posts. 

Legendary science fiction pioneer Olaf Stapledon has never been nominated for a Hugo
Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950) has
never been nominated for any
Hugo Awards.
(Image via Futurism.com)
Award in any category. The author of Last and First Men, Star Maker, and Odd John had published most of his major works prior to the first Worldcon, so even with Retro Hugos, there hasn’t been much opportunity to honour his works with the genre’s top award. Although Darkness And The Light is not one of his most well-remembered works, and although it has some flaws, it is still one that should be considered for the award.

In his previous books, Stapledon had created epic narratives about the long-term future of humanity. These are beautiful, idealistic, and sweeping stories, but as Robert Silverberg noted at last summer’s Worldcon “In The Last And First Men, every time Stapledon makes a prediction about the future, he gets it wrong.” By 1942, events had overtaken Stapledon’s most famous works. He had failed to predict the Second World War and Darkness And The Light is his response to this omission.

In Darkness And The Light, he charts two divergent paths for humanity, one that leads to a destructive and controlling empire which flickers out and dies, the other a “Tibetan Renaissance” and an eventual utopian revolution. Neither of these futures is as well developed as those in his previous works, and the writing seems more trepidatious than one might expect from an author who wrote inaccurate predictions with fearless confidence in Last And First Men.

Even if it is sadly one of Stapledon’s lesser works, the book still warrants an inclusion on our nominating ballots.

Patron saint of the Hugo Awards Robert A. Heinlein’s first novel was serialized in April and May of
We love Vincent Di Fate's cover art
from the 1979 Signet edition of
Beyond This Horizon.
(Image via Amazon.com)
1942. Beyond This Horizon is a comedic novel in which a man who is genetically near-perfect struggles to find meaning in his life in a utopian society that has solved poverty, want, and greed. While the weird social mores of this future society include a libertarian attitude toward firearms and sex, their economic system is something between communism and fascism, though without the coercive oppression that these systems have often used in the real world. In many ways, it is unlike anything else Heinlein would ever publish — David Brin provocatively describes Beyond This Horizon as "Heinlein's most fascinating novel." 

Many of his more utopian ideas from the book look naïve in retrospect, but Heinlein got some interesting details right about the future. He managed to describe a device that closely resembles an internet-connected personal computer, alludes to the atomic bomb years before it was realized, predicted the waterbed, and even offered the rise of video game arcades as a plot point.

The first half of the book sees the protagonist Hamilton Felix swept up in an authoritarian plot by people disenchanted with utopia, while the second half features the birth and childhood of Hamilton’s messianic superkid. There’s an odd side plot about a man from 1926 who is unfrozen and introduced to this new world, though he seems only to exist so Heinlein can explain his ideas to a modern audience.

Revolution, freedom, tyranny, telepathy, and economics are all themes that Heinlein would explore more thoroughly and successfully later in his career. Although Beyond This Horizon is a deeply flawed, scattered book that seems to meander in a variety of directions, it’s one that is hard not to love for its optimism and joyfulness.

We’d like to see it get a nomination, but there are much more artful works that should be considered for the award.

For Hugo voters who are of the Christian faith, one might suspect that C.S. Lewis’
C.S. Lewis writes some of the most
memorable — and old-school —
devils in fiction.
(Image via Bristol Radical History)
classic apologetic text The Screwtape Letters will hold particularly strong appeal. Like Beyond This Horizon, it is a comedic novel with a prescriptivist view about the world, however, it is far more focused, direct, and structured.

The work takes the form of 31 letters from a demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, whose job is to tempt a middle-class British man towards a life of evil. Every letter highlights Lewis’ views on morality, and what he sees as the consequences of straying from the Church.

Every novel Lewis wrote had significant Christian religious themes – from Aslan’s resurrection to the importance of theology in his Space trilogy – but The Screwtape Letters is one of his most overtly theological. What made The Screwtape Letters such a successful book is that the narrative framework allowed Lewis to use humour to make his point. Writing from the demon's perspective, the book doesn’t come across as preachy. It's an extremely clever way to write about theology. The Screwtape Letters is an excellent bridge between Lewis' apologetic essays and his fantasy fiction, as it's written like a series of essays but viewed through a lens of fantasy.

Even those who don’t share Lewis’ faith are likely to be impressed with the quality of his writing, his wry wit, and the charm of this novel. This is a novel that deserves strong consideration for the Hugo award, and it is almost unthinkable to have a 1943 shortlist that does not include it.

But there was some debate within our book club about whether The Screwtape Letters should be the winner, or whether the award should instead be given to Curt Siodmak’s sci-fi horror classic Donovan’s Brain. This evocative and moody classic of the sub-genre about a disembodied brain with malicious intentions has been adapted to the radio multiple times, turned into a movie on no fewer than three occasions, and heavily praised by Stephen King in his Hugo-winning non-fiction tome on the horror genre Dance Macabre.

The protagonist, Dr. Patrick Cory, is a researcher who saves the brain of criminal millionaire
Steve Martin parodied Donovan's Brain
in his 1983 film The Man With Two Brains.
(Image via EmpireOnline.com)
W.H. Donovan after a plane crash. The brain, sitting in a glass jar, connected to wires, has no sensory inputs, and no way to communicate. But soon, Cory begins to realize that he is being controlled by the mental powers of the brain. First he is forced to write names he knows nothing about, writing with his left hand although he is right handed. Then, he starts to discover that he’s doing things in his sleep … terrible things, and committing terrible crimes beyond his control. What compounds the creeping sense of dread is the horror of metacognitive discomfort the protagonist feels as his thoughts are taken over by the will of Donovan’s disembodied brain.

For several of our book club members, our first experience of Donovan’s Brain was from the superb 1944 Orson Welles radio production, which effectively conveys the creeping terror of Dr. Cory’s slow loss of personal agency. The tone and tenor of that production is so rich that reading the book decades later, one can hear Welles’ somber intonation in every line.

One of the challenges that Retro Hugo voters often have is how influential some older works have been – if you read Donovan’s Brain for the first time in 2017, many of the writing techniques and ideas may seem overdone, or overly familiar because so many of us are familiar with the works inspired by the original.

Donovan’s Brain is one of the defining works of horror and is a work of science fiction that would be a worthy addition to the ranks of Hugo Award Winners. Works like this are one of the reasons we love the Retro Hugos, and we hope that it is on the final ballot.