Saturday, 9 June 2018

Is that The Canon in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

If it’s true that journalism is the first draft of history, then one might also suggest that literary awards 
Bloom's tome offers
the modest subtitle
"The Books and School
of the Ages."
(Image via Wikipedia)
are a first draft of The Canon.

As literary theorists use the term, ‘The Canon’ is a body of art, literature, and cultural works that are of paramount influence.

Slightly more than 30 years ago, the great American educator E.D. Hirsch’s tome Cultural Literacy, prompted a flurry of hand wringing and arguments about the Canon by arguing that there is a set of essential texts that one needs to be at least passingly familiar with in order to appreciate Western culture. A few years later, in the surprise bestseller The Western Canon, literary critic Harold Bloom offered a prescriptive vision of what he considered the great texts that all people should know and have read.

The argument that they were advancing was that since all art is built upon previous works, there’s a base level of knowledge required to fully participate in society — and that abandoning the classics would lead to a coarsening of culture. For example, even when not directly addressing religion, John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath subtly references the plagues of Egypt while describing the dust bowl of the Great Depression. In the Empire Strikes Back,
Alas, poor C3P0, I knew him well.
(Image via
Chewbacca holds up the disembodied head of the android C-3P0 in a manner similar to the way Hamlet held up Yorick’s skull – an allusion that the director has said was deliberate. Both of these works, Hirsch and Bloom would argue, are strengthened by the allusions.

It would be hard to argue against the proposition that our appreciation of these works is completely independent of a base level of cultural literacy, or against the idea that a base level of knowledge helps us enjoy these works more fully.

But I would argue that what Hirsch and Bloom both missed is the degree to which this concept of cultural literacy is a moving target – especially in a culture that is as mercurial, balkanized and full of foment as our own has become over the past 40 years. As Marshall McLuhan predicted, the change in the means of literary production and dissemination can be understood as a driver of this culture. In defense of Bloom and Hirsch, they were writing before the Western world had widespread access to the Internet.

Both of these academics seem to have believed that culture was more monolithic and stagnant than it is. For example, there’s a different set of cultural references that’s required for understanding the genre of SF than there is for mystery fiction, and the canon of 2018 is clearly different than the canon was when Bloom attempted to codify it.

The adoption and repetition of literary metaphors, perhaps to the point of cultural practice, is what
Science fiction provides powerful
metaphors that can be used to advance
a political agenda, or to sell stuff
like Apple computers.
(Image via
gives them power. This elevation secures a position in the Canon. We see this demonstrated when someone refers to people having “taken the Red Pill,” when protesters dress up as Handmaids, and when overt displays of political power are described as “Orwellian” and the year “1984” is used as shorthand for authoritarianism. Being part of the prescriptive Canon infers and reproduces the power of the metaphor and its underlying meaning.

It is worth noting that Harold Bloom’s 1993 list of The Western Canon included only two works that are traditionally categorized as science fiction: Ursula Le Guin’s Hugo Award winner The Left Hand of Darkness and George Orwell’s 1984.

But of Bloom’s list, I would argue the majority of the works cited are less relevant to the broad public – and to a concept of cultural literacy – than the recent Hugo Award winners and popular works of science fiction.

For example, references and allusions to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th century poem Parzival are lost on the broader
Much like his namesake, Parzival in
Ready Player One was searching for
a Holy Grail. Isn't that taking 13th
Century nostalgia too far?
(Image via
public, while Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One protagonist Parzival is familiar to many.

Ready Player One — as has been discussed on this blog previously — explores the limits of cultural literacy by overloading the reader with intertextual references. It is sometimes said that nothing dates faster than the future, but one might suggest that pop cultural references of the moment date at least as quickly.

But the fact that a book so intertextual became a success shows that science fiction has become the lingua franca of modern culture. The power of the Hugo Awards is therefore not insignificant in helping move works from niche audiences towards the mainstream, and from the ephemerality of the moment, to enduring accessibility.

This — at least in part — explains many of the battles surrounding the Hugo Awards over the years. The deeply divisive Hugo Award battle at the Worldcon in Miami in 1977 can in some ways be seen
You don't have to be familiar
with Rachel Carson's
Silent Spring to appreciate
Where Late The Sweet Birds
, but it helps.
(Image via Wikipedia)
as an argument about which was the better book, Man Plus or Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang. But it could also be described as an argument about whether The Science Fiction Canon was closed to new wave environmentalist works. Both works are excellent — but it is worth noting that the more metaphor-laden and timely work won. Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang is a work that still resonates with many ecologists and wildlife biologists — Kate Wilhelm’s work, along with Silent Spring, the non-fiction work that inspired it, could be argued to be essential parts of the canon.

These questions of enduring value, of cultural literacy, and of metaphorical weight are ones that should be important to how we as fans think about our Hugo Award ballots. We are writing the first draft of the Canon. It may not be the final word on the matter, but it is an important start of the dialogue.

Friday, 25 May 2018

There's so much to love in Provenance, and so much to be disappointed in

Provenance is a novel that starts with a lot of potential, but left many in our book club frustrated, and
The fact that Provenance's
wasted potential angered
us is proof that Ann Leckie
had us engaged to begin with.
(Image via
ultimately disappointed. While many interesting themes, plots and ideas are introduced, few of them are satisfactorily explored or developed.

But the fact that so many people in our book club were so upset about these unsatisfactory resolutions shows that author Ann Leckie was doing something right. Each and every one of our book club members were engaged with the narrative enough that it kept us wanting more than it delivered.

Despite being set in the same universe as her previous trilogy of best-sellers, Provenance is a significant departure for Leckie, in terms of subject matter, themes and style. In fact, the connections to the Ancillary trilogy are tenuous enough that one wonders what was gained by reusing the same setting.

Comedy of Manners

Drawing on the traditions of the British farce, Provenance introduces the reader to an aristocratic
The provenance of items in museums
is a very interesting question to examine,
and one that science fiction has rarely
tackled. It's a rich subject that Leckie
only scratches the surface of.
(Image via argumentative archaologist)
faction of humanity that is obsessed with class and status. At times, these obsessions are well-handled and embodied in the gormless charm of Woodhousian protagonist Ingray Aughskold.

For the first hundred pages, many of us couldn’t put the book down — Aughskold’s hair-brained scheme to break a convicted forger out of prison is engaging. The ways in which this plot careens off the rails — the wrong convict, the ornery captain, her financial woes — are a lot of fun to read.

Set in the classist, pompous, and high-protocol society of Hwei, the story involves the provenance of historical artifacts that may or may not be forgeries. Questions of authenticity and of the validity of historical power structures are hinted at, but not fully developed.

Haphazard Narrative

And unfortunately, the novel splinters as the scope of the story widens. From the intimate struggles of Aughskold to the large-scale galactic intrigues and interspecies politicking, the plot jumps forward in awkward and haphazard ways. Adventures that are foreshadowed are dropped without notice.

The mistaken identity of the convict? Nope, he’s just who he was supposed to be in the first place
If they make a movie of
Provenance, Hugh Laurie
should play all the upper
class twits
(Image via
(Why bother with setting up the mistaken identity?). The ornery captain? Disappears without a goodbye, only to show up a hundred or so pages later via a telephone conversation.

There’s so much to love in this book, so much to be disappointed in. Were this the debut novel from a new author, one might have suggested that it shows an enormous potential, but we already know Leckie is capable of greatness, so this cannot help but be a let-down.

Leckie’s fourth novel drew a larger crowd to our book club than usual and it is rare for us to have had such unanimity amongst the opinions expressed. None of us placed it at the top of our Hugo Award ballots, but none of us had it at the bottom either.

Young Adult

Some at the book club meeting suggested that Provenance might have been better served if it were pared down in length and modified slightly for the Young Adult market. The protagonist, her sunny disposition and inherent goodness all seem well-suited to the YA market, as does the relatively linear narrative structure.

Leckie has built up a lot of goodwill based on the quality of her previous novels — that goodwill, and the unfulfilled potential of the ideas at the core of Provenance may be enough to get her a second rocketship.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Embers of War - Review

While it’s constructed in the style of a classic military science fiction tale, and could easily be read as
Gareth L. Powell's work has lost none
of its engaging action, but has gained
depth and nuance.
(Image via 
nothing more than a visceral high-octane adventure, Embers of War is a novel with some depth.

Set in the wake of a bloody war that almost ripped humanity in two, Gareth Powel’s latest novel follows the crew of a rescue ship that is sent to investigate the disappearance of a starliner in a star system filled with massive alien artifacts. 

The crew – and the sentient ship’s AI – served on different sides during the conflict, and have to come to grips with both what they did during the war, and with each other’s culpability. 

These simmering resentments and regrets strengthen the story, and offer some intellectual heft. Like its intellectual forebearer The Forever War, this is a military science fiction novel that philosophically rejects conflict, and chooses to grapple with its aftermath. 

Told in tight, concise chapters that rarely exceed six pages, the story jumps between the perspectives of the ship’s captain Sal Konstanz, the ship’s AI Trouble Dog, the spy Ashton Childe, and marooned passenger of the straliner Ona Sudak.

The brevity of the chapters – and the fact that something important happens or is revealed in each one – gives the story a brisk pace and a lively narrative momentum.

Powell has been quietly building a fair body of work – and developing his craft – since his first short
Gareth L. Powell's work keeps getting
better. We look forward to his next novel.
(Image via the author's Twitter account)
stories were published about a decade ago. His 2012 novel Ack-Ack Macaque earned him a fair following, as did its sequels. He has stepped up his game in Embers of War, offering more fully fleshed out characters and tempering his previous penchant for awkward explanatory passages.

The universe of the book is never fully fleshed out, but it doesn’t need to be. There’s little explanation of the political situation outside of where it directly impacts the protagonists, and little view of the galactic milieu, other than knowing that the crew are working in a disputed region of space. Powell doesn’t take his reader for granted and doesn’t talk down to them in this volume.

It is unfortunate, however, that the ending of the book is based on a deux et machina contrivance that readers will spot coming from a mile away. From the first 20 pages, one guesses that the massive incomprehensible alien artifacts have a purpose, and of course, that purpose is realized in the final 20 pages. This ending is also very convenient for every character involved in the story.

The final chapters felt obvious and flat, which is a shame when the rest of the novel had so many surprises and engaging character moments.

That being said, Embers of War will receive strong consideration on our Hugo Award ballots for 2018. It’s nice when a book that offers so much fun can also provide more than just escapism.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Tomorrow isn't about yesterday

For a genre that’s dedicated to the future, Science Fiction spends an awful lot of time looking in the
Published in 2011,
Ernest Cline's debut
novel isn't very good.
(Image via Goodreads)

You can see this trend in Hollywood’s endless remakes and reboots of popular franchises. You can see it in the continuance of the Retro Hugos and from those who evangelize the works of long-dead authors. We are bombarded by it via pastiche re-writes and homages.

Fandom’s focus on the past isn’t always a bad thing – today’s works exist in dialogue with those published in the past, and certainly there’s enduring value in some of the classics. And yes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

However, there is a subtle – but significant – difference between genuine appreciation for works from those who wrote before us and an ugly, toxic nostalgia that displaces the creation and appreciation of new works.

Red Elf needs an editor badly.
(Image via VintageArcade)
Which brings us to Ready Player One, a book that has become emblematic of the notion that the works of the past are somehow superior to those of the present or perhaps even the future.

Ernest Cline’s 2011 debut novel tells the story of an online gamer in a dystopian future on a quest to solve the greatest online puzzle of all-time. In the world of the book, a 1980s-obsessed trillionaire has left an incalculable fortune to whoever completes a pop-culture challenge. Against this backdrop, the protagonist finds love and success amidst a cavalcade of references to Star Wars, Goonies, Indiana Jones, Back To The Future, Gremlins, Thundercats, Ghostbusters, Dungeons and Dragons, Jem & The Holograms, Snorks, and the like.

Personally, I found the book loathsome and will be forever grateful that Hugo voters did not include it on the ballot in 2012, despite the massive hype it received when published.

'member The Powers of Matthew Star?
I 'member.
(Image via
With the movie version of Ready Player One hitting cinemas next Friday, I’d like to explore the book’s most pernicious ideas: that everything great has already been done, that the works of the past are all better than anything new, and that everything has been downhill since some imagined golden age.

Ernest Cline spells this argument out fairly definitively in Ready Player One, as the protagonist yearns for his own imagined golden age wistfully explaining that ‘Everything good came out in the 1980s,’ and ‘Things used to be awesome, but now they're kinda terrifying.’

 As has been previously argued in this blog, all science fiction is political. And likewise, this argument that everything good has already been done is a political one, and it is a corrosive one at that. If everything good has been done, why bother creating anything new?

For people in the 2040s to be obsessed
with Family Ties would be like someone
in 2018 being obsessed with 
The Morey Amsterdam Show.
(Image via Youtube)
When people believe that everything from the past is better than anything in the present, it can lead to
apathy. When they believe that there are no new ideas worth exploring, it can kill the desire to create and contribute culturally. When they start believing that a golden age has been taken from them, they can start looking for a scapegoat.

The British statesman Clement Attlee aptly described fascism as the sound of the future refusing to be born, because axis leaders called upon their nations to remember a mythical past and to fight against progress.

I would suggest that there is a direct link between lapsarianism in our appreciation of literature, and this yearning for a version of the past that never really existed.

I would not suggest that Ernest Cline shares any ideology with fascists, rather that his work draws upon a similar intellectual tradition. It is to his credit that he has taken these political ideas in the direction of apathy, rather than regressive political action.

Funny thing about the movie ... I don't
remember Tracer from Overwatch
being popular back in the 1980s.
(Image via Kotaku)
It is interesting to note that the movie adaptation, while trying to offer the same primary thesis, actually negates it. By updating a number of the pop cultural references, the adaptation implicitly admits that everything progresses – even nostalgia.

The fact that nostalgia is itself a moving target also means that works whose appeal is based solely on a cavalcade of pop cultural references are unlikely to have enduring value. Imagine trying to decipher Ready Player One without being steeped in the cultural moment that produced it.

It’s long been said that the Golden Age of science fiction is twelve, this being a common age at which many people discover the genre. But I’d like to make the suggestion that the golden age of science fiction should always be the future golden age that we imagine, and aspire to build.

It's fine to look into the rearview, as long as we keep an eye on the road ahead.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Retro Hugos 1943 — Short Stories

In terms of short fiction,
1942 was a great year.
And Astounding SF
led the way in publishing
issue after issue of brilliant
short stories. 
Science fiction has changed since 1942-43.

This is not only true of the content, but the format, the fandom, and the way it connects to the culture as a whole.

Nowhere is this more true than in short fiction.

Many of us will have read the stories of 1942 collected in anthologies, stitched together into novels, and bearing the weight of their publication history. Most of the works are now primarily available in author-centred best-of anthologies.

And this leads to a historicity-bias in the Retro Hugo awards where authors with long and storied careers like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein have a leg up over lesser-known authors like Colin Keith, Eric Frank Russell or Robert S. Richardson. To some degree the award can end up as a ‘lifetime achievement award,’ rather than being based on the individual work.

As with all structural biases in voting systems, it is incumbent upon those of us participating to be aware of those biases and to challenge ourselves to question how these structures are influencing the nominations.

The context in which we appreciate older works of science fiction is inevitably a different one than those in which the works were first published. In some ways, this gives present day readers a deeper perspective on the enduring value of works published 75 years in the past.

But it also presents a barrier to understanding how these works were in dialogue with other narratives
A.E. Van Vogt's classic story
The Weapons Shop was
illustrated by William
(Image via WordsEnvisioned)
including the political context of the day. One notable work that should be considered in context with its time is A.E. Van Vogt’s The Weapons Shop.

This was the only short story published in 1942 that was selected to be included in Silverberg’s well-known anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 1 (1929-1964). That tome – which honoured short stories published prior to the foundation of the Nebula Awards – included the “best” works as voted on by the members of the SFWA. We surmise then that the Retro Nebula for 1942 might have gone to The Weapons Shop.

The story – which sees a small-town merchant named Fara butting heads with an illegal weapons shop – is beloved by second-amendment advocates. Van Vogt (ironically from Canada, where weapons rights are far more restricted than in America) offers an idealized implacable force in the weapons shops, which exist in opposition to the tyranny of the state. Eventually, Fara comes around to the weapons’ seller’s point of view and takes up arms against the state.

The Weapons Shop is also as much about propaganda as it is weapons – Fara is a devoted defender of the Empire until he is shown the true face of the Empress. While those of us who do not believe in the unfettered right to bear arms should remember is when reading The Weapons Shop is that it was written and published in an era when there were despicable regimes marching in Europe that relied on this type of propaganda, and on the silencing of dissent.

But the ideology behind those who are selling the weapons is ill-defined and nebulous at best. These weapons shops, it is implied, sell freedom rather than weapons, but what that means is unclear. To further undermine the work, Fara’s only real choice is between allying himself with either one of two implacable and unyielding forces – and even that isn’t much of a choice.

In 1942, Asimov's story Foundation
was illustrated by M.Isip.
(Image via Gabriel Schenk)
The importance — and influence — of Isaac Asmiov’s short story The Encyclopedists cannot be overstated. When reading it today, most of us experience it as the second part of the novel Foundation, but in 1942 it was the introduction to Hari Seldon, to the Foundation and to psychohistory.

When it was in the May, 1942 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction under the title of Foundation, it was published alongside a bevy of other stories about prognostication including Alfred Bester’s excellent Push Of A Finger.

The May 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction is probably too pricy (and hard-to-find) an item for most fans and collectors to track down just to have the original experience. Thankfully, an Oxfordian science fiction fan named Gabriel Schenk scanned it and put the entire thing online. With a couple of excellent illustrations by M. Isip to liven up the story, it’s worth reading and trying to appreciate the story as a one-off on its own merits.

If there had never been another story published in the Foundation universe, The Encyclopedists would
When reading the original Foundation
stories and thinking about the context
in which Asimov wrote them, Trantor's
gleaming spires become tied to New
York's rapidly changing 1942 skyline.
(image via Wikipedia) 
have stood on its own – it encapsulates essentially all of the big ideas of the series: the mathematics of history, the decline and fall of an empire, and the ennobling positivist view of the ability of humanity to alter its destiny. While later stories built on this foundational story, everything that makes the Foundation series great was right there in this initial blueprint.

In this story, Asimov offers us the series’ most unforgettable – and quotable – protagonist Salvor Hardin, the mayor of Trantor. In the context of when this story was published, just five months after Pearl Harbor, his famous quote “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” might be seen as an surprising anti-war exhortation.

Re-reading The Encyclopedists on its own, and attempting to strip it of the weight of history, was a surprisingly revelatory exercise that increased our already high esteem for Asimov’s story.

Alfred Bester’s Push Of A Finger covers some similar themes to Foundation; scientists with a new way of seeing the future and working to prevent disaster. But unlike the more famous work, Bester writes with a touch of comedy. Although one suspects that Bester’s long-forgotten work will not receive an award, we would encourage you to consider it for your Retro Hugo nominations.

Eric Frank Russel's
Mechanistra is usually
found in the collection
Men, Martians and
(Image via
Another lesser-known work that is likely to be on our Retro Hugo ballots is Eric Frank Russel’s Mechanistra, the second – and possibly best – of his Starship Marathon series of stories. This humourous story, involves the crew of the starship encountering mechanical termite-like aliens that are hostile to all organic life. Russell’s prose is lively with lurid descriptions of alien life and conflicts.

Of Heinlein’s prolific output of short works in 1942, Waldo is probably the most well-known. I would suggest, however that it is Goldfish Bowl from the March edition of Astounding that is a more interesting work to consider nominating. The story, whose human protagonists are trapped as exhibits in a human zoo is melancholic and nuanced in ways that much of Heinlein’s work is not. That being said, none of Heinlein’s stories are likely to make our ballots, and certainly not My Object All Sublime.

Hal Clement’s first published short story Proof is an excellent debut that presaged significant themes
Twenty-year-old Hal Clement
as he appeared in his 1943
Harvard yearbook.
(image via Mariners Museum)  
that he would explore throughout his career. Clement – just 20 when he wrote the story – imagines life that evolved from magnetic fields and gas in the sun exploring the solar system and being befuddled by the existence of the Earth.

When considering works for the Retro Hugos, it was interesting to consider how these works were distributed, their availability to readers, and the limitations of our collective cultural memory.

Because of these differing contexts, we suspect that there are often works that would have garnered more attention had the 1943 Hugos actually been voted on in 1943.

That being said, of the works we have managed to track down and read from 1942, the most well-remembered short story did in fact stand out as the most exemplary work.

The reputation of Asimov’s The Encyclopedists is well-earned as one of the finest works of Golden Age science fiction.

It is likely that it will – and should – win the 1943 Retro Hugo.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Best Graphic Story 2017 - My Favourite Thing Is Monsters

Last year was an excellent year for science fiction and fantasy in comic books with numerous new
My Favourite Thing Is Monsters
stands head and shoulders above
the rest of the field.
(Image via
series and graphic novels that Hugo voters might reasonably nominate in the Best Graphic Story category.

Daniel Warren Johnson’s Extremity is an excellent work that explores ideas about ability and disability through the lens of a future war. Turncoat by Alex Paknadel and Artyom Trakanov looks at what it means to be loyal to an idea. My Chemical Romance lead singer Gerard Way turns out to be an excellent comic book writer, and his work on Doom Patrol is worth checking out. Colossi by Ricardo Mo and Alberto Muriel is just a lot of old-school super-science fun.

But one work stands head-and-shoulders above the rest: My Favorite Thing Is Monsters.

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is the first graphic novel from Chicago-born illustrator and toy designer Emil Ferris. It may be the most significant and worthwhile graphic presentation to be published in the past decade.

Told in the form of a diary written by a 10-year-old girl in late-‘60s Chicago, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is a love-letter to classic horror movies, to science fiction fandom, and to Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters Of Filmland.

Ferris weaves a variety of narratives through the work, as the young protagonist Karen Reyes investigates the murder of her mysterious neighbor Anka Silverberg. Reyes’ isolation and alienation are expressed through her transformation (possibly only in her imagination) into a werewolf-style monster.

The story is leavened with a diverse cast of characters: the sleazy artist older brother Deeze, the
The ballpoint-pen illustration style is
astonishing in its detail. 
Appalachian girl who befriends the protagonist, her mother with breast cancer, and at the centre of it all Anka, the murdered neighbor. Frustratingly, these characters all have secrets that are not fully explored in the first volume, and readers will have to wait until August for the concluding tome.

Ferris does not shy away from challenging topics, as this work delves into the tumultuous civil rights battles of the 1960s, talking about the experiences of Holocaust survivors, and the darker sides of drug use. Despite tackling these subjects, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is a joy to read.

In our eyes, one of the things that elevates My Favorite Thing Is Monsters above the rest of the field is the way in which it plays with the medium of the graphic novel. Illustrated in detailed crosshatched ballpoint illustrations on lined notebook paper, the work evokes – but is more intricate than – a
In Emil Ferris' debut work, being isolated
is something monstrous. But the most
deadly monsters look the most human.
child’s notebook doodles.

This art has shades of Robert Crumb and Maurice Sendak, but with more maturity and detail than either of those luminaries.

This school-notebook format gives the story a unique rhythm and intimacy, like you are peering into the personal thoughts of a fully realized human perspective.

This also lends itself well to the marginalia that Ferris weaves into the story. These small asides about tangential characters and minor details help make the story feel real and visceral. Fake covers of movie magazines appear almost as non-diegetic inserts, but are tied into the story fully.

Almost as interesting as the work itself is the author’s story. A graduate of the Art Institute of
Prior to contracting the West Nile virus,
Emil Ferris designed Happy Meal™ toys
for McDonalds' promotion of the movie
(Image via Youtube)
Chicago, Ferris was a successful illustrator before contracting the West Nile virus. The disease caused encephalitis and eventually paralyzed her. She began creating My Favorite Thing Is Monsters while re-learning to draw, using a pen affixed to her hand with duct tape. The hallucinations and delusions she experienced during her illness inspired details of the graphic novel.

The one charge that may be levelled against this work is that if we discount the monsters as existing only in the imagination of the protagonist, it could be interpreted as a work that is neither science fiction nor fantasy. We would argue however that character’s imaginings are so powerful as to become the reality that the reader must accept to fully appreciate the graphic novel. Weird fantasy permeates every page of this work.

As a work that is as much about humanity as it is about fantasy, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is written with knowledge of history both fannish and mainstream.

This is the singular vision of a unique talent. The Hugo Award ballot would be incomplete without My Favorite Thing Is Monsters.

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.