Monday, 27 June 2022

Clark's inDjinnious worldbuilding

With his first novel, Master of Djinn, P. Djèlí Clark returns to the alternate magical Egypt that he previously explored in works such as his Hugo-finalist novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015.
The UK edition of Master of Djinn sports
a cover that is as epic as the contents. 
The designer Matthew Burne deserves kudos.
(Image via Little Brown Book Group)


Set decades after magic was returned to the world by 19th-Century wizard al-Jahiz, these stories follow detectives who are tasked with solving supernatural mysteries.

This time, protagonist Fatma el-Sha’arawi is tasked with solving the murder of an important foreign dignitary, Lord Worthington, and the possible return of al-Jahiz himself.

What elevates the work is Clark’s use of the premise for confident explorations of colonialism, racism, and sexism. One member of our book club flippantly described Master of Djinn as being “from an alternate history where The Dresden Files bothers to say something interesting.”

Alternate history often doesn’t have a deep enough toolbox with which to examine and challenge historical power structures. Colonialism, patriarchy, and structural racism are so ingrained in the cause-and-effect patterns of real-world history that it’s difficult to find plausible allohistorical points of divergence in which these forces are subverted. In short, it would take magic of the sort that enriches Master of Djinn to tackle these entrenched forces and their myriad complexities.

The fantastical elements of Clark’s Egypt are imbued with a deep sense of history. While this book isn’t precisely an alternate history (as many purists of that genre will argue that any story that involves magic cannot be alternate history), Master of Djinn’s worldbuilding is complex enough for the reader to feel that there is a real past and a real future to this society.

In fact, this living, breathing history might be the most engaging character in the book. It’s a world full of sky trams, clockwork angels, and jazz clubs. Clark has skillfully woven worldbuilding details into the narrative that made it seem effortless and natural. It helped, of course, to have a character smitten with history and dedicated to sharing that knowledge.

An interesting parallel could be drawn between Master of Djinn and Rockne S. O’Bannon’s Hugo-shortlisted dramatic presentation Alien Nation. These are stories that deal with police investigating mysteries in a society that is adapting to the arrival of alien beings. In both cases, there are strong elements of social criticism and the use of non-humans as a metaphor for cultural barriers.
P. Djèlí Clark — also known as Dr. Dexter Gabriel
— holds a PhD in history and teaches at the University
of Connecticut. This education is evident in the 
richly layered history that he crafts in Master of Djinn.
(Photo by Peter Morenus via UConn Magazine)


While the central mystery of the book, and most of the characters, are mostly enjoyable they are also largely unremarkable. For some readers, the relentless description of the flawlessness, stylishness, and incredible competence of the protagonist became tiresome. Likewise, Fatma’s much-trumpeted skill as a detective is undermined by how selectively observant she was, and how much of the plot depended on her missing obvious clues. Those who are seeking an engaging mystery may be disappointed, for the reasons above and also because this is not a page-turner typical of that genre.

It did seem odd that the novel was peppered with so many references to the previous stories set in the same world. Those who had not read the preceding works were left feeling that there was something missing.

But for many in the book club, these quibbles are overshadowed by the engaging motivations of those who committed the crime, the well-thought out tensions in the world’s international politics, and the skillful interrogation of power dynamics. Digressions into a possible alliance between the Kaiser and Ottoman Empire, and speculation about what Lord Worthington may have been up to before his demise are all quite interesting.

A Master of Djinn is a strong Hugo finalist that may be near the top of some of our ballots.

Friday, 17 June 2022

One Giant Leap Backwards For Science Fiction On Screen

This blog post is the thirteenth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

“The dramatic Hugo is the least satisfactory category under today's reality.” - Harry Warner, Jr., 1970

“I didn’t see anything worth giving it to.” - Buck Coulson on Best Dramatic Presentation 1970

To say that the fictional works on the shortlist for the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo in 1970 was a step backwards would be an understatement.

On first glance, the shortlist seems like an aberration, comprising such unloved and unmemorable works as Marooned, The Bedsitting Room, Illustrated Man, and The Immortal. Watching these movies, we wondered what Hugo voters could have been thinking in nominating them. 
Hugo finalist dramatic presentation Marooned has
the unique distinction of being the only Academy
Award winner to be lampooned on MST3K.
(Image via IMDB)



But the more we looked at cinema from that year, the more we realized that Hugo voters had done as good a job as possible in selecting the shortlist, considering that the eligible films for those Hugos (movies released in 1969) included such celebrated works as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, Moon Zero Two, Night of the Bloody Apes and The Curious Dr. Humpp.

Reality had overtaken screen SFF. The decision to honour news footage rather than fiction (a decision we had initially questioned) seems rather brilliant in the context of the rest of the shortlist and the state of science fiction cinema. 

The nomination process wasn’t helped by a moral panic among a recalcitrant conservative faction of fandom. With the site selection vote having given the 1970 Worldcon to Heidelberg, West Germany, there were fears that the Hugos would be taken away from the English-speaking West, that the United States might never have another Worldcon, and that the Best Novel shortlist would be comprised of nothing but Perry Rhodan books. Members of the 1969 WSFS business meeting passed several motions trying to prevent this speculative calamity, including provisions that put restrictions on the language that the Hugo finalist could be published in (spoiler: English only).

Thankfully, fandom has moved beyond this type of knee-jerk panic. There’s no object lesson to be learned from what happened in 1970, and none of these events are at all relevant to anything going on in Worldcon fandom in 2023.

This change meant that in 1970, the Japanese action movie Latitude Zero and the Italian-French comedy Hibernatus were ineligible. Although neither movie is a classic, either one would have been a more interesting finalist than most of the works on the shortlist.

Of the films that did make the shortlist, the most serious is the high-budget Marooned, a Martin Caidin-penned tale of three American astronauts dealing with technical problems during a NASA mission. Although the movie has high-wattage star power featuring (among others) Gregory Peck and Gene Hackman, it is astonishingly dull and monotonous.

There are a few redeeming moments in Marooned; the heroic role of Russian cosmonauts and the international cooperation depicted is certainly refreshing for the era. And there is an excellent taut sequence in which one of the astronauts is asked to sacrifice himself to save oxygen for the rest of the crew. But overall, it is an astonishingly dreary movie to endure.

It’s interesting that Marooned and 2001: A Space Odyssey were filmed on comparable budgets at approximately the same time. Although it won an Academy Award for special effects, Marooned seems cheap and shoddy by comparison to Kubrik’s masterpiece.

The Illustrated Man, based on Bradbury’s collection of stories, is mediocre in more perplexing ways. Much like the collection it’s based on, the movie uses a man’s tattoos as a narrative framework to tell various stories, including Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” “The Long Rain,” and “The Last Night of the World.”

While any of these stories could have been adapted into serviceable episodes of The Twilight Zone, they don’t work well when combined into one overarching narrative. Compounding this tonal mismatch is leaden dialogue and hammy acting.

The most controversial of the shortlist for us turned out to be The Bedsitting Room, a frankly bizarre post-apocalyptic comedy set in the ruins of London in the wake of a nuclear war. Based on a stage play by Goon Show legend Spike Milligan, the movie rambles between the 20 or so survivors of the atomic fires as they go about their daily lives and come into incredibly petty conflicts and surreal misadventures.

The Bedsitting Room is elevated by an exceedingly strong cast including Dudley Moore, Rita Tushingham, Peter Cook, and Marty Feldman (in his film debut).
In the bright cold air, you seemed as innocent
and fair as Rita Tushingham in 1969.
(Image via IMDB)

Very little in the movie makes sense, whether it’s an elderly woman spontaneously turning into a piece of furniture, an aquatic bishop swimming up from a lake to perform a forced marriage, or the cast being listed in the credits by order of height. While those of us with strong cultural ties to the United Kingdom found some of these moments funny, overall it was a difficult movie to appreciate.

The nearly forgotten and short-lived television series The Immortal may have been the strongest fictional work on the ballot in 1970.

The show is a story about Ben Richards, a race car driver whose genetics render him impervious to disease and likely to live an extended lifespan. The show puts him in conflict with a billionaire who wants to kidnap him and harvest his blood. Much like Richard Kimble, The Incredible Hulk, or Johnny Bago, the series follows the protagonist as he flees across the country.

The Immortal — which didn’t even last a full season — wasn’t great. They took a decent novel by James E. Gunn, sanded the rough edges off it and made it safe and generic television. However, the fact that most of our cinema club would have put it on the top of our ballots is an indictment of the quality of screen SFF that year.

Produced by Universal's famous "factory" model
of television storytelling, the Immortal is remarkably
similar to many of the studio's shows. 
(Image via ComfortTV)
In light of the year’s fiction in this category, the selection of news footage from Apollo XI as the winner for Best Dramatic Presentation looks rather inspired. Certainly the special effects were extraordinarily realistic (given that they were real), viewers were emotionally engaged by the memorable characters such as Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong, and the work did provide some of the most quotable dialogue in dramatic presentation history (who could ever forget lines like “One Giant Leap For Mankind”?).

The news footage is interesting, but needed an editor to tighten it down to a shorter run time and to provide context. Rather than going back and watching the original news footage, we would recommend watching the spectacular IMAX documentary Apollo 11. The event and the documentation holds up remarkably well 53 years later.

There was at least one major omission from the Hugo Awards ballot: Destroy All Monsters. The ninth, and arguably most bonkers, of Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla movies brings together kaiju from all previous entries in the series. This is the Avengers: Endgame of the GCU (Godzilla Cinematic Universe.) It is likely that among our viewing group, this would have been the top pick amongst actual movies and TV shows that year. Likewise, it's possible that one of the late episodes of Star Trek such as "All Our Yesterdays" might have warranted an inclusion … though even this might be a stretch. 

After several years in which Hugo nominators had an embarrassment of riches to choose from, the well had gone suddenly dry, and there was little top tier science fiction on screen.

It still feels weird to honour real history in a category that has otherwise been exclusively dedicated to fiction, but if not for Apollo XI, this might have been the first year that we suggested a No Award result. 

Thursday, 2 June 2022

The Tsars Like Dust

For a genre that has an unparalleled canvas on which to sketch alternative systems, science fiction all too often falls back on the oldest, simplest, stupidest, and most regressive form of government: Monarchy.

To celebrate the 70th anniversary
of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's
ascent to the throne, the authors
and editors of this blog would like to
respectfully suggest that all monarchies
(even vestigial ones like the House of
Windsor) should be abolished.
(Image via IMDB.com)
It’s easy to think of examples: Princess Ardala, The Gray Prince, King T'Chaka, Emperox Grayland, Emperor Six Direction, Princess Dejah Thoris, Emperor Balem Abrasax, Princess Irulan, Queen Yllana, Princess Astra, Emperor Zarkon, Princess Koriand'r, and Emperor Cleon II to name just a handful. Unfortunately, many of these examples do not engage critically with the idea of monarchy, nor attempt to grapple with the societal consequences of this form of government, nor question the underlying elitist philosophy it represents. Readers should therefore approach such stories with skepticism.

Given that there are few places that are still governed by monarchs of anything other than a vestigial variety, it might seem reasonable that few authors choose to engage critically with the consequences of the monarchies they depict. Americans under the age of 244 and British people with no recollection of what things were like before Peterloo don’t have any direct experience with just how truly awful it would be to live in a polity governed by Emperoxes. (Even if there's a good ruler like Greyland once in a while, they end up being hamstrung by the weight of tradition.) 

Authors seeking to more accurately depict what a space empire might look like should probably look to the few modern-day examples of absolute monarchy that still exist, places like the Sultanate of Oman, the Kingdom of Eswatini, and the Kim Family Protectorate of North Korea. To put it bluntly, in the real world there is a strong correlation between the authority of monarchs, and a lack of human rights, and this is rarely depicted in science fiction.

There are obvious reasons why writing about monarchs might be enticing: It’s an easy signifier of a character’s relevance and agency. The moment that someone mentions Princess Leah, the audience knows that this is a character who is important.

Likewise, from a storytelling perspective it’s easier to explain policy decisions as the result of one person’s choice, rather than the deliberative process often necessary for other forms of government to act.

It should also be noted that as the longest surviving human institution, persisting for more than 10,000 years, it seems likely that some form of monarchy will unfortunately continue well into the future.

But all too often, the genre has engaged uncritically with this repressive and regressive form of governance. For example, even when talking about what might replace a flawed and failing empire in the early Foundation novels, Asimov didn’t suggest a form of governance more complex or nuanced than monarchy.

Alderaan is depicted as idyllic
and a near utopian monarchy,
while in the real world kings
and human rights are incompatible.
(Image via StarWars.com)
In the Honorverse novels by David Weber, Elizabeth III, Queen and Empress of Manticore is inevitably always on the right side of every issue — and her decisive leadership is a stark contrast to the incompetent and bumbling democratic governments in the series. Although Lois McMaster Bujold at least concedes that there have been terrible emperors in the past, Gregor Vorbarra is basically decent. By failing to challenge the myth of the benevolent despot, these works reinforce it.

Perhaps the colonization of the stars is more likely under the violent and rapacious system of monarchy. Often empires don’t survive if they aren’t expanding. So a democratic system might be happy (or forced) to focus on increasing (or achieving) the wellbeing of citizens instead of venturing to the stars. Like the corporate pseudo-monarchs of capitalism, a traditional monarchy might also feel compelled to reach for ever more. But then fiction's various versions of the Organas should be portrayed as violent and greedy instead of as compassionate rulers.

The Star Wars franchise has rarely made any pretense of being interested in deeper cultural criticism, but the increasingly incoherent and inchoate depiction of governance systems is worth noting. It’s almost impossible to parse out how any of their government works; there’s a senate, an emperor, elected princesses, and a trade federation that wields some sort of authority. What is made clear however, is that the problem isn’t with the institution of the monarchy: the problem is that the emperor is evil. Ergo: the problem is that the wrong people are in power, rather than a need for greater systemic reform.

Despite otherwise nuanced and
high-brow storytelling, Leprechaun
In Space
fell back on the tired
trope of having an interstellar monarch.
(Image via IMDB)
All monarchy is based on a presumption that there is an inherent superiority to those within a specific lineage, and as such it is underpinned by the same philosophy that informs institutional racism. This is reinforced in the latest Star Wars trilogy; Rey is a force adept only because she is a direct descendant of Emperor Palpatine. Her worth and power results from her lineage. It should therefore be no surprise that many science fiction writers who belong to marginalized and racialized backgrounds have tended to depict monarchies with a healthier degree of suspicion than the mostly white writers of the Campbellian era of SFF.

It is interesting to note that despite being on opposite poles of the political spectrum, of the big-name Campbell-era authors, Robert Heinlein and Frederick Pohl were possibly the most skeptical of monarchy as a concept. Pohl’s few depictions of monarchy are irreverent, while Heinlein depicts monarchy as either alien or abhorrent, while offering protagonists who champion democratic systems of various sorts.

There however is something to be said for fiction that directly engages with the idea of monarchy, and does so in order to interrogate what that system of government actually means for those who participate in it. An excellent example of this would be Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series, which somewhat unflinchingly depicts some of the consequences and externalities of having a privileged and chosen bloodline.

Monarchy is a brutal, awful system of government that has largely been abandoned in most prosperous progressive nations. At current count, the world has only seven absolute monarchies left, as well as a smattering of nations that have vestigial monarchs. It seems odd, therefore, that for significant portions of a genre that looks to the future this dreadful system seems to be the default.

When imagining futures for society, we would urge fandom to take an approach of healthy skepticism towards monarchies. 

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

All My Apes … Gone!

This blog post is supplemental to a series of blog posts examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.

For a $2.3-billion grossing science fiction franchise that has spawned nine movies, a popular toy line, a saturday morning cartoon, a prime-time drama, and some of the most enduring Simpsons gagsPlanet of the Apes has had shockingly little recognition at the biggest awards in the genre.
Though later movies would ape its style, the
original movie's cinematography stood out.
(Image via American Cinematographer)

To date, no entry in the entire franchise has been shortlisted for a single Hugo Award or Nebula Award. This seems odd since these awards have rarely shown reluctance to reward high-grossing dramatic presentations, and some of the Apes movies are genuinely quite excellent.

Pierre Boule’s novel, originally published in French in 1963 and translated into English by Xan Fielding later that same year, probably remains the high point of the Apes franchise. Enriched by a terrific narrative framing, it’s an almost poetic allegory about the horrors of how humans treat animals. Given that the author was already an Academy Award winner (for Bridge Over The River Kwai), and the fact that it received positive reviews in the press, it seems odd in retrospect that the book was overlooked by Hugo voters in 1964. We can only speculate that within fandom circles, it carried the stench of “mundane literature.”

The first movie — which was one of the top-grossing movies of 1968 — likewise seems a surprising omission from the Hugo Awards shortlist. It was nominated for two Academy Awards, on top of a special Oscar for makeup (which was not yet a category). It was a cultural phenomenon, moments of which continue to resonate in pop culture. Looking at it in retrospect, some of the pandering and broad comedy (“Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30,” for example), comes across as condescending for today’s audience. But the 1969 Hugo shortlist has one or two weaker entries (I.E. Yellow Submarine), so it’s worth asking why the movie was ignored.
As Camus has said, an ape begins by demanding
justice, and ends by wanting to wear a crown.
(Image via USA Today)

Sequels of diminishing quality (with the possible exception of Beneath the Planet of the Apes) are also easy to dismiss as Hugo contenders, as are both of the execrable television shows. But their existence and popularity in their day points to the enduring appeal of the original works in the series. It also points to how malleable and powerful a metaphor the Apes franchise is built around: a world dominated by Apes can be used as a tool to criticize animal testing, to examine the fatalism of Cold War military policy, to interrogate class struggles, and to comment on youth culture.

Although Tim Burton’s remake was a compellingly weird flop, recent movies directed by Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves (of The Batman fame) have been among the most thoughtful and nuanced action blockbusters of the past decade, and featured what may be Hugo-favourite Andy Serkis’ finest performances of all time. Despite their critical and commercial success, however, not one of them has earned a coveted spot on the Hugo or Bradbury Award ballots.

It’s interesting to speculate about why this might be. Does the failure of some early works in the franchise cast a long enough shadow to dismiss consideration for subsequent releases? Do Hugo voters get into the habit of sticking with one franchise over another when preparing their nominating ballots? Despite the franchise’s success and turn towards serious dramatic fare, do the jokes about the campiness of the original frame even the later works as unserious? Whatever the reason, it seems notable.

Few media franchises have, over the course of almost six decades, seen as much variability in quality as Planet of the Apes (sometimes varying wildly within the same film). Despite its success in the broader culture, this franchise seems to be unloved within fandom. Perhaps it’s worth reevaluating our relationship with it.

Monolithic! (The Hugo cinema of 1969)

This blog post is the twelfth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.

Content Warning: This article contains references to sexual violence, both that which is depicted in these movies, and perpetrated by the director of one of those movies.

Spoiler Warning: This article contains plot details of 50-year-old movies.


2001: A Space Odyssey was the first science fiction movie to be shortlisted for the Academy Award for screenwriting. It was a crossover success drawing rave reviews from the mainstream press, with audiences lining up to see it. On its release, it was the first science fiction film in more than a decade to be one of the top-grossing movies of the year. The American Film Institute places it 22nd on their list of the greatest movies ever made.

To non-fans, the fact that 2001 won the Hugo Award
in 1969 might seem like gilding the lily.
(Image via Harvard Crimson)
But still, winning a Hugo Award seemed far from certain.

The movie had been highly anticipated within fandom, but reactions immediately after it was released in April 1968 were extremely harsh. Reviewing an advance screening of the movie for Science Fiction Times, Walter R. Cole opined “2001 probably will be considered for a Hugo nomination in 1969, but unfortunately it is a big disappointment and should not win.” Lester del Rey was filled with invective for the movie. And although he would later change his tune, Isaac Asimov initially panned Space Odyssey.

Despite this initial vitriol, the movie slowly found champions among fandom. One of the most prominent voices in debates over Best Dramatic Presentation Hugos Juanita Coulson, declared that no science fiction movie had ever filled her with such awe. The fanzine Double Bill proclaimed it to be the best science fiction movie ever made. Even reactionary fan Ted White reluctantly went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey having told Samuel R. Delaney that he fully expected and intended to loathe it, but came out of the theatre a convert: “There is little in this movie which will be new to SF fans; in precis it reads like a 1931 SF story: a moralistic travelog that ends upon an almost sermon-like moral” White wrote in Shangri-L’affaires “But it is effective … I was impressed. In spite of myself.”

Certainly, the movie divided our viewing group as few films ever had.

Given the polarity of opinions about A Space Odyssey, it was bound to be a contentious winner, and arguments continued about it for years. Notably a faction of younger fans were all-in for The Prisoner, while another faction was peeved that Star Trek had been left off the ballot altogether.

There are numerous intriguing omissions from the ballot that year. Planet of the Apes, which was a cultural phenomenon and kicked off one of the most successful science fiction film franchises of all time, was nowhere on the ballot

Possibly the most egregious omission in hindsight is Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero’s seminal and provocative classic. Though it has spawned numerous imitators, sequels, parodies, remakes, and rip-offs, this raw and visceral original has yet to be equaled. It’s tightly edited and enjoys a narrative momentum that distinguishes it from its contemporaries in SFF. The characters are quickly introduced, and they are thrown into a pressure cooker. The multipolar tensions in the group illuminate issues of race and class in ways that continue to resonate more than 50 years later. For at least one member of our cinema club, this movie deserved the Hugo Award most of all.
The movie that has possibly withstood the test of time
best of all is the low-budget Night of the Living Dead.
(Image via FilmComment)

Almost as notable an oversight is that after two years of Star Trek’s dominance, the show was shut out from the Hugo shortlist. Despite a common perception in 1969 that the show had jumped the shark, Star Trek had several worthy episodes that would have been eligible. These include The Enterprise Incident (air date September 27, 1968), The Immunity Syndrome (air date January 19, 1968), The Ultimate Computer (air date March 8, 1968), and The Tholian Web (air date November 15, 1968). Given the dominance of Trek the previous years, we were not too disappointed to see it off the ballot, though it is a shame that the late great Dorothy Fontana had to wait another 20 years to receive a Hugo Award.

The ballot as it stood hewed more to mainstream culture than to the fannish, which was unusual for that era of Hugo Awards. Between the five nominees, two of them were among the top-grossing movies of the year, another featured the most popular pop band in history, and another was an actor-focused drama and mainstream critical darling. Three of the shortlisted movies received trophies at that year’s Academy Awards: Ruth Gordon winning for Best Supporting Actress in Rosemary’s Baby; Charly getting best actor for Cliff Robertson; and 2001: A Space Odyssey being recognized for the best special effects.

Although Yellow Submarine is a visually compelling movie that’s livened by classic and enduring songs, it seemed to us the weakest of the nominated works. Despite the truly spectacular images, a thread-bare nonsensical plot, and the wittering banalities fobbed off as dialogue render long stretches of the movie almost unbearable. In retrospect, we would argue, this did not deserve consideration for a Hugo Award: it’s great as a sequence of music videos, but poor as fantasy or science fiction.

The Prisoner, which comes from the same “cool Britannia” moment of pop culture as Yellow Submarine, fares a lot better in the light of history. The concluding episode “Fall Out”, which made it onto the Hugo ballot, sums up the themes of the series nicely, and provides an emotional resolution to the question of whether or not Number Two can escape. Interestingly, both Yellow Submarine and The Prisoner: Fall Out use the song “All You Need Is Love” in their soundtracks. It’s used with sincerity in the Beatles movie, but with a twist of irony in The Prisoner. We would suggest that it is more effective in the latter.
Was Barbarella a good movie? Definitely not.
But it was visually compelling, and the focus
on female pleasure stands in sharp contrast to 
the violent and deeply troubling scenes in Charly.


Charly
is the first remake to have been shortlisted for the Hugo Award, having been previously on the ballot as the TV movie The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon in 1961, shortlisted as a novel, and having already won a Hugo as a short story Flowers For Algernon. In light of modern understandings of disabilities, this movie comes across as dated and condescending towards persons with Down’s Syndrome. And the scene in which the protagonist Charly Gordon tries to force himself on his teacher Alice is extremely problematic, especially in light of how this act of violence is framed as forgivable, and an expression of love. If we’d had our druthers, this movie would not have been a Hugo finalist.

It is impossible to talk about Rosemary’s Baby without addressing the later conduct of its director. Roman Polanski has admitted in court to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, and as such, his inclusion on this shortlist is a stain on the Hugo Awards. In fact, it is difficult to judge this movie without considering Polanski’s crimes, particularly given that the feminist themes in Rosemary’s Baby stand in stark contrast to the director’s personal life. While there is a scene in which sexual assault is depicted in this movie, it is framed much differently than in Charly. By showing the event from a female perspective, Rosemary’s Baby does not imply the act is anything other than horrific.

The whole movie can be read as a parable about how the patriarchy forces women into specific roles, and punishes those who confront conformity; and the horror of the final scene is that Rosemary ultimately gives in. This presents a significant question about how much a viewer should separate the art from the artist, or how much of a movie belongs to the director, rather than to the original novelist, or actors like Mia Farrow who gave an extraordinary performance, and accentuated the works feminist themes. In some ways, Rosemary's Baby might be more poignant these days than in 1969, and the fact that a predator created it makes it even more unsettling. It is a remarkably excellent movie on many levels and might have topped some of our ballots, though in light of his crimes, most of us would choose not to honour Polanski.

Revisiting 2001: A Space Odyssey in the context of contemporaneous screen science fiction highlights
As had become tradition, nobody
involved in the making of the
Best Dramatic Presentation winner
was on-hand to accept the award.
Well-known fan David Kyle
accepted the award on behalf
of the production.
(Photo by Jay Kay Klein
via Calisphere)

just how remarkable a movie it was. However, it remains just as polarizing. Some of the group could not get past how slow and ponderous it was, but all acknowledged the cinematography and immersive special effects were unlike anything that had been made to date. The special effects would not be equaled for almost a decade. Even such minor elements as the helmets on the spacesuits look light-years more believable than those from Marooned — a movie made a year later on an equivalent budget. The scope of the movie was huge but was made relatable through the slice-of-life-in-space scenes. Some go as far as to call it a masterpiece. Love it or loathe it, we could not deny its impact, both on science fiction and how mainstream audiences perceived the genre.

Screen science fiction and fantasy’s best and worst were on display at the 1969 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, and often within the same shortlisted work. Even more than previous years, the Hugo shortlist feels like a time capsule that both reflects a world that no longer exists and reminds us that, when it comes to gender-based violence, we’ve still got a ways to go.

Friday, 13 May 2022

The enduring appeal of the last ditch attempt

It feels like Project Hail Mary fell out of a time travel portal from the year 1986.

Much like many of the best-selling and award-winning science fiction novels of that time, Andy Weir’s third novel is an engineering-forward big adventure in space. And much like many of the best-selling and award-winning science fiction novels of that time, the book largely ignores pesky questions of race, class and gender.
Project Hail Mary's cover was
designed by Hugo-finalist
Will Staehle
.
(Image via Goodreads)


While many of us in the book club are often drawn to SFF that incorporates social justice commentary, some of us were happy to add a more escapist work like Project Hail Mary to our reading lists.

Much like Weir’s first (and most famous) novel The Martian, this is a book about a lone human protagonist in an unfamiliar environment using logic, math, and science to solve problems. The protagonist Ryland Grace wakes up from suspended animation in a spaceship with little memory of why he’s there, and must figure out both his mission and how to survive.

The broad strokes of the narrative — life on Earth is imperiled by a cosmic catastrophe, and it’s up to science to save humanity — will be a familiar one to many readers. In fact, the plot could be paralleled to those found in recent Hugo finalists such as Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut of Mars books and Neil Stephenson’s Seveneves.

With Project Hail Mary, this cosmic catastrophe comes in the form of solar dimming that will plunge the Earth into a fimbulwinter. It is quickly determined that the problem is caused by a microorganism — dubbed “astrophage” — that’s infected the sun and several other nearby stars. The titular project is subsequently launched to investigate the one local star that astronomers believe is immune to the astrophage.

Grace’s amnesia is a bit contrived at times, and provides ample opportunity for the sort of trigonometry fetishism that is a hallmark of Weir’s writing. Readers who get frustrated at the pedantic demonstrations of high-school physics will probably not enjoy this book.

Flashbacks to the inception, creation, and launch of the spaceship provide much-needed context to what’s going on, both on Earth and in space, but unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few decades, can feel somewhat naive. Weir paints a picture of humanity coming together to solve a global problem that threatens the survival of the species, which seems unlikely. Negative consequences of decisions made by protagonists are waved away. As an example of this myopia, we’d suggest looking at the side plot about an enormous solar project built in Africa, which Weir offhandedly notes will “lift the continent out of poverty”. Anyone who has taken even a cursory examination of development economics or the history of infrastructure projects built in Africa by for-profit behemoths will know that these ventures never end up enriching local populations. At times, this can feel hopelessly Pollyannaish and even knock an especially jaded reader out of the book. Even those of us who enjoyed the book noted Weir’s tendency to avoid talking about challenging political ideas, which can be seen as an embrace of the status quo.

At the risk of spoiling some plot arcs within the novel, what elevates Project Hail Mary above Weir’s previous two books is the communication, cooperation, and eventual friendship between Ryland Grace and a non-human sentient being named Rocky. This heavy-metal arachnid might be Weir’s most memorable character to date, and this empathetic relationship provides the novel with much-needed heart. The habitrail-like system of tubes that Rocky builds himself within Grace’s spaceship also provides an amusing visual. As an aside, many of the visual descriptions seem purposefully written for the screen and, surprise, a movie is in the works. However, as pointed out on the Narrated Podcast, even the character of Rocky is affected by the author's penchant for taking the path of least critical engagement with culture; Rocky is referred to by male pronouns, even though it is made textually clear that they/them pronouns would be more accurate. 
A three-page copyright court scene could almost stand
alone as flash fiction, and provides observant commentary
about the broken nature of this regime. It’s oddly believable
that it would take an international coalition with legal
immunity and the backing of a large military to ensure
that copyright public policy serves the public good.
(Image via PixForFree.com)


Andy Weir’s approach to science fiction is a classically nerdy approach, and can probably be best paralleled to that of Hal Clement or to Fred Hoyle. Like Clement, Weir sets up an improbable — but vaguely scientifically plausible — scenario and then follows that premise to as logical a conclusion as he can manage. And like Clement, his work has attracted a lot of ardent fans among engineers and scientists. (It might be noted that Clement also had to wait until he was nearly 50 years old to receive his first-and-only Hugo nomination in 1971 for the novel Star Light.)

Triumphalist visions of accelerated NASA, rocket ships to nearby stars, friendly sentient aliens, and survival stories in space are well-worn ideas in science fiction. But Project Hail Mary shows that there can be value in old ideas done well.

The novel is elevated by an emotionally satisfying ending that managed to simultaneously be unexpected, and to fit within the context of the story.

Hard science fiction has rarely been front-and-centre with the Hugo Awards, but over the past two decades, it has seemed that this type of work has fallen even further out of fashion. Despite some flaws, Project Hail Mary is a good example of the subgenre, and one we’re glad to see on the Hugo ballot this year.

Tuesday, 5 April 2022

Monstrously Wealthy

It is impossible to be monstrously wealthy without being truly monstrous.
For tyrants they are both,
even flat against their oath
To grant us they are loathe
 free meat and drink and cloth
Stand up now diggers all.

(Image via Goodreads.) 


This is the core theme of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s latest novella Ogres, a fast-paced and clever little book about a world where the titular 10-foot-tall monsters extract rent from proletarian humans.

Told in the second-person, the story follows Torquell, the son of a rural village headsman, whose life gets turned upside down after he makes the mistake of having an altercation with the son of the Ogre noble who oversees his village, and is forced to flee into the wider world. Through Torquell’s eyes, readers are taken on a tour of this society, seeing factory towns, exploited military regiments, and Ogre high society.

Nuanced, iterative worldbuilding reveals a complex set of social relations, despite an initially obvious – and blunt – metaphor about inequality.

Ogres may be one of the most overtly leftist pieces of mainstream SFF published in the past 50 years; it is clearly informed by Enclosure Acts-era British rent seeking, by Dickensian living conditions, by The Sound Of His Horn, and by Marxist theory. This is not Marxist in the pop-culture understanding of the word, but informed by the academic intellectual framework.

This theoretical underpinning is evident in the ways societal structures reinforce the Ogres’ control, and maintain economic disparity. The use of religion as a tool for maintaining the compliance of economically disadvantaged people is particularly striking. Likewise, the way that “economic” is used as a pejorative by the Ogres highlights the philosophical stance of the book, as well as how the Ogres think about humans.

By the end, it is clear that what makes the Ogres monstrous isn’t their enormous size or their strength, but rather their wealth. Those who attain such heights of power and privilege are monstrous, no matter what their shape or size.

At times, the second-person point-of-view narration can come across as a bit precious. It is certainly not the standard perspective for most fiction, and this may present an impediment for some readers. But once the story gets going, this quirk of prose style becomes less and less obtrusive, and by the book’s conclusion it is evident why the second-person voice was necessary.
Tchaikovsky's Ogres
may be his most 
political work yet, and
is among his best.
(Image via Pan MacMillan)

While this isn’t the easily accessible prose that Tchaikovsky’s fans have come to expect, it is just as rich as his other works. For example, the book is filled with some excellent turns of phrase such as a line in which someone is described as “used to weighing others by the amount of world they displace.”

At the risk of offering a relatively mild spoiler, the second-person perspective pays off in the last 10 pages in a note-perfect and unexpected recontextualization of the entire narrative. Portions of the denouement that seemed improbable or overly convenient were put in sharp focus — and improved — by this conclusion. It was the sort of ending that may prompt re-reads of the work for those who want to find all the little clues throughout. If we had our way, it would be included in a creative writing curriculum.

Over the course of several of his most recent novellas (Elder Race, Expert Champion, Ogres), Tchaikovsky has explored various iterations of Clark’s Law. In Ogres, he goes one further and shows that while sufficiently advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic, sufficiently advanced inequality is indistinguishable from grimdark fiction.

Science fiction and fantasy are at their best when something real is reflected through unreal worlds. The monstrous nature of Ogres is effective because it is so real.