Saturday, 27 October 2018

An appreciation of Alasdair Stuart

Alasdair Stuart’s mild Manx accent might be one of the more recognizable voices in science fiction.
Alasdair Stuart and his Escape Artists
crew at the 2018 Hugo Awards
(Photo via Olav Rokne & Amanda Wakaruk
Any science fiction fan who listens to podcasts is likely familiar with his work as host of Pseudopod, as well as his frequent contributions to other podcasts in the Escape Artists network.

In addition to this high-profile work, Stuart’s contributions appear in a variety of venues including the Barnes and Noble’s website, Tor.com, SYFY.com, his personal blog, and many, many more. Stuart is prolific and varied in his output, and much of it could be classed as fan writing. 

Which is why it is surprising that Stuart has yet to appear on the Hugo Award ballot in the Best Fan Writer category. Last year, he was a scant 13 nominating votes shy of being a finalist. Several members of our book club have had him on our nominating ballots repeatedly over the past few years; hopefully this will be the year that finally sees him recognized by his peers.

In terms of simple quality of writing and argumentation, Stuart has long been one of the finer writers
Stuart may be a bigger fan of Doctor
Who
than we are. But his analysis
is always worth reading.
(Image via Variety.com)
engaging in critical examinations of science fiction, fantasy, and fan culture. This is not to say that we necessarily agree with Stuart’s analysis of every matter (particularly when it comes to his unflagging support of Doctor Who), but his arguments are always worth consideration.

But more than this, 2018 has so far been a particularly good year for Stuart’s oeuvre. He’s provided us with an examination of storytelling as a tool, he’s written an ode to Burt Reynolds work in science fiction, he offered an argument for hope, and he’s watched and reviewed all the Predator movies (so you don’t have to).

In one of our favourite pieces, he writes: “Stories teach us how to live in the world and how to make the world better for those who follow us and for ourselves. They are a memetic exoskeleton that has wrapped around humanity as long as we’ve been humanity. Stories teach us how to be us.”

Stuart also contributes to the science fiction community through guesting on innumerable podcasts and blogs. He has shown a willingness to help out small-time operations, and to signal-boost causes he feels are worthwhile.

Eligibility for the Fan Writer category explicitly excludes work that appears in professional publications. However, any person’s Fan Writing is going to be judged within the context of their overall output, and many professional and semi-professional writers have been honoured as fan writers. For example, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the people voting for Bob Tucker in 1970 were unaware of his professional work or his significant contributions to fandom.

In that spirit, it’s worth noting Alasdair Stuart’s broader works within fandom this year, such as his examination of Hugo finalist The Deep, by Clipping, his interview with Brooke Bolander on Barnes and Noble’s website, and his hosting of Pseudopod

To bolster the case that Stuart’s active fandom should be recognized, we ask Worldcon members to consider his rescuing of the Escape Artists network when they were going through troubled times in 2013, his strong presence on Twitter, and his contributions to innumerable conventions and panel discussions.

As the owner of — and part of the team that creates — the Escape Artists podcast network, Stuart had a hand in one of last year’s Best Semiprozine finalists. But that is a group nomination, and it doesn’t recognize Stuart individually as a writer or as a fan. 

Even if the award for Best Fan Writer has only existed since 1967, variations such as “Actifan,” “Reviewer” and “Fan Personality” filled a similar role in earlier years. In its current form as one of our most community-driven awards, Best Fan Writer might be the award that is at the heart of what the Hugo Awards represent. Fan writing is a community-building activity that has been important to the genre since before the Golden Age of science fiction.

By carrying on traditions that have existed since the dawn of fandom, Alasdair Stuart embodies exactly the type of fandom that the Best Fan Writer Hugo should celebrate.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Astounding: an elegant use of four-part disharmony

Given the outsize impact that John W. Campbell had on the development of modern science fiction, it is surprising that we had to wait until 2018 for an examination of his life story.

No doubt that the tension between fandom’s love of Campbell’s oeuvre and a revulsion at his racist,
Nevala-Lee's work reassess Hubbard's
contributions to science fiction ... and
science fiction's contributions to
Dianetics and Scientology.
(Image via TonyOrtega.org)
sexist, and classist beliefs kept a few biographers away. Alec Nevala-Lee’s ability to grapple with these tensions is welcome.

His book Astounding, which we’ve previously discussed on this blog, is one that I’ve been mulling over for months. I can think of no other trade press book that offers a biography of an editor, possibly because most editors are known primarily through how they’ve contributed to the works of others. How do you highlight the work of a collaborator?

Nevala-Lee resolves this conundrum by focusing on more than just the life of Campbell, and complementing Campbell’s narrative through the lives of three of his protegees. There were other authors equally close to Campbell’s orbit, but these are inescapably the three authors best-suited to reflect aspects of Campbell’s oeuvre. They are the technocratic Asimov whose positivist beliefs could occasionally lead to inflexibility; the political Heinlein whose self-certainty could lead him to didacticism; and the theologaster Hubbard who’s search for larger truths ended in madness.

Each of these authors is used to illuminate aspects of Campbell’s personality.

At times (particularly when Nevala-Lee is discussing the misdeeds and scandalous lives of these four primary figures), reading Astounding can be like sitting down with a rumour-monger friend and hearing all the dirt about the ‘very important people that they know.’
It is hard not to compare
Astounding to Heinlein
In Dialoge With His
Century
. Certainly,
Astounding is more fun
to read.
(Image via Amazon.com)

Having recently slogged my way through William H. Patterson’s biography of Heinlein, I couldn’t
help but compare how Heinlein is treated by the two authors. While Patterson’s work is more extensive and detailed, Nevala-Lee may be slightly more willing to wrestle with some of the more questionable characteristics of Heinlein’s personality, and that makes the story feel more viscerally real.

In far fewer pages, Nevala-Lee paints a more complete and complex portrait of Heinlein as a person, rather than a collection of facts and figures. By paralleling the evolution of Heinlein’s navel-gazing with Hubbard’s descent into madness, Nevala-Lee skillfully puts into context the late-period ‘world as myth’ books such as Job: A Comedy Of Justice and The Cat Who Walked Through Walls.

Throughout the first two thirds of the book, there is a recurring themes of self-delusion and self-aggrandizement, particularly in the portions on Campbell, Heinlein and Hubbard. In the last third of the book, this theme metastasizes into Scientology and solipsism. I sometimes wondered if Nevala-Lee had more of a soft spot for Asimov, or if Asimov was genuinely less inclined to fabulism than the other three subjects of the book.

Nevertheless, Asimov does not escape entirely unscathed from Nevala-Lee’s unflinching accounting.
Susan Hereford gets into a
scuffle with Isaac Asimov at
Boskone 5 in 1968.
One suspects that Asimov
deserved it.
(Image via NESFA.org)
And it is the documented cases of Asimov’s mistreatment of women that were the most unsettling to me.

Of the four subjects, Hubbard’s life has received the most attention in the popular press. Documentaries such as Going Clear and My Scientology Movie, and in-depth investigatory tomes such as Bare-faced Messiah and Inside Scientology have examined his life in detail. There is little in Astounding that will surprise those who have read up on Hubbard. What is interesting is the argument Nevala-Lee weaves about Hubbard’s impact as a pulp author, and his ties to the overall science fiction community.

Campbell’s oversized influence on early science fiction is a weighty topic that deserves attention and analysis. Astounding is an excellent and important part of this conversation, but one hopes it is not the last. There are omissions and narratives that warrant further exploration - at least one additional book could be written about his racism and its effects on the development of science fiction as a genre.

When those further explorations of Campbell’s life are written, I expect to return to Nevala-Lee’s Astounding, both as reference, and as entertainment.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

The Calculating Stars — Review

In The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal offers an answer to one of alternate history’s most
The space race accelerates
in Mary Robinette Kowal's
new novels.
(Image via Amazon.com)
important questions: ‘What if Seveneves was fun to read?’

While we quite enjoyed Seveneves, many readers described it as a bit dry.

A comparison between the two books is apt. Seveneves and The Calculating Stars are books that explore many similar ideas, but they do so in very different ways that will appeal to different people.

Both works start with a celestial catastrophe that will eventually make the planet uninhabitable and feature a re-invigorated space program that finds ways for the human race to continue without the Earth. Both works have feminist themes and both offer perspectives about how science and politics conflict.

Although The Calculating Stars is an alternate history in which an asteroid impact jump-starts an international space program in the early 1950s, it hews to the conventions and structures of the classic science fiction space exploration novel. This story is less about how the historical dominoes fall after a point of divergence, and more about how people work together to solve problems.

These problems range from purely technical ones, such as survival over long periods in outer space, to larger social challenges such as combating institutional racism. It is evident that Kowal has done her research on these subjects, delving into historical accounts of racially marginalized workers in the early days of the US space program.

The book’s protagonist Elma York is a mathematical prodigy and pilot who fights an uphill battle to become one of the first women in space. She is a likable protagonist from a very Heinleinian model - smart, resourceful and self-effacing. Her anxiety and self-doubt may get a bit grating at times, but the author does use these character issues to make serious points about the stigmatization of mental illness.

One of the aspects of the book that is particularly strong is the supporting cast, from the primary
Mary Robinette Kowal is best known
for her Hugo-winning short story
Lady Astronaut of Mars, which has
been expanded into these new novels.
(Image via Goodreads.com)
antagonist, heroic astronaut Stetson Parker, to Elma’s husband Nathaniel. It was refreshing to see a well-developed healthy romantic relationship in fiction. It was equally refreshing that every antagonist in the book was more than a one-note caricature — Parker has redeeming qualities despite his attitude towards Elma.

Mary Robinette Kowal is a clear, concise and thoughtful writer who structures her novels efficiently. The approachable writing style, enjoyable characters and straightforward narrative — not to mention the 1950s-era technological triumphalism — make the book feel like something Heinlein might have written had he been just a little more woke. 

Science fiction and fantasy have seen far too many trilogies over the years where the middle volume is largely irrelevant. Thankfully, Kowal eschews this trend by telling a story in two volumes, concluding with the sequel The Fated Sky. The narrative leaps forward in time by several years, but the story does not suffer. In fact, one wonders how many series might have been improved by such storytelling discipline.

Both Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky were published in 2018, and they could be nominated for best novel in tandem with one another, much as Connie Willis’ Blackout and All Clear were in 2011. But to our minds, the first of Kowal’s books is the strongest, and could easily have stood on its own. From the opening pages, in which Elma and her husband face disaster, all the way through to its elegant conclusion, this is an engaging narrative.

There is a long tradition of Hugo-Award winning short works being expanded into longer works that are later shortlisted in the best novel category. It would not be surprising to see The Calculating Stars — which is a prequel to Kowal’s Hugo-winner Lady Astronaut of Mars — make it to the Hugo ballot. We would be very pleased to see it there.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Tedium And Relative Dimensions In Sheffield

Since the BBC brought the series back in 2005, slightly more than 42 per cent of all finalists for the
It took the BBC too long to cast a
woman as the Doctor. But representation
is not enough — the stories need to
be better than they have been.
(Image via Variety.com)
Best Dramatic Presentation - Short Form have been episodes of Doctor Who. That is too high a proportion.

In each of the past 12 years, there has been at least one episode on the shortlist, and sometimes three or four. This was even true in 2017, a year in which only one episode of Doctor Who was eligible, and it was execrable.

This is evidence of a constituency of Hugo voters who love the show enough to reward even its most mediocre output. Given this level of support, and the hype surrounding Jodie Whittaker’s claiming of the mantle, “Doctor,” it seems inevitable that Sunday night’s premiere of Season 11 "The Woman Who Fell to Earth" will be on the 2019 Hugo Award shortlist.

It’s easy to understand why many people will argue that this episode — or another one from the upcoming season — is worth nominating. For one thing, the cinematography is better than we’re used to from Doctor Who. And there are some good moments in the writing. And Jodie Whittaker is a superb actor who embodies the character of the Doctor.
Whittaker’s excellence should come as no
surprise. As anyone who has seen the 2007
remake of teenage boarding school comedy
St. Trinian’s can attest, Whittaker is able
to elevate even the weakest of material.
(Image via IO9.com)


This is certainly good by the standards of late-era Doctor Who. What is less certain is whether or not any Doctor Who over the past five years or so has been worth recognizing with a spot on the Hugo Award ballot.

When Russell T. Davies rebooted the series in 2005, several of his writerly quirks became emblematic of the series. These include the misunderstood alien, the reversal of expectations, and of course the glowing energy that fixes everything in the end.

At first, these quirks were unexpected, as in the 2005 two-parter "Empty Child" / "The Doctor Dances", when the misunderstood alien is revealed to be a medical device, and suddenly every victim of the plague is instantly healed with magical glowing energy. As the series became a runaway hit, and nobody wanted to mess with a winning formula, these quirks became templates, and the series became stale.

How many times over the past decade have we seen plots in which the world is certain to be
Frankly, the most daring choice that
show runner Chris Chibnall has made
is to set Season 11 in Sheffield.
(Image via BlogtorWho.com)
destroyed, or humanity wiped out, only to have everything solved by magical glowing energy? This is fairy-tale science fiction devoid of internal logic, where every explanation is handwaiving, and no resolution is final because the wizard can do anything that is convenient for the plot.

There is little hope that new showrunner Chris Chibnall will break the series out of this template. Although he’s done brilliantly with shows like Life on Mars and Broadchurch, his contributions to previous seasons of Doctor Who have been entirely uninspiring, ranging from the melodramatic ("42" and "The Hungry Earth") to the risible ("Dinosaurs On A Spaceship").

What does give us some hope are the rumours that both Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Sharon Horgan will be writing episodes this season. In the unlikely event that they are given the freedom to take narrative risks, the result could be quite good.

Returning to last Sunday’s pilot episode, despite Jodie Whittaker’s strength, and despite the
It's actually kind of embarrassing to
realize that The Return of Doctor
Mysterio was included on the Hugo
shortlist.
(Image via Space.ca
significant improvement to cinematography, the monster-of-the-week plot is largely interchangeable with 95 per cent of the episodes that have aired in the past decade. The villain is exceptionally boring, the dramatic tension is nonexistent and the supporting cast is pleasantly multicultural in an unchallenging way.

With a BBC that now depends on revenues brought in by Doctor Who fandom, there is substantial pressure for the showrunner to engage in franchise maintenance, rather than construct compelling and potentially challenging stories.

Viewers deserve better than safe narrative choices that lead to mediocrity. The Hugos should reward greatness.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Best Related Work 2018

It strikes us that the shortlisted entries for the Best Related Work Hugo Award over the past decade could be roughly divided into two categories: works of community building essays and long-form works based on more academic interests.

It’s easy to find recent and meritorious examples of works from both of our categories: Kameron Hurley’s collection of essays, The Geek Feminist Revolution, is one of our favourites and Paul Kincaid’s Iain M. Banks biography is close to the platonic ideal of the second. 

High-profile exemplars from these two categories may go head-to-head on the 2019 Best Related
Robert Silverberg, Forrest J. Ackerman
and James White at the 1957 Hugo
Awards. Walton examines every
Hugo Award up to the year 2000.
(Image via Fanac.org
Work ballot, as we are likely to be faced with a choice between Alec Nevada-Lee’s biographical work Astounding, and Jo Walton’s Informal History of the Hugo Awards

Both books are deserving and both authors are well-familiar to Hugo voters. As frequent and approachable Worldcon attendees, they have reputations for being knowledgeable and supportive of the genre. 

Five Decades Of Hugos


Jo Walton, who has a long relationship with the Tor.com website, previously adapted a loose collection of blog posts into her tome What Makes This Book So Great, which was released in 2014. Her Informal History of The Hugos follows in much the same mold, collecting a series of Tor.com blog posts on every Hugo award shortlist up until the year 2000. 

An active fan, and celebrated author,
Jo Walton's knowledge of the genre
makes her Informal History of the
Hugos a joy to read.
(Image via inverse.com)
These posts are tied together with additional essays and commentary from the blog’s comments section. Luminaries of the field — such as the Nielsen-Haydens and the late, great Gardner Dozois — are in conversation with Walton as she explores what the Hugos have meant over the years. 

Walton is an unslakable bibliovore who has read deeply and widely in the genre, and her knowledge of these works is obvious. She shares a personal perspective and doesn’t shy away from value judgements. Regardless of whether or not you agree with her, her positions are presented fairly and well-argued. 

While this personal approach helps build community, it leads to curious blibliometrics. For example, the absence or presence of a book in her local library may help explain her relationship to it but does little to educate the reader about its impact outsider Walton’s home town. 

Who Goes There? 


In contrast, Harvard-educated science fiction historian and author Alec Nevala-Lee’s research offers a more academic approach to his subject matter. His comprehensive and revelatory volume Astounding seems to include references to every significant work of scholarship ever produced on the Golden Age of pulp magazines. 

The book builds a narrative about the dawn of mass-market science fiction by braiding together the
John W. Campbell at the 1968
World Science Fiction Convention
in Berkley, California.
(Image via calisphere.org)
stories of editor John W. Campbell and three of the authors he worked with: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard. 

Following them through their collaborations, their periods of prolific output and their oversized legacies, Nevala-Lee grapples with their place in the science fiction canon. 

Did I say ‘grapples?’ I meant ‘mud wrestles.’ 

Because despite the weighty research, and the complicated four-piece narrative, Nevala-Lee does a pretty good Kitty Kelly impersonation. Surprisingly approachable and enjoyable, this is the ultimate work of retro celebrity gossip for the Worldcon crowd. 

Alec Nevala-Lee weaves a
symphony in four parts out
of the intertwined stories
of Campbell, Hubbard,
Asimov and Heinlein.
(Image nevalalee.wordpress.com)
Unsurprisingly, this tempo is difficult to maintain in a biography and, by the time that Hubbard begins founding Scientology, the narrative structure of the book breaks down. It becomes more difficult for the four stories to connect, since in the late '50s and '60s, Campbell’s relationships with these three protegees was on the wane. 

We anticipate that voting for Best Related Work will be difficult this year. Both Walton and Navala-Lee offer excellent choices — choices that are difficult to compare in both purpose and style. 

Walton may be better-known (and many fans are likely still smarting over her absence from the 2015 ballot in the same category), but we suspect that some voters will dismiss a collection that has already been published as a series of blog entries. 

Nevala-Lee’s work will have ardent supporters amongst fans who have waited a long time to see someone tackle Campbell as a subject, flaws and all. However the book may not connect with the younger generation of Hugo voters who may be less aware of his impact on the genre. 

Either one of these works would be a spectacularly deserving winner of the Hugo for Best Related Work.