Friday, 12 July 2019

The value of Speculative Opinion

This spring, an exciting new series of short science fiction was launched in an improbable publication: The New York Times.
John Karborn has illustrated most
of the articles in the series with
evocative conceptual art.
(Image via New York Times)

Op-Eds From The Future is a feature in America’s paper of record that appears every second week, in which an academic or science fiction author tackles a political issue from the perspective of an editorialist writing in the not-too-distant future.

Given that the series has so far included submissions written by luminaries such as Cory Doctorow, Malka Older, Ted Chiang, and Brooke Bolander, it is unsurprising that the results of this experiment have been compelling.

Masterminded by the paper’s op-ed technology editor Susan Fowler, this project shows the integral connection between science fiction and politics, demonstrating the relevance of the genre to a wider (mundane) audience. Speculative opinion is not standard fare for the New York Times, but it is a very welcome addition.

“Science fiction is so powerful and effective because it takes the problems and issues we face today and puts them into new situations and contexts, allowing us to see them more clearly,” Fowler explained on Twitter. Put another way, the series provides a type of public service.

Every second Monday, the Times publishes a new piece, tackling issues as varied as the intersection of income inequality and genetic engineering, the possible effects of anti-hate speech legislation on internet discourse, and the rights of persons displaced by climate change.

Using the traditional structure of an op-ed to explore a science fictional idea lays bare the political nature of the genre. The futurist nature of these works connects the changing role of technology with the practicalities of policies elected officials might enact as a result.

The format and venue also forces authors to hew closely to constraints of hard science fiction; there is a level of solemnity to the Grey Lady that inspires seriousness in its authors. We suspect that this lean towards hard science is also the product of Fowler’s editorial vision, which we appreciate.

Though several luminaries of science fiction have been featured thus far, those invited to submit articles to the series are not limited to genre professionals  University of Connecticut professor Susan Schneider penned one on the nature of consciousness. 

One of the joys of this series is quickly becoming the Monday-morning anticipation of discovering who has penned the latest installment. Although we have a long list of thinkers we would love to see play in this particular sandbox (i.e. Vernor Vinge, Madeline Ashby, Karl Schroeder …), we suspect that we will be surprised and delighted by the people Fowler has lined up for the coming weeks.

Susan Fowler masterminded the new
series appearing in the New York Times.
(Image via BizJournals)

We would love to see this series included in next year's Hugo shortlist. But there isn’t an obvious category at the Hugo Awards to recognize the importance of this contribution. Susan Fowler is not eligible for Best Editor, nor would it be fair to compare her work to that of editors working on publications dedicated to the genre. The individual Op-Eds might technically fit into the Short Story category, but to us, the value of the overall project is greater than the sum of its parts. We are likely to suggest including the overall Op-Eds From The Future project in the Best Related Work category (though even that is a slightly odd fit that Hugo administrators might find reason to reject).

This is a series that we look forward to reading every week, and hope that the New York Times continues it over the long-term. Even better, we hope to see competitor pieces in other established dailies make this a staple of tomorrow’s newspapers.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Trail of Lightning: Shockingly Good

Rebbeca Roanhorse’s debut novel Trail of Lightning might appear at first to be a run-of-the-mill
Rebecca Roanhorse at the 2018
Worldcon, where she won her first
Hugo Award.
(Photo by Olav Rokne)
urban fantasy, but it offers the astute reader a culturally-rich narrative.

Set against a multifaceted, frightening future where North America has been ravaged by man-made climate change, Trail of Lightning pits deadly, other-worldly monsters against people with superhuman powers.

Those familiar with Indigenous storytelling practices will be at home with Roanhorse’s writing style, in which metaphor and allegory are used prominently, and more-than-human relations (ie. relationships between humans, nature, animals, and spiritual beings) are common and understood (well, as much as any relationship can be understood).

While mainstream audiences may interpret these stories as myth or as speculative fiction, Indigenous storytelling traditions are more likely to recognize the philosophical and pedagogical nature of these narratives. At times, the stories shift from Aesop-like cautionary tales like that of the windigo, to stories that teach values like the story of Kunuuksaayuka. Roanhorse’s work expands on these traditions and exposes them to a new audience.

Like the Binti trilogy, the culturally-specific narrative anticipates that the audience can adjust, learn,
Trail Of Lightning blends Indigenous
narrative tradition with genre tropes.
(Image via Tor.com
and experience what is new to them. At times, etic readers may find this overwhelming, but The Six World series makes the effort worthwhile. Roanhorse doesn’t explain certain terms or phrasing in the first chapters because the protagonist and narrator, Maggie Hoskie, doesn’t need exposition. It’s the reality she lives in and knows. While it may be new to readers, it functions as an immersive experience.

The backdrop of apocalyptic climate change inspired discussion about its possible misuse as a fictive understanding of climate change itself (that is, as an argument against the science behind the evidence-based phenomenon). Others argued that the fantastical nature of the climate change seen in Trail of Lighting was used as a narrative tipping point. That is, the supernatural regains control after humans have mucked up the fifth world. Everyone seemed to agree that the setting made for an interesting element in that it constrained the protagonist from understanding the whole of the world.

With this idea of iterative ‘worlds’ that the planet experiences, it is hard not to compare the work to N.K. Jemisin’s much-lauded Broken Earth trilogy. Both works involve a world broken by Euro-settler hubris, both involve protagonists with superhuman gifts; and both are centred in cultural understandings. Likewise, one can see parallels between Trail of Lightning and American Gods, through its conflicts between the known world and the transcendent.

These comparisons, however, may place Trail of Lightning at a disadvantage, because as an introductory novel, it does not show the same writerly craft as these illustrious predecessors. In particular, some of the character development in the book shows some weakness and inconsistency — Maggie Hoskie’s simmering anger and grimness is a bit lacking in nuance. Given her self-reliance and independence, it’s disappointing to see her make mistakes because of a cliche romantic entanglement.

It is also interesting to compare Trail of Lightning to another 2018 Indigenous post-apocalyptic novel
Anishinaabe journalist Waubgeshig Rice
is another Indigenous writer whose SF
we would heartily recommend.
(Image via CBC.ca
Moon of the Crusted Snow by Anishinaabe writer and journalist Waubgeshig Rice, which was on several of our 2019 Hugo nominating ballots. This Canadian bestseller might have been overlooked by the broader science-fiction community, but Rice’s tale deserves more attention for his depiction of the collapse of society from the perspective of those who have marginalized for generations. It is an extraordinary science fiction novel. For those whose appetites for this type of narrative have been whet by Roanhorse’s book, we highly recommend this book.

Overall Trail of Lightning is an engaging read that brings an important and often marginalized viewpoint to a broader science fiction audience. Despite some of our criticisms of characterization, Roanhorse’s deft weaving of cultural knowledge, myth, metaphor and real-world challenges put this at or near the top of many of our ballots.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Best Related Work: Category or Collection of Categories?

Best Related Works category has been a primary focus of controversy at this year's Hugo Awards. Specifically, the inclusion and scope of ownership on a collaborative project has motivated some heated rhetoric. This is a shame, because it has to some degree obscured visibility for a remarkably great group of nominees.

Transformative Works Shine

The phrase, “Hugo Award Shortlisted Author” carries meaning and integrity accrued over decades, due in large part to the tireless efforts of World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) volunteers and members of the fan community.

It should therefore be understandable that members of the WSFS community might get their hackles up at those who spuriously claim this honour, in this case authors who have submitted a story to the Hugo-shortlisted online repository of fanfiction, Archive Of Their Own (AO3) but have not built or maintained the platform itself.

To be clear, those who manage the official Hugo Awards web page have stated that the nomination was for the platform, rather than for any individual story. They have also made it clear that claims of “Hugo-nominated” status by AO3 authors is not appropriate. Yet several authors persist in these claims.

It has been suggested that these claims are made in jest – though this assertion seems disingenuous to
Some of the commentary about AO3's shortlisting
does not imply any respect for the Hugo Awards.
us. If these authors are making such claims in jest, it might imply that the Hugo Award is a joke to them.

Despite the inappropriate self-promotion of a small minority of AO3 contributors, the members of this blog are enthusiastic in our support for the site’s nomination.

Not only have the volunteers behind this site created tools for the sharing and organization of fan works, and not only has the user base of AO3 built a vibrant community, the organization has promoted user rights by advocating for fair use, an important legal provision within our increasingly heavy-handed and overreaching copyright regime.

The work of AO3 benefits the entire science fiction community and society as a whole. We are very glad to see it on the ballot. The fact that we won’t have AO3 at the top of our ballots speaks more to the overall strength of the shortlist and the chaotic nature of the Best Related Work category, than it does any controversy over the nomination.

Bringing Mexico To Worldcon

One of the members of our book club has an interest in Latin American and Indigenous cultures, and the Mexicanx Initiative was an important part of their first Worldcon experience. There is a good reason why this effort to bring wider awareness of Mexicanx science fiction has been successful: it was positive, collaborative, thoughtful, and inclusive.
Marcela Davison Avil├ęs, Adrian Molina,
Ana Ramirez, and Julia Rios
at the Making of Coco panel.
(Photo by Kateryna Barnes) 

The project, which included items such as panel discussions, meetups, social media and an anthology, was based around bringing 42 Mexican and Mexican-American folks to the convention and creating a dedicated discussion of the culture within the convention.

What organizers John Picacio, Julia Rios, Libia Brenda, and Pablo Defendini accomplished through the Mexicanx Initiative had community-building implications for fandom, and could be a model for other equity-seeking efforts and groups. One hopes that the work that began in San Jose last summer will have long-term impact and implications.

Throwing Warner Brothers Into Mount Doom

Of all the shortlisted works, we were most dubious of The Hobbit Duology. At first blush, deconstructing mediocre movies seemed to us too slight a topic to merit three hours of YouTube
Lindsay Ellis' provides welcome insight
into the creation of The Hobbit trilogy.
(Image via YouTube)
analysis. These videos were, however, an incredibly pleasant surprise, and provided exactly the sort of meaty criticism that science fiction fandom needs.

Delving deeply into the production’s circuitous path, film critics Lindsay Ellis and Angelina Meehan trace the commercial forces, directorial decisions, pressures from fandom, and avoidable time constraints that led to the three Hobbit movies being such disappointments. Along the way, they consider Tolkein’s intentions for his most famous works and the questionable morals of the production companies who purchased the rights to tell his stories on the big screen. Using first hand accounts, they unpack the success of multinationals’ anti-actor lobbying efforts and the legacy it has left on New Zealand and its film industry.

Ellis and Meehan approach the subject as dedicated but critical fans, providing a nuanced, tempered analysis that highlights both the good in these films and their significant flaws.

We are very glad that this work received a nomination because we otherwise might not have watched it. At least one member of our book club is considering it for the top of their ballot.

Will LeGuin Three-Peat?

Having earned back-to-back awards in this category, it would be easy to think of Ursula LeGuin as the front-runner for the Best Related Work Hugo Award. That being said, this is an exceptionally strong year for related works, and LeGuin’s Reflections On Writing is fairly low on our ballots.

This year’s LeGuin shortlisted title is a collection of interviews conducted by David Naimon. At a scant 140 pages, this intellectual aperitif is the briefest work on the ballot.

As with everything LeGuin did, this is a thoughtful, nuanced piece. It examines three areas: poetry, fiction and nonfiction. The conversational tone is both a strength (in that it’s approachable) and a weakness (in that it occasionally meanders).

The Story Of The Hugos 

It seems odd to us that this is only the second time that Jo Walton has appeared on a Hugo Award
(Image via Amazon
ballot. It can be argued that several of her novels and non-fiction works warrant the recognition.

Her Informal History Of The Hugo Awards, based around the Tor.com blog posts of the same name that she wrote a couple of years ago, traces the history of the awards through their creation in 1953, through to the year 2000. True to its name, this is a subjective look at both the winners and the shortlists, livened with insight and personal anecdotes.

The book version adds significant material, additional essays and footnotes, as well as a curated set of comments from the blog. Walton has a deep and rich knowledge of science fiction and of fandom, and it shines through in essay after essay tackling controversies of years past, or years where she might disagree with the verdict of Hugo voters.

This is a work that we believe will have enduring value. In most years it would be a lock for the top of our Best Related Work ballots.

John W. Campbell: Good, Bad, and Ugly

Compulsively readable and deeply engaging, Alec Nevala-Lee’s group biography of major figures
Alec Nevala-Lee's book
Astounding explores the
lives of Golden Age SF
authors.
(nevalalee.wordpress.com)
from the Golden Age of science fiction is not just the best work in this category in 2019, but possibly the best work in any category this year.

Astounding delves into the lives of editor John W. Campbell and three of his protegees, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard. Nevala-Lee recognizes the success of these well-known creators, but also their flaws and failings and the resulting complications for the genre.

Having read the book a few months prior to it’s release, we’ve had time to mull over Nevala-Lee’s work, to ponder the themes of self-delusion, of ego, of wasted potential that his work lays bare. It’s the sort of book that stays with you, that informs your understanding of a genre, and that inspires discussion and analysis. We have been inspired to blog about it on multiple occasions.

Conclusion

This year, even more than most, Best Related Work has created difficult questions to adjudicate.

How do you compare the Mexicanx Initiative – a multimedia project with a time-limited scope – to Jo Walton’s collection of subjective essays about the history of the Hugo Awards? How do you compare Astounding – a richly detailed and engaging history of four of early science fiction’s central figures – to an online repository of fan fiction? These are fundamentally works for which success is measured on completely different axes.

It might be suggested that every single one of the shortlisted works deserve recognition for completely different reasons. It might even be suggested that in a rational world, they’d be recognized in completely separate categories.