Monday, 18 January 2021

Hugo Cinema Club: 1960 Gets In The Zone

This blog post is the third in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  
Rod Serling believed
that his work would be
forgotten. Six decades
later, it most certainly
has not. 
(Image via NYTimes)


There is a long and storied tradition of the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation being presented in absentia. In fact, the winner being in attendance for the ceremony has by and large been the exception, rather than the rule.

In 1960, for example, Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling seems to have been mostly unaware of the award until some two weeks later when a delegation of California-based fans who had just returned from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania visited the CBS offices to hand him a three-pound chrome rocketship on September 22.

The fans — including Bjo and John Trimble, Rick Sneary and Forrest J. Ackerman — were greeted warmly by the television legend, who had also earned his fourth Emmy that summer.

“[Serling] seemed sort of interested and taken by the idea,” Sneary wrote of the award presentation. “But he did not seem at all aware of fandom.”

The show had come close to cancellation just a few months earlier, so the critical praise, the multiple awards, and the resulting second season came as a vindication to the 35-year-old writer-producer.

Interviewed a decade later at Ithaca College about his preoccupations as a writer, Rod Serling talked about his “hunger to be young again, a desperate yearning to go back to where I came from.” This theme was overwhelmingly evident in his Hugo-winning first season of The Twilight Zone.

Whether it’s Gig Young walking through time to visit his childhood in “Walking Distance” (S1E5), or Ida Lupino obsessing over the movies of her youth in “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” (S1E4), there is an undercurrent of nostalgia that pervades the work.

But interestingly, that nostalgia exists as a counterpoint to the modernity of the series. Watching The Twilight Zone alongside the other four works on that year’s Hugo shortlist, it becomes increasingly clear how far ahead of his time Twilight Zone-creator Rod Serling was. The scripts have a sprightly pace, they’re elegantly constructed parables with very little wasted time, and usually have satisfying narrative arcs. Comparing these episodes to those of Men In Space (the other full TV season on the ballot) it feels hard to believe that the shows were airing in the same decade, let alone the same year.

There were only 12 episodes of Twilight Zone that were aired in 1959, and therefore eligible for
"Time Enough At Last," possibly
the most iconic episode of the
original Twilight Zone aired
on Nov. 20, 1959. 
(Image via shelf-awareness.com)
consideration in 1960. What is revelatory is realizing how many of those first twelve episodes of Twilight Zone are classics that are well-remembered today. Right from the pilot episode “Where Is Everybody”, the show plays with perception and keeps the viewer off balance. The very next episode, you’ve got a first-rate performance by Ed Wynn in a moralistic parable “One For The Angels” (S1E2) that regularly appears on lists of the great Twilight Zone episodes. Unforgettably, “Time Enough At Last” (S1E8) casts a long enough shadow over pop culture that it has been referenced by Modern Family, Powerpuff Girls, Walking Dead, Family Guy, and multiple times on the Simpsons. Previous Hugo-winner Richard Matheson's deft touch is evident on several of these. 

A few episodes are duds such as “The Lonely” (S1E7), and given the fact that the series was airing in the 1950s, there is a bit too much focus on heteronormative white male lead characters. The Twilight Zone is far from perfect, but it’s clearly the best work on the ballot in 1959.

Other shortlisted works

Allowed to nominate television programs for the first time, Hugo nominators almost entirely ignored the big screen, creating a shortlist with two full seasons, two individual episodes, and one theatrically released movie.

Of the other Hugo-shortlisted works, The World, The Flesh, And The Devil is the stand-out. A post-
Harry Belafonte is objectively
incredible in The World, The
Flesh & The Devil. 
(Image via NostalgiaCentral)

apocalyptic film terrific cast, the movie is notable for having a surprisingly progressive subtext on race. The black protagonist Ralph Burton (played by Harry Belafonte) survives a nuclear attack, and eventually ends up in a violent love triangle with a white man and white woman. The ending — which seems to indicate that they’ve resolved their differences, and are forming a polyamorous triad — is especially surprising considering the movie is seven decades old. The acting is stellar. It’s worth noting that this may be the first Hugo-shortlisted work with a non-white human protagonist.

The full first season of the short-lived TV show Men Into Space made its only appearance on the ballot. Given that it aired two years before Yuri Gagarin made his trip into orbit, the series gets a surprisingly large amount right about spaceflight, including the fact that it’s often very boring. Everytime the writers of Men Into Space have a choice between telling an interesting story or providing stilted explanations of engineering, they opt for the latter. Although the series is deeply propagandistic (the end credits seem to list the involvement of every U.S. military office involved in spaceflight) it is refreshingly conciliatory towards the Soviet space program. Several major plot points involve co-operation with the Russians for the greater good of humanity. But by-and-large the series is of only historical interest, rather than something any of us would recommend to modern viewers looking for entertainment.

Murder and the Android, a television movie based on Alfred Bester’s Fondly Farenheit, has the distinction of being the most inaccessible of all professionally released Hugo-shortlisted works. The only extant copy resides in Los Angeles at the Paley Centre For Media, and for reasons ascribed to copyright (and perhaps more accurately copyright chill related to fair use) can only be viewed by those visiting the centre in person. Because of this, it is the one dramatic presentation that the authors of this blog have not watched. But critics of the time were extremely impressed by it, with Frederick Pohl describing it as “almost the only first-rate television play on a science fiction theme.” Perhaps one day, when its copyright term has finally expired, it will become widely available again.

Finally, the ballot included a TV movie adaptation of Henry James’ Turn Of The Screw. Although it was lauded at the time in the mainstream press, and featured Ingrid Bergman in the lead role, for the most part it feels listless and lifeless. Several scenes are melodramatic to the point of being excruciating to watch, but this may be a result of changing attitudes towards more naturalistic acting in the seven decades since the release of the movie. Still, we are glad that Turn Of The Screw didn’t win the Hugo.

With the benefit of hindsight, it would be hard to argue that Hugo voters got it wrong with Best Dramatic Presentation in 1960. The Twilight Zone has the most enduring value work on the shortlist, and it isn’t even close.

Addendum On The Evolving Hugo Rules
The Hugo Banquet at Pittcon.
(Image via Calisphere)


When The Twilight Zone won its first Hugo in 1960, the Hugo Awards remained informal in organization and format. Categories were ad-hoc, the physical trophy had yet to be standardized, nominations and voting eligibility were inconsistent. 

Late at night on September 4, after the Hugo Awards banquet in the grand ballroom of the Penn-Sheraton Hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a WSFS business meeting run by L. Sprague de Camp oversaw what is possibly the most significant overhaul of the Hugo Awards that ever occurred. The rocketship trophy that Ben Jackson had designed became the permanent standard, eligibility for nominating and voting on the Hugos became officially linked to membership in the Worldcon, and a committee led by Dirce Archer was struck to establish permanent awards categories.

Prior to 1960, there had never been a category called “Best Dramatic Presentation.” The previous two occasions on which dramatic works had been honoured, they’d been honoured with Hugos for “Best SF or Fantasy Movie” or “Outstanding Movie,” and the categories explicitly excluded television programs. With the standardization of categories later that year, the name “Best Dramatic Presentation” was here to stay.

In many ways, the 1960 Hugos were the last of the early Hugos, with a new chapter for the awards starting in 1961.


Monday, 14 December 2020

The Award For Best Award

By our count, there are currently somewhat in excess of 50 different awards given out regularly every year
What makes people pay attention to
the Hugo Awards? History, process,
& focus. (Photo by Olav Rokne)

for science fiction and fantasy fiction, and another 60 or so defunct awards that were at some point handed out annually. These range from broad-based awards intended to showcase popular works, to regional and national awards, to awards for narrow niches in the genre, to those dedicated to advancing a specific ideology within genre fiction.

There are in fact enough award systems to warrant the effort of analysis to help decide which awards are worth paying attention to. Of course, dichotomous and divisive “success or failure” judgments are less useful than comparing how they’re organized and speculating about what might contribute to a robust and respected award. Examining the growing pains of recently created awards and thinking about why several smaller awards have managed to establish long-term relevance can also be helpful.

In our opinion, there are several major factors that can contribute to an awards system being perceived as having legitimacy: a track record of recognizing works that are broadly accepted as having enduring value; a consistent democratic and transparent process with accountability checks; and having a differentiated mandate that serves some segment of fandom.

The Weight of History

While subjecting awards to a ranking is, well, subjective, Hugo-winning fan writer Mike Glyer made a valiant effort to crowdsource a ranking of the top genre awards last year (though two of the awards listed have since changed their names). This gave fans a way to weigh in on which awards they felt were the most prestigious.

With slight variations, Glyer’s list falls roughly into chronological order by the date of these awards being established. The Hugos are at the top of the list, and that's probably in part because they are old, and have had the time to build a community and recognize more works that people love. In contrast, the Arthur C. Clarke Award jury never had an opportunity to hand out a trophy to the novel Dune.

Over time repetition becomes tradition, and tradition accrues the patina of respectability. However, reading fanzines and Worldcon publications from when the Hugos began in the mid-1950s, one gets a sense that the award did not engender much respect until later — many convention reports of the day limit coverage of the awards to statements such as “Some people won some awards.” In 1955, fan Wallace Weber describes the awards as the “low point of the convention.”

The Power of Process

The lack of respect shown to the Hugos during their early years may have to do with the inconsistent and ad hoc process by which the award was organized. Although always based on a public vote, the rules by which that vote took place varied from year to year, the categories on the ballot seemed to change randomly, and even the eligibility dates were wildly inconsistent.

Although it would be unfair to hold Hugo Awards of the 1950s to the same standards of process as modern awards, examining their stumbles, and how the process has evolved can be instructive.

The much-lamented presentation of the 1955 Hugo for best novel to Mark Clifton and Frank Reily’s
They'd Rather Be Right (AKA
The Forever Machine) would be
unlikely to win under modern
Hugo Awards balloting.
(Image via Wikipedia) 

They’d Rather Be Right actually points to the problems posed by a poorly engineered awards process. At that time, Hugo votes were cast via a write-in ballot and one-stage system. Thus, it was relatively easy for the award to go to a book that was loved by a small-but-enthusiastic group of fans, and to ignore the mainstream opinion. 

The creation of the WSFS constitution in 1963, and the subsequent gradual refinement of a relatively transparent awards voting system that balances participatory engagement with accountability has led to the Hugo process becoming one of the most robust. Although there have been a handful of attempts to subvert the award (such as the 1989 ballot-stuffing incident), these have been largely unsuccessful, which speaks to the quality of the process, and the dedication of WSFS business meeting participants.

Similarly, other recognizable awards have well-defined and robust procedures for selecting winners. The Nebulas, the Locus Award, the Clarke Award, the BSFA Award, are all open and consistent in their process; which engenders trust in the system among those paying attention.

There is a long tradition of inconsistent and ad-hoc processes in awards that have since faded from memory. It will be interesting to see if current attempts to launch new major awards will learn from or be plagued by these same errors of process. In particular, strong communication and clear focus are critical to establishing a long-running award.

Specific Focus

One of the reasons for the Hugo Awards’ survival through several years in which the process was irregular, and the award-winners were inconsistent, may have been that they had a specific mandate that was un-served by other contemporaneous literary awards: they were at the time the only game in town when it came to science fiction awards. Newer awards do not have that luxury; unless they are in some
It seems unlikely that a work 
like The Unincorporated Man
would gain much attention 
from mainstream awards. 
But the Prometheus Award
appeals to a specific niche. 
(Image via Amazon)

way different from the Hugos and Nebulas, they will likely continue to be compared unfavorably to the more established awards.

Perhaps proving the point, several awards have succeeded in part by finding their niche. For more than four decades, the Libertarian Futurist Society has recognized achievement in science fiction (and occasionally fantasy) that conforms to their worldview with the Prometheus Award. Similarly, the Otherwise Award (formerly known as the Tiptree) has an almost three-decade history of recognizing works of science fiction that explore an understanding of gender.

These may be narrow, and socio-political, categories, but the fact that the organizers and juries are up-front about their purpose helps them build a community willing to ensure sustainability.

The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall is an excellent book, but appealed to too niche an audience to get Hugo or Nebula consideration. By recognizing The Carhullan Army, the Otherwise Award fulfilled a purpose by helping the book find new audiences.

When starting a new award for science fiction or fantasy, members of the general fannish public will always wonder “why should I pay attention to this award, rather than to the more established awards?” Having a clear mandate helps answer this existential question.

Doing it well

An example of a new award that seems to have been set up for long-term success can be found in the IGNYTE Award. The award was founded in 2020 by editors of FIYAH Magazine to “celebrate the vibrancy and diversity of the current and future landscapes of science fiction, fantasy.” Between this statement and FIYAH Magazine’s mission to promote works by BIPOC creators, the award has a relatively clear mandate (and one that has historically been underserved by existing awards).

Additionally, the award founders provided a clear description of the selection process: a 15-person jury to create a short-list, followed by public voting. Given that this award has been around for less than a year, it’s impossible to say whether that process will be robust and consistent, but they have clearly put thought into the process, and how it will fulfill the award’s mandate.

Conclusion

All awards systems have their structural biases, and the collective biases of the people making the selections. This is unavoidable and obvious in all areas of creative output.

Awards systems are by their very nature political; it is an expression of power dynamics to elevate one work over another, even when those deciding what gets elevated are doing so in good faith. It is therefore important to recognize the difference between suggesting that an award “got it wrong” with a selection, and suggesting that the entire awards system is invalid.

It is easy to find several examples through the years of reactionary awards systems that were created in protest of the decision made by more prominent awards. When they’re created with integrity and honesty about the political motivations, more new awards can add a lot of value to the evolving conversation about genre works.

But when the creators of an award offer little more than a vague declaration that the mainstream awards “are broken,” one has to question the motivation.

Sunday, 6 December 2020

Even Charles Stross' worst book is pretty good

If we select nominations for Best Series based on a representative title being released in 2020, The

Laundry Files may not make the grade. But if we are choosing nominations based on the strength of the entire series, then Charles Stross’s decades-long Laundry Files series is nearly a lock for our ballots.

This is not to say that Dead Lies Dreaming is a let-down. Rather, it’s an uneven book that doesn’t always showcase the strengths of the series, or Stross’ rich imagination.

Taking place in a London transformed by the rise of the dark and eldritch forces unleashed during the events of the previous few Laundry Files novels, Dead Lies Dreaming follows the exploits of a group of marginalized youths who support themselves through magic-based crime. Through various circumstances — and family connections — they become embroiled in a plot to travel back in time and secure a rare and dangerous tome of magic.

As always with Stross, there’s a fair degree of on-point criticism of capitalism’s excesses, much of which lands well. The sections in which he uses the point of view of the marginalized youths to examine the completely bizarre housing market in the United Kingdom, are perspicacious, witty, and sad.

One of the strongest scenes — and perhaps the most difficult to read because it hits so close to home — involves a visit to a long-term care facility. Stross writes the section with a keen eye for the real-world horrors of old age, dementia, and under-resourced nursing staff.
Those who have spent time at privatized seniors
care facilities will find Stross' insightful writing
about such places to be harrowing.
(Image via Chilliwack Progress



Where Dead Lies Dreaming falls down as a book is that it’s hard to get a handle on any of the characters as people. Several of them seem interesting at first — particularly police officer / thief taker Wendy Deere, and corporate power-broker Eve. Stross has introduced a large and diverse cast, but doesn’t develop many of them beyond sketch work.

Stross has made a clean break here from all the previous books in the series. The story barely even mentions any of the existing characters, does not tie into the overall story arc, and doesn’t even touch on the spycraft that had been the unifying theme for the series. This makes one wonder whether this book might have been better-served by being pared down, streamlined, and released as something wholly separate.

It has been almost a decade since Charles Stross penned a novel that was not a sequel to one of his previous books. Dead Lies Dreaming is still a sequel, but in some ways it is a welcome change in that it stands alone far more than most of his recent novels. Some might even find it a better entry point to the world of the Laundry Files than several of the previous books. But is this a world that is worth devoting many more books to? Only Stross can pull that off, and we think he could, but is he ready to move on? Dead Lies Dreaming leaves us hoping he might be.

Saturday, 14 November 2020

The Vanished Birds soars

Rich with anthropological detail and criticism of market-driven ideologies, Simon Jimenez’ debut novel is a puzzle that rewards those with the patience to figure out how all the pieces fit together.
(image via Goodreads)


The novel’s sections appear at first to be distinct from each other. Readers begin by learning about a child growing up in an early agrarian society visited by space ships about every dozen years. Next they’re swept into the story of a merchant vessel from an advanced mercantile civilization reliant on exploiting planets like the one in the first chapter. Finally, the novel becomes an adventure about the rescue of a lost crew member.

Throughout the novel, flashbacks to a near contemporaneous earth are used to convey backstory through the eyes of Fumiko, an early architect of interstellar civilization who skips forward through time by going in and out of suspended animation.

Although various parts of the novel appealed to various book club members differently, there was a consensus that Jimenez’ writing is excellent. Some of us were drawn in by the first chapter while others were worried it was setting up a more wunderkind YA narrative. Using a subsistence farmer’s point of view in the first chapter served to create context for the subsequent stories.

There was even sharper disagreement about the flashbacks. Some club members felt it was essential exposition about the failure of modern capitalism and the colonization of space, while others described the flashbacks as extraneous.

The final section of the novel, in which the plot hits a fairly frenetic pace, left some readers scratching their heads. The change in tone from a contemplative — almost meditative — novel, to an action-adventure is somewhat jarring. 
(Image via Backpage)


Space opera is a subgenre that has all-too-often fallen into the trap of focusing on technology, rather than imagining alternative ways that humans can organize themselves. One of the most appealing aspects of The Vanished Birds is that Jimenez weaves social commentary and structural critiques into the cultural setting. He’s skillful enough not to slap readers in the face with this, but rather offers enough detail that those who scratch beneath the surface will be rewarded.

Jimenez seems deeply versed in the history of the genre; at times paying homage to Ursula K. le Guin, and at others referencing Alfred Bester. In fact, the book could be read as a direct response to Bester’s The Stars My Destination, as one of the main characters in The Vanished Birds can jaunt like the earlier novel’s protagonist Gully Foyle — and at a whim can travel across vast distances almost instantaneously. Jimenez’ seems to be suggesting that a citizen’s ability to leave would be the ultimate subversion of corporate power. 

The Vanished Birds is a puzzling novel, and one whose pieces occasionally fit together oddly. But it is also  a smart and thoughtful book that will deeply appeal to readers looking for cultural criticism in their outer-space adventures. 

Sunday, 25 October 2020

Hugo Cinema Club: The "No Award" of 1959

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

At the 1959 Hugo Awards, three movies that are still well-remembered today vied for the title of “Best
(Image via IMDB)

Hollywood Movie.” There was The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, in which Ray Harryhausen crafted the first of his mythology-inspired adventure movies; the influential off-kilter science fiction horror in The Fly (directed by Kurt Neumann); and Christopher Lee redefined the modern vampire in the Hammer Studios version of Dracula. It was an excellent shortlist.

In a decision that looks more and more curious in retrospect, none of these films were honoured, as Hugo voters chose to present no award.

At the time, this was not a controversial choice. In the fanzine Science Fiction Times, Belle C. Dietz describes that the vote to do so was overwhelming. Writing in Fanac, Dick Eney describes people cheering as they learned that no movie would be honoured that year. The long-standing beef that many fans had with how filmmakers outside of fandom had adapted their genre to the screen seems to have been in full force that year.

It’s a shame because each of these movies has a lot of strengths, and each show differing ways in which science fiction and fantasy cinema continued to evolve.

Of the three, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is the most visually compelling, but it’s also clearly the weakest in terms of storytelling and acting. The movie follows Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) as he goes to Colossa Island, fights monsters, and gets involved in a magician’s subterfuge. The plot seems to exist mostly to take the viewer from one special effects sequence to the next, but those sequences are compelling enough to warrant a viewing.

In many ways, it is not a movie that has aged well: There are significant issues of cultural appropriation, of casting lilly-white actors to play Middle-Eastern protagonists, and the reinforcement of unfortunate
As visually impressive as any
movie made in the 1950s,
7th Voyage of Sinbad is
basically still just a kids movie.
 (Image via Classic Film)

cultural stereotypes. But the creature effects and the skeleton fight scene are epic. It pushed special effects forward so much that it was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry.

Modern viewers are probably more familiar with David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake, but the original The Fly also holds up remarkably well. Much like the remake, the 1958 original is a body horror about a man who becomes merged with a fly during an experiment in teleportation.

The narrative framing of having the story told as an extended flashback as police interrogate Hélène does a disservice to the plot. Because of this framing, viewers go into the horror knowing how the story will end, who will survive, and who will not. This unfortunately leeches some of the tension out of an otherwise first-rate science fiction horror.

The pacing of The Fly is terrific, the acting and directing are more naturalistic than was common for films of the era, and the horror of a man slowly losing himself is extremely effective. This would have been a worthy Hugo winner, and was the top pick for at least one of our viewers.
He may not have a clue and he may not have style
But everything he lacks, well, he makes up in denial.
(Image via Avalon Theatre)



But for most of our viewing group, the clear stand-out on the ballot was Dracula. From top-to-bottom, the 1958 version of Dracula has an extraordinary cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, and Melissa Stribling are all note perfect.

Despite making significant changes to the novel, it was still clearly made with care and respect for the original source material. The story may be more confined to a smaller stage, but the broad strokes are all there. And unlike previous almost-chaste adaptations of the novel, the Hammer Horror version oozes with a dark lust. This is the definitive movie version of Dracula, and should have not only won the Hugo Award, but deserved recognition from the Oscars.

All three of these movies received significant praise and commercial success outside of fandom. The 7th
Christopher Lee is the all-time
 definitive movie Dracula.
(Image via Filmschoolrejects.com)

Voyage of Sinbad
earned $6 million at the box office — more than ten times its budget. A contemporaneous review in the London Spectator praised The Fly as ‘serious,’ ‘respectable,’ and ‘ingenious.’ While Motion Picture Daily listed Dracula as one of the all-time best horror films.

Interestingly and likely relevant, 1959 was the first Hugo Awards in which “No Award” was an option, and voters chose to snub all the movies in this category. In explaining why they offered voters that choice, Worldcon publications editor George Young wrote “It was very apparent from the nominations ballots that in some categories there was no particularly outstanding selection. Because of this we have included a choice called “No award in this category.” The option was offered in three categories: Short Story, Best New Author, and Best Movie.

It is an intense shame that voters felt the need to insult these films by declaring that none of them deserved recognition. It is sometimes easier to assess the enduring merit of works with the benefit of hindsight. It seems likely that if there were Retro Hugos for 1959, modern audiences would not select “No Award.”

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Interview with Gautam Bhatia, author of The Wall

Lawyer, academic, and author Gautam Bhatia has been editing non-fiction articles at Strange
Gautam Bhatias debut novel
The Wall is the sort of book that
you keep pondering weeks after
you finish reading it. 
(Image via Amazon) 

Horizons magazine for more than five years. The Rhodes Scholar has written two non-fiction books about constitutional law, and in August saw his fiction debut The Wall released by HarperColins. The book, which is set in a city that has been trapped within an impenetrable wall for 2,000 years mixes insights into sociology, law, and the nature of rebellion. Bhatia, who is completing his PhD at Oxford, spoke via Skype with blog contributor Olav Rokne in September.   

The Wall is a powerful metaphor. Never more so than in the current political context, in which world leaders have used walls as a totemic symbol of their own xenophobia. Was this book in any way shaped by that political environment?

The idea of the wall was part of the story from the beginning. It was there when I started writing the book in 2008, long before walls … you know … really became such an unwanted part of our daily imagination. 

 But many people have always lived with walls.

I mean, the India-Bangladesh border has always inspired rhetoric about infiltration, so-called illegal migration, fences and walls. So there have been people who always suffered because of walls.


It strikes me that The Wall is actually an almost exact mirror image of what Iain M. Banks did; The Culture was entirely post-scarcity and the world of The Wall is one in which scarcity is turned up to the Nth degree.

There’s one little line where someone says that “you can vote for many things, but you can’t really vote against the wall.”

That line actually is a little sly tip of the hat to a statement made by one of the European Union commissioners when there was a popular protest movement in Italy against austerity, and he said that “look you can’t vote against the treaties.” There’s a sense that for the European Union, when a country wants to rebel against austerity, it’s treated as if they’re rebelling against the natural law of the world. How can you possibly vote against a natural law? 
 
And so I thought about what would happen if something like neoliberalism took a physical form in the shape of a wall; you literally can’t vote against The Wall.

In the world in which we live, scarcity is a rhetorical device that is used to suppress popular aspiration. What would happen if scarcity wasn’t just rhetorical, but actually physically there in front of you? 

Author Gautam Bhatia's
keen legal mind informs
his rich and nuanced 
worldbuilding. 
(Image via The Times of India)


What other writers influenced your writing?

[Ursula K.] Le Guin was a massive influence.

When I was seven or eight years old, my parents got for me a copy of the Wizard of Earthsea. There were three books I read when I was very young. One was the Hobbit, the second was the first Harry Potter (a Canadian colleague of my dad’s actually brought it from Canada when he came visiting and it hadn’t become a cult phenomenon yet), and the third was Earthsea.

At that time, I really loved Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter both. I kind of passed by them after a point, but Le Guin has been a continuing and formative influence.

Dispossessed, as you can see is a huge framing influence on this book in many ways, not just in the shape of the political conflict, but also what Le Guin kept telling us all: that we should imagine alternatives to capitalism, and that it was possible to imagine those alternatives even in constrained spaces.

There’s a scene early in your book that reminded me of The Dispossessed, how our words constrain our language, and how our languages can constrain our worlds. It’s the scene with Methila learning about the word “horizon.” I wondered if you were deliberately setting this up as a metaphor for the ways that our imagination can be constrained by a hegemonic set of ideas.

You’re right that it is a metaphor, but also I wanted to explore in literal terms what impact that kind of constrained life would have upon your language and what impact the inability to frame certain words would have upon how you could visualize certain things.

One thing that's fascinated me has been the interplay between language and the way we perceive the world. Samuel Delaney’s work was in that sense very interesting for me and more recently China Miéville’s Embassytown.

Can you tell me a little bit about the legal system, and what ideas were you trying to explore with it?

The exploration of the legal system in The Wall obviously stems from my other life as a lawyer — as a constitutional lawyer specifically.  

I realized over the years that legal structures — in a certain sense — form the hidden plumbing of the world. Many of the things that you don’t think have anything to do with the law are still very much undergirded by what the legal system allows or doesn’t allow.

[For example], the so-called free market itself is entirely a construction of a series of legal rules involving property contracts. So law is kind of the unarticulated basis of many things we do in our daily lives. It’s relatively unexplored in speculative fiction.

Law is so connected to the material realities of any society. If you were to change something as basic as having a wall that ensured a literal scarcity of resources, and created actual restraints on mobility, then the way the laws would be framed to express that material reality would also be very different. I thought it would be very interesting to explore.

Are you working on any books after these two?

Right now mentally and emotionally completely consumed by Book Two and finishing the story. I have some vague vague ideas for another series that continues to play with Ursula LeGuin’s whole idea that the task of speculative fiction writers is to imagine alternatives to capitalism. That’s just something that I’m obsessed with. I’m just thinking about how to work with that within a space opera framework.

It’s something a bit like what Iain M. Banks did, but he didn’t really explore how The Culture worked. He often focused more on the conflicts The Culture had with other non-Culture societies, and I’m more interested in how a post-capitalist space-faring society would work — how the mechanics of it might work from the inside. I just have some very very vague ideas which are completely unformed right now.

But for the moment, I’m investing my energy on Book Two and finishing that now.

Monday, 28 September 2020

A Strong Sense Of Justice

An active and ebullient presence on Twitter, Adri Joy has been blogging about science fiction for more
Adri Joy is one of the 
editors at Nerds Of A Feather.
(Image via Twitter) 

than five years.

Having joined Nerds of a Feather as one of their editors in 2019, she has written first-rate reviews and provided needed criticism. Her work deserves to be recognized and we will be putting her name on our Hugo nominating ballots in the fan writer category.

Given the fact that she is both a millennial and British, it should come as no surprise that her writing style is quippy and nuanced. Her reviews are often well-constructed, stylistically solid, and provide a strong through-line of argumentation about what makes a work compelling.

By any measure, Joy has written some of her best work in 2020. In her review of Incomplete Solutions, she provides a culturally sensitive approach to the work while not not turning a blind eye to issues surrounding gender. Her discussions with other bloggers about awards shortlists often provide both wry humour and accurate criticisms. In her blog post “Tor.com Publishing, First Become Ashes, and the pretty pastel packaging of abuse,” Joy offers an even-handed, insightful and compelling analysis of the marketing surrounding K.M. Szpara’s novels. It is this last post that is particularly illustrative of what makes Joy such an important voice in the SFF community: she is unafraid to engage with the political and social questions influencing the genre.

And on these political and social questions, Adri Joy seems motivated by a strong sense of justice. She is fierce in her defense of trans rights, gay rights, the rights of neurodiverse people, the rights of persons with disabilities, and the rights of all marginalized people. In doing so, she does not shy away from controversy, and seems more interested in integrity than popularity.

Just as important as her blogging, Joy’s presence on Twitter contributes to her standing as a first-rate fan writer. She is quick-witted, funny, and fast to find the joy in the SFF community.

There are times that some people in this book club don’t entirely agree with Joy. What is undeniable however, is that she argues with insight, passion, and tenacity. Even when we disagree with her, the debate is better for what she has to say.