Monday 26 June 2017

I read it so you don’t have to: Black Genesis

In the 64-year history of the Hugo Awards, about 300 novels have been on the shortlist. Not all of them have been great, and some have been risible. But there is no book other than Black Genesis whose inclusion is as contemptible.
The cover might offer
a clue as to some of the
racial attitudes within.
(Image via

Black Genesis by L. Ron Hubbard made it onto the Hugo Shortlist in 1987 under dubious circumstances. According to those who were involved in Conspiracy '87 (where the awards were handed out), a majority of the book’s nominating ballots were photocopies and were submitted by people who had no prior involvement with Worldcon, and who did not turn up in person for the event. 

But even if the tactics were questionable, and even if it was an unworthy book, the rules are the rules, so its nomination stands. Mr. Hubbard is immortalized as a Hugo-nominated author.

If there had to be a major push to get Hubbard a posthumous nomination, it beggars belief that Black Genesis would be the vehicle through which they chose to do so.

Not His Best Book

Hubbard was once capable of writing an engaging, entertaining fast-paced action novel. To The Stars shows his basic competence as a writer of adventure stories. Final Blackout is actually pretty good, despite fascistic themes. Battlefield Earth is silly, but surprisingly fun.
Hubbard was capable of
writing, even if some of
his books were fascistic.
(Image via

Few of these works would have necessarily warranted a Hugo nomination, but none of them would have been an insult to the nomination process. The same cannot be said about Black Genesis.  

To fully appreciate the scope of Black Genesis’ failings, one has to experience it as the second part in the 10-part Mission Earth series. The first volume (The Invaders Plan) sets up antihero protagonist Soltan Gris as the sidekick to a noble, incorruptible übermench Jettero Heller, as they are sent to Earth to prevent humanity from wiping itself out so that 50 years from now the Voltarian Empire they serve can conquer the planet.

Unbeknownst to Heller, Gris is part of the Voltarian secret police, and for arcane and labyrinthine reasons he is trying to undermine Heller.

That first (615-page) book consists of nothing but these two characters planning and outfitting their mission. Hugo-nominated novel Black Genesis starts with the pair of them arriving on Earth and beginning to set their respective schemes in motion.

Unpleasant Antihero

Gris is one of the most deeply unpleasant protagonists in all of science fiction. This is clearly intentional, since Hubbard is ham-handed in his efforts to make Gris seem like a jerk. But the intentionality does nothing to mitigate how little fun it is to read Gris’ whinging internal narrative.

L. Ron Hubbard composed a soundtrack
to the 10-volume Mission Earth series.
The official album, performed by
Edgar Winter can be listened to here.
(Image via 
Given the author’s well-known aversion to psychiatry, it will not astonish anyone that one of the primary antagonists of the book is a psychiatrist, and given his dislike of government, the depiction of the Voltarian Empire’s bureaucracy as hopelessly inept seems inevitable.

What is more surprising is the deep-seated racism, the simmering sexism, and virulent anti-gay attitudes on display. Some of this is framed as ‘satire’ or ‘social commentary.’ But if it is either of these things, it does not work.

Beyond Hubbard’s deeply unpleasant political beliefs are the underlying structural issues that undermine this bloated novel.

Often the middle part of a trilogy fails to advance the overall plot because the dénouement has to wait until the concluding book. In the case of this 10-volume series, it’s clear by the second book that nothing significant will happen until several more tomes are complete.  

Contrived and Meandering

If you like Black Genesis, there are nine
more volumes for you to read. 
So Gris and Heller spend this book (and the next) in a series of contrived happenstances that exist only as mild annoyances and opportunities for Hubbard to proselytize. The plot meanders and wanders from one example of how awful, incompetent and venal Gris is to the next, without actually advancing the character’s supposed long-term goals.

It is deeply unfortunate that this book was on the Hugo shortlist, both on a moral and on an artistic level. That being said, it does put into perspective the relative quality some other lesser nominees, and makes us appreciate their merits.

Black Genesis placed sixth out of five nominees in 1987, losing to Orson Scott Card’s Speaker For The Dead, and finishing behind ‘no award.’ It was a deserved loss.

Sunday 25 June 2017

Death’s End - Book Club Review

This is our third review of Hugo Nominated novels in 2017. The previous reviews were Closed and Common Orbit and The Obelisk Gate.

It would be difficult for any sequel to live up to Cixin Liu’s Hugo-Winning The Three Body Problem. The immediate sequel, The Dark Forest was an uneven and flawed book that had some merit. But the much-heralded conclusion of the trilogy, Death’s End, completely misses the mark.

At least the cover art is pretty cool.
(Image via 
The plot is meandering and unfocused. Protagonist Cheng Xin is first introduced as an engineering student and object of desire, and later as the swordbearer — a person tasked with protecting humanity through mutual deterrence — but then becomes a time traveller observing various eras of civilization as humanity faces one massive world-ending crisis after another.

The End Is Nigh Again

One of the recurring themes in “big” science fiction is the impending end of the world. In Death’s End, the end of the world is nigh on no fewer than six occasions, only to be averted suddenly through deux et machina each time.  The frequency of these calamities within the book, and how precipitously they are forgotten devalues them, and left our book group struggling to care.

The character of Cheng Xin is one of the weakest parts of the book, as none of us were really able to understand her motivations or her personality. She’s faced with conflict after conflict throughout the book, and presented with a wide variety of moral dilemmas, but through it all she remains a cypher.

In the previous two books the author wrote from several points of view other than the main character.
Cixin Liu is China's most
popular SF author.
(Image via
Death’s End focuses almost solely on Cheng Xin, with just a brief portion from Tianming’s perspective. This leaves other interesting characters — like Luo Ji and Wade — on the sidelines. The omission of their perspectives is a missed opportunity that points to the lack of depth in the book.

Everything And The Kitchen Sink

Characters, however, do not seem to be what Liu is interested in as an author. He is a writer who likes to tackle ‘big ideas,’ and this book is jammed full of ‘big’ science fictional ideas: the weaponization of space-time geometry; societally determined gender selection; interstellar mutual deterrence; manipulating the speed of light; and the inevitable heat death of the universe.

If Liu had focused on one of these ideas instead of jumping from one to the next, the book might have been stronger. Both concepts and plot elements are suddenly dropped and never mentioned again. A whole chapter is dedicated to a black hole, which turns out to be entirely irrelevant. Human civilization is on the brink of war, but Cheng Xin miraculously stops the war in less than a page, at which point it becomes irrelevant.

Men Are From Mars Or Wherever

Some of us were troubled by the sexist assumptions that underpin portions of Death’s End’s plot. During a peaceful era that Cheng Xin explores, men are 'feminized' and indistinguishable from women, because according to the author, men are only needed for conflict. It’s an attitude that is demeaning to women, because it’s suggested they cannot deal with conflicts without men, and it’s demeaning to men because it suggests that all they are good for is fighting.

Because the book lacks any focus, and because Liu’s ideas are never fully explored, Death’s End ends up being less than the sum of its parts. The scattered plot, the scant development of these ideas, and the lack of human characters make this an unworthy nominee. Two years ago, most of our group voted for The Three Body Problem. This year, none of us are likely to rank Death’s End very high on our Hugo Ballot.

Monday 12 June 2017

1947 Hugos Part Two: The Short Stories

This is our second blog post about the 1947 Retro Hugo awards. The first part on the novels was published last week.  

While the 200-some Worldcon attendees in Philadelphia might have few novels to  consider, 1946
Influential British SF mag
New Worlds hit the stands
over the summer of 1946
(Image via Wikipedia)
had been a spectacular year for short fiction.

Perhaps because of the shorter publishing turnaround times, the post-war fiction boom gave short fiction a massive boost.

There were only ten pulp magazines specializing in science fiction, after the war-time restrictions had forced many of them out of business, but the few that remained were starting to recover and to publish more frequently. In 1946, the magazines Astounding and Amazing Stories had returned to monthly publication, and with that, were attracting new writers. That summer in the U.K., the magazine New Worlds was launched, and would go on to become a major force over the next 20 years.

Home from the war

Shortly after being demobilized from the British Air Force, Arthur C. Clark had his first byline, sold to John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction. The story, “Loophole,” published in April, and later stories that year showed promise, but have aged poorly. They are unlikely Hugo Nominees, unless buoyed by a wave of nostalgia.

Although Isaac Asimov only published one short story, “Evidence” it is clearly a high point in his  
Isaac Asimov's letter to Orson Welles
can be seen at Indiana University's
Lilly Library in Bloomington
It has not been made available online.
(Image via  
robot stories. Dealing with the trial of someone accused of being a robot imposter, this story was famously optioned by Orson Welles, and might have become the legendary director’s follow-up to Citizen Kane. Asimov’s enthusiastic letter to Welles is well-worth reading, as is the story.

One of the most poetic works to hit the newsstands that year was Clifford D. Simak’s “Hobbies.” It’s an elegiac tale of the last, dwindling city of humans amusing themselves to death as robots and intelligent genetically engineered dogs begin building their own civilization. It deserves serious consideration, not only for the richness of the language, but for its interesting musings on a post-scarcity society.

The Twilight Zone-esque twist ending of "Vintage Season" by Catherine L. Moore shouldn’t be spoiled. But this moody and affecting time travel story might just be the high point of her writing career. It’s dark, and slightly funny, and has inspired many imitators. The alienness — and humanity — of her time travelling visitors from the future is memorable, as is the sorrowfulness of the story.

Astounding Science Fiction
had an astonishing year.
The March edition included
"A Logic Named Joe."
(Image via
With the virtue of hindsight, Murray Leinster seems like Nostradamus with the story “A Logic Named Joe.” He predicts with eerie accuracy a network of home computers that everyday Americans use to look up sports scores, watch TV on demand, and make Skype calls. The plot — which involves a home computer (a “logic”) waking up and causing chaos — is fairly simple, but interesting for the time. Unfortunately, the prose style — a first-person vernacular patter — has not aged well, and may turn off some Hugo voters.

Having just re-read these stories — and a few other strong short stories from 1946 — in preparation for this blog post, it’s hard to pick between them for the retro Hugo. It probably comes down to "Vintage Season" or "A Logic Named Joe." But this is one year where any of a dozen stories could legitimately win without raising an eyebrow.

1946 was a great year for short fiction.

Sunday 4 June 2017

Retro Hugos 1947 (Part One: Novels)

If there had been Hugo awards presented in 1947, they would have been awarded at Philcon 1.
The fifth and possibly
largest Worldcon to that date
(Image via

The fifth Worldcon came to Philadelphia during a time of change and optimism for the city. The local baseball team, the Athletics, was in the process of snapping a multi-decade losing streak. The peace-time economy was providing new opportunities and prosperity to the diverse city. And the Philadelphia Free Library was experiencing an event of high psychokinetic activity that would later become known as the ‘Philadelphia Mass Turbulence of 1947.'

Science Fiction was at a turning point. Herbert George Welles, the titan of the genre, had just died. Up-and-comers of the pulp era were being discharged from the armed forces and returning to writing.

Three major figures in Science Fiction at the time worked at the Philadelphia naval yards: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague DeCamp, all of whom attended the convention.

Post-War Boom

The convention was possibly the biggest to date — the first one since the original Worldcon to break the 200-person mark in attendance.
Left to right, Heinlein, DeCamp and
Asimov in at the Philadelphia Naval
Yards in 1944. (Image via Wikipedia)

There were no Hugo awards presented at Philcon 1, as the awards wouldn’t be introduced for another five years, but it’s interesting to imagine the context in which these awards might have been presented. The awards would have recognized works published the previous year — the first year of post-war publishing.

Twenty-seven-year-old Isaac Asimov had written prolifically during the war, but only had one story up for consideration for the awards that year.  Robert A. Heinlein — in the middle of his second divorce — had turned his attention to political writing, rather than Science Fiction. Several other significant authors who served in the war weren’t able to return to writing until late 1946.

De Camp had only one short story to his name that year. James Blish published no novels that year. Nor did Nelson S. Bond.  Fritz Lieber’s name was not on any dust jacket.

Likely Nominations

Which would have left Hugo nominating committees with a dearth of works to recognize in the long-form categories. It would have been an unusually lopsided ballot, with three real contenders, and one truly outstanding work.  
A classic that is a product
of its time.
(Image via Wikipedia) 

The Skylark of Space was revised and expanded from E.E. Doc Smith’s much earlier short stories, and first saw print as a novel in 1946. It’s a deeply influential book, and was probably the most popular at the time. But it has aged more poorly than many books of the era, possibly betraying its earlier history from pre-John W. Campbell pulp magazines.

Canadian expatriate A.E. Van Vogt had moved to Hollywood in 1946, where he edited together his popular Slan stories into a novel that is an influential classic today. It is hard to imagine that it would have failed to make the Hugo shortlist had there been one, but since it won a Retro Hugo a few years back (for the serialized version in 1941), it is not eligible to be a contender for the 1947 Retro Hugo.

Which leaves Mervyn Peake’s masterpiece Titus Groan as the undisputed frontrunner for the 1947 Retro Hugo. 

Moody Masterpiece

Titus Groan — the first of the Gormenghast novels — is a singularly impressive book. The setting is richly imagined, evocative, moody and alive. The language is complex and nuanced (if a little florid and rococo at times).  The plot is ponderous, but well realized, and despite being unfinished because of Peake’s death, ultimately satisfying.
Image via

If we were to list the greatest books that are usually classified as ‘fantasy,’ Titus Groan would be challenged for the top spot only by The Fellowship of the Ring and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

But although it’s usually classified as ‘fantasy,’ Titus Groan (and the rest of the Gormenghast novels) do not contain any overtly fantastical elements.

It’s a series of palace intrigues set in a sprawling, arcane, labyrinthine castle, the likes of which does not, and has never existed. But it could have. The royal family is stranger and older than any medieval family — but not impossibly so.  Which begs the question: What is the edge of Science Fiction and Fantasy? Is this a book that we should be honouring with a Hugo Award?

Despite this major question, it seems inconceivable that Titus Groan should fail to garner both a Hugo nomination and the award. It’s just too good not to.

We look forward to voting for it on our ballot.

Do you have suggestions for works that might be worthy of consideration for the 1947 Retro Hugos that we may have missed? Please comment on this post. 

Friday 2 June 2017

A Closed And Common Orbit — Book Club Review

This is the second book that our book club has discussed. Previously, we reviewed The Obelisk Gate.

Becky Chamber’s sophomore effort is a book of hidden depths. The more we talked about this book, the more we found to like in it.

Image via
Although it appears at first to be a relatively simple work that might have been too juvenile for serious consideration, A Closed And Common Orbit’s cleverly paralleled storylines and focus on well-developed characters make it a serious contender for our votes.

A companion piece, not a sequel

Set as they are in the same universe, it is hard to discuss A Closed And Common Orbit without comparing it to Chambers’ first novel Long Way To A Small And Angry Planet.

Leading off from Chamber’s debut novel, this book explores the lives of two incidental characters from the earlier work, but does not continue any overarching plot. It’s pleasant to note that A Closed And Common Orbit is enriched by, but was not dependent on, the author’s previous book. Those in our book club who had not read the previous book did not feel like they were at a disadvantage.

While themes of fitting in and finding a family of accepting friends recur throughout the two novels, the first was a fast-paced (if uneven) adventure novel, while the more recent book is a coming of age story.

Twin narratives

That journey into adulthood is what Chambers does so well in this book. Of the two parallel stories being told in the book, we felt that the one focusing on the character of Jane (AKA Pepper) is the most engaging. Some felt her observations are written with a significant level of insight into child psychology.

But the story of Sidra — a shipboard AI who has been installed into a humanoid body — counterpoints the first narrative well. While Jane’s struggles are about physical and emotional survival, Sidra’s challenges are about identity and finding a social space. Sidra’s confusion and dismorphia were well imagined, which left us with a lot to think about.

Image via the author's
There are no grand statements here, just quiet and human observations about coming of age without a ‘traditional’ support system, and about finding a way to fit in. This is a split timeline tale of abandonment, friendship, acceptance and hope.

This is not a book about saving the galaxy, fighting a war, or stopping some great evil — the stakes are entirely human, and perhaps this is one of the book’s greatest strengths. It’s a human-scale story to which many will relate.

Written to be understood

The prose is clear, crisp, brisk, informal and modern. Chambers has her own voice, but is not too in love with the sound it. This is simply written, without navelgazing or overly precious phrases.

This is a novel that one can hand to a friend who does not read science fiction, and expect them to enjoy it. There's a lot of value in that. 

Generic Space Setting

Becky Chambers’ strength is not world building. Both of her books so far feature fungible aliens from central casting, off-the-shelf worlds, and a feel-good interstellar society not dissimilar from the United Federation of Planets.

But this is actually not a bad thing, since digging into the world doesn’t detract from what’s important in the book: the relationships and the characters. Numerous novels in recent years have been marred by too much focus on the universe, and not enough focus on the characters.

Amongst a bevvy of nominees in which the narratives are epic and bombastic, the humanity of A Closed And Common Orbit stands out. Amongst a group books whose prose is opaque and whose language is obfuscatory, the clarity and readability of A Closed And Common Orbit stands out.

Nobody in our group disliked the book — which is rare. And some of the members of our club are likely to put this at or near the top of their Hugo ballot.