Saturday 29 July 2017

Too Many Sequels

It's worth noting that the majority of this year's Best Novel Hugo Award shortlist is comprised of books that are either the first part in a series, or the sequel to another work.

In fact, only one of the six novels on this year's shortlist (All The Birds In The Sky) is a standalone work.

This is not the first time in recent memory that the shortlist has been dominated by sequels, prequels, or works in a shared universe. But it is part of a larger trend, and it's one that worries us. 

In the 1960s, 88 per cent of the Hugo shortlist was comprised of standalone novels. From 2001 to 2010, 56 per cent of Hugo shortlisted novels were standalone works. In the first seven years of this decade, the statistic has fallen to 27 per cent (ten of the 36 novels shortlisted).

The problem with sequels

There's a place for sequels: perhaps a story has too large a scope to be contained in one volume, or perhaps the author has created a universe in which multiple ideas can be explored. Some fine
Some sequels tackle new
ideas and new conflicts.
(Image via
examples of this are Vernor Vinge's Deepness In The Sky and Orson Scott Card's Speaker For The Dead

But it could be suggested that the idea of a series of templated sequels is philosophically antithetical to what Science Fiction is about, and therefore what we think the Hugos should celebrate: new ideas. 

With few exceptions, sequels are not about new ideas. By the time Lois McMaster Bujold wrote Captain Vorpatril's Alliance in 2012, was there ground left to cover in the Vorkosigan Saga that hadn't been explored in the previous dozen books?

More troubling is the fact that sequels, prequels and series make works less accessible to new readers. Anyone can pick up and read Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man without feeling that they've missed something important. The same cannot be said for Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars, which is an excellent novel, but one that we have qualms about having been honoured with a Hugo because it is not accessible to new readers.

Without pointing fingers at anyone in particular, sometimes, for some authors, producing endless populist sequels can be a crutch. And these sequels will get nominations because of a small, dedicated, fervent group of fans. 

Books written as the first part in a trilogy, or a series, are more defensible as Hugo nominees, but can still have their issues - how can we judge a story that is left incomplete? If the first book in a trilogy does not stand on its own, can it still be Hugo worthy?

All awards systems have biases

One of the things that gives the Hugos legitimacy, prompts so much great discussion, and engages so many fans is how democratically the awards are run and juried. But the open and democratic system we have for the Hugos should not blind us to the structural biases of the awards, including this
In retrospect, should
Becky Chambers' self-
published debut have
made the shortlist?
(Image via
increasing bias towards sequels.

We suspect this bias exists through no ill intent, but mostly because it can take a while for readers to hear about a standalone work, or something from a new author, or a book that becomes a word-of-mouth phenomenon. So these types of works are sometimes overlooked. A good example of this is Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, which Becky Chambers self-published in 2014. We would argue that it missed the shortlist in part because it didn't reach a wide audience of Hugo Award voters until it was republished the subsequent year. 

These biases are understandable — the books we're likeliest to nominate are the ones we've read prior to the nomination deadline, and that is in turn driven by which ones we're likeliest to have run out and bought on the day they hit the shelves. 

We already know that we want the sequel to a book we've already read, and we know we're going to enjoy the latest book by our favourite author. And so the same Hugo voters will reward books by the authors they already know. This probably contributes to the fact that there hasn't been a Hugo shortlist of all first-time nominees since 1963. 

As with all biases, we're better off when we acknowledge their existence, try to mitigate their effects, and act with intentionality.

Trends in publishing

Clearly, these biases have existed since the dawn of the Hugo awards. But I suspect that trends in publishing are exacerbating the issue. 

Fewer novels are being published in mass-market paperback than in previous decades, as publishing
In my opinion, the first
book of Mission Earth
would have been a less
offensive nomination.
houses focus on the pricier (higher profit margin) trade paperbacks instead. The gap in time between hardback publication and either format of paperback has grown from an average of 12 months in the 1990s to approximately 18 months today (for those works that ever even see a paperback publication). This makes newer works purchased in book stores less accessible than in previous decades. 

And of course, publishers *like* sequels because they're easily marketable. I would wager that there are significantly more serialized and sequelized books that are hitting the shelves today than there were in previous decades. 

Compounding this trend is the rise of electronic publishing, which might have reduced costs for consumers looking to buy a new volume, but doesn't provide the same opportunity to browse bookshelves to discover new authors and new works. Although we don't have any data to back this up, we suspect that one is less likely to try out a work from a new author on a Kindle than while browsing at the local book store. It is easy, however, to choose and download a sequel. 

It's easier to be a passive consumer than it is to seek out new works. 

Where do we go from here? 

Lets be honest about it, Hugos 2018 starts right now with the books that people are reading this summer. 

If you are someone who has a ConJose membership, or if you are likely to get one in time to
Does the Fifth Season
trilogy need another
Hugo nomination?
(Image via
nominate works, we would encourage you start figuring out your ballot. 

Give some thought to accessibility, to sequelitis, and to which worthy authors have *never* gotten a Hugo nod. And maybe pick up a standalone novel you might not otherwise give a chance to — try Kameron Hurley's The Stars Are Legion or Omar El Akkad's American War

N.K. Jemisin's Fifth Season was a worthwhile winner last year, and most of our book club voted for it. But does the trilogy deserve getting a third book nominated for essentially a continued exploration of the same ideas? We'd suggest that the space on the 2018 Hugo ballot might be better served with an author who has yet to receive this kind of recognition. 

Friday 28 July 2017

Ninefox Gambit — Book Club Review

Image via
The horrors of war, sacrifice and a theocratic-fascist society are at the forefront of Yoon Ha Lee’s debut novel, that also happens to be a less-than-typical military science fiction novel.

The novel primarily follows two characters: Cheris, a living soldier with a gift for math, and Jedao, a brilliant, undead general and feared mass murderer. To up the tension between the two, Lee places both characters in Cheris’ body. Together, the two must face a “heretical” enemy that is altering the fabric of reality with “calendrical rot.”

The universe of Cheris and Jedao isn’t well-explained by Lee, who instead throws readers out of the boat to teach them to swim. There isn’t much description of the technology, the different cultures and castes, the boundaries between science and what some of us saw as ritualistic magic (ie. blood sacrifices at holidays), or how seemingly basic things work. Most of our group wasn’t bothered by this approach, and it lead to many comparisons to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. In fact, we enjoyed discussing how we came to understand the mechanics of the story’s setting. For example, some of us interpreted the frequent references to “calendar” as a type of math (ie. instead of calculus, it’s calendar), while others saw calendars as a means of creating a uniform collective unconscious or psychic energy able to affect certain technologies.

While maybe a paragraph explaining the meaning of “calendar” in this context would have been welcome, we respected that Lee probably cut down the page count by half with the approach he took. Lee’s efficient prose reflects the militaristic society and the war genre. Lee never shies away from the gruesomeness of war and the remarkable tyranny of the theocratic-fascist society he creates, which elevates Ninefox Gambit beyond the average military science fiction story. In Lee’s universe, war is not to be celebrated or enjoyed; it is awful, brutal and at least two characters recognize that it needs to be stopped. 

Beyond Ancillary Justice, this book opened up a lot of comparisons to some of this year’s other Hugo-nominated books: the absence of variety in species/culture in contrast to A Closed and Common Orbit, the lack of defined gender roles unlike Death’s End, community service as a punishment in the criminal justice system in Too Like the Lightning and the boundaries of magic between science, as seen in Obelisk Gate and our final book club read, All the Birds in the Sky.

While we all doubted that it would win the Hugo, at least one of us thought it was the best novel on the shortlist and we are ready to see where the rest of the series goes.

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Who owns the robot?

Guest post by Michael Hoskin, Calgarian friend to the club

Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou is one of the greatest films of the silent era and perhaps the first truly great science fiction film.

The film’s robot is the most widely-circulated image of the film, despite its brief appearance in robotic form. Despite this — from All-Star Squadron’s Mekanique to Star Wars’ C-3PO — the Metropolis robot has endured as an icon.

Yet in its time, the world’s nascent science fiction community did not entirely appreciate the film. H.
Instantly recognizable, the robot from
Metropolis has influenced generations
of Science Fiction movie designers.
(Image via )  
G. Wells wrote a blistering review of the picture for the New York Times, opening by stating: “I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier.” I encourage you to seek out Wells’ review – not simply to witness one of the medium’s great masters behaving curmudgeonly, but to consider the matter he raises concerning intellectual property.

In the review, Wells objected to Metropolis’ robot on the grounds that robots were the invention of Karel Čapek, playwright of R.U.R. (1920). Wells wrote: “Rotwang, the inventor, is making a Robot, apparently without any license from Capek, the original patentee.”

Some would perhaps argue the concept of a robot goes back much earlier than 1920, pointing to various ‘mechanical men.’ Other scholars point to the robot being a direct descendant of the Jewish lore about Golems or Hephaestus’ golden women in Greek myth.

Wells admitted Čapek owed at least a little to Frankenstein: “Čapek’s Robots have been lifted without apology, and that soulless mechanical monster of Mary Shelley's, who has fathered so many German inventions, breeds once more in this confusion.”

In certain corners of the world there are arguments being made about intellectual property, particularly where copyright is concerned. Due in part to vigorous lawmaking on behalf of the Walt Disney Company, the period in which it takes before a work enters the public domain seems to grow larger and larger.

Even the Killbots from Chopping Mall
owe a debt to Karel Capek's R.U.R.
(Image via
One argument is that copyright enables property to be properly curated; as counterpoint, Mike Masnick argued in Do Bad Things Happen When Works Enter the Public Domain? The Data Says... No that copyright was actually working to prevent the circulation of ideas rather than encourage it.

The argument of copyright versus public domain is too large to delve into here, but as a thought experiment, let us consider what Wells had to say about Metropolis. Suppose Karel Čapek were the only person permitted to tell stories about robots. What would science fiction look like today were that the case? Do not presume to tell me it is an unreasonable idea – using a Harlan Ellison concept without crediting him will net you one angry lawsuit. If you wrote a story containing ‘transporters,’ ‘phasers,’ and ‘photon torpedoes,’ Paramount would take you to court. Write a story wherein your energy weapon is called a ‘lightsaber’ and the House of Mouse will send you a zip-a-dee-do-deposition.

Would Metropolis still have worked without the robot? Suppose the antagonists had simply surgically altered an agent to resemble Maria rather than a robot doing the work – how would it have changed the story?

Without the robot, whither the android? The cyborg? The cyberpunk? Would we be bereft of Robby the Robot? No wisecracking droids in Star Wars? Would Isaac Asimov have died penniless in an alley? Would life be worth living without Heartbeeps? Has science fiction not flourished from the lack of provincialism surrounding ideas in Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.? And if this is so, where else has the genre benefited from the free trade of concepts?

Friday 14 July 2017

Too Like The Lightning — Book Club Review

No book has divided our book club as much as Ada Palmer's Too Like The Lightning.

While half the group decided its inventive world building put it at the top of their ballots, the other
One of the most
ambitious novels of
2016 divided our club.
Image via
half ranked it below "No Award."

That being said, there was some common ground: the dense prose and awkward narration were a significant barrier to our enjoyment of the novel, and the speculation about the evolution of social dynamics was engaging and enjoyable.

The book is set in a 25th Century that has abolished all organized religions, abandoned nation states, dispensed with the family unit as we know it, and as far as is possible gotten rid of gender differences. Thus stripped of most of the root causes of conflict, the human race has known peace.

Narrated from the point of view of Mycroft, a convict serving a life sentence of community service, the story involves a theft, religious miracles, and the undermining of the checks and balances that has kept this utopian system stable for most of the previous two centuries.

Unrestrained prose poses problems

The most prominent flaws in the book — that our group almost universally had troubles with — are related to the narrative voice. Mycroft tells his story in the style of Greco-Roman personal histories, complete with interjections, dialogues with an imagined reader, and unnecessary passages in Latin. This dense prose obfuscated the larger ideas that the author was playing with.

It is an ambitious novel, but there was some debate in the group about how fully that ambition was realized.

The claims that the family unit no longer exists are undermined by the familial bonds that govern the protagonist's home life. The statements about the lack of nation states and nationalism are undermined by the geopolitics. And the repeated declarations that gender no longer exists are undermined by the narrator's obsession with gendering each person you meet.

Author Ada Palmer's career as a historian
informs and influences her writing style.
This may present some barriers to readers
who are unused to dense prose.
Photo via

Some of our book club saw these as deliberate authorial choices in order to make a point about the immutability of human nature, but others saw it as the author not being able to follow her philosophical ideas to their logical conclusions.

Too Like The Lightning spends more time on world building than telling a story or character, perhaps because it is the first part in a four-part series. Because of this, the book drags in sections, especially when the narrator is spending full chapters on an infodump about enlightenment philosophy and how it informs 25th Century society.

Her aversion to paragraphs and tendency to overwrite simple scenes will likely feel tedious to many readers. It's clear that Palmer's day job as a historian has found a creative outlet and her fellow travellers will likely enjoy the cadence of the long passages. For many in our group, it felt contrived.

Stylistic Nostalgia

The pseudohistorical style of writing was reminiscent of Theodore Judson's excellent novels Fitzpatrick's War and The Martian General's Daughter, as well as Robert Charles Wilson's Hugo-nominated Julian Comstock. Ada Palmer has taken this style of writing to a more extreme level, but there is debate over whether she has accomplished the style as successfully as those previous works.

Despite these flaws, one member of our book club felt that Too Like The Lightning was not just the best of the Hugo nominees this year, but the best book he had read in several years. Although he stands alone in this assertion, it is clear that this is a book that will have a very strong appeal to some readers.

Thursday 13 July 2017

Hugo Award 2017 Odds and Ends

There are only two days left to cast ballots on the Hugo Awards for 2017, and a lot of topics we haven’t had an opportunity to delve into on the blog. Given the short window of time, we’re just going to touch on some of the categories and nominees that probably deserve more discussion.

We don’t want to spill too much ink over the dramatic presentation categories, as this blog is mostly focused on the written fiction categories. That being said, Arrival is one of the most thoughtful and compelling big screen science fiction movies in ages. Let the Golden Globes offer their plaudits to Hidden Figures, and let the MTV Movie Awards shower praise onto Deadpool. Arrival is the type of movie that the Hugo Award for Dramatic Presentation – Long Form exists to celebrate.

In the Dramatic Presentation – Short Form category, “Leviathan Wakes” from The Expanse will get
The Expanse is great Science Fiction that
deserves to get some Hugo love.
Image via
our votes. It’s a good episode of a truly science fictional series that needs to get more love. Game of Thrones already has two Hugos, Doctor Who already has five (and “Doctor Mysterio” was kind of an awful episode). The experimental hip-hop album Splendor & Misery (from Hamilton alumnus Daveed Diggs) is interesting, but ultimately not to our tastes.

Give these editors their due

For Best Editor – Long Form, we’re going to put Liz Gorinsky at the top of our list. She’s nurtured some brilliant talent, seems to be nominated every year in this category, but she’s never been handed the trophy. Navah Wolfe’s work at Saga Press also should not go unnoticed.

Neil Clark of Clarksworld deserves
to finally win himself a Hugo
Image via LinkedIn
In the Best Editor – Short Form category, it’s a battle of perennial nominees, with 36 nominations between the six finalists. Our votes are going to Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld Magazine. He’s never won the award, and Clarksworld had a brilliant 2016. Literally everyone in this category deserves the award this year, so it’ll be difficult to rank our ballots.

It’s interesting to note that Sana Takeda’s excellent illustration work has been recognized both in the best Professional Artist category and in the Best Graphic Story category for the comic book series Monstress (which we wrote about earlier). Best Professional Artist is a category that really comes down to a matter of taste, but for our money, Galen Dara should take home the trophy for how varied her art is in tone and palette. Compare her cover of Lightspeed Magazine Issue 80 to the one she did for Uncanny Magazine Issue 10. The former is moody, evocative and shadowy; the latter is fun and
Galen Dara's cover of
Uncanny #10 is awesome.
Image via
 Dara has range and depth, and needs to be recognized for that.  

Fan Award Is No Joke

We have a sneaking suspicion that Chuck Tingle might win the Best Fan Writer category, which would be a shame. In the past, Hugo voters have had a tendency to throw down-ballot awards to an in-joke (As example: Gollum's Acceptance Speech defeating Firefly in the Dramatic Presentation category in 2004), and Chuck Tingle might benefit from that tendency this year. Our votes will be going to Mike Glyer of File 770. He may have won this award four times previously (including last year), but he deserves it.
What we’ve read from the six Best Semiprozine nominees has been quite good – and the nominees are radically different from each other. Cirsova, which focuses on old-school heroic fantasy and science fiction has published some stories we’ve particularly enjoyed. The BookSmugglers does a brilliant job of talking about all-ages genre fiction, including some kick-ass interviews. These are probably our two top picks in the category.  

We haven’t read all of the Best Novella shortlisted works. That being said, the three we have read have been very strong. China Miéville is always great, and This Census Taker is well-worth voting for. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is like a masterclass in writing a modern Lovecraft pastiche. But surprisingly, we’re likely to vote for Seanan McGuire’s work. Every Heart A Doorway was likeable, and even won over those in our group who have offered disdain and vitriol for McGuire’s previous stories.   

The Hugo Award for Best Series is a bit of an odd beast. Given the number of Hugo awards that individual novels in the Vorkorsigan series has racked up, it would seem to be the favourite. But are we to judge the series on the overall quality, how well the books work together, the long-term story arcs, or on how good the series was in 2016? Since nothing like this category has been awarded since 1966, there's very little precedent on which to judge this category. We're choosing to interpret this category based on how well the books work together, and if the the series is better than the sum of its parts. By that standard, The Expanse is probably the top pick, although there's a case to be made for the Rivers of London books.  

Monday 10 July 2017

Hugos 2017 — Short Stories

This year’s shortlist of short stories is varied, offering a plethora of interesting and diverse work. Almost all of these stories are worthy of winning a Hugo — this was a difficult category in which to pick a favourite nominee.

The most perplexing nominee — A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers by Alyssa
We found Wong's work
more perplexing than
Image via 
Wong — is a frenetic time-hopping story about a girl and her sister who have magical (electrical?) powers. The story may be about suicide, or it may be about the end of the world. There’s very little overall narrative thread to hold onto.

In portions of the text, it feels like Wong is stringing words together into paragraphs without the traditional intermediary step of sentences. We can appreciate the artfulness of this style of writing, but it is not to our tastes.

Brooke Bolander’s Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies is a short story about an incorporeal being that takes human form, is murdered, and then returns for revenge. There was some debate amongst members of the book club about whether the protagonist is an alien energy being, a spirit, or an angel. Although the language is entertaining, the story is extremely thin. There just isn’t enough substance to the story to vote for it.

An Unimaginable Light is probably the best John C. Wright story that we’ve read — in no small part because it’s based around a couple of interesting notions about the ability of robots to interpret Asimov’s Three Laws in ways that their creators never intended. Although the ‘twist’ ending seems to come out of nowhere, that ending is at least built around an interesting idea concerning what it means to be human.
Perennial Hugo nominee
John C. Wright's story is
built around an interesting
idea, but his prose is too
didactic for our tastes. 

That being said, Wright’s slightly didactic prose and aggressive thesaurus use isn’t to our taste, nor is the way he seems to delight in the sexual degradation of one of the characters. This won’t be at the top of our ballot, but we can understand why some fans chose to nominate it.

For us, there were three very different works vying for the top of our Hugo ballots: Seasons of Glass and Iron, That Game We Played During the War and The City Born Great.

The City Born Great by N.K. Jemisin is an interesting urban fantasy that is partway between Jane Jacobs and Jim Butcher. The theme of potential and the metaphor of birth speak to a hopefulness that was uplifting.

But for some of our book club members, The City Born Great wasn’t didactic enough. N.K. Jemisin’s story of a youth becoming the magical avatar of a city seemed to be working toward a grand statement about the death and life of great American cities (or something similar), but never really committed itself to an idea about urbanism. There’s no indication in the story about the forces that the youth is struggling against and the ending left some of us wanting a bit more meaning to the work.

In Seasons of Glass and Iron, Amal El-Mohtar weaves together two Norwegian folk tales into a story of empowerment and problem solving. An Ottawa-based poet, El-Mohtar’s dexterously uses
El-Mohtar deconstructs
Norwegian Folk Tales
in interesting ways.
Image via Blue Fairy Book
illustrated by H.J.Ford
& G.P.Jacomb Hood, 1889
language to draw readers into a rustic mythology and to interrogate the assumptions of the folk tales she’s playing with. Her two protagonists are given motivations and personalities, and instead of needing some prince to save them, the two women save each other from their curses.

This is a very likable short story with some depth, offers a satisfying conclusion, and might bear re-reading.

Out of all of the nominees, That Game We Played During The War by Carrie Vaughn is the one that we found the most enjoyable to read. It’s a clear, straightforward story about former prisoners of war from two very different factions finding common ground after a long-running conflict. Vaughn’s tale feels like something out of the golden age of SF — concise, spare, and precise in its language. The relationship between the two central characters is touching and thoughtful.

She leavens the story with observations about cultural understandings and misunderstandings, as well as some interesting notions about how telepathy might influence a society.

The medium of the short story is a particularly difficult one to master; balancing brevity with profundity and balancing artfulness with clarity are not easy tasks. Three nominees this year achieved a level of excellence that is worth celebrating.

Tuesday 4 July 2017

1962: A Hugo Dilemma

It’s hard to argue that Hugo voters got it wrong in 1962. 
When a book has added words to the
dictionary, it's hard to argue its enduring
cultural value. The word 'Grok' is in the
OED and Webster's. Image via

That year’s winner, Stranger in a Strange Land’s appeal has stood the test of time — over the decades it has inspired researchers, religions, fetishes, linguists, and Billy Joel.

But as much as I love the works of Robert A. Heinlien, and as much as Stranger in a Strange Land deserved the recognition, several other nominees are less well remembered than perhaps they should be.

James White’s Second Ending is probably the most obscure of the nominees — I haven’t read it yet, mostly because I’ve never found a copy. White is probably better remembered for his Sector General series, which are well-written and engaging. I strongly suspect Second Ending — a ‘hopeful’ last-man-on-Earth story — was a worthwhile nominee, and look forward to reading it eventually.

One might argue that Harry Harrison’s closest brush with winning a Hugo was that year, with one of his more serious novels Planet of the Damned making the shortlist.  The dialogue is a bit stilted, but the worldbuilding, and adventure of the book make it an entertaining read.

Simak's novel is an
interesting counterpoint
to Heinlein's.
(Image via Wikipedia)
Time Is The Simplest Thing by Clifford Simak covers some of the same themes as Stranger in a Strange Land; the persecution of someone with telepathic abilities, meditations on philosophy, divergent moral systems, religion. But while Heinlein offers these through hopeful a lens of the perfectibility of humanity, Simak’s vision is bleaker, suggesting that the enlightened few should escape.

It is not my favourite of the nominees, nor my favourite work by Simak, but Time Is The Simplest Thing a fascinating work to experience as a counterpoint to its more famous fellow nominee.

These are three very strong nominees that all clearly belonged on the shortlist, but none really rivaled Stranger In A Strange Land — Probably the most famous novel by one of Science Fiction’s biggest names.

However, if Dark Universe had been published in almost any year other than 1961, it should have taken home the top prize at the next year’s Hugo Awards.

Daniel Galouye’s debut novel explores a post-apocalyptic subterranean society of people who have lived in the dark so long, they have forgotten what it is to see.

According to the oral tradition of the cave dwellers, “Light” used to exist everywhere, until the wickedness in mankind’s heart brought the darkness into the world. But what “Light” is, their language fails to properly convey.

And that’s the brilliance of this book — it illuminates how many of the metaphors in our language are 
In any other year than 1962,
Dark Universe would have
been a frontrunner for the
Hugo Award.
(Image via Goodreads)
based on sight.

The cave dwellers — who are locked in a feud between two tribes — have metaphors based on sound and on touch. They’ve gotten somewhat adept at echolocation, timing how long various noises take to bounce off the walls.

So many of the details are handled with nuance and insight. The description of a light bulb — a sacred cultural artifact that none of the characters understands — has stayed with me for years. They feel its shape, and are told that “light” used to live within.

One of the things that makes this scene so interesting is that it can be read either as a denunciation of naïve religious devotion to the unsubstantiated — or it can be read as a metaphor for humanity’s incomplete understanding of the ineffable and divine.

Galouye only published five novels in his short career, but returned repeatedly to themes centred around how we perceive the world. None of his later books were at the same caliber as Dark Universe.

There have been few years in which Hugo voters were presented with as difficult a choice as they were in 1962. Heinlein didn’t need a third Hugo award, and his works would have been remembered and celebrated for generations regardless of what happened at the awards ceremony. Galouye, on the other hand, is not nearly as well remembered — perhaps a Hugo win might have guided more readers to a book that’s worth reading.

In the end, Stranger in a Strange Land deserved to win, did win, and is inarguably a classic.

All the same, if I had been a Hugo Voter in 1962, I would have been strongly tempted to vote for Dark Universe by Daniel Galouye.

The Hugo Book Club is going through past Hugo Awards and discussing the ballots in previous years. Previously, we have discussed 1947 and 1973.

Sunday 2 July 2017

Pseudoscience, Belief and Science Fiction

Guest post by Michael Hoskin, Calgarian friend to the club

Authors are apt to develop certain peccadillos in their writing. You would not have to read many stories by Nelson S. Bond before realizing he loved telling tales of the ‘fourth dimension’; Isaac Asimov’s fondness for robots is well-documented; Ray Bradbury loved Mars so much he spoke often of his desire to be buried on the Red Planet.
Ray Bradbury loved Mars so much,
 he got the first martian drivers'
license. (Image Via

For some authors, these recurring ideas are merely quirks. Unfortunately, for others their obsessions become quasi-religious themes for which they feel the need to evangelize. Particularly within science fiction and fantasy, this tendency has undermined the later works of many great authors. 

As we look over the ranks of authors in speculative fiction, we not only see those who had recurring themes but also a desire to see their fiction become reality. There is precedent for such transmogrification: Jules Verne lived long enough to see submarines such as his Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870) become practical inventions; H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898) became an infamous hoax and panic in the hands of radio maestro Orson Welles in 1938. Further, Wells wrote of tank-like vehicles in The Land Ironclads (1903) and then saw tanks appear in real life. Although Wells confessed he knew the idea of the tank was not original to him, he still said of the first tanks: “They were my grandchildren - I felt a little like King Lear when first I read about them.”

To some extent, fans of speculative fiction are prepared for epistemological musings from their authors,
Battlestar Galactica is basically just
the Book Of Mormon in space.
(Image via  
perhaps the more so when there is a shade of doubt as to whether the author’s belief or evidence is genuine. For instance, some of the bile directed to authors Orson Scott Card and Stephanie Meyer derives from their status as believing Mormons. Non-believers take offence when they perceive elements in those authors’ fiction that they view as an exhortation of the authors’ faith or exist to convert the audience.

As fans of speculative fiction, how far can you and I take the Death of the Author Theory? Based on the sales of Call of Cthulhu, H. P. Lovecraft remains fandom’s favourite virulently racist uncle. Is it icky to know Theodore Sturgeon and his wife were swingers? If you learned Fritz Leiber was a practicing pagan how would it affect your reading of his sword & sorcery tales?

I can speak plainly of one speculative fiction author whose beliefs interfered with my ability to enjoy his work. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle remains best known for his Sherlock Holmes tales but for our purposes, we remember him for his five Professor Challenger stories (beginning with The Lost World, 1912). Although Doyle’s protagonists tended to be sound, rational men (Holmes, Challenger) Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
pictured here with a fake
ghost, hoped he would
be remembered for his
writings on spiritualism
more than his Sherlock
Holmes stories.
(Image via
himself drifted into the less-than-rational realm of spiritualism. Doyle believed not only in the power of séances but (notoriously) fell for the Cottingley Fairies hoax. This influenced Doyle’s Challenger novel The Land of Mist (1926), told as work of spiritualism advocacy wherein Challenger and his friends were exposed to spiritualism and all went from skeptics to firm believers. As I do not believe in séances, I found this novel extremely difficult to appreciate. I enjoy ghost stories that send a chill down my spine, unnerve me enough to think ‘what if it’s true?’ I do not at all enjoy stories where the author repeatedly tries to convince me, ‘oh no, these ghosts truly exist – just wait, I will convince you.’ One of those whom Doyle did convince was J. B. Rhine, the man who coined the term ‘extrasensory perception’ (ESP).

Ayn Rand is one science fiction author whose personal philosophies have a large life outside of their fiction. Rand’s philosophy of objectivism was born in her fiction and developed a large following that remains closely aligned to libertarian-leaning politics of today. Further, her fiction influenced many in the science fiction fields. Her fans have included: Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman, author Ray Bradbury (who said of The Fountainhead (1943) “It gave me courage to just stand and say to people, 'Go away and leave me alone.'”), comic book artists Steve Ditko & Trevor Von Eeden, author Terry Goodkind, and performer Penn Jillette (renowned for his towering performance on TV’s Babylon 5). Although objectivism seemingly reached its peak in the 1970s and the recent film adaptations of Atlas Shrugged (2011-14) were subject to ridicule, Rand’s philosophy remains effervescent.

From a certain perspective, the most successful science fiction author of all time is L. Ron Hubbard. Although Hubbard never won a Hugo or a Nebula for his fiction, how many other authors in his field can claim to have developed a powerful international organization/religion? Perhaps it is hard (or painful) for science fiction fandom to recall it now, but when Hubbard introduced Dianetics in 1950
From a certain perspective, Hubbard
is one of the most successful authors
of all time.
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he was met with glowing reviews from seemingly all corners. Boosters included such as authors James Blish (who is a Hugo winner and resides in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame) and Hubbard’s early ally A. E. Van Vogt (Science Fiction Hall of Fame). Excepting Lester Del Rey and Theodore Sturgeon (Hugo winner, Nebula winner and Science Fiction Hall of Fame; he recalled Hubbard saying to him: “If a man really wanted to make a million dollars, the best way to do it would be to start his own religion.”), virtually all of science fiction passively let Hubbard tell them how ‘clear’ they were. Hubbard’s Church of Scientology remains a powerful and influential body in spite of the motion picture flop Battlefield Earth (2000) and despite Hubbard’s nearest brush with prestige in the sci-fi community being his controversial 1987 Hugo nomination for Black Genesis.

Another proponent of Dianetics was one of science fiction’s most lauded names: John W. Campbell (Hugo winner, Science Fiction Hall of Fame). Campbell wrote only one well-remembered story (Who Goes There?, 1938) but his tenure as editor of Astounding Science Fiction (later Analog; 1937-71) produced some of the most consistently great sci-fi literature in the medium’s history. Yet despite his accolades, he was a racist, a homophobe and a believer in pseudoscience. His pseudoscience beliefs frequently interrupted the pages of Astounding to champion the hokum of not only Dianetics but also ESP, the Dean Drive, the Bridey Murphy hoax and the Hieronymus Machine.
As it turns out, there is no
secret lost civilization living
beneath the Earth's surface.
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Editor Raymond Palmer of Amazing Stories (1938-49) fell along similar lines to those of Campbell, but courted controversy in the 1940s when he presented various stories by Richard Sharpe Shaver as though his fanciful tales of an underground civilization were factual accounts. The ‘ShaverMystery’ ended in 1948 (due in part to complaints from Amazing Stories readers) but Palmer, embittered by the series’ end, leaned hard into similar ideas. His magazines (such as Fate) ventured outside the bounds of science fiction in order to serve as proponents for all the related pseudoscience, parapsychology, cryptozoology, UFOlogy and suchlike.

In the instance of television’s Star Trek (1966-69), the rabid fandom that sprang up around that program seemed to spur its creator Gene Roddenberry into fashioning a philosophy to support it. When the series returned with the feature film Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Roddenberry opted to jettison much of the interpersonal sparring and
Star Trek sometimes seems
like a Utopian Cult.
It's adherents are caught
up in a holy war over
which captain is better.
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emotionalism of the television version, believing it antithetical to the ‘utopianism’ he retroactively believed Star Trek embodied. Regarding Roddenberry’s novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Darren Mooney felt it “almost reads like the sacred text of a utopian cult.” This sense of utopianism would permeate the remainder of Roddenberry’s contributions to the franchise (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1987) but would be noticeably absent elsewhere in that franchise (i.e., Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982).

There are also those science fiction creators who have unintentionally caused a belief system to spring up without intending to. Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) helped inspire the creation of the Church of All Worlds, a religion that persists to this very day.

We of fandom have often encouraged the idea that our favourite creators are more than mere tellers of tales; they are ‘visionaries’ or perhaps ‘futurists.’ Doyle, Rand, Hubbard, Campbell, Palmer and Roddenberry each reached points in their careers where the applause of their fans was not enough; they felt the need to use their stage as a means to impart some philosophy or impart ‘secret knowledge.’ 

Many fans no longer worship the science fiction author as ardently as before – but perhaps only because the pantheon of science fiction gods is constantly wheeling out new deities to affirm.


Thomas M. Disch, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made of (Free Press, 1998).
John R. Eller, Becoming Ray Bradbury (University of Illinois Press, 2011).
Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (Dover, 1957).
L. Ron Hubbard, Theodore Sturgeon and Lester Del Rey, The Dianetics Question (Marvel Science Stories, May 1951).
Darren Mooney, Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Gene Roddenberry (Review)
Jonathan Rosen, Doubles: Wilkie Collins’s Shadow Selves (The New Yorker, July 25 2011).
H. G. Wells, War and the Future (Simon & Schuster, 1917).