Thursday 28 December 2017

Beyond The Standard Palette

More than any other long-standing Hugo category, the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist has
In North America, Jean Giraud
(A.K.A. Moebius) may be
most famous for the
movie Valerian. But his work
has enormous range.
BBC aired a documentary on
his extraordinary work.
Image via
often been dominated by a few big names. Just three artists account for almost half of all the Best Pro Artist Hugos awarded – Michael Whelan with 13, Frank Kelly Freas with 11 and Bob Eggleton with 8. Meanwhile, legendary science fiction artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud (1938-2012) never even received a nomination.

The most recent winner, Julie Dillon, has won three of the last four awards presented. Four of the six shortlisted artists in 2017 had previously appeared on the ballot.

This is not to diminish the work of any of those artists – Dillon was high on our ballots last year. But it does indicate that when it comes to art, our voters and nominators have tended to look at a fairly narrow pool of artists.

Jay Shaw's poster for Get Out
is one of his more high-profile
works from 2017.
(Image via 
Thanks to the Internet, digital print-on-demand services, small-press
art books, alternate art posters, the availability of new artistic tools, and the fact that science fiction has gone mainstream, we are in the middle of a boom in science fiction art. Over the past decade, there have likely been more artists making science fiction art than there have ever been before. Some of the work that is flying under the radar of Hugo voters is breathtakingly imaginative, technically accomplished, and worthy of consideration.

The name Jay Shaw is probably not one that many World Science Fiction Society members will
Apparently, Predestination
directors Peter & Michael
Sperig preferred Jay Shaw's
poster for their movie over
the one that was used more
(Image via 
know, but some of his work will be familiar to them. Last year’s Hugo-nominated concept album “Splendor and Misery” by Clipping featured his artwork on the cover, and the Hugo-nominated Heinlein adaptation “Predestination” had a modernist alternate poster designed by Shaw which was exhibited by the Heinlein society at Worldcon 73.

This year, Shaw upped his game with a poster for “Get Out,” an evocative and minimalist piece that created a connection between two motifs of Jordan Peele’s horror masterpiece, while his use of black and white in the design reinforces the racial commentary. He is an in-house designer at Mondo, but freelances for other organizations. This year, Shaw also designed the artwork for the board game “The Thing: Infection At Outpost 31,” based on John Carpenter’s classic 1982 movie, which is a beautifully detailed piece (despite not being a particularly great board game.) We recommend that you check out his portfolio website to view a wide range of his work and techniques, including both genre and mainstream works.

One of the 2017 alternate Potter
covers by Olly Moss parallels the
lightning bolt on Harry's forehead
to the skyline of diagonally.
(Image via
Shaw’s colleague at Mondo, Olly Moss, is probably a bigger name in the mainstream art world. He made headlines in the New York Times in spring 2017 when his designs were selected for the poster of Disney’s “Frozen: The Broadway Musical.” Moss has focused most of his career on genre work, from depictions of Robocop riding a unicorn to well-loved alternate versions of Star Wars posters. In 2016, he was selected to do the covers for a digital re-release of all seven Harry Potter novels, each using a visual pun that encapsulated the ideas of the series. A follow up of his Harry Potter work was a 2017 series of posters based on his rejected designs. For an artist who has just turned 30, Moss has compiled a surprisingly diverse and impressive portfolio. His website showcases a variety of his iconic works, though few of his recent ones.

A more unusual artist whose work is evidently science fictional is
Vancouver sculptor Brendan Tang. As far as we are aware, no artist whose work is primarily sculptural has ever been nominated for a Hugo Award, but a good argument could be made that Tang should be the first. His recent exhibition,
Brendan Tang's mixed media sculptures
play with the tension between traditional
forms and new technologies in a clearly
science fictional way.
(Image via
which toured through the Western United States features more than 80 ceramic works that meld traditional Chinese styles with fantastic mechanical devices reminiscent of Neon Genesis Evangelion. In these works, the mechanical seems to deform the traditional, while ceramic overflows steel. They’re impressively detailed pieces that have an interesting balance to them, while playing with science fictional themes of modernity in battle with the past. Tang’s previous exhibitions have focused on video games, body modification, and the technological redefinition of identity. A fair selection of Tang’s work can be found on his website

Another artist whose work marries the traditional with the contemporary is Comox First Nation artist Andy Everson.
Comox artist Andy Everson
explores contemporary indigenous
identity through pop culture.
(Image via
By combining traditional motifs with the characters and iconography of Star Wars, Everson explores how indigenous cultures are appropriated. The resulting work comments on the tension between cultures, and about a search for identity. His work has received national attention in Canada. His web site hasn’t been updated with his most recent work, so voters will have to seek out media coverage of his shows to be able to judge his output from 2017.

The appreciation of visual art is one of the most subjective experiences we have and, like all art forms, it is at its best when it challenges us. Art is iterative and emergent and therefore strengthened by diversity. Here’s hoping this year’s nominations for Best Professional Artist expand our horizons.

Friday 15 December 2017

The Stone Sky is the echo of a great book

Some reviews of N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky offer ebullient praise and predict an unprecedented
The Fifth Season is a great
novel. We're less convinced
that its sequel deserves
another Hugo Award.
(Image via Goodreads)
back-to-back Hugo win for Jemisin. While this is a fine book, it is much harder to say it is the most deserving science fiction or fantasy novel of 2017.

The first book in the series, The Fifth Season, was innovative and unique. It offered a refreshing take on science fiction and fantasy that unquestionably deserved the Hugo Award. But The Stone Sky does not stand on its own. It is good, but mostly because it is an echo of a truly great book. 

It might be more appropriate to honour N.K. Jemisin with a Best Series Hugo this year, rather than another Best Novel, because that would recognize how The Stone Sky works as part of a larger whole.

If there hadn’t been so much astonishingly good science fiction and fantasy published in 2017, we might have been rooting for N.K. Jemisin to complete her Hugo Award hat trick. But there are numerous novels at least as good.

The third book in the series picks up immediately on the conclusion of the second, and despite the brief recap those of us who hadn’t looked at The Obelisk Gate since last summer had difficulty picking up the narrative threads.

This volume is the story of a mother doing whatever it takes to save her daughter, willing to sacrifice herself and the entire planet if necessary. Over the course of the novel, we learn the origin of orogeny, roggas, stone eaters, and Guardians. Jemisin reveals the history and mystery of the world in a way entirely believable for the all-too-human motivations. This background and world building is what was most enjoyable about the book, but also what made it so dependent on the previous works.

That being said, Jemisin is in fine form as a wordsmith. This novel may be her most quotable, with
The quality of NK Jemisin's
prose is outstanding.
(Image via  
lines such as “For a society built on exploitation, there is no greater threat than having no one left to oppress,” and “If you love someone, you don’t get to choose how they love you back.”

As the final book in a trilogy, The Stone Sky ramps up the tension and the stakes, and serves as a fitting conclusion to the story. It’s a good book that satisfyingly concludes the story of Essun, Nassun, and an alternate Earth.

As a trilogy, The Broken Earth’s environmental metaphors, cautionary tales of hubris, and racial allegories are powerful. And while this book reveals the history of the broken Earth and nicely wraps up the various plot lines, it retreads and develops the ideas introduced in the first two books without presenting anything groundbreaking. The metaphors are made more obvious, but not more incisive.

It seems inevitable that Hugo voters will nominate The Stone Sky, but with so many other strong novels written in 2017 it will likely not make it to the top our ballot.

Thursday 7 December 2017

Retro Hugos 1943: Novels

It was with no small degree of excitement that we greeted the news that there would be Retro Hugo awards presented at next summer’s Worldcon. Just on principle, we love Retro Hugos, and will take any opportunity to do a deep dive into the science fiction published in a particular year. The Hugo year of 1943 (which would cover works published in 1942) has some excellent novels to choose from. We will explore other fiction categories for these awards in later posts. 

Legendary science fiction pioneer Olaf Stapledon has never been nominated for a Hugo
Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950) has
never been nominated for any
Hugo Awards.
(Image via
Award in any category. The author of Last and First Men, Star Maker, and Odd John had published most of his major works prior to the first Worldcon, so even with Retro Hugos, there hasn’t been much opportunity to honour his works with the genre’s top award. Although Darkness And The Light is not one of his most well-remembered works, and although it has some flaws, it is still one that should be considered for the award.

In his previous books, Stapledon had created epic narratives about the long-term future of humanity. These are beautiful, idealistic, and sweeping stories, but as Robert Silverberg noted at last summer’s Worldcon “In The Last And First Men, every time Stapledon makes a prediction about the future, he gets it wrong.” By 1942, events had overtaken Stapledon’s most famous works. He had failed to predict the Second World War and Darkness And The Light is his response to this omission.

In Darkness And The Light, he charts two divergent paths for humanity, one that leads to a destructive and controlling empire which flickers out and dies, the other a “Tibetan Renaissance” and an eventual utopian revolution. Neither of these futures is as well developed as those in his previous works, and the writing seems more trepidatious than one might expect from an author who wrote inaccurate predictions with fearless confidence in Last And First Men.

Even if it is sadly one of Stapledon’s lesser works, the book still warrants an inclusion on our nominating ballots.

Patron saint of the Hugo Awards Robert A. Heinlein’s first novel was serialized in April and May of
We love Vincent Di Fate's cover art
from the 1979 Signet edition of
Beyond This Horizon.
(Image via
1942. Beyond This Horizon is a comedic novel in which a man who is genetically near-perfect struggles to find meaning in his life in a utopian society that has solved poverty, want, and greed. While the weird social mores of this future society include a libertarian attitude toward firearms and sex, their economic system is something between communism and fascism, though without the coercive oppression that these systems have often used in the real world. In many ways, it is unlike anything else Heinlein would ever publish — David Brin provocatively describes Beyond This Horizon as "Heinlein's most fascinating novel." 

Many of his more utopian ideas from the book look naïve in retrospect, but Heinlein got some interesting details right about the future. He managed to describe a device that closely resembles an internet-connected personal computer, alludes to the atomic bomb years before it was realized, predicted the waterbed, and even offered the rise of video game arcades as a plot point.

The first half of the book sees the protagonist Hamilton Felix swept up in an authoritarian plot by people disenchanted with utopia, while the second half features the birth and childhood of Hamilton’s messianic superkid. There’s an odd side plot about a man from 1926 who is unfrozen and introduced to this new world, though he seems only to exist so Heinlein can explain his ideas to a modern audience.

Revolution, freedom, tyranny, telepathy, and economics are all themes that Heinlein would explore more thoroughly and successfully later in his career. Although Beyond This Horizon is a deeply flawed, scattered book that seems to meander in a variety of directions, it’s one that is hard not to love for its optimism and joyfulness.

We’d like to see it get a nomination, but there are much more artful works that should be considered for the award.

For Hugo voters who are of the Christian faith, one might suspect that C.S. Lewis’
C.S. Lewis writes some of the most
memorable — and old-school —
devils in fiction.
(Image via Bristol Radical History)
classic apologetic text The Screwtape Letters will hold particularly strong appeal. Like Beyond This Horizon, it is a comedic novel with a prescriptivist view about the world, however, it is far more focused, direct, and structured.

The work takes the form of 31 letters from a demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, whose job is to tempt a middle-class British man towards a life of evil. Every letter highlights Lewis’ views on morality, and what he sees as the consequences of straying from the Church.

Every novel Lewis wrote had significant Christian religious themes – from Aslan’s resurrection to the importance of theology in his Space trilogy – but The Screwtape Letters is one of his most overtly theological. What made The Screwtape Letters such a successful book is that the narrative framework allowed Lewis to use humour to make his point. Writing from the demon's perspective, the book doesn’t come across as preachy. It's an extremely clever way to write about theology. The Screwtape Letters is an excellent bridge between Lewis' apologetic essays and his fantasy fiction, as it's written like a series of essays but viewed through a lens of fantasy.

Even those who don’t share Lewis’ faith are likely to be impressed with the quality of his writing, his wry wit, and the charm of this novel. This is a novel that deserves strong consideration for the Hugo award, and it is almost unthinkable to have a 1943 shortlist that does not include it.

But there was some debate within our book club about whether The Screwtape Letters should be the winner, or whether the award should instead be given to Curt Siodmak’s sci-fi horror classic Donovan’s Brain. This evocative and moody classic of the sub-genre about a disembodied brain with malicious intentions has been adapted to the radio multiple times, turned into a movie on no fewer than three occasions, and heavily praised by Stephen King in his Hugo-winning non-fiction tome on the horror genre Dance Macabre.

The protagonist, Dr. Patrick Cory, is a researcher who saves the brain of criminal millionaire
Steve Martin parodied Donovan's Brain
in his 1983 film The Man With Two Brains.
(Image via
W.H. Donovan after a plane crash. The brain, sitting in a glass jar, connected to wires, has no sensory inputs, and no way to communicate. But soon, Cory begins to realize that he is being controlled by the mental powers of the brain. First he is forced to write names he knows nothing about, writing with his left hand although he is right handed. Then, he starts to discover that he’s doing things in his sleep … terrible things, and committing terrible crimes beyond his control. What compounds the creeping sense of dread is the horror of metacognitive discomfort the protagonist feels as his thoughts are taken over by the will of Donovan’s disembodied brain.

For several of our book club members, our first experience of Donovan’s Brain was from the superb 1944 Orson Welles radio production, which effectively conveys the creeping terror of Dr. Cory’s slow loss of personal agency. The tone and tenor of that production is so rich that reading the book decades later, one can hear Welles’ somber intonation in every line.

One of the challenges that Retro Hugo voters often have is how influential some older works have been – if you read Donovan’s Brain for the first time in 2017, many of the writing techniques and ideas may seem overdone, or overly familiar because so many of us are familiar with the works inspired by the original.

Donovan’s Brain is one of the defining works of horror and is a work of science fiction that would be a worthy addition to the ranks of Hugo Award Winners. Works like this are one of the reasons we love the Retro Hugos, and we hope that it is on the final ballot.

Saturday 2 December 2017

Autonomous is a rich text

Despite being a debut novel, Autonomous is already enjoying a lot of Hugo buzz, helped along by the
Autonomous is jam-packed with ideas.
(Image via Den Of Geek)
prominence of its author, former io9 editor Annalee Newitz.

Set in a corporatist dystopia, the book offers twin narratives of a pharmaceutical pirate named Jack, and Paladin the robotic intellectual property police tasked with catching her. These intersecting stories allow the characters to explore various facets of a post-national libertarian North America where citizenship is commoditized, and human rights only exist for those who can afford them.

The book’s plot takes the characters to cities, provinces and territories throughout Western Canada – communities that members of our book club have called home. Newitz’s understanding of these places, their geography, and cultures is evident.

This is a rich text written with a deep understanding of the genre. Newitz’s academic background is evident in both the plausible science and the narrative construction.

There are more interesting science fictional ideas in this book than many authors choose to explore in an entire career. This is both impressive and overwhelming. It often feels like Newitz is trying to pack in more than the base plot can handle.
Saskatchwanian readers had no problem
believing that Newitz has visited
Moose Jaw and Saskatoon
(Image via

The productivity enhancing drug that is the core of the conflict in the book is both a plausible corporate misdeed and a logical extension of the science fictional concept of “emergent focus” Vernor Vinge introduced in A Deepness In The Sky.

The ontological malaise underpinning the character arc of Paladin is reminiscent of Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream, while also raising questions about consent. Paladin’s feelings are an invasive program that forces her to love her human handler. Some of our readers interpreted this as a metaphor for the patriarchy.

Newitz’s book almost makes some interesting arguments about intellectual property issues, and about the ways in which the rights of patent-holders are abused. Unfortunately, the basis for these ideas is not provided nor fully explored, and no alternative to the status quo is proposed.

True to the title, a main conceptual focus of the novel is to explore the ways in which sentient beings gain or lose autonomy, and to show why this matters. Newitz links the erosion of human rights to legislative negligence that unevenly granted rights to sentient robots. The result is a society that is unjust to many humans who have the same legal standing — and lack of autonomy — as most robots.

Some of our group found several relationships within the book to be problematic. The power
Corporations pushing productivity
enhancing drugs is another way in
which human autonomy is undermined
in Newitz' debut novel.
(Image by GladisAbril via

dynamic between Jack and an escaped slave was questioned, as was the age gap between Paladin (an 18 month old android) and her amorous corporate handler (an adult human). Anytime one person in a sexual relationship had less than full autonomy, we had significant qualms.

And in this way, the book prompted an exceptional amount of discussion amongst our book club. For every engaging idea the reader had to chew on, there seemed to be some flaw to dissect.

The plot structure, which alternates between Jack’s and Paladin’s points of view, may be the most fundamental challenge of the book. Most chapters seem to undermine the narrative tension of the subsequent chapter: Jack isn’t in Vancouver, so we know Paladin won’t find her there. Paladin isn’t in Saskatoon, so we know Jack’s not in danger.

Taken on their own, each of these stories are well-written, tightly plotted, and interesting. There is depth in the writing and in some of the explorations of identity, but we felt like these parallel narratives undermined each other often enough to distract the reader from the story.

Autonomous is an extraordinarily promising debut. Any book that provokes such intense — and interesting — discussions should be a strong contender for the Hugo Awards. We are looking forward to her next work.