Wednesday 21 February 2018

Spin stands out

In retrospect, Spin seems like an improbable winner for the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Novel.
Spin is a novel whose
appeal may be limited
outside of fannish
circles, but that's also
what makes it great.
(Image via Goodreads)

From 2001 – 2010, the Hugo Awards converged with the mainstream literary establishment in a way that they usually hadn’t in previous decades. Six of the Hugo-winning novels from that decade sat atop the New York Times bestseller list and sold millions of copies. Three others were written by perennial Hugo favourites.

Which is why Robert Charles Wilson’s win in 2006 stands out. Wilson is certainly not as big a name as George R. R. Martin. He hasn’t enjoyed the same level of sales as John Scalzi. And he hasn’t been Hugo shortlisted as often as Charles Stross. But Spin beat out Accelerando, Old Man’s War, and A Feast For Crows to take home Wilson’s to-date only Best Novel Hugo Award.

And it’s a win that, with the benefit of a dozen years of hindsight, looks better and better.

Spin is a novel about a mysterious event that separates the Earth from the rest of the universe. All at once humanity is cut off from its telecommunications satellites, and observations show that time is moving thousands of times more slowly on Earth than outside the barrier. The protagonist Tyler Dupree grows up in the shadow of this mysterious event, all the while searching for answers.

Spin faced tough competition in 2006, in what was possibly one of the most stacked Hugo shortlists in recent memory. Old Man’s War is perhaps John Scalzi’s most famous work, spawning five sequels, a variety of short stories, and earning the author a blockbuster literary deal. It’s probably Scalzi’s best book to date, engaging and fun, but Spin aims higher in terms of nuance and imagination.

A Feast For Crows was the first George R. R. Martin novel to top the New York Times bestseller list,
Robert Charles Wilson may not have
as high a profile outside of fandom,
but his work is worth celebrating.
(Image via Goodreads)
a success that helped convince HBO to greenlight the TV show. The book develops fan-favourite character Brienne, and delves into Cersei’s motivations. But as the fourth book in a series, it is impenetrable to outsiders, and perhaps a bit redundant.

Charles Stross’ Accelerando has been described as the gold standard of singularitarian works. It’s a very interesting book, offering a series of vignettes that show how the world changes over three generations. But Stross’ everything-and-the-kitchen-sink cavalcade of sci-fi ideas gets in the way of the human aspects of the story.

Ken McLeod’s Learning The World is a moderately good novel that is undermined by a deus-ex-machina ending. It remains one of the more puzzling Hugo-shortlisted works in recent memory. McLeod is an excellent writer (The Execution Channel should not be missed), and this book has interesting ideas about assimilation and cultural norms, but the ending is deeply unsatisfactory.

Spin bested all of these, and in retrospect I think it deserved to. It is a deeply human story of growing up, set against a backdrop that explores a unique and science-fictional idea.

While the central mystery of the novel is well imagined, and explored seriously and satisfyingly, it is probably not something that would have been noticed by the mundane literary establishment.

This is a novel that deserves to be celebrated, but unlike most other Hugo winners in that decade, would never have been recognized outside of genre awards.

To us, it may be the platonic ideal of what a modern Hugo Award winner should be.

Saturday 17 February 2018

A Return to Nowhere

Guest post by constitutional lawyer and human rights advocate Rob Normey.

In our current Age of the Autocrats, it could be suggested that reading a daily newspaper paints a
News From Nowhere is well-regarded
enough as a utopian work that
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan
Williams wrote the introduction to
the most recent edition.
(image via the Victoria and Albert Museum)
fairly dire picture of what lies ahead if we cannot dramatically alter the course of our 21st century ships of state.

If we wish to avoid going down with the Titanic (so to speak), we need to consider alternative social and political visions that might just afford us some hope. The 1890 novel News From Nowhere does just that.

The Who Killed D’arcy McGee History Club — a book club with a member that is also a member of the book club that hosts this blog — considered this utopian work at our recent meeting.

This novel — considered by many to be the best utopian fiction since Thomas More’s Utopia —was written by William Morris, a radical democratic socialist.

In the novel, written in 1890, Morris introduces us to William Guest, a time traveler from late-Victorian England. Guest offer the reader a window on the land of Nowhere, set around 2050. Although, some aspects of the new world are not particularly persuasive, there is much to commend this new society that has emerged in a transformed England after a revolution called the Great
Born in Walthamstow,
William Morris became
famous as an artist and
fabric designer.
(Image via
Change (following a Civil War around the 1950s).

Morris wrote the book as a reaction to the repression, massive inequalities and environmental degradation he saw in late-Victorian society.

His radical approach to political and social problems was controversial in his time and yet possesses a certain poetic justice, as Morris was born in the midst of the The Age of Revolution, as described by Eric Hobsbawm in his brilliant account of the nineteenth century (published in 1962).

Some in our book club felt that the book misses the mark on gender relations and technological advancements that obviously could not be foreseen but make the work laborious to read in 2018. Of course, utopian fiction is not intended as a blueprint for the future. The tale provides an imaginative vision of one possible alternative to the late 19th-century world of Victorian hypocrisy and oppression of the poor and of the working class.

This novel can be read together with the essays on art and democratic socialism that Morris wrote in the 1890s to understand the rage and frustration of this remarkable visual artist, poet and novelist who became a dedicated revolutionary.

Police brutality towards striking workers and protesters was a recurring pattern. Morris himself was arrested during a demonstration.

One of the highlights of the novel is the way it imagines the world of meaningful and pleasurable work, and the supreme values of equality and community, based on cooperation, that are inscribed at the heart of Nowhere.

They are discussed by many of the time-displaced protagonist’s new friends, including by the woman who enchants him, Ellen, and the historian, Henry Morsom.

It is refreshing to think of a world where people actually have time to talk at length with one another, with no digital distractions, no tyrannical television screens and computer screens and cellphones. William sits down with his friends after helping prepare a meal and reflecting on a day in which more than likely they have worked together on a project that they have voluntarily participated in.

The citizens of this utopia, it seems, will always have work to enrich their lives. They have achieved a balance between mankind and machinery and need not fear the displacement caused by automation that features in the capitalist dystopias that litter modern science fiction.

Gradually readers are given an account of the main features of the society and of the commitment all citizens have to ensuring that workers, not the owners of capital and the corporations of old, are in control of their own fate.

This society has developed schemes to ensure that all work is as pleasurable and varied as is reasonably possible. So they take turns with both the less pleasant janitorial and laboring jobs and the more stimulating kinds of work. Most citizens have developed into superb craftsmen.

One of the most striking sections of the novel takes place near the old town of Wallingford, which
Wallingford as it appears today.
(image via
was in Victorian times a synonym for poverty and squalor. In this future, Wallingford has become a delightful, well planned village.

Henry Morsom, the historian, tells the inquisitive protagonist that a major debate occurred amongst citizens in the dramatic era just after the Civil War, between those who wanted to increase production levels through industrialization and reliance on machines and those who favored the handcraft movement, and a minimal reliance on automatic machinery. Recognizing that the move towards industrialism contained within it the seeds of inequality and possible exploitation of man by man, they ultimately opted for a commitment to “handicrafts.” Only work that would be irksome to do by hand is accomplished by machines. All other work that can be done by “heart and mind” is done by hand. The result is a much happier workforce, with no difficulty ensuring that sufficient numbers are willing to seek out employment. 

Both Marx and Morris shared
disdain for the way Victorian
England treated the working
class. (Image via Wikipedia)
You may have guessed by now that the capitalist order that Morris and other radical socialists like Karl Marx so despised in the era that the novel was written has been destroyed and a socialist economy has taken its place.

Speaking of Marx, Morris shared his near-contemporary’s disdain for an economy that contained within it the conditions which led to widespread alienation of labour. Both Morris and Marx offered insights into the inevitable discontents that flow from the commodification of all elements of modern life.

Students of Marx will find much to appreciate in Morris’ vision of a utopian society where the aggressive competition for ever-higher returns on capital investment, and the concomitant alienation of workers who are conceived as simply impersonal cogs in the commodity-making machine, has replaced money and profit-making with what would be termed by later socialists as the “cooperative commonwealth.”

Despite some improbabilities in its world-building, News From Nowhere provokes the reader to consider at the very least the fundamental values of a fairer, joyful society built on trust and fellow-feeling. 

Hopefully some readers will indeed be inspired to fight for a new world, based on the very qualities that underpin Morris’ utopia.

Wednesday 7 February 2018

Retro Hugo Best Graphic Story — 1943 (Part 2: Recommendations)

This is the second of a two-part discussion on the Best Graphic Story Retro Hugo for 1943 (which recognizes works first published in 1942). The first part can be found at this link.

It takes a lot of work for a comic book fan to stay up-to-date and to have
Nelvana is simply one of the best
comics of the era, while also being
ahead of its time in representing
a non-white, non-male hero.
(Image via
read a wide enough slate of publications to nominate knowledgably.

Most – and perhaps all – of the people who will be nominating and voting on the Retro Hugo awards weren’t reading comic books in 1942. It is therefore even more difficult for most readers to assess what works might deserve consideration for the award.

Prior to 2018, the only time there was a Retro Hugo for Best Graphic Story was in 2016, when the Retro Hugos for 1941 were awarded. That ceremony saw Batman #1 take the trophy ahead of Captain Marvel and The Spirt, both of which are superior comic books. Joe Simon’s superb first 12 issues of Blue Bolt didn’t even make the final ballot.

Batman as a character may have had more popular appeal in the long-term, but those early stories are not as dynamic or innovative as The Spirit. Batman may have some science fiction elements today, but in 1940 Blue Bolt told better science fiction stories. Batman may be more popular today, but in 1940 Captain Marvel was the leading comic book character.  

One of the all-time great Retro Hugo
snubs is the omission of Blue Bolt
from the ballot for the 1941 award.
(Image via
In our last post, this blog provided a broad overview of notable works from 1942, noting the merits of each without making specific recommendations. But there are three comics that in our minds stand as the exemplars of science fiction comics in 1942. It is not our intention to offer a ‘slate’ of works that should make the ballot, but rather to suggest a few works that Hugo voters should consider reading.

Captain Marvel's use of colour
is spectacular for the era.
The modernity of the storytelling
and innocence of the characters
is exceptionally charming.
(Image via
Canadian black-and-white classic Nelvana of the Northern Lights will be at the top of our ballots. This is a book that modern readers should take a look at not only for its sharp-edged illustrations and its inventive storytelling, but also because it offers readers both the first super-powered female character and the first Indigenous superhero.

Plastic Man by Jack Cole is one of the most inventive books of the era. Pulitzer-prize winner Art Spiegelman so admired this comic that he wrote a book titled “Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits.” In it he aptly describes the ‘manic spritz of images’ that leavened the pages of Plastic Man, and compares Cole’s work to such greats as Laurel and Hardy, Tex Avery and The Marx Brothers. This title will also appear on our ballots, and we encourage other Retro Hugo voters to consider it.

For those seeking conventional superheroics, in 1942 Captain Marvel was the cream of the crop. The wide-eyed optimism of the book has often been imitated, parodied, or deconstructed, but never equaled in their simple, honest joyful fun. Particularly worth noting is how this comic used colour more effectively than most other publications of the era.

There will always be a gap between the modern popular understanding of these works and the context in which they were published, and this will always be one of the inherent tensions of the Retro Hugo Awards. It is difficult for a modern audience to understand the world in which these comics were published, and it is hard to know where to start reading when considering works for the award. It is worth reading widely in advance of nomination — these three books are a good place to start.

Monday 5 February 2018

Retro Hugo Best Graphic Story — 1943 (Part 1: Overview)

This is the first of a two-part discussion on the Best Graphic Story Retro Hugo for 1943 (which recognizes works first published in 1942). The second part can be found at this link

In 1942, the modern American comic book was still in its infancy. Sequential art published on pulp paper with gaudy CMYK illustrations was hitting the shelves at a furious pace, led by the success of best-selling books like Captain Marvel, The Spirit, and Archie. But for every Mort Meskin, Basil Wolverton or Jack Cole working in 1942, there were dozens more, often filling pages with inflexible five- and six-panel layouts, stilted dialogue, and rigidly posed figures. 

Many of these stories — especially those that don’t feature popular characters like Batman or Superman — are nearly forgotten. Some of the most exemplary works are little-remembered by the modern reader. 

Of those that are still well remembered, the greatest is probably The Spirit by Will Eisner. This classic
No discussion of comics from
1942 would be complete
without talking about The
Spirit. But it's not Sci-Fi.
(Image via
series features masked criminologist Denny Colt, who comes back from the dead to fight crime. The art is spectacular and artist-writer Wil Eisner plays with text and narrative in a way that drove the medium forward. There is little in the history of comics that compares with The Spirit

There is a reason why the highest honour in comic books is named the Eisner Award. But it might be difficult to justify The Spirit’s inclusion in the Retro Hugos because there are only minor fantastical elements. 

Editor Everett M. Arnold, from The Spirit’s Quality Comics, hired artist Jack Cole to create a knock-off character just in case Eisner was drafted into the army. Dave Clark a.k.a. Midnight, is also a costumed detective but while Eisner’s style is detailed and realistic, Cole toyed with the absurd.

Midnight’s adventures reached their most fantastic — and possibly their high point — in October 1942 with the story “Midnight Goes To Hell,” published in Smash Comics #36. True to the title, Midnight is killed in the opening pages, only to lead a revolt against the devil, defeat Satan’s Nazi plot, and return to the land of the living. 

Writer and artist Jack Cole’s more famous creation Plastic Man made his debut two years previously, but was hitting new heights in 1942. There had been previous characters with the power of elasticity, but until Jack Cole, no artist had explored the visual potential of such a character — it could be argued that no one has since. It is almost inconceivable to imagine a Retro Hugo ballot that excludes the work of Jack Cole — Plastic Man’s adventures from Police Comics #6-14 are certain to make our nominating ballots. 

One of the better early Superman comics was Jerry Siegel & Ed Dobrotka's "Case of the Funny Paper Crimes," published in September 1942 in Superman #18. The story has Superman fighting a mad scientist who could bring comic strip characters to life — a commentary on Superman's own meta-existence as a two-dimensional being.

But it is often forgotten is that in the 1940s, Superman was not the most popular superhero comic book. From 1941 – 1949, Fawcett Press’ Captain Marvel regularly outsold the rival book. 

With dynamic art by C. C. Beck, and scripts from writers such as Otto Binder, Captain Marvel was
Which of these two comics looks more
dynamic and modern? Both of these
issues were published in 1942.  
unlike almost any other comic books that fans had ever seen. The issues of Captain Marvel Adventures published in 1942 (Issues 6-18) and Whiz Comics (Issues 26-38) feature the addition of new members to the Marvel Family, and art that would be imitated again and again over the decades. The storytelling is ahead of its time in its pacing, its relationships, and its plotting. 

Basil Wolverton’s mostly forgotten science fiction adventure series Spacehawk ran from 1940 to 1942. Propelled by an evident love of big outer-space adventures, writer-artist Wolverton used alien worlds and big technology inventively. Unlike other early science fiction comics like Flash Gordon, space was more than a backdrop interchangeable with the Wild West. 

Basil Wolverton's Scacehawk
played with SF concepts
with verve and with joy.
(Image via
Unfortunately in 1942, publisher Target determined that for propaganda reasons all their comic heroes had to fight against Axis powers here on Earth, which led to stories about Spacehawk fighting against the Japanese in the Pacific. Some of these final stories do not use the character to his best effect, and contain an unhealthy dose of racism. But racism was nearly ubiquitous in comic books from 1942. Superman and Batman both fight racist caricatures of Japanese soldiers. Captain Marvel Adventures had an unfortunate storyline featuring a Totem-Pole wielding evil Native American stereotype. Plastic Man faced off against The Sinister Swami.

When judging these comics, one must remember that the racism seen in comic books of 1942 reflect the values of the times. But this makes Adrian Dingle's Nelvana of the Northern Lights all the more remarkable, as the title character was an Inuit heroine who defended the north from Axis aggressors.

During the Second World War, the War Exchange Conservation Act prevented American comic
Famed Canadian painter
Franz Johnson helped
inspire Adrian Dingle
to create an Indigenous
Canadian superhero.
(Image via
books from being sold in Canada, leading to the creation of numerous new superhero comic books for the domestic Canadian market. Of these, Nelvana is the highlight. Appearing in Canada's Triumph Comics, Nelvana was the daughter of a mortal woman and the Inuit god Koliak. Gifted with abilities by her divine heritage, she is charged with guarding the people of Canada’s north with the assistance of her brother Tanero. 

A Kickstarter-supported hardcover edition of the early Nelvana stories was published by IDW in 2014, making this classic available to a new generation of readers.

The issues published in 1942 (Triumph Comics 7-12) begin her journey into Glacia, a hidden futuristic world beneath the Arctic ice. This is one of the finer moments in Nelvana’s adventures.

Nelvana’s creation predated by a few months another more well-known female superhero rooted in cultural mythology. Wonder Woman first appeared in December of 1941, with her origin story concluding in Sensation Comics in January of 1942. 

The early Wonder Woman issues, the first 12 of which were published in 1942, are written by creator William Moulton Marston and drawn by Harry G. Peter. Marston’s goal was not simply to develop a superhuman female but to demonstrate his personal philosophy of feminine superiority. This gave the initial Wonder Woman comics an energy — and kinkiness — the series would never maintain without these creators. 

Of all the comic books published in 1942, the most enduring, and probably the best-selling, was not originally published in English. Belgian comics legend Hergé’s 10th Tintin adventure The Shooting Star was the first one to be first published in colour, it is also one of the two most science-fiction inspired. Although well-known, it suffers from significant controversy. 

Tintin had first appeared more than a decade earlier and Hergé’s style had evolved to its recognizable
Many Tintin aficionados try to forget
just how bad the original 1942
version of The Shooting Star is.
(Image via
form by this point. The adventure chronicles Tintin and his comrades' race to the arctic in an attempt to be the first to find a large meteorite that has fallen to Earth. The fantastical elements come from the radiation of the meteorite that causes small creatures to grow to enormous size. 

It is tempting to include The Shooting Star on our Retro Hugo ballots because it is an artistic success on a number of levels, with iconic illustrations and a dreamlike rhythm to the storytelling. But the anti-Semitism that is evident in the work is frankly intolerable. 

Written and published during the Nazi occupation of Belgium, The Shooting Star has often been described as the propaganda piece that stains the legacy of Tintin comics. Despite its many strengths, it should not be considered for the Retro Hugo. 

Overall, there are a plethora of options to choose from when considering the Retro Hugo for 1943. Despite a comics industry that was still finding its footing, there are growing signs of maturity in the work of several creators. Thanks to the work of fans and archivists at,,, and, many of these works are readily accessible to those of us who intend to nominate works in this category.

(Part two at this link