Thursday 22 March 2018

Tomorrow isn't about yesterday

For a genre that’s dedicated to the future, Science Fiction spends an awful lot of time looking in the
Published in 2011,
Ernest Cline's debut
novel isn't very good.
(Image via Goodreads)

You can see this trend in Hollywood’s endless remakes and reboots of popular franchises. You can see it in the continuance of the Retro Hugos and from those who evangelize the works of long-dead authors. We are bombarded by it via pastiche re-writes and homages.

Fandom’s focus on the past isn’t always a bad thing – today’s works exist in dialogue with those published in the past, and certainly there’s enduring value in some of the classics. And yes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

However, there is a subtle – but significant – difference between genuine appreciation for works from those who wrote before us and an ugly, toxic nostalgia that displaces the creation and appreciation of new works.

Red Elf needs an editor badly.
(Image via VintageArcade)
Which brings us to Ready Player One, a book that has become emblematic of the notion that the works of the past are somehow superior to those of the present or perhaps even the future.

Ernest Cline’s 2011 debut novel tells the story of an online gamer in a dystopian future on a quest to solve the greatest online puzzle of all-time. In the world of the book, a 1980s-obsessed trillionaire has left an incalculable fortune to whoever completes a pop-culture challenge. Against this backdrop, the protagonist finds love and success amidst a cavalcade of references to Star Wars, Goonies, Indiana Jones, Back To The Future, Gremlins, Thundercats, Ghostbusters, Dungeons and Dragons, Jem & The Holograms, Snorks, and the like.

Personally, I found the book loathsome and will be forever grateful that Hugo voters did not include it on the ballot in 2012, despite the massive hype it received when published.

'member The Powers of Matthew Star?
I 'member.
(Image via
With the movie version of Ready Player One hitting cinemas next Friday, I’d like to explore the book’s most pernicious ideas: that everything great has already been done, that the works of the past are all better than anything new, and that everything has been downhill since some imagined golden age.

Ernest Cline spells this argument out fairly definitively in Ready Player One, as the protagonist yearns for his own imagined golden age wistfully explaining that ‘Everything good came out in the 1980s,’ and ‘Things used to be awesome, but now they're kinda terrifying.’

 As has been previously argued in this blog, all science fiction is political. And likewise, this argument that everything good has already been done is a political one, and it is a corrosive one at that. If everything good has been done, why bother creating anything new?

For people in the 2040s to be obsessed
with Family Ties would be like someone
in 2018 being obsessed with 
The Morey Amsterdam Show.
(Image via Youtube)
When people believe that everything from the past is better than anything in the present, it can lead to
apathy. When they believe that there are no new ideas worth exploring, it can kill the desire to create and contribute culturally. When they start believing that a golden age has been taken from them, they can start looking for a scapegoat.

The British statesman Aneurin Bevan aptly described fascism as the sound of the future refusing to be born, because axis leaders called upon their nations to remember a mythical past and to fight against progress.

I would suggest that there is a direct link between lapsarianism in our appreciation of literature, and this yearning for a version of the past that never really existed.

I would not suggest that Ernest Cline shares any ideology with fascists, rather that his work draws upon a similar intellectual tradition. It is to his credit that he has taken these political ideas in the direction of apathy, rather than regressive political action.

Funny thing about the movie ... I don't
remember Tracer from Overwatch
being popular back in the 1980s.
(Image via Kotaku)
It is interesting to note that the movie adaptation, while trying to offer the same primary thesis, actually negates it. By updating a number of the pop cultural references, the adaptation implicitly admits that everything progresses – even nostalgia.

The fact that nostalgia is itself a moving target also means that works whose appeal is based solely on a cavalcade of pop cultural references are unlikely to have enduring value. Imagine trying to decipher Ready Player One without being steeped in the cultural moment that produced it.

It’s long been said that the Golden Age of science fiction is twelve, this being a common age at which many people discover the genre. But I’d like to make the suggestion that the golden age of science fiction should always be the future golden age that we imagine, and aspire to build.

It's fine to look into the rearview, as long as we keep an eye on the road ahead.

Sunday 11 March 2018

Retro Hugos 1943 — Short Stories

In terms of short fiction,
1942 was a great year.
And Astounding SF
led the way in publishing
issue after issue of brilliant
short stories. 
Science fiction has changed since 1942-43.

This is not only true of the content, but the format, the fandom, and the way it connects to the culture as a whole.

Nowhere is this more true than in short fiction.

Many of us will have read the stories of 1942 collected in anthologies, stitched together into novels, and bearing the weight of their publication history. Most of the works are now primarily available in author-centred best-of anthologies.

And this leads to a historicity-bias in the Retro Hugo awards where authors with long and storied careers like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein have a leg up over lesser-known authors like Colin Keith, Eric Frank Russell or Robert S. Richardson. To some degree the award can end up as a ‘lifetime achievement award,’ rather than being based on the individual work.

As with all structural biases in voting systems, it is incumbent upon those of us participating to be aware of those biases and to challenge ourselves to question how these structures are influencing the nominations.

The context in which we appreciate older works of science fiction is inevitably a different one than those in which the works were first published. In some ways, this gives present day readers a deeper perspective on the enduring value of works published 75 years in the past.

But it also presents a barrier to understanding how these works were in dialogue with other narratives
A.E. Van Vogt's classic story
The Weapons Shop was
illustrated by William
(Image via WordsEnvisioned)
including the political context of the day. One notable work that should be considered in context with its time is A.E. Van Vogt’s The Weapons Shop.

This was the only short story published in 1942 that was selected to be included in Silverberg’s well-known anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 1 (1929-1964). That tome – which honoured short stories published prior to the foundation of the Nebula Awards – included the “best” works as voted on by the members of the SFWA. We surmise then that the Retro Nebula for 1942 might have gone to The Weapons Shop.

The story – which sees a small-town merchant named Fara butting heads with an illegal weapons shop – is beloved by second-amendment advocates. Van Vogt (ironically from Canada, where weapons rights are far more restricted than in America) offers an idealized implacable force in the weapons shops, which exist in opposition to the tyranny of the state. Eventually, Fara comes around to the weapons’ seller’s point of view and takes up arms against the state.

The Weapons Shop is also as much about propaganda as it is weapons – Fara is a devoted defender of the Empire until he is shown the true face of the Empress. While those of us who do not believe in the unfettered right to bear arms should remember is when reading The Weapons Shop is that it was written and published in an era when there were despicable regimes marching in Europe that relied on this type of propaganda, and on the silencing of dissent.

But the ideology behind those who are selling the weapons is ill-defined and nebulous at best. These weapons shops, it is implied, sell freedom rather than weapons, but what that means is unclear. To further undermine the work, Fara’s only real choice is between allying himself with either one of two implacable and unyielding forces – and even that isn’t much of a choice.

In 1942, Asimov's story Foundation
was illustrated by M.Isip.
(Image via Gabriel Schenk)
The importance — and influence — of Isaac Asmiov’s short story The Encyclopedists cannot be overstated. When reading it today, most of us experience it as the second part of the novel Foundation, but in 1942 it was the introduction to Hari Seldon, to the Foundation and to psychohistory.

When it was in the May, 1942 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction under the title of Foundation, it was published alongside a bevy of other stories about prognostication including Alfred Bester’s excellent Push Of A Finger.

The May 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction is probably too pricy (and hard-to-find) an item for most fans and collectors to track down just to have the original experience. Thankfully, an Oxfordian science fiction fan named Gabriel Schenk scanned it and put the entire thing online. With a couple of excellent illustrations by M. Isip to liven up the story, it’s worth reading and trying to appreciate the story as a one-off on its own merits.

If there had never been another story published in the Foundation universe, The Encyclopedists would
When reading the original Foundation
stories and thinking about the context
in which Asimov wrote them, Trantor's
gleaming spires become tied to New
York's rapidly changing 1942 skyline.
(image via Wikipedia) 
have stood on its own – it encapsulates essentially all of the big ideas of the series: the mathematics of history, the decline and fall of an empire, and the ennobling positivist view of the ability of humanity to alter its destiny. While later stories built on this foundational story, everything that makes the Foundation series great was right there in this initial blueprint.

In this story, Asimov offers us the series’ most unforgettable – and quotable – protagonist Salvor Hardin, the mayor of Trantor. In the context of when this story was published, just five months after Pearl Harbor, his famous quote “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” might be seen as an surprising anti-war exhortation.

Re-reading The Encyclopedists on its own, and attempting to strip it of the weight of history, was a surprisingly revelatory exercise that increased our already high esteem for Asimov’s story.

Alfred Bester’s Push Of A Finger covers some similar themes to Foundation; scientists with a new way of seeing the future and working to prevent disaster. But unlike the more famous work, Bester writes with a touch of comedy. Although one suspects that Bester’s long-forgotten work will not receive an award, we would encourage you to consider it for your Retro Hugo nominations.

Eric Frank Russel's
Mechanistra is usually
found in the collection
Men, Martians and
(Image via
Another lesser-known work that is likely to be on our Retro Hugo ballots is Eric Frank Russel’s Mechanistra, the second – and possibly best – of his Starship Marathon series of stories. This humourous story, involves the crew of the starship encountering mechanical termite-like aliens that are hostile to all organic life. Russell’s prose is lively with lurid descriptions of alien life and conflicts.

Of Heinlein’s prolific output of short works in 1942, Waldo is probably the most well-known. I would suggest, however that it is Goldfish Bowl from the March edition of Astounding that is a more interesting work to consider nominating. The story, whose human protagonists are trapped as exhibits in a human zoo is melancholic and nuanced in ways that much of Heinlein’s work is not. That being said, none of Heinlein’s stories are likely to make our ballots, and certainly not My Object All Sublime.

Hal Clement’s first published short story Proof is an excellent debut that presaged significant themes
Twenty-year-old Hal Clement
as he appeared in his 1943
Harvard yearbook.
(image via Mariners Museum)  
that he would explore throughout his career. Clement – just 20 when he wrote the story – imagines life that evolved from magnetic fields and gas in the sun exploring the solar system and being befuddled by the existence of the Earth.

When considering works for the Retro Hugos, it was interesting to consider how these works were distributed, their availability to readers, and the limitations of our collective cultural memory.

Because of these differing contexts, we suspect that there are often works that would have garnered more attention had the 1943 Hugos actually been voted on in 1943.

That being said, of the works we have managed to track down and read from 1942, the most well-remembered short story did in fact stand out as the most exemplary work.

The reputation of Asimov’s The Encyclopedists is well-earned as one of the finest works of Golden Age science fiction.

It is likely that it will – and should – win the 1943 Retro Hugo.

Thursday 1 March 2018

Best Graphic Story 2017 - My Favourite Thing Is Monsters

Last year was an excellent year for science fiction and fantasy in comic books with numerous new
My Favourite Thing Is Monsters
stands head and shoulders above
the rest of the field.
(Image via
series and graphic novels that Hugo voters might reasonably nominate in the Best Graphic Story category.

Daniel Warren Johnson’s Extremity is an excellent work that explores ideas about ability and disability through the lens of a future war. Turncoat by Alex Paknadel and Artyom Trakanov looks at what it means to be loyal to an idea. My Chemical Romance lead singer Gerard Way turns out to be an excellent comic book writer, and his work on Doom Patrol is worth checking out. Colossi by Ricardo Mo and Alberto Muriel is just a lot of old-school super-science fun.

But one work stands head-and-shoulders above the rest: My Favorite Thing Is Monsters.

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is the first graphic novel from Chicago-born illustrator and toy designer Emil Ferris. It may be the most significant and worthwhile graphic presentation to be published in the past decade.

Told in the form of a diary written by a 10-year-old girl in late-‘60s Chicago, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is a love-letter to classic horror movies, to science fiction fandom, and to Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters Of Filmland.

Ferris weaves a variety of narratives through the work, as the young protagonist Karen Reyes investigates the murder of her mysterious neighbor Anka Silverberg. Reyes’ isolation and alienation are expressed through her transformation (possibly only in her imagination) into a werewolf-style monster.

The story is leavened with a diverse cast of characters: the sleazy artist older brother Deeze, the
The ballpoint-pen illustration style is
astonishing in its detail. 
Appalachian girl who befriends the protagonist, her mother with breast cancer, and at the centre of it all Anka, the murdered neighbor. Frustratingly, these characters all have secrets that are not fully explored in the first volume, and readers will have to wait until August for the concluding tome.

Ferris does not shy away from challenging topics, as this work delves into the tumultuous civil rights battles of the 1960s, talking about the experiences of Holocaust survivors, and the darker sides of drug use. Despite tackling these subjects, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is a joy to read.

In our eyes, one of the things that elevates My Favorite Thing Is Monsters above the rest of the field is the way in which it plays with the medium of the graphic novel. Illustrated in detailed crosshatched ballpoint illustrations on lined notebook paper, the work evokes – but is more intricate than – a
In Emil Ferris' debut work, being isolated
is something monstrous. But the most
deadly monsters look the most human.
child’s notebook doodles.

This art has shades of Robert Crumb and Maurice Sendak, but with more maturity and detail than either of those luminaries.

This school-notebook format gives the story a unique rhythm and intimacy, like you are peering into the personal thoughts of a fully realized human perspective.

This also lends itself well to the marginalia that Ferris weaves into the story. These small asides about tangential characters and minor details help make the story feel real and visceral. Fake covers of movie magazines appear almost as non-diegetic inserts, but are tied into the story fully.

Almost as interesting as the work itself is the author’s story. A graduate of the Art Institute of
Prior to contracting the West Nile virus,
Emil Ferris designed Happy Meal™ toys
for McDonalds' promotion of the movie
(Image via Youtube)
Chicago, Ferris was a successful illustrator before contracting the West Nile virus. The disease caused encephalitis and eventually paralyzed her. She began creating My Favorite Thing Is Monsters while re-learning to draw, using a pen affixed to her hand with duct tape. The hallucinations and delusions she experienced during her illness inspired details of the graphic novel.

The one charge that may be levelled against this work is that if we discount the monsters as existing only in the imagination of the protagonist, it could be interpreted as a work that is neither science fiction nor fantasy. We would argue however that character’s imaginings are so powerful as to become the reality that the reader must accept to fully appreciate the graphic novel. Weird fantasy permeates every page of this work.

As a work that is as much about humanity as it is about fantasy, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is written with knowledge of history both fannish and mainstream.

This is the singular vision of a unique talent. The Hugo Award ballot would be incomplete without My Favorite Thing Is Monsters.