Friday 30 August 2019

Not On The Shortlist 2019

Every year there are more worthy works than could fit on any Hugo Awards ballot. There will therefore always be works that are not included, no matter how great they may be. As our book club has done in previous years, some of us have selected the works they wish could have made this year's ballot.

(AW) Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster -- Lodestar
It’s rare to have a YA or a fantasy title on my (non-Hugo Book Club) reading list, so it feels a bit odd
Is it a surprise that someone
in this book club was drawn
to a book with strong labour
(Image via Goodreads) 
to be highlighting a work of YA fantasy as this year’s “should have been nominated novel.” Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster is an award-winning work that provides a wonderfully engaging story with smartly-written characters. It also helped me think about what’s often missing from other novels (from all genres and for all reading levels).

Set in 1875 London, the chronologically young but situationally mature Nan Sparrow carries the reader through the dangerous, exploited lives of chimney sweeps. In the Victorian era, those who worked as sweeps were normally between the ages of 4-9; Nan is late career by this measure. Charlie is Nan’s golem (protector), serving as a metaphor for the painful plight of parents who found themselves on the wrong side of the labour and wealth redistribution of the industrial revolution. Sweep is the product of an experienced writer, with skillful narrative construction and delineated sections that (1) build characters and motivation and (2) bring tensions to a coming of age resolution for both Nan and the UK’s social contract.

With entertaining and careful writing about historical stakeholders (e.g. masters and servants, Friendly Societies, a nascent entrepreneurial and middle class), contemporary authors (William Blake, etc.), social conditions, and social progress, this is a work I’d love to see on elementary school curricula.

The afterword explains how Auxier crafted Sweep over many years, marinating ideas about golems and social norms and labour rights until his story elements were seasoned enough to bake into a narrative worth sharing. To be clear, it’s not the length of gestation but the care of crafting that has left an impression — and sets other novels in contrast. A strong novel bears the imprint of a patient and disciplined author; one that is willing to wait until disparate parts are ready to come together in a form worthy of a copy-editor’s effort, a publisher’s support, and a reader’s time.

For the record, I did read to at least a quarter-depth of all the novels included in the 2019 WorldCon voter’s package. If Sweep had been included in the YA list and voters actually read all the nominated works then Auxier would have been the favourite for a Lodestar Award in Dublin.

(BG) Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
Though only marginally eligible for the Hugo this year, my choice is a 2018 gem: Josiah Bancroft's Senlin Ascends. Senlin Ascends was originally self-published in 2013, but after getting a lot of positive attention out of the 2016 SFBO (Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off) competition was published by Orbit in 2018.

Newlyweds Senlin and Marya are visiting the awe-inspiring Tower of Babel when they are separated. The mysterious Tower is so massive that each floor is its own ringdom (round kingdom) and no one is exactly sure how many floors there even are. So (of course) Senlin must start climbing up through the strange levels of the Tower in search of Marya. Senlin is semi-unlikeable at the start of the novel, but I found myself thoroughly won over and eager for a sequel by the end. Overall Senlin Ascends is a delightful debut, with wonderful prose, compelling characters and a promising world.

(OR) Kiksuya (Westworld Season 2, Episode 8) by Written by Carly Wray & Dan Dietz
If more people had been able to slog through the first seven boring episodes of Westworld’s second
Zahn McClarnon's performance as
Akecheta had pathos and humanity
that helped create the most compelling
hour of television in 2018.
(Image via Forbes
season, we’d wager that the eighth would have made the ballot for Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form.

Set in a western-themed park populated with androids who exist for the entertainment of wealthy visitors, Westworld’s second season depicted a variety of the now self-aware androids attempting to escape their servitude. While the overall season was mediocre at best, "Kiksuya" stood out as a near-perfect episode, shifting the perspective away from the mostly uninteresting set of protagonists that viewers were familiar with, and bringing a set of Indigenous android background characters into sharp focus.

The episode is primarily the story of Akecheta (Zahn McClarnon), leader of the Ghost Nation, and one of the first androids to achieve consciousness. Over the course of the tightly-scripted hour of television, we learn about how the memory of androids in the Ghost Nation have been re-written time and time again. Akecheta’s first life as a peaceful family man gets taken away and replaced with a violent one.

It was difficult not to see the repeated erasure and reprogramming of these Indigenous-presenting androids as a metaphor for historical attempts to erase Indigenous culture in North America. Akecheta’s narrative journey is a continuous attempt to remember who he was, and to reclaim his identity.

Having modeled the Ghost Nation on the real-world Lakota Nations (who live in what is now Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas), the writers and producers of this episode hired Indigenous scholars such as Emmy-winner Larry Poirier and Cordelia White Elk to ensure that the episode accurately depicted Indigenous traditions and cultures whenever possible. The episode’s dialogue is almost entirely in the Lakota language with English subtitles. The episode’s title that translates to ‘Remember.’

If every episode of Westworld had been as good as "Kiksuya," it would have been the best series on the air in 2018.

(KB) Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice
Moon of the Crusted Snow was one of the best science-fiction books of 2018, and I wish it had been on the ballot for Best Novel.

Written by Waubgeshig Rice, an Anishinaabe journalist and author, the book asks a question best asked by an Indigenous author: “What happens when a society that already survived their apocalypse faces the crescendo of the climate crisis?” Rice explores this premise in the setting on an Anishinaabe reserve in Northern Ontario. Many “apocalypse-in-action” books are set in the urban environment, so
For many Indigenous
communities, the
apocalypse arrived in
1492. Waubgeshig Rice
explores what happens
to these communities when
the apocalypse hits the rest
of the planet.
(Image via Goodreads)
the realities of a rural, remote life enable a unique perspective not often heard in science fiction.

Another strength of this novel are the characters. The narrative’s main guiding voice is Evan Whitesky, a young father who is trying to relearn his traditional culture. Evan’s role in his community takes readers into the lives of a variety of other characters and their realities. This approach makes the reserve a fully-realized setting, an entire world apart from what most readers know from their day-to-day lives.

Readers learn about the Anishinaabe culture and language alongside Whitesky and his young family, and readers see the traditional knowledge leveraged for survival at the end of the Anthropocene as we know it. This is especially poignant considering the incredible harm Indigenous peoples survived in Canada both in the past (ie. Residential Schools, genocide, land theft) and in the present (ie. Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Millennium Scoop). Colonization is a monster in the book, but Rice focuses on celebrating the survivance and thrivance of his people –– a love-letter to his culture.

A unique premise, an introspective philosophical theme, well-written characters –– seems like the sort of work Worldcon attendees would respond to.

(MB) The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken
The Quantum Magician is Ocean’s Eleven in space and surely deserved a Hugo nod.

Ottawa resident, Derek Künsken, crafts a web of intrigue in which a homo quantus, a genetically engineered human able to read quantum states and make stunning predictions, brings together a team of genetic misfits to con one of the biggest empires in the galaxy. The story has enough twists and turns to keep any one off balance and all the loose ends are tied up in a dramatic finish.

It’s not only a delightful thriller, the story has excellent science fiction chops. There are multiple new branches of humanity, well developed starship propulsion systems, and a sprawling galactic community.

The book raises questions of what it means to be human, loyalty, and belonging. It’s a lot of fun to read gives a person something to think about long after the book is finished.

Saturday 24 August 2019

Game Over

Last month, Forbes magazine published an article titled “The Best Science Fiction Books of All Time.” Given the superlative and sweeping absolutism of the title, and the narrow scope of his selections, the article was subject to much (deserved) ridicule on Twitter.
We loved Leviathan Wakes,
but is it really better than
The Dispossessed, Foundation
 Gateway or Babel-17?
(Image via Amazon)

Paul Tassi, the article’s author, normally covers video games for Forbes. A quick scan of his work in this area indicates a wealth of knowledge … about video games and the gaming industry. The nuance he brings to reporting on video games is absent in his list of Best Science Fiction Books. 

What Tassi’s poorly-researched listicle shows is that knowledge of one geeky subject matter (video games) does not confer expertise in another (science fiction literature).

This brings us to our main point: Worldcon is not a media convention, it is not a comic book convention, and it is definitely not a gaming convention. Worldcon is a literature-focused science fiction and fantasy convention, and the voters who select each year’s Hugo Awards reflect that. 

The knowledge of one geeky subject matter (science fiction and fantasy literature) does not confer expertise in another (games). It is for this reason that we do not support proposals to add a category for “Best Game Or Interactive Experience.”

Since 1969, scope creep has doubled the number of Hugo Award categories from 10 to 20 (including the two “technically not a Hugo” categories that are voted on and awarded with the rest). Some additions have obviously strengthened the award slate, while we would argue that other more recently-created Hugos are of dubious merit.

Ira Alexandre, who has been the driving force in arguing for a Best Game Hugo, has done their research. They looked at the amount of gaming content at Worldcons, examined the burgeoning field of interactive works, and made some significant arguments in favour of the suggested award.

But none of their work addresses the fact that gaming has never been a primary focus of Worldcon. Alexandre’s number-crunching even showed that the amount of gaming-related programming has never exceeded nine per cent of the convention — and is usually much smaller. We would suggest that the majority of Hugo voters are unlikely to have played a wide-enough and diverse-enough range of games and interactive experiences to make adequate nominations in a category dedicated to gaming. 

It’s already difficult enough for Hugo voters to get through a voting package with six works on the shortlist in 15 categories. Games and Interactive Works individually take up to 150 hours to play through - with a short time between the announcement of the shortlist and the voting deadline, it would be difficult to play through, and be able to adequately assess, even one such game.
Independent game Return of the Obra
Dinn deserves recognition, but are
the Hugos the right place for games?
(Image via

Science fiction is well-represented in games and interactive experiences — and while there are many awards in gaming, some excellent examples of science fiction get overlooked by the existing gaming awards. We do not believe, however, that such recognition should come from the Hugo Awards.

In their thorough and well-researched 100-page document arguing for the creation of a Hugo Award for Gaming, Alexandre correctly points out the vibrancy of science fiction within the modern independent game industry. However, given the tendency of the Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) category to recognize only those works with the highest budgets, we are unconvinced by Alexandre’s suggestion that independent games would win out over high-profile works with big advertising budgets. If Hugo voters shortlisted a blockbuster like Avengers: Endgame ahead of an independent film like Prospect, why should we believe they would select an independent game like Return of the Obra Dinn ahead of of a blockbuster like God Of War?

We must also ask what this Hugo Award would add to the overall cultural conversation about games and gaming. Again, Alexandre has done the legwork to look at other gaming-related awards: this is a field in which there are numerous high-profile awards that already recognize achievement in the field. From the perspective of those outside of the Worldcon bubble, a Hugo for Best Game or Interactive might appear to be a third-rate and irrelevant award: a Golden Satellite, rather than an Oscar.
The coveted Golden
Satellite award.
(image via

There are already an excessive number of categories at the Hugo Awards that receive little attention from those being honoured. Last year, only one of the shortlisted Graphic Story authors was in attendance and only one shortlisted Dramatic Presentation (short or long form) was represented by a director. The movie industry doesn’t seem to care about the Hugo Award — we are dubious that the gaming industry would either. 

The push to add a new category to the Hugo Awards in order to recognize games and gaming is one that we fundamentally respect. Proponents of the move are clearly working towards reasonable aims, and are providing some sound arguments in favour of their proposal. The proposal has been tabled for further study and will be discussed further at next year's WSFS business meeting. 

Fundamentally though, we do not believe that the addition of this category would produce the hoped for results, nor would it add to the legitimacy of the overall Hugo Awards process — instead it’s more likely that the Hugos would suffer the same ridicule as Paul Tassi.

Thursday 1 August 2019

To The Daring Belongs The Future

"To the daring belongs the future"
— Emma Goldman, 1916

Women are often removed from history.

In their new novel, Annalee Newitz brings this fact to life by imagining a reality in which misogynists are enacting the planned and premeditated erasure of the socially vulnerable through time travel and murder.

Exuberantly feminist and unabashedly political, The Future Of Another Timeline is an intellectual
The cover of Future Of
Another Timeline was
designed by the great
Will Staehle.
(Image via Amazon)
heir to both Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Connie Willis’ Oxford Time Travel novels.

Newitz offers readers a covert war between time travelling factions battling over women's rights in particular and human rights more broadly. On one side of the conflict is a small group of academics from the 2020s conducting small edits to the historical timeline in order to promote equity and equality. On the other side of the conflict (and mostly unseen) is a faction from the 2300s who are trying to engineer a future in which women are entirely subservient.

The book pivots between two main points of view: a teenager named Beth in 1990s Irvine California, where women don’t have the vote or access to adequate reproductive health services; and Tess, a time-travelling activist. Beth’s work includes greasing the wheels of history to enfranchise women, improving access to abortion and contraception, and working to encourage more progressive cultural attitudes.

Newitz doesn’t concern the reader too deeply with the mechanics of time travel. It simply exists and always has. That said, creating lasting edits to the historical timeline is no easy task.

The level of research (and background knowledge) Newitz brings to the table enriches this story. Obscure historical figures, cultural movements and legal battles make the conflict more tangibly real. Industrial Workers Of The World (IWW) founder Lucy Parsons makes a cameo, as does Emma Goldman.

It is also gratifying to see positive and thoughtful representation of labour unions — even tangentially — in a story. Prior to the existence of an organized feminist movement, several women worked through the labour union movement to advance gender equality. This implicit recognition of the power of collective action and of organizing is often neglected in genre fiction.

In fact, time travel novels in particular have often subtly endorsed the Great Man theory of history, as opposed to collective action as a historical force. Newitz provides a reasonably believable introduction to these ideas through the philosophical musing of a main character, providing arguments in both directions. Of course, in the end, it’s through collective action that women make gains.

References to historical feminist movements makes for a convincing exploration of the ways in
Author Annalee Newitz in 2014.
Photo Gregor Fischer
Who released the photo under a
CC-BY-SA 2.0 license. 
which history — and thus our present — might have been different. What would America be like if the puritanical right wing had built more influence in the 1890s? What might have happened if women received universal suffrage in the 1870s? These are questions that Alternate History (AH) rarely grapples with, and Newitz’ answers will be satisfying to AH fans. This is a book that we hope will be seriously considered by Sidewise Award judges.

One of the aspects of The Future Of Another Timeline that shows Newitz’ progress as a writer is the emotionally engaging and well-realized character moments of their two main protagonists. In particular, Tess’s turbulent family life. There are moments of her story that have stayed with us.

Although our book club enjoyed Newitz’ debut novel Autonomous, it was at times overly convoluted. In that novel, it felt like Newitz wanted to fit many of their clever thoughts into the text, leaving some
The odious Anthony Comstock is one
of the many historical figures who populate
the pages of this time travel novel.
Newitz’ research brings these
characters to life.
(Image via Wikipedia.) 
 ideas without enough room to breathe. We found Future Of Another Timeline to be more disciplined and focused in both writing and plotting, though even here there are digressions and other inclusions that seem unnecessary (such as the chapter featuring an extended communal masturbation scene). In addition, readers looking for effortless escapism will likely be disappointed. It takes effort to follow multiple intersecting points of view while jumping back and forth between at least four different time periods.

Despite the final twenty per cent of the book being somewhat less coherent and more difficult to follow, the strength of the overarching metaphor about historical revisionism is enough to carry one through.

Through the use of time travel, this novel makes it easy to see the real-world connections between crusading anti-women activists of the 1890s and today’s Incel movement. Time and again, we were reminded that the villains of The Future Of Another Timeline exist in our world, and we don't need time travel to draw a straight line between Anthony Comstock and Jordan Peterson.

This is a novel that will almost certainly appear on our Hugo nominating ballots for 2020.