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.

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