Friday 24 July 2020

Not On The Shortlist 2020

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. Each of these items represents the views of one member of the book club about the one item they most wanted to see on the ballot.
Were Hugo voters put off
by Ian McEwan's dismissive
comments about SF?
(Image via Amazon)

(AW) Machines Like Me - Novel

Ian McEwan's Machines Like Me provides an alternate history set in a more technologically advanced 1980s. It opens with an emotionally lost protagonist purchasing an android, a product developed by a successful, septuagenarian Alan Turing. Predictable but compelling and engaging moral dilemmas ensue and, as with many crossover works, the author packs a bit too much into the story: love triangle, violent crime against women, primal maternal attachment, etc.. However, the strength of the writing -- including pacing and profluence, plot arc, character development -- make this a satisfying read.

Some mainstream authors are shy to admit they write science fiction, even though they do. And it seems that Worldcon members are shy to acknowledge good crossover fiction, even though it can sometimes be worthy of recognition. Was Machines Like Me ignored because the author made willfully ignorant and self-congratulatory statements about the genre? Were Worldcon members refusing someone known for bullish snobbery? We all know that McEwan is far from the first person to write about moral dilemmas with AI but he did write something that will bring the idea of liminal SF to a new audience. And that can help strengthen the impact of speculative thinking and writing.

(CF) Ninth House - Young Adult Novel

Leigh Bardugo has crafted a satisfying dark fantasy mystery plumbs fantastical conspiracy theories about magical secret societies for a fun ride of a story. The world of spoiled rich kids secretly using magic to gather power, make money, and/or get laid fits so perfectly with the Ivy League setting it is no wonder that it is a trope. However, Bardugo managed to make it feel fresh, and it is not a bit surprising that Amazon picked up the rights to make it a TV show.

The main characters are compelling and complex and they keep the story moving at a good pace. There were some obvious class issues raised but I think there could have been a more nuanced book with less (™) spoiled two-dimensional rich kids. While more work could have been done on these supporting characters, I consider this small flaw to be one of the only remnants of an otherwise lovely transition from YA to adult novel.

(OR) Beasts Of Burden: The Presence Of Others - Graphic Story 
Evan Dorkin and Jill
Thompson's Beasts Of
Burden is beautiful
in every way.
(Image via

Sporadically published by Dark Horse Comics since 2003, Evan Dorkin’s story of a magic-wielding group of dogs has been one of my personal favourites for more than a decade.

Illustrated in gloriously rich watercolours, first by Jill Thompson and later by Benjamin Dewey, Beasts of Burden is one of the most beautiful comic books on the market. The rotating cast of characters in the series — including Jack the beagle, Rex the doberman, and Pugsley the pug — investigate and confront mystical threats to the citizens (both human and canine) of the town of Burden Hill.

While many ‘talking animal’ comic books might end up saccharine or twee, Beasts of Burden develops its characters and aims to tell a compelling story first and foremost.

The 2019 entry into this saga, “The Presence Of Others” is a particularly sterling example of the series. Serving as a perfect on-ramp to the story, the latest series offers more of the perspective of the humans living in Burden Hill. It is unfortunate that this year will apparently be the last one that original artist and co-creator Jill Thompson will work on for a while — her ability to depict canine expressions with nuance imbued the characters with life and pathos.

Given the beauty of this series, the kindness of the writing, and the quality of characterization, I’ve been long surprised that it seems to have escaped the notice of Hugo voters. If you are interested in the Best Graphic Story category, I strongly urge you to take a look.

(CF) The Priory of the Orange Tree - Novel

This epic fantasy by Samantha Shannon is deserving of best in class for world building. Delving into the malleable nature of legends, history, and politics it pulls you into a character driven drama that is a surprising breath of fresh air through the normally stuffy epic fantasy genre.

One aspect that feels fresh is that most of the main characters are females and they are not (™) strong females but rather full and imperfect people. This adds welcome complexity to the story. Because it is character driven (and quite long), some readers may find it hard to carry on but by the middle of the story I think even die hard action fans will be captured by Ead and Tané’s struggles against monsters and monstrous humans.

(KB) Prospect (2018) - Dramatic Presentation

Focusing on character development and a unique setting over expensive special effects, Prospect
Because the WSFS
extended eligibility for
Prospect, it could have been
nominated this year ... but
it wasn't.
(Image via IMDB)
thrives as a what could have been a stand-out nominee for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. Leading the small cast are The Mandalorian’s eponymous hero Pedro Pascal and impressively-skilled newcomer Sophie Thatcher play prospectors. Instead of panning for gold in the Klondike, they are on a forest moon aiming to collect gems. The two spend the film both at odds with one another, and allied with each other. The tension between the two characters in this foreign-to-them environment evokes classic Robert Service poetry with a sci-fi twist. The setting is a character with agency - as deadly as overpowered, Infinity-gauntleted supervillain.

As someone who craves creative stories with a fresher take on the SFF genre, it’s consistently disappointing to see smaller-budgeted flicks overlooked for superhero blockbusters that don’t bring anything new to the screen. While Prospect may not have made it to your ballot, I encourage you to check it out on Netflix, and consider expanding your long-form frontiers in the future.

(MB) The Future of Another Timeline - Novel 

Annalee Newitz’s second novel is well deserving of a place on the Hugo shortlist. It is a well-crafted, time traveling adventure story. It tackles real current world issues of misogyny with unabashed feminism. At the same time, it contains a very personal story of the protagonist editing her own past. The characters have depth and feeling because of these personal stories.

The time travel follows a distinct set of rules and Newitz is able to abide by the rules and not reach for deus ex machina to solve their problems. The story is engaging and contains huge amounts of well researched history.

While at times, the story can feel like a bit of polemic, it never comes across as preachy. This is a strong story with an equally strong message about collective action and feminist values.

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