Thursday 20 August 2020

Re-Watching The Hugos (Intro)

Best Dramatic Presentation is a Hugo category with a long history: Of the 17 current awards categories, only Novel, Novella, Short Story, Fanzine and Pro Artist awards have been handed out in more calendar years. Since Dramatic Presentations were first recognized by the WSFS, silver chrome rocket ships have been handed out to movies and TV shows at 57 different awards ceremonies.

However, the category does not seem to warrant the same cache as most of the other categories; often the recipients skip the awards ceremony, there are no podcasts dedicated to revisiting past winners, and Jo Walton repeatedly disparages the category in her Informal History of the Hugos. It is also the category in which Hugo voters have chosen to present no award on the most occasions, voting for “no award” in 1959, 1963, 1971 and 1977, and neglecting to even nominate a shortlist for the category in 1964 and 1966.

It might also be noted that movies are rarely (if ever) marketed using the Hugo Award as a credential. Did
Galaxy Quest director Dean Parsiot (front row,
second from right) showed up to accept his 
Hugo Award. (Image via Locus)
you know that Hugo-winning director Dean Parsiot has a big-budget movie hitting cinemas on August 28? The lack of using Parsiot’s Hugo trophy in the marketing of Bill & Ted Face The Music is telling, especially considering that Parsiot’s Hugo-winning movie Galaxy Quest is often held up by fans as the exemplar of why the Best Dramatic Presentation category exists.

In the past, this blog has questioned whether the Dramatic Presentation category continues to serve any purpose. In order to answer this question, contributors to this blog including Olav Rokne, Tim Klassen, Paul Senior, Daniel Calder, Christy Foley and Earl Prusak have begun re-watching works from Hugo shortlists from previous years to see how well they hold up, to consider whether other works should have been considered, and to ask whether the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo has made any impact on how well these works are remembered.

Blog Post 1 - The dawn of the Best Dramatic Presentation (1958)
Blog Post 21 - TO COME (1978)

Wednesday 19 August 2020

A Future Well Remembered

Hardly a year went by between 1996-2006 in which the name Michael A. Burstein failed to appear on
(image via Goodreads)
the Hugo Awards ballot.

For an author to rack up 10 Hugo nods in the prose fiction categories is a rare accomplishment (for comparison, that’s the same number as Heinlein). Even more impressive is that Burstein did this before his 37th birthday, making him the third youngest author to reach 10 Hugo nominations. Published in 2008, the book I Remember The Future collects his award-nominated stories and makes a strong case for the continued relevance of his work.

Stories of the near future often age poorly, which is why tales like Burstein’s debut “TeleAbscence,” and its sequel are so notable in their prescience. It could even be suggested that these works are more relevant now than when they were when published more than two decades ago.

For those of us working in public education policy during the current Covid-19 pandemic, the story’s depiction of the pitfalls and potential of elementary classrooms run via teleconferencing technology is particularly insightful. Burstein uses this as a backdrop to comment on racial disparities, on wealth and privilege, and on the opportunity gap.

Prescience can be painful. Burstein’s “Kaddish For The Last Survivor,” is a story about social relapse as the Holocaust passes out of living memory. His protagonist’s sacrifice to ensure that the flame of memory is kept alive could be a rallying cry for those of us concerned about the global rise of authoritarianism and nationalism.

Burstein’s writing style is unpretentious and direct, the plotting and structure is well thought out and clean. These are not stories told for the sake of rococo prose, but for the sake of telling a story. For those of us in the book club who appreciate such substance, the clarity and comprehensibility of Burstein’s writing was refreshing. Others suggested that there may have been slightly too much exposition, especially in the earlier stories in the collection.

But the content of I Remember the Future is consistently top-tier. Burstein is relentlessly inventive, from mundane SF tackling excessive secrecy in government documents (“Seventy-Five Years”) to big ideas-based whimsical SF (the title story “I Remember The Future.”)
Michael A. Burstein is a fan of 
science fiction as a genre, and this
shows through in every page of
I Remember The Future.
(Image via author's Facebook)

In recent decades, the craft of short story writing has come to be seen in some quarters as a stepping stone to writing novels. For whatever reason, Burstein never followed that path. He has unfortunately written only a couple of stories since this collection came out in 2008, but his writing career is an example of how short fiction can equal the emotional and narrative impact of novels. It takes a lot of work to fit so much into so few words. 

The explanatory essays in which Burstein talks about his inspirations and how the stories were developed add an additional layer of value to this collection of stories. 

We are very glad that Michael A. Burstein received so many Hugo nominations and won what is now known as the Astounding Award for Best New Writer: these awards are helping new generations of readers connect to his work. 

In our opinion, this is one of the best short story collections of the past decade.

Saturday 15 August 2020

Gateway to Adventure

“It is at the moments when the doors open, when things flow between the worlds, that stories happen.” 
— Alix E. Harrow

Coming of age stories and portals to other worlds are featured in many fantastic tales. Wardrobes to
Cover art by Lisa
Marie Pompilio. 
(Image via
Narnia, rabbit holes to Wonderland, or — as is the case in Alix E. Harrow’s debut novel — Doors to a myriad of places and cultures. And, naturally, exploration beyond these portals provides opportunities for change and growth.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a love letter to the portal fantasy, which itself comes on the heels Harrow’s Hugo-winning short-story A Witch's Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies (2018). The novel follows the story of January Scaller — a lonely, nearly-orphan girl growing up in New England affluence at the turn of the 20th Century. Her adventures and salvation revolve around an absentee father, a mysterious book, and a series of Doors connecting her world to innumerable others.

Although our book club met and discussed The Ten Thousand Doors of January prior to the Hugo voting deadline, we struggled to find a consensus opinion on the novel. Certainly, the fact that it has prompted weeks worth of discussion and analysis for our book club points to the fact that it is a rich text.

Despite the ubiquitous use of portals in fantasy, Harrow’s interpretation of the door/portal as a crucible for change does offer readers something novel. It is clear throughout the novel that Harrow’s Doors and the worlds they divide are a metaphor for relations of power and the points of tension within their inversions. Unsurprisingly, then, Ten Thousand Doors features an innocent, strong, and worthy protagonist in January. Through the privilege of her captive upbringing she is able to peer inside the power structures that keep her from the love of her family and her own self-actualization. Where January’s captors (those in power) seek to preserve and build control, Doors are closed and lives are lost. Put another way, the powerful are able to make decisions that impact the vulnerable… until our hero finds a way to break this pattern. January’s inherited and emergent weapon is both satisfying and novel: the written word shaped into narrative, imbued with desperate confidence.
For a debut novel, Ten Thousand Doors
is remarkably accomplished. We look 
forward to reading further works by 
Alix E. Harrow. 
(Image via

Ten Thousand Doors is an excellent debut novel but not without its issues. Some members of the book club found it to be a mixed reading experience, while others loved it. The reflective and descriptive writing is consistently strong and most were amused by the occasional nod to academic writing. Some readers who don’t normally gravitate to fantasy novels found it surprisingly enjoyable. January’s story also features one of the best canine protagonists in recent memory. Sinbad is a ‘bad’ dog that provides the protagonist with much-needed loyalty and readers with a character that’s easy to love.

Some book club members didn’t enjoy the structure of the novel, finding the ‘book-within-a-book’ conceit frustrating. This structure also left January without much to do until the second half of the novel — at which point the action ramps up. Some readers felt this pacing choice to be jarring. Others felt the chapters dedicated to parental backstories were strong enough to stand alone, perhaps as a novella.

Despite some misgivings about her debut novel, we all agreed that Harrow is an exciting emerging writer. We look forward to her next novel The Once and Future Witches, expected later in 2020.

Monday 10 August 2020

Moving Forward on Looking Backwards

Among the controversies to emerge from this year’s Worldcon was the honouring of two disgraced
Say what you will about the
honourees, these are some of
the nicest-looking Hugo bases
ever designed. 
(Image via
former titans of the genre, as both John W. Campbell Jr. and H.P. Lovecraft were selected to receive a Retro Hugo for the year 1945.

Their malignant racism is well documented, and does not need to be re-litigated here. Instead, we would like to take the regrettable outcome of these two awards as a case example of structural biases inherent in the Retro Hugo Awards.

The Retros Hugos sometimes stumble. It is worth asking whether they should continue, and if so what form they should take.

Retro History

The original proposal for the Retro Hugos came from long-time SFF fan Bruce Pelz during the lead-up to the 1996 Worldcon in Los Angeles. The Retros were initially intended to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1946 Worldcon which had also been held in Los Angeles. Pelz initially proposed that Retro Hugos would only be presented if a Worldcon was happening in the exact same place on a 50th or 100th anniversary.

The location requirement was dropped during debate because it was felt to be too restrictive. But it was still not anticipated that the Retro Hugos would become something that was done on a regular basis.

Here's what Pelz said in 1993 while introducing the idea of Retro Hugos: "I expect the idea to be pretty much a Funny-Once, and that other Worldcons will not want to try this. But with a 1946-1996 Opportunity, I would like to be able to try it at least once."

To date, Retro Hugos have been awarded on eight occasions. According to the WSFS constitution, they can only be awarded on the 50th, 75th or 100th anniversary of a year in which the Hugo Awards themselves did not occur.

Of the eight Retros, three were on the 50th anniversaries, and five have been on the 75th anniversaries.
Bruce Pelz speaking at Noreascon One. 
(Photo by Jay Klein via
Looking at the lists of finalists, it seems evident that there is a difference between the awards at the 50-year mark (1946, 1951, 1954) and the awards presented at the 75-year mark. That additional 25 years of distance in the cultural memory is significant; it is not particularly unusual for a fan to attend two Worldcons 50 years apart, but it is almost unheard of for someone to attend conventions 75 years apart. The prospect of awards given out to works a full century after they were published — as might occur in 2040 — gives us trepidation.

Structural Biases

Because they are voted on primarily by people who were born decades after the original publication dates, the Retro Hugos are less likely to recognize work that has not been reprinted. This means that the average Retro Hugo voter inevitably experiences the works they’re voting on through a filter created by the intervening generations. 

Additionally, it is impossible for Retro Hugo voters to be unaware of what various writers might
Even if you can travel in time like the folk
from Journey Galactic, it's difficult to 
experience the stories in their original context.
(Image via Hugo Book Club Blog)
accomplish later in their careers. When Robert A. Heinlein’s debut novel Beyond This Horizon was on the Retro Hugo ballot, could any of us consider it without being aware of his long career and relevance to the field?

The effects of these systemic biases will naturally be most pronounced in the categories in which it is most challenging for the average Hugo voter to make an informed decision: the editing category, and the best series award.

The Invisible Editor

The value of talented editors can not be overstated. One only needs to look at the “Un-Edited” editions of Stranger In A Strange Land and The Stand to see that the professional editors who worked with Robert A. Heinlein and Stephen King made significant changes to these iconic novels. But other than these few examples where we can compare the texts, the value added by the editor is usually invisible to the reader. This presents a significant challenge to Hugo Award voters who take the task seriously.

With contemporaneous Hugos, we often rely on word of mouth and on reputation to make informed decisions, as well as a general awareness of what works those editors have had a hand in. But given the nature of the Retro Hugo Awards, the people who have worked with the editors nominated for the award aren’t around to inform the discussion. Thus, votes are cast based on little more than historical reputation.

The invisibility of editors’ work is a significant exacerbating factor to the reputational biases of the Retro Hugos. No matter how flawed a historical nominee may be, when voters don’t have the tools to judge the nominees work, name recognition becomes paramount.

Unintended Consequences

When the Retro Hugos were first conceived in the early 1990s, the Hugo for Best Series was not a consideration because that category did not exist. More recently, in all the WSFS business meeting debates surrounding the creation of a Hugo for Best Series, we cannot find one reference to how the new category would be handled in the Retro Hugos.

The Retro Hugo for Best Series therefore seems like an unintended consequence of multiple rule changes.

The amount of reading that Hugo voters need to do to make informed votes in the best series category is an issue that has been brought up repeatedly in discussions of this category. This reading burden is exacerbated when trying to make informed votes about long-out-of-print series.

If there’s a series on the Retro Hugo ballot that is still inspiring works in the new millennium, that series will have an obvious advantage, even if the works written 75 years ago were racist, misogynist, and mediocre.

A Silver Lining

The selection of H.P. Lovecraft and John W. Campbell Jr. as Retro Hugo recipients in 2020 has
On its original publication, Leigh Brackett's
Shadow Over Mars was in Starling Stories.
The fact that editor Oscar J. Friend
commissioned Virgil Finlay to illustrate the
story is an indication of the high regard
readers had for Leigh Brackett's writing.
(Image via
unfortunately overshadowed several ways in which the 1945 Retro Hugo awards have been successful.

The recognition of Leigh Brackett as a foundational figure in science fiction by awarding her the Best Novel award and Best Related Work award for 1945 will help ensure her work continues to be read. Recognizing the work of Margaret Brundage in the Best Professional Artist category is an excellent move by Hugo voters, and overdue. Significant credit for these successes should be paid to fan writer Cora Buhlert for her efforts over the past year to elevate the level of debate and dialogue surrounding the Retro Hugos.

Moving Forward on Looking Backward

There will be no Retro Hugos in 2021, given that the 1946 Retros were handed out at L.A. Con III in 1996. This is good because it gives the Worldcon community a chance to pause and reassess the value of continuing these retrospective awards.

The distorted perspective of voters who are living 75 years removed from the context of the matter being voted on means that some Hugo categories don’t work very well for the Retro Hugos. Is it time to abandon some categories in the Retro Hugos?

Additionally, when applied to works from a time before living memory, the Hugo nomination process seems to draw in works that have no business being celebrated: one can point to last year’s Retro Hugo-shortlisted movie Batman (1944). It’s a racist dumpster fire that deserves to be forgotten. Perhaps due to the nature of the award, different nomination rules for Retro Hugos should be considered?

Or perhaps the Retros can be salvaged through the work of bloggers like Buhlert, and by engaging a broader swath of Hugo voters in discussions about the less-savory aspects of fannish history.

For the Retro Hugos to be relevant and worthwhile awards, we as members of the World Science Fiction Society need to wrestle with why the awards need to exist. Is their intent to reproduce the racist tastes of the past or can they help focus a critical lens on the history of the genre and help us discover works that might have been overlooked?

There is a way to re-envision the Retro Hugos as progressive and constructive. We must look forward on looking backward, but that will take effort and commitment. If we aren’t willing to put in that effort, perhaps 2020 should be the last time Retro Hugos are presented. 

Friday 7 August 2020

Interview with Derek Künsken - Author of The House Of Styx

Ottawa-based science fiction author Derek Künsken has become a mainstay in
Cover of The House Of Styx
The House of Styx
is Derek Kunsken's
third (and best) novel.
(Image via Goodreads) 
the magazines Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction. Armed with a master’s degree in molecular biology from McMaster University, and his experiences working in Canada’s diplomatic service, he writes politically deft space opera that explores the implications of genetic engineering. His third novel The House Of Styx was serialized this spring in Analog, with a complete edition coming out in a few weeks from Rebellion Publishing. In April, blog contributor Olav Rokne interviewed Künsken about the upcoming novel.  

House of Styx is your third novel, but it’s a prequel to the first two. Could you tell me a little bit about it and how it relates to your previous books and stories?

The House of Styx is basically a Godfather story set in the clouds of Venus.

It’s going to show in two books basically the genesis of the Venusian Congregate which in later stories and novels becomes an interstellar powerhouse.

You’re Canadian … you'll quite obviously notice that the Congregate in The House of Styx are Quebecois.

I had imagined what would happen if Quebec separated [from Canada] at some point and then wanted to be a space-faring nation. But by the time they got to space, the only place left unclaimed was Venus. What would you do with a society that has been focused for 250 years on trying not to be assimilated linguistically and culturally? And what would happen if they became powerful? How would their linguistic concerns play out in society?

That’s why in the book, we get French 8.1 and 8.3 and the Scarecrow speaks a 7.1 but it's impolitic for some outsiders to speak particular kinds of accents and stuff like that.

I so loved the idea of seeing my Quebecois family sort of reflected in the future history that I was writing and it’s interesting because a lot of future histories even written by non-American authors seem to reflect the future as a largely American-dominated culture. It’s that hegemony of American power that we see reflected.

What was the main theme that you wanted to tackle in The House of Styx?

I was flying to the Nebulas conference, I think it was in 2013. I had already created all of the biology in the clouds of Venus, but I didn't really have a story to tell with this. I had a sort of survival story, but something was missing. This was going on at the same time as some of the ‘reasonable accommodation’ debates were happening in Quebec — and I’m half-Quebecois myself.
The serialized version of House Of Styx was 
illustrated by Eldar Zakirov.
(Image via DeviantArt)

So I was following the news and basically it was appalling to see some of the discourse around “how should Arab people integrate into Quebec.” It quite obviously came from a place of intolerance. Then I realized that the caustic intolerance that I was observing in society was a perfect metaphor for the sort of acidic environment of the clouds of Venus. And so I wrote that story, but there was so much more to it that — as soon as I had sold it to Analog — I realized I had another novel or two in me dealing with those kinds of characters, that kind of political setting and that kind of metaphorical environment.

That’s interesting because I’d picked up on a theme of subverting colonialism in your work. It’s a colonialist system, but it’s a narrative of decolonization.

You’re correct.
The patron nations and the client nations came about in these stories because I was asking what would happen if the rich powers — these four major powers that basically get a lock on outer space resources — what would be left for a country that comes to space 100 years later?

That's concerning to me.

Once nations spend as much money to get into space as it takes, will they necessarily respect the common good? Or will it just be ‘I got here first, now I’m exploiting it?’

Does science fiction have a responsibility to imagine better possible futures and by doing so potentially engineer them?
Künsken takes inspiration from
politics in his home province.
(Image via NorthumberlandFM)

I don’t know if I would go so far as to say ‘responsibility,’ because in the end I’m trying to tell entertaining stories that will hopefully move people in some way. If there's a thousand readers or 10,000 readers and that’s it, you know sort of mission accomplished.

I don't see my role to necessarily look at things but one of the things science fiction does really well is cautionary tales. It’s not that I set out to write a cautionary tale, but some of my concerns come through, so things like the Puppets are an expression of my own anxieties.

One of the things I loved most about Quantum Garden and Quantum Magician was how you played with concerns around genetic engineering. I was wondering if you could expand on your thinking that led to the creation of the Puppets and Numen because they kind of creep me out.

So I want to start every conversation about The Quantum Magician with “I’m so sorry for the Puppets.”

There are some fundamentalist sects of Christianity where they tend to have multiple brides they tend to eject the younger males. I was reading about that at one point and I was surprised at how this could happen [today]. If that can happen on the Earth and if North Korea can happen on the Earth …

If our current systems can’t even deal with [Human Trafficking] on planet Earth, what would happen if you have an asteroid colony where 100 people take over and make everybody do what they want? What is it going to be like when the next nearest police or help for somebody is six light hours away?

I thought about what might happen if you took the most selfish and short-sighted people in the world and you gave them the power to genetically engineer their own children, what would they do?
If they want to make themselves perfect slaves that are half the size so that they will never be physically threatened and then build a system where pheremonally these people will love their masters … and there are people who are unethical enough and short-sighted enough to think that this would be a fine idea.

That’s where the Puppets came from.

A recurring theme in your work is the cruelty of creating these genetically engineered lines of humanity and the unintended consequences.

It is cruel.

The thing is you know let’s say you get a coder or a developer to write you a computer program. They have the specifications for what you need, and then they create a draft of the program, they run it and then they debug it and then they run it again and then they see is this what you wanted and then they’ll reprogram some things and then they’ll debug it again and there’s no ethical consequence to any of that process because there’s nothing in there that deserves ethical consideration.

When you’re dealing with human beings and you're dealing with germ-line changes — which means it’ll pass on to the children — the debugging process is literally the children are born and you hope they grow right. And if they don't, oh that's a bug in the code. So I mean there’s huge huge ethical problems with that process.

What’s next on your writing agenda?

Well, I’ve got an epic fantasy book that I’m editing right now. I would like to see if there’s any market for it. I also wrote a horror novel — a very short one so it probably needs a lot of beefing up. Some of what I did with the Puppets shows that I can probably do horror.