Thursday, 30 December 2021

Best Dramatic Presentation Boldly Goes Forward (1967)

This blog post is the tenth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems only natural that Star Trek should win a Hugo Award in its first season.

The Hugo shortlist in 1967 included Fantastic Voyage,
Fahrenheit 451, The Menagerie, The Naked Time, &
The Corbomite Maneuver. (Image via IMDB)
At the time, however, this decision was not without controversy.

The Worldcon chair for 1967, Ted White, published a screed against the show calling its writers patronizing and ill-informed. Hugo-winning fan writer Alexei Panshin opined that Star Trek was filled with cliches and facile plots.

But for every voice criticizing the new show, there were several voicing their support. Big-name authors like Harlan Ellison and A.E. Van Vogt campaigned for the television series to win a Hugo, hoping that the recognition might buy it a second season. Writing in the fanzine Yandro, Juanita Coulson offered the definitive counterpoint: “The scorners of Star Trek do not seem to have an alternate dramatic piece of science fiction to offer; they usually do not like anything TV calls science fiction or fantasy.” 

It was by far the most talked about Best Dramatic Presentation ballot up to that point, with various pundits at turns praising Fahrenheit 451’s elegant direction, complaining about plot points in Fantastic Voyage, and analysing the merits of “The Corbomite Maneuver.” The quality of this debate, the resulting shortlist, and the final vote all look exceptional from the perspective of 2021; this was the year that the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation came into its own. 
In 1967, Gene Roddenberry was
one of the few Best Dramatic
Presentation winners to accept
the award in person.
(Photo by Jay Kay Klein

Considering the eligible works for this Hugo shortlist, one member of our cinema club (Paul) watched no fewer than 43 science fiction and fantasy movies that had hit cinemas in 1966, and concluded that Hugo voters could hardly have done better.

As we started watching movies and television shows from 1966, many of us had expected Fahrenheit 451, directed by François Truffaut to be the shortlist standout. However, we were surprised to find the movie had aged far more poorly than other works. Most readers will be familiar with the source material, which criticizes anti-intellectualism and post-literate culture, but this is an adaptation that does not live up to the provocative premise. The first half of the film moves at a pace that makes the Mendenhall Glacier look like quicksilver; and although the second half provides some good moments, it’s undermined by questionable choices around gender representation. That being said, Truffaut is a master of building individual shots, and some of the imagery continues to hit hard. Scenes which center the action on the television in Guy Montag’s apartment are visually arresting and prescient. The set design — both the use of existing architecture and the film’s own props — is iconic and lush. There are moments of brilliance in the movie; particularly a speech in which Captain Beatty cynically dismisses the value of books. In several other years, this might have been at the top of our ballots, but in 1967 it was outshone.

The most expensive science fiction movie to have been made up to that point, Fantastic Voyage, holds up somewhat better. Sparingly and effectively directed by Richard Fleischer, the movie follows a five-person submarine crew who are shrunk to microscopic size and injected into a scientist in order to perform life-saving brain surgery. Although far too many movies of the era over-explained their premise, Fleischer’s dialogue-free opening sequence is a masterclass in visual storytelling, showing the events that kick off the movie’s action.
A pleasure to burn perhaps, but not a pleasure to watch.
(Image via Pintrest)
It’s worth noting the quality of the visuals in Fantastic Voyage, which earned the movie two Academy Awards. Art Cruickshank’s visual effects pushed the limits of compositing technology at the time, while Jack Martin Smith and Dale Hennessy’s clean and functional design work made the secret military base setting seem real. The movie may have had a leg up on some of its competitors that year, since Isaac Asimov’s novelization of the movie had received mostly positive reviews. This might have been a very worthy Hugo winner, if it hadn’t been for the genre-defining presence of Star Trek.

From the day that Gene Roddenberry first showed “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” at the 1966 Worldcon in Cleveland, Star Trek had dominated discussions of science fiction. One unsigned complaint in the fanzine Algol notes “somewhat more than half of every fanzine I have seen this year was concerned with one subject and one subject alone: Star Trek.” Three episodes made the ballot in that first year: “The Menagerie,” “The Corbomite Maneuver,” and “The Naked Time.” 

“The Naked Time,” which aired first of the shortlisted episodes, is without a doubt one of the most well-remembered episodes of the original series, if for no other reason than the image of a shirtless Sulu wielding a fencing sword. The episode — which depicts a touch-transmitted disease that causes the protagonists to become disinhibited and act drunk — features some of the earliest moments of the series that show the range and depth of the characters. While “space makes people go mad” storylines were already a tired trope by the 1960s, the panache of the direction and the strong performances elevate the material. For at least one member of our viewing club, this would have been the top pick from the year.

In a slightly less-well-remembered episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver,”  the Enterprise crew is
We’d suggest that of the eligible episodes
(those that aired in 1966) both "The Conscience
of the King," and "Balance of Terror" might
also have made very solid inclusions on the ballot.
(Image via Youtube)  

confronted by an immense and implacable alien ship that seems intent on destroying them. At the risk of offering a heterodox opinion, the primary plot of the episode is less clever than its authors seemed to think, with Captain Kirk’s bluff reading as ham-handed. But despite this criticism, there’s enough in the episode to make it a worthy inclusion on the ballot. The theme of resolving conflict and building bridges between cultures is well handled. And this is one of the first opportunities to observe Kirk as a trusting and supportive captain.

“The Menagerie” is the only two-part episode of the original series of Star Trek. Making use of the original unaired pilot, it brings back the original captain Christopher Pike on a quest to return to the planet of Talos IV. Though it would be difficult to argue that it’s one of the best Trek episodes, it’s fine and provides backstories and insights about the show’s intentions. But fans had other reasons to support “The Menagerie” for the Hugo Award.

“We're agreed that we vote for “The Menagerie” and get the Hugo for Roddenberry personally, even though that wasn’t really the best episode,” Hugo-winning fanzine editor Buck Coulson wrote. “It's the only way to honor the man who made all the Star Trek episodes possible.”

Given how significant Roddenberry’s contributions to the genre would prove to be, it’s difficult to argue that Hugo voters got it wrong.

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Slipping on the stickiness of time

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was an unusual and perplexing author, so it seems fitting that Unstuck In Time — a
Academy Award-nominee Robert B. Weide (left)
chronicles his decades-long friendship with 
science fiction author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (right)
in a mostly excellent documentary. 
(Image via

documentary tackling this legendary science fiction author — would be unusual and perplexing.

Directed by Robert B. Weide, who’s best known for his Emmy-winning work on Curb Your Enthusiasm, the film is an affectionate (almost hagiographic) look at the author of Hugo finalists such as Cat’s Cradle, Sirens of Titan, and Slaughterhouse Five. Taking his cues from Vonnegut’s non-linear narratives, Weide flips from wartime Dresden, to 1980s New York, to Depression-era Indianapolis, trying to craft a holistic portrait of the author.

The director’s decades-long friendship with Vonnegut provides a through-line for the movie. Vignettes about the documentarian’s youth, correspondence with Vonnegut, and process of filming interviews, are interspersed with archival footage and the standard fare of a more conventional documentary. Given that Vonnegut often blurred the lines between fiction and autobiography, it seems appropriate that this documentary includes so much about the filmmaker attempting to grapple with the author’s legacy and the way their friendship shaped both lives.

It’s an approach that works … mostly.

Overall, the film suffers from this split focus between the personal view of Weide and his desire to make a definitive portrayal of the man and his legacy. When the film leans in to the historical perspective and a quasi-academic assessment, it’s easy to see how Weide’s meticulous approach earned him an Academy Award nomination in the documentary category. When the movie leans in to his personal relationship with his subject, his passion and affection for Vonnegut are effusive and likely infectious for Vonnegut fans. But each of these perspectives ends up getting short shrift; there are notable omissions from Weide’s personal perspective, and there are notable omissions from the historical overview.

Weide is too close to his subject to provide an unflinching look. But it also seems that he’s too much of a documentarian to lean into the personal. Both perspectives suffer for this, but one can also see why the movie took 40 years to make: it’s filled with incredible moments, and archival footage, and surprising snippets. With the amount of footage that Weide gathered in four decades, one can only imagine the riches that had to be left on the cutting room floor.
Before he was beloved
by the literary establishment,
Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s work
was recognized by SF fans.
(Image via Ebay)

One of the biggest omissions is Vonnegut’s relationship with the greater science fiction community. There is little attention paid to the fact that the science fiction community embraced his work long before he attained “mainstream” literary success. In fact, the only other science fiction author even mentioned in the documentary is Theodore Sturgeon, who appears only as a passing reference without offering the context that Vonnegut considered Sturgeon (among several other science fiction authors) a friend. Numerous of Vonnegut’s short stories are mentioned as well as publications such as Collier’s and Playboy, but the magazines Galaxy, If, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction are omitted from this version of his bibliography (an omission that is all the more egregious when one realizes that his most famous short story “Harrison Bergeron” first appeared in F&SF).

Vonnegut’s atheism is also neglected. Given the fact that disputes over religion were central to the breakdown of his marriage, and given that he took over from Isaac Asimov as president of the American Humanist Association after Asimov’s death (and eulogized Asimov with his trademark wit), this is a significant blind spot for the documentary to have.

The version of Vonnegut presented in this documentary, scrubbed clean of the unwanted stench of SFF fandom, will be familiar to many fans who have seen their most literary icons repudiate fennish roots. The idea that he was apart from science fiction is one that Vonnegut attempted to curate, especially late in his life. As Fred Pohl noted, “[Vonnegut] made the commercial decision to deny that he was a science fiction writer.”
Yousuf Karsh's portrait of 
Vonnegut (left) and Ray 
Bradbury (right)
(Image via

It is also notable how many of the interviews in Unstuck In Time are cut short; for example, just as someone seems ready to say something truly damning about Vonnegut’s behaviour towards his first wife Jane or his adopted children. Vonnegut’s second wife Jill Krementz is hardly mentioned at all, nor is his close confidante Loree Rackstraw, nor is his sexism or philandering, nor is his well-documented temper.

It would be difficult for a friend of Vonnegut to grapple with the author’s darker side, so these omissions are somewhat forgivable, though the movie might have been stronger if Wiede had fully accepted and leaned in more on the subjective voice.

For better and for worse, this is not a definitive biography of Vonnegut. Unstuck In Time is a flawed, perplexing, infuriating movie that much like its subject provides nuggets of wisdom, moments of insight, and a compelling story.

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Once more into the breech (Best Dramatic 1966)

This blog post is the ninth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

Although the Hugo committee solicited nominations for a Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award in 1966, the category was omitted from the final ballot. This made it the fourth time in eight years that a Worldcon had failed to honour a televised or filmed work of science fiction.
Harlan Ellison addresses the audience at the
1966 Hugo Awards ceremony. Though he'd
been quite insistent that there be a Dramatic
Presentation Hugo in 1965, he was oddly 
quiet about the subject in 1966 when he didn't
have anything eligible in that category.
(Image via Calisphere)

Interestingly, this fact seems to have escaped the notice of fandom at the time. Or at least, it wasn’t documented. Notable fanzines such as Yandro, and the WSFA Journal reported on the 1966 Hugo shortlist, and analyzed each category in detail … but failed to make so much of a mention of the absence of Best Dramatic Presentations.

Theodore Sturgeon, writing in the Australian Review of Science Fiction, noted the disconnect between the quality of science fiction on screen and fandom’s prevailing attitude to the medium: “In films, on TV, and even occasionally in the theatre, we are seeing a new attitude to science and science fiction. The result of this combination of new attitudes has been a resurgence of sf in the cinema - and the production of the finest sf films ever made. Yet the fanzines are empty of sf film reviews except those panning the duds.”

The members of our cinema club agreed in broad strokes with Sturgeon’s assessment that there were exceptionally good dramatic works that would have been eligible for a Hugo in 1966, though there wasn’t a clear consensus of what should have won.

The front-runner on several of our ballots would have been Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard’s noir detective story set in a technocratic dystopia ruled by a computer. Godard’s filmmaking is beyond dispute; the use of modern architecture, the stark lighting, and the innovative camera work in some ways make this the most timeless movie we have seen during our viewing of historic Hugo film and TV.

However, Alphaville has aged poorly in terms of gender roles;
It seems strange that Jean Luc Godard could
imagine a future in which the government is
a computer, but had difficulty imagining that
women might be more than objects.
(Image via Film Forum)
’s protagonist slaps women with little provocation on a regular basis, and most women in the movie have little agency or dialogue. Some members of our cinema club could not finish the movie because of this rampant misogyny.
It is difficult to assess a movie like this, in which the technical filmmaking is innovative and impressive, but much of the content is utterly unpalatable today. That said, in the context of the times, it does seem surprising that the 1966 Hugo Awards would ignore Alphaville; the movie was significant enough that it was reviewed contemporaneously in all the major papers, and even mentioned in the first season of Star Trek.

The 10th Victim has aged better in many respects in terms of gender representation as it features a female protagonist who’s just as competent and ruthless as her male counterpart, though some supporting characters fall into old and cliched tropes. The contrast with Alphaville is stark. It was the first time that Hugo finalist Robert Sheckley’s work had been adapted to the silver screen, and Italian director Elio Petri made it a modest international success. Depicting a future society in which government-sanctioned hunting of humans is a popular form of entertainment, the movie is stylish, beautiful to look at, and over-the-top camp. Despite some pacing issues, the welcome critique of capitalism and the top-tier acting (Italian legend Marcello Mastroianni and OG-Bond-girl Ursula Andress have superb on-screen chemistry) have earned the movie a place in the cult canon.

B-Movie horror auteur Jacques Tourneur directed his final — and possibly best — film War-Gods of the Deep. Loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe poem, the movie depicts a conflict between the eccentric residents of a small Cornish village and 19th century pirates who live under the ocean and who have been made immortal by strange volcanic gasses. Featuring Vincent Price as the captain of the underwater pirates, the cast is top notch, and despite a very modest budget, the sets and production have a lot of atmosphere.

Though it's far from a perfect movie, the cast of
The 10th Victim is incredibly charismatic, and the
movie is filmed with panache.
(Image via
Interestingly, one of the science fiction films that year that would have the most impact on future filmmaking flew under the radar at the time: Planet Of The Vampires. The Italian-American co-production, which features an exploratory team encountering infectious alien spirits on an eerie planet, has been often cited as an inspiration for a variety of movies including Ridley Scott’s Alien, Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars, and the upcoming D.C. Superhero movie Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. While the acting is competent, and the set design is mostly run-of-the-mill, what elevates Planet Of The Vampires above many of its peers is the ending. This is a movie that takes a hard right turn in the last 20 minutes, and finishes with panache. (In what could be one of the all-time great double features, Planet Of The Vampires was released in the USA packaged with Boris Karloff’s compellingly weird “Colour Out Of Space” adaptation Die Monster Die!).

Invasion of the Astro Monster, directed by Ishirō Honda, is the most science fictional entry in the entire Godzilla franchise (Two members of our cinema club hadn’t read a synopsis before watching it and were surprised when Kaiju show up 20 minutes into a movie that starts out looking like a well-produced space exploration film). It is an extraordinarily silly movie, featuring evil aliens who kidnap Godzilla and Rodan, and use mind control technology to weaponize the monsters against the Earth. That being said, it is one of the most entertaining movies of the year, and at least one of us said she would have put it at the top of her Hugo ballot had she been able to vote at the Worldcon in 1966.

As the first decade of dramatic presentation Hugo Awards came to a close, science fiction on screen
Though Fantastic Voyage and Star Trek
were greeted with enthusiasm,
fans jeered and booed throughout
the screening of Time Tunnel.
(Image via IMDB)

was slowly gaining in respectability in the general public, but also among fandom. Studios and directors had begun to seek out conventions as a place to test market their new works; the 1966 Worldcon saw three such premieres, with Star Trek, Fantastic Voyage, and Time Tunnel all being screened at the con. And despite the lack of Hugos presented in the category, the convention presented special commemorative plaques to Ric Noonan for Fantastic Voyage, and to Gene Roddenberry for Star Trek. (Irwin Allen, who was at the convention to present Time Tunnel was surprised not to receive a similar honour … and put out a press release claiming that he had.)

This burgeoning respect had been a long time in coming, and 1966 would be the last year for a decade that the Hugo Awards would neglect to recognize science fiction on screen. It is a shame however, that some of the films that helped build up to such recognition were not celebrated at the time.

Tuesday, 26 October 2021

The Potterization of Science Fiction

One of the more annoying trends in mass-media science fiction and fantasy is the move away from
The absurdity of the notion that
some people are born special
cannot be overstated, whether
we're talking about a monarch
or the Half-Blood Prince.
(Image via Wall Street Journal)

achievement-based protagonists, and towards those whose ‘specialness’ derives from something they were born with.

It’s clear that the entertainment-consuming public is often interested in people who get defined as special, regardless of what arbitrary circumstances have bestowed that specialness on them. We feel that when engagement with a protagonist is predicated on birthright rather than achievement, readers and viewers are essentially being treated as Royal Watchers.

Being expected to care about the narrative because it depicts an unattainable and presumably better position in life is classist and demeaning.

Whether the privilege is acquired through right of birth, through being born ‘special,’ or through being the subject of a prophecy, this trope is fundamentally tied to a classist and undemocratic worldview. The prevalence of such narratives, and why they persist, needs to be examined and challenged.

Certainly, under the right circumstances, this technique can produce characters that are central to memorable and enduring cultural myths, such as Paul Muad'dib or Prince Corwin. Those circumstances, however, are contingent on the overall narrative working coherently with the premise.
Say what you will about Dune,
it doesn't pretend to be anything
less than classist and cryptofascist.
(Image via Screenrant) 

Between the superhero craze and the shoe-horning of high-born people into existing franchises, this choice seems to have become the default for too much mainstream (corporate) science fiction and fantasy — whether or not it strengthens the larger story.

One of the fundamentally troubling assumptions behind the born-great protagonist is the anti-democratic idea that the lives of some people simply matter more than the lives of other people. If we accept that Harry Potter is destined to be the only one who can do the thing that’s important, then why should we care about the life of Ritchie Coote? Likewise, if Aragorn is destined for the throne then we have to accept that all other Men of Gondor would be incapable of managing the kingdom (let alone Women of Gonder). There is a direct link between the idea that one person can be born great, with the ideas that underpin racism, classism, and sexism. See also: the equally flawed “great man” theory.

Just as troubling an assumption is the idea that greatness is unearned; those who are great have not thought about it, have not put in effort to attain greatness, have not practiced whatever inherent part of their nature makes for greatness. It wouldn’t matter if Húrin the Tall graduated at the top of his class in urban planning at the University of Dúnedain, he’d still be incapable of managing Minas Tirith, and
Yes, even your favourite kids'
cartoon Visionaries features
a prince who was born special.
(Image via YouTube)

would be doomed to repeat Denethor’s mistakes. This is an idea that breeds complacency as we are taught by the stories we consume that greatness is achievable only through parentage. That is, one’s efforts to improve their lot in life are largely irrelevant, as is the society that supports the achievement of greatness at all.

We are not suggesting that readers should avoid these books, movies, and short dramatic works. Rather, we are suggesting that readers should cast a critical eye to what they read; particularly concerning issues of race, class and gender. The fact that problematic authors such as (kinda classist) J.R.R. Tolkien and (transphobic) J.K. Rowling would produce problematic works is unsurprising. What is more surprising is that this “born great” trope continues to appear in a plethora of modern, popular, award-shortlisted novels by authors who harbor otherwise progressive and thoughtful worldviews. Our intent is not to cast aspersions on authors who use this trope, but rather to encourage readers to interrogate the ideas at the heart of it. Why is it so appealing to you?

This narrative crutch has long been a central part of epic fantasies (Everything from Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time, to Dragonlance and Masters Of The Universe), but the trend of prophesied protagonists who were born to lead has seeped into wider genre stories.

Salvor Hardin, who in the novel Foundation had been nothing more than a competent mayor who
Although some have tried
to cast the great math
prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan
as someone who was
simply born with abilities,
an examination of his
biography reveals that they
were the result of significant
study and hard work.

happened to get caught up in historical forces, is recast in the television adaptation as someone who was born special; someone with a psychic ability to understand history. In the very same adaptation, Gaal Dornick has been recast from a young professor from a mid-tier university, to a child prodigy whose great mathematical abilities are simply in her blood. To our eyes, the way the series relies on the ‘specialness’ of these characters is condescending to the audience. 

Even Star Trek — once mocked for depicting an occasionally dull and technocratic meritocracy — has come to embrace the protagonist born great. Starting with the 2009 reboot of the classic series, J.J. Abrams reimagined James T. Kirk as a maverick who was born with a destiny, instead of the Original Series depiction of a studious “stack of books with legs” who had earned a captaincy through hard work in postings on the USS Republic and the USS Faragut. The distinction is not insignificant; in one version of the story greatness is something that is earned through hard work, in the other version greatness is something bestowed upon a person seemingly arbitrarily.

This is almost a direct rebuttal to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Tapestry," which tries to give viewers a perspective into why Picard is who he is. It is revealed in that episode, that Picard could easily have ended up as a junior lieutenant, but that circumstances had motivated him to do better. In essence, he earned his command through hard work and diligence.

One could also note that when a protagonist is “born great,” it tends to undermine the role in societal supports leading to greatness. Harry Potter isn’t great because he lives in a society whose social services, schools, and hospitals enable him to achieve, he’s great because he was just born that way. One might parallel this to the view held by those arch-Randians who would proclaim that Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth is entirely self-generated, owing nothing to the school system that educated him or the public investment in developing internet technology.

Works that directly grapple with the implications of “born great” protagonists are worth examining. One of the best, Sarah Gailey’s Magic For Liars, engaged with the classism and elitism that is baked into the very notion of a person born with a great destiny. By taking the point-of-view of someone left behind by the destined greatness of another, the book serves as a sharp rebuttal to the elitism of
This will be the only time ever
that this blog says anything good
about Buffy Season 7.
(Image via Pintrest)

“chosen one” narratives. The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman takes a completely different tack in criticizing this trope by showing how infantilizing it might be for a character to be born into power; his protagonist Quentin Coldwater grows into a listless, emotionally stunted young man precisely because of his privileged magical destiny.

And despite a ham-handed delivery, smug self-congratulatory tone, and a toxic showrunner, we’d probably also have to give credit to the final season of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer for at least suggesting that the specialness of the show’s “chosen one” should be democratized.

At its core, the philosophy that some people are just inherently great (and therefore most others just aren’t) is nihilistic. This is a narrative framework in which few people have free will, or whose decisions can have an impact on the world.

If all of our enduring cultural myths are about people whose greatness and purpose are thrust upon them by right of birth, it implies that everyone else is saddled with a purposeless life. That’s a proposition that we urge readers to reject.

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

American Cleon

There has long been a lapsarian strain in the American imagination, and that’s why Foundation is so
Hari Seldon never suggests making something
better than an Empire. He wants to make Trantor
Great Again. (Image via CNET) 

appealing — and so dangerous — right now. But unlike the fate of the Galactic Empire, the outcomes of the issues facing us today are not certain.

Books and articles about the decline of the United States and of what is called “Western Civilization” have populated bookstore shelves and magazine pages for more than a century, with such notables as Niall Ferguson, Chris Hedges, Emmanuel Todd, and David D. Schein contributing tomes to the pastime of prognosticating American eschatology.

But in the past decade, these types of predictions have reached a fever pitch. And it’s not difficult to see why. Factors such as political polarization, global warming, the decline of democracy, increasing resource scarcity and disparities between rich and poor, all seem to have clear and exacerbating trend lines. If there were one of Hari Seldon’s prime radiants, one could imagine these trends being plotted through the equations of psychohistory and seeing a definitive predictive answer that an unpleasant end awaits us all.

These are historical trends that seem inexorable; they seem as inescapable as “the known probability of imperial assassination, viceregal revolt, the contemporary recurrence of periods of economic depression, the declining rate of planetary explorations…” all of which afflicted the Galactic Empire during the reign of Cleon II.

It must be understood that Foundation reflects the argument made by Edward Gibbons in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; that decline was only in part caused by forces external to the empire itself, that a determinant of collapse was a gradual loss of civic virtue among its Roman citizens (Though by ‘civic virtue,’ some have suggested Gibbons meant ‘members of lower classes knowing their place’). Asimov had just finished reading Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when he began writing Foundation, but he was also writing in the immediate wake of the Great Depression, and a period of upheaval and uncertainty about his country’s future.
Some pundits have gone further back,
and compared present-day politics to
Asimov’s source material.

The idea of the United States as a “new Rome” has existed since shortly after the American revolution. It is communicated through the myth of manifest destiny and is encapsulated in the architecture of Washington, D.C. At various points through its history, American preachers have attempted to create historical narratives that cast the rise and fall of the country as divine prophecy (Just as one high-profile example, Latter-Day Saints founder Joseph Smith told his followers that the U.S. Constitution was a divine document, and that Jesus’ second coming would occur in Missouri).

Foundation as a narrative has to be understood in this context; Isaac Asimov’s understanding of history was informed by American exceptionalism, the influence of America’s third ‘Great Awakening’ of apocalyptic religiosity, the wake of the Great Depression, and of a period of upheaval and uncertainty about the country’s future. It might be asked why, after 80 years, the books are finally being adapted to the screen; is it perhaps because we are again in a period of upheaval and uncertainty?

While we should be aware that the original novel is a product of the ideas and concerns of the time it was written, the television show is a product of today and makes arguments about the world of 2021. We would suggest that the television series version of Foundation contains hints of Gibbons’ classism, echoes of Asimov’s concerns about America on the eve of the Second World War, but also reflects our own 21st Century concerns about decline.

Margaret Atwood has said that “Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it's always about now.” And it’s really more about how people perceive the present, as today’s perceptions determine the actions of tomorrow. Apple TV’s Foundation series resonates because people perceive these trends to be inescapable, and determinative. This is underscored by science fiction’s ideas shaping powerful political forces.

If we accept that this new iteration of Foundation is indeed about the United States, those who take its core messages seriously may help ensure that decline is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The problems facing the world are not insurmountable. There are policies and technologies that will mitigate climate change. Pressure on politicians can force them to behave in our best interest. These things are not easy but they are necessary if we want to avoid Seldon’s predicted outcome.

Inescapable doom can sometimes be more comfortable than faint hope; if the Empire’s going to collapse one way or another, then enjoy it while you can and let Raven Seldon worry about what comes next. If we, as citizens of the world, accept the metaphor presented by Foundation, it can inculcate fatalism about the very real problems we’re facing. As Florida International University professor of English Charles Elkins argued in his Marxist reading of Foundation, “Reading these novels, the reader experiences this fatalism which, in a Marxist analysis, flows from his own alienation in society and his sense of impotence in facing problems he can no longer understand, the solutions of which he puts in the hands of a techno-bureaucratic elite.”

Decline is a powerful idea, and one that rightly should worry us. Foundation suggests that individuals have little agency to affect real change. In doing so, it absolves us for doing nothing.

Tuesday, 5 October 2021

Location Matters

In December, members of the World Science Fiction Society will have to choose between three potential host locations for the 2023 Worldcon. Given the competing considerations of this vote, it may end up being the most controversial site selection in several years.
Crossing the Jin River, the Anshun Bridge is an
iconic sight in downtown Chengdu, China.
(Image via Wikipedia)

Where the World Science Fiction Convention takes place has an impact on accessibility, safety, and consequently participation for most members of the science fiction community. It is therefore incumbent on all of us to seriously consider the ramifications of each of these possible options before casting a ballot.

None of the bids are perfect, and there are human rights concerns with each of the proposed host countries.

EDIT: On October 18, the bid to bring the 2023 Worldcon to Memphis was formally withdrawn by the bid chairs. While it will still appear on the ballot in December, it is no longer a viable option for the Worldcon. 

Chengdu, China

A bid to bring Worldcon to China’s fifth-most-populous city has been brewing for most of the past five years. In fact, this bid is so high-profile that much of the discussion seems to have broken down into pro-China and anti-China positions. This is a shame since this sort of discussion misses the complexities of the underlying questions.

Chengdu in 2023 is a well-organized bid whose supporters have done an excellent job of promoting through social media, through attendance at previous conventions, and through outreach to conrunners.

By all accounts, Chengdu is a beautiful city, and the fans working on this bid have been terrific. That being said, they may be fighting an uphill battle.

Despite the fact that Twitter is banned in China, this group’s account has the most followers of all the 2023 bids, with 294 followers as of this writing. While that follower count is dwarfed by the Glasgow 2024 bid, it still indicates that the Chengdu champions have been doing the legwork to promote their organization.
China is noted for its government's
deep and abiding respect for privacy
(Image via

This is the second bid for a Worldcon in China, after Beijing’s failed bid for the 2016 Worldcon. With the country’s vibrant community of science fiction talent, and an engaged and enthusiastic fan base, the prospect of bringing a Worldcon to the country has generated significant excitement.

In recent years, Worldcon has done more to embrace the “world” part of its name, and ensuring equitable access to the convention is something that WSFS members should prioritize. Let’s be honest, if the convention is held in a place that most Americans either can’t or won’t access in 2023, they’ll have had the opportunity to attend one in their home country in 2021 and 2022.

However, China doesn’t fare as well on travel safety indices as the competing bids, and there are significant questions to be raised about the conduct of China’s government in recent years that should trouble site selection voters.


  • Organization
  • Resources
  • Enthusiasm
  • Facilities
  • Global perspective
  • Interesting and vibrant city
  • High vaccination rate, estimated to be in excess of 80 per cent of the central Sichuan population vaccinated


Memphis, USA

Possibly prompted by the concerns some Americans have about the prospect of a Worldcon in China, there has been a slightly chaotic scramble to present a credible US-based alternative to the Chengdu bid.
Much like its namesake, Memphis
has an iconic pyramid. This one's
a bit newer though. 
(Image via

Whether the impetus behind this campaign is just parochial miserliness or is genuine concern about human rights and safety is probably a matter of perspective. That being said, after the collapses of the Spokane 2023 bid and the New Orleans 2023 bid, Memphis has emerged as the US standard bearer for this year’s Worldcon.

The bid documents paint a picture of a fairly standard US Worldcon; solid facilities, well-planned out commitment to diversity and accessibility. Memphis is a storied American city with a significant importance to the history of music. It is also a city that is known for its cultural and ethnic diversity.

That being said, there is only a bare-bones web presence for the bid, and a modest Twitter presence. (Full disclosure, one of this Blog’s contributors has volunteered a small amount with the Memphis bid.) Concerns have been raised about the lack of local Memphis involvement in the bid.


  • Convention organizers have expressed commitment to diversity and inclusion
  • Existing US-based fandom community has track record of successful conventions under difficult circumstances
  • City known for a rich musical history


Winnipeg, Canada

Having only announced their intention to host at the end of April, the Winnipeg in 2023 bid is the late entrant into the Worldcon race this year. It’s also the only city currently bidding to have previously hosted a Worldcon, having done so with 1994’s “ConAdian.”

Despite the late entry, Winnipeg’s bid is extremely active and credible. The website has a robust amount of content that is updated regularly, they have been blogging about the strengths of their bid, and have extremely active social media accounts on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube. Since their announcement, they have made promotional appearances at almost every relevant online convention.
The Canadian Museum of Human Rights is a
beautiful and interesting museum in Winnipeg,
but unfortunately gives short shrift to labour
organizing as a means to promote workers' rights.
(Image via

Given its relatively mild summer weather, August is just about the perfect time to visit Winnipeg.

The bid committee has a solid group of experienced conrunners involved, and there is a lot of reason to believe that if Winnipeg is selected, they will be able to pull together a successful convention despite the shorter-than-usual timelines.

Winnipeg itself is a much more interesting and vibrant city than you might expect, with significant cultural influences from Indigenous, French Canadian, and Anglo-Canadian traditions, as well as many new Canadians. It is the city in Canada with the largest number of Indigenous residents, a fact that can be seen in the city’s art and its cultural centres.

Among the locations that are bidding for the Worldcon in 2023, Manitoba is probably the safest place for LGBTQIA2S+ travelers. It was the first jurisdiction in Canada to ban conversion therapy, and was among the first to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.


  • Well-organized bid committee
  • Enthusiasm
  • Indigenous culture and art
  • Excellent facilities
  • Safest for LGBTQIA2S+ community


(Image via NewScientist)

While we hope that by 2023, the current pandemic will be mostly in the rearview, we would be remiss if we did not flag that each of these locations has COVID-related risks.

At the time of this writing, Memphis (and much of the American Southeast) has been pummeled by a deadly fourth wave of the pandemic. The province of Manitoba (where Winnipeg is located) repeatedly bungled its pandemic response, though not quite as badly as some other jurisdictions in Canada. Chengdu appears to have the highest vaccination rate among the three potential hosts, but there are reasons to doubt the Government of China’s reporting methods.


There is no perfect host for this Worldcon — or for any other. In this instance, there are compelling reasons to vote for any of these options, but just as compelling reasons to vote against them. It is our suggestion that the least problematic host city is Winnipeg, though ultimately this is a matter of which accessibility and/or convention-running issues voters prioritize.

Friday, 1 October 2021

The Best Laid Plans Of Paratime Mice

Over the course of six volumes and almost a million words, Charles Stross’s Merchant Princes series has careened rapidly from one genre to the next. The series has at times been a portal fantasy, a crime drama, a nuclear thriller, a steampunk subterfuge, and finally an alien invasion tale. The series has been many things, but predictable is not one of them.

Wrapping up the Empire Games
trilogy,  Charles Stross has delivered
his most satisfying novel in about
eight years. 
(Image via Goodreads)
The series wrapped up this month — possibly for good — with the release of Invisible Sun, a much-delayed but ultimately satisfactory conclusion. This is a book that many longtime fans will welcome, and serves as a good argument for why new readers should give the series a go.

Invisible Sun kicks off with a simmering feud between alternate versions of America, connected by paratime travel (between timelines). In one America, a steam-punk democratic revolution is struggling with a succession crisis, while in the other America (one more similar to our own), the post-9/11 War on Terror has metastasized into a relentless surveillance state. While part of the story involves a covert extradition mission from the surveillance state world, another part of the story involves back-channel diplomacy to avoid nuclear war. Simultaneously, both worlds have to confront a threat posed by a far-advanced and ancient evil race from a third timeline.

It’s a lot to juggle, and our main criticism of the book would be that at times, some of these plotlines receive short shrift. That being said, we appreciate a narrative structure that is stronger than many of the previous Merchant Princes books. Specifically, Invisible Sun doesn’t derail its readers.

Because often, these books do go off the rails with unforeseen problems cropping up for the protagonists. One could even describe the series as an exercise in subverting expectations. It seems as if two or three times per book, the point-of-view protagonist (Miriam Beckstein in books 1-3, and Rita Douglas in books 4-6) concocts seemingly well-thought-out plans … only for things to go sidewise.

As a reader, having your expectations subverted is often a lot of fun, and Stross is an expert at doing so in a way that feels natural and believable. At its best, this series offers surprises that once revealed seem like the natural consequences of the setting and of choices made by the protagonists.

And this lack of predictability has been both the strength, and the pitfall of these books. Unlike the
Laundry Files — Stross’ other long-running and Hugo-shortlisted series — The Merchant Princes never gets overly familiar or in a rut.

It's difficult to think of another
series that could start somewhere
like Nine Princes in Amber, and 
end in The Sum Of All Fears.
(Image via Goodreads)
But after five books, the trick of subverting expectations can grow wearying. There’s only so many rugs that can be pulled out from under the reader before the trick becomes stale. The directness of Invisible Sun, the more streamlined nature of the denouement, and the lack of shocking revelations and surprises is … actually quite welcome.

We would note that the final 20 pages of the final book does feel somewhat rushed. All the denouement, all the resolution, are jammed into as few words as possible. It feels almost as if after writing a million words in the series, the author just wanted to be over and done with it. And maybe so do we.

The entire book club read the first book in the series, with somewhat mixed reactions, but as of yet, only two of us have read the complete series. Those who made it past the first book were enthusiastic about the unpredictability of Stross’ imagination. Re-reading the entire series back-to-back, it becomes clear just how much Stross has evolved as a wordsmith and as a crafter of narrative structures.

The Merchant Princes is a series that accomplishes a lot in six books; offering a reassessment of classic portal fantasies, delving into development economics, examining the tension between safety and privacy, and exploring ideas about how democracies come into existence and wither over time. At its best, there was no better contemporary long-running science fiction series. And by offering it a definitive conclusion, Stross has provided an opportunity to assess it in fullness.

We hope to see it on the Hugo Award ballot for best series, and if it does will likely rank it highly.

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bombastic Ego

This blog post is the eighth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

On September 19, 1964, Harlan Ellison invited a group of fans over to watch an episode of television
Although Harlan Ellison was denied a Hugo nod
for his Outer Limits episode "Soldier," it remains
an influential classic. In retrospect, its omission
from the Hugo ballot seems questionable.
(Image via

he had written: The Outer Limits season premiere “Soldier.” Although Ellison had written a handful of television episodes in the preceding two years, only one of those had been science fiction (an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea that he’d regretted).

Ellison told his Los Angeles-based fandom peers that “Soldier” was a milestone in his quickly growing fame, and that it would advance the reputation of science fiction on television. It was an episode of which he was proud, and one that he would spend much of the year promoting to Hugo voters as being worthy of recognition.

“The tension from a high-pitched show (and a higher-pitched host) was terrific. And at the end I felt I had spent a valuable hour even though I’m not yet a TV-watcher,” Ron Ellik wrote in his fanzine Starspinke.

Although Ellison would later have a large collection of Hugos, in 1964-65 he had yet to receive even a single nomination, and was hungry for the recognition.

In the January 1965 progress report of that year’s Worldcon (which was to be held in London) the convention’s organizing committee announced that they would present Hugos in the categories that had been recognized at the previous year’s convention. And as it so happened, Best Dramatic Presentation had been omitted in 1964, due to a lack of interest.

So there was to be no Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award that year, and “Soldier” would be denied the nomination that Ellison believed he was due.

The young Harlan Ellison 
already had a reputation for
bombast and temper. 
(Image via
Well-known for his level head and cool demeanor, Ellison responded to the omission of this category with good grace. He contacted a number of fans across the Western United States, suggesting that the Worldcon be stripped of their right to hold the Hugo Awards, with the possibility that the awards would instead be handed out at a North American convention. He went so far as to call Worldcon chair Ella Parker at 5 a.m. one morning in late January, and told her that Ben Jason would not be sending the Hugo trophies to the UK convention (though this was easy to disprove, as Jason had quit being the manufacturer of the trophies two years previously).

“When [Harlan] did finally phone-me, I lost no time informing him of his colossal blunder and, in no uncertain terms, advised him to write a letter of apology,” Jason wrote.

Though he backed down from that attempt, Ellison was adamant that there should be a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1965, and encouraged other fans to write in nominations for the category … with the apparent belief that if the category was being considered that year, his Outer Limits episode would be a shoe-in.

But the 1965 Hugo Awards operated under a unique set of rules that have not been used since; as per the convention committee, the shortlist was created via “nomination by a panel of experts, selecting from suggestions offered by the membership at large.” In practice, this meant that no matter how many voters included “Soldier” on their nominating ballot, the Hugo Committee could omit it if they so chose.

In the final tally, this nominating committee chose to include only two names on the shortlist for the
At least one fan believed that
Disney classic Mary Poppins
deserved to be on the Hugo
ballot. We're inclined to agree.
(Image via

Best Dramatic Presentation category in 1965; the only instance in any Hugo category of a shortlist that brief. As recorded in fanzines, it is clear that there were at least some nominating ballots submitted for “Soldier,” for Mary Poppins, and for The Last Man On Earth. But the Hugo Committee determined either that there weren’t sufficient nominations for these, or that the works listed weren’t appropriate for the Hugos.

It is a puzzling decision, particularly in light of one of the works they did include: The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao. Glacially directed by George Pal, and starring lilly-white Tony Randall as the racially stereotyped title character, it was agreed by most of our cinema club to be among the worst works ever shortlisted for a Hugo Award in any category. To compound the movie’s abhorrent racism, the dialogue spoon feeds the audience a series of simplistic moralist messages delivered with acting that is exceptionally exaggerated and broad. This is a movie that drips with condescension for its audience. The question of why The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao ended up on the Hugo shortlist remains baffling to us and leaves us wondering what Ellison’s emotional reaction might have been.

Best Dramatic Presentation was the last award handed out on the evening of August 29, 1965. “And we have a remaining category, for Best Drama. It goes to Dr. Strangelove,” presenter Robert Silverberg said. “We do not have Dr. Strangelove himself here to accept the award, but we do have Peter George who wrote the novel on which the movie was based.” 

The extent of George’s acceptance speech (as far as we are aware, the shortest Hugo acceptance speech on record) was: “Thank you very much. This is lovely.”
Dr. Strangelove author Peter George
accepts a Hugo Award in 1965.
Sadly, the author died of a self-inflicted
gunshot wound within the year. 
(Image via

Dr. Strangelove is only marginally science fictional; the only element of the movie that is clearly speculative is the doomsday weapon, although there had long been a tradition of nuclear war fiction without any speculative technologies being considered for the Hugo — The Long Loud Silence by Wilson Tucker had been the runner-up for the very first Hugo Award in 1953. Still, for at least one of our bloggers this deficit of clearly science fictional elements in Dr. Strangelove was enough to bring into question whether it should have been recognized at all.

The shortlist from 1965 was probably too short, as there were numerous works that year whose omissions are puzzling. Matheson’s classic I Am Legend had been adapted as The Last Man On Earth, an effective and moody Hammer Horror movie starring Vincent Price. Later remade as The Omega Man, the original version hews more closely to the novel than later adaptations, and features a superb performance from Franca Bettoia who imbues her vampire character with enormous humanity. The intense loneliness conveyed in the movie is a more moving form of horror than any of the jump scares of Will Smith’s later I Am Legend.

We might also suggest that the Hugo shortlist might have done well to find room to honour The Earth Dies Screaming; a quirky low-budget British movie about an alien invasion. Despite its low budget, the film’s robots and zombies are often an effective storytelling device as the tension ratchets up. It’s difficult not to note the more economical pace of this low-budget movie, and how tightly edited it is, in comparison to the high-budget but soporific Seven Faces of Dr. Lao.

Overall, it is hard to question the decision of Hugo voters that year; Dr. Strangelove despite its paucity of obvious science fictional elements was the right work to recognize. The decisions of the nominating committee are less transparent (how did this committee work? What did they leave off and why?). Though some of us might have preferred to see Ellison’s “Soldier” receive the honour, as it was a far more science fictional story, his bad behaviour may have prevented him from snagging his first Hugo in 1965.

Tuesday, 17 August 2021

Going Back To The Same Well

The Best Dramatic Presentation (short form) ballot seems to indicate that Hugo nominators are a group that like to go back to the same well, year after year. This year’s shortlist, in fact, may represent the nadir of this trend.
The final episode of She-Ra and the Princess of
earned the show its first Hugo nomination.
(Image via

Consider that between the six finalists there are representative entries from the three of the screen franchises most-often represented on Hugo ballots: Doctor Who (six wins out of 35 nominations) Star Wars (three wins out of ten nominations) and The Good Place (three wins out of six nominations). Of the entire ballot, only the She-Ra and the Princess of Power episode “Heart” represents a franchise that has never won a Hugo Award.

To be fair, many of the entries on this shortlist are excellent representatives of their respective fictional universes. “Gaugamela” from The Expanse plays with tension without descending into melodrama; an extraordinary hour of science fiction television. “The Jedi” from Mandalorian tells a mostly self-contained story exceedingly well, all while teeing up the narrative arc for the rest of the season. While not as carefully structured as the other nominated episode from Mandalorian, “The Rescue” provides the payoff that longtime fans likely want. And the funny, charming, and genuinely surprising “Fugitive of the Judoon” might be the finest episode of the Chibnall era of Doctor Who.

As has been widely noted across the Anglosphere, there has been an increasing reliance among media corporations to lean on their franchises instead of developing new content. It is simply a safer bet for movie and television executives to invest in iterations of existing intellectual property instead of trying something new. To some degree, it’s disheartening to see that at least the majority of those nominating for the short-form dramatic Hugo are reinforcing this corporate risk aversion. It might be noted that only once in the past decade has there been a Dramatic Presentation Short Form shortlist on which a majority of nominees were from franchises that had not previously won the award.

Last year there were several excellent science fiction and fantasy television shows that might have benefited from the attention offered by a Hugo nod.

The Robbie Amell post-cyberpunk comedy Upload, the oddly compelling Japanese series Alice in Borderland, Alex Garland's meticulously planned out Silicon Valley fable DEVS, and the intricate and beautiful German time travel epic Dark come to mind.
Critically acclaimed SF horror Lovecraft County
creator Misha Green was blindsided by the decision
to cancel the program
. It deserved a Hugo nod, 
as well as a second season.
(Image via

The abrupt cancellations of Lovecraft County, I Am Not Okay With This, Zoe’s Extraordinary Playlist and Tales From The Loop (among others) seem to indicate that even the best-reviewed original (non-franchise) content is now in constant jeopardy. If we want to enjoy a mass-media landscape that continues to produce diverse, nuanced, and engaging stories, it will take concerted collective effort to ensure that such stories thrive. Hugo nods (and Emmy nods) may not be enough to secure a place for such works, but we’d argue they are at least a part of the solution.

It is interesting to note that in the prose fiction categories, Hugo nominators have long shown an aversion to recognizing licensed franchise works. It seems that the voting public is averse to recognizing such works — even critically acclaimed, fan beloved, and bestselling works such as Diane Duane’s Star Trek novel My Enemy, My Ally, and Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novel Heir To The Empire. This is not a complaint on our part; we are entirely supportive of this unwritten rule to avoid franchize fiction in the prose categories, but it seems odd that other Hugo categories now embrace this sort of profit-chasing multimedia universe.

This year’s short-form dramatic Hugo ballot is one of the better ones in recent memory, with works that are at least mostly enjoyable delves into established (and perhaps somewhat tired) universes. If the nominees were all we watched this year, we’d be left wishing for new worlds to explore.

Thursday, 5 August 2021

Memory Going Backwards

One of the most interesting questions in A Memory Called Empire is whether or not protagonist Mahit Dzmare will turn her back on her native Lsel Station. Will she embrace and adopt the colonial culture of the Teixcalaanli Empire?
(Image via Goodreads)

One of the elements that elevated Arkady Martine’s debut novel above many others is the depiction of Dzmare’s internal turmoil and the interplanetary politics that force the question.

This isn’t a simple decision for Dzmare; not only had she been fascinated with the colonial superpower in her formative years — she had fallen for Three Seagrass, an Imperial bureaucrat. This exploration of a cultural identity is a tender, heartbreaking, and moving series of decisions that reveal the integrity of Dzmare’s character, and perhaps Martine as an author.

For us, this was why Martine deserved the Hugo Award she received for A Memory Called Empire. But it is a source of confusion when assessing the sequel A Desolation Called Peace.

Martine is a fine writer who crafts characters you want to root for and we think readers who want to spend more time in the company of Dizmar, Seagrass, Yskandr Aghavn, and Nineteen Adze will enjoy the book thoroughly. This is a well-written, engaging space opera adventure novel.

The problem is that bringing these characters together again (and returning Mahit Dzmare to the centre of the action) requires no small degree of contrivance. Whether or not a reader finds this construction believable and satisfying will depend on how they understood the relationships in the preceding novel.

This sequel picks the action up just weeks after the end of the first book, with Mahit having returned to her home station to find that she is no longer welcome there. Meanwhile the Empire has become embroiled in a war against an unknowable and mysterious alien race. Three Seagrass strategizes to reunite with Dzmare and drag her into the front-lines of the intergalactic conflict.

Some readers might find the first 150 pages of A Desolation Called Peace serves to undo the resolution of the first book. For example, the will-they-won’t-they romance is restored to uncertainty as if the characters were in a sitcom that needed to return everything to the status quo at the end of every episode. When looking at A Desolation Called Peace through this lens, if feels as though the nuance and meaningfulness of the previous book has been diluted. The final decision that Mahit made at the end of A Memory Called Empire seemed retconned to be not so final. The heartbreaking ending of her romance with Three Seagrass is suddenly not so heartbreaking.

In the novel’s defense, some readers might find the sequel to be a deft examination of the nature of
Colonialism is toxic and has a corrosive effect on
human relationships such as the one between 
Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass. Even if there's
real affection, one cannot help but question the
dynamics of power and appropriation of culture.
(Image via
freedom within the context of colonization. There continue to be strong themes about marginalization of non-mainstream cultures, the erasure of history, and the belittling of an individual’s background or past. When these themes come into conflict with the ideologies of the dominant class, the novel becomes far more interesting. This quote of Dzmare contemplating why she is angry with Three Seagrass makes this tension explicit: “She'd meant, When you understand that there's no room for me to say yes, even if I want to. She'd meant, You don't understand that there's no such thing as being free. Free to choose, or free otherwise.” Ultimately the empire doesn’t change and Dzmare’s story ends the only way it could. This left some readers wondering how the relationship with the empire and the new aliens will evolve.

It’s worth noting that some of the best parts of A Desolation Called Peace feature characters who were not present or not prominent in the previous novel: Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus and Imperial heir Eight Antidote. In these sections, the world of the Teixcalaanli seems as fresh and vibrant as it did in the first novel. The ways in which Imperial power structures and monoculture are corrosive to even those who are in positions of privilege are explored with nuance, and it is shown how internecine factionalism can tear down even those who excel within the system.

But fundamentally, the events of the second book no longer seem to be Mahit Dizmare’s story; she’s written to be the main character, but the story is no longer her own. Rather it seems like a story that was taking place in one corner of the galaxy far from anywhere that an Ambassador from Lsel Station should be. The continued focus on Dzmare seemed incongruous.

In many ways, A Desolation Called Peace succeeds: It’s engaging, sweet, often interesting, and fun. But it also has trouble connecting with and growing from the original story.