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 she-raandtheprincessesofpower.fandom.com)

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 NBCNews.com)

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 History.com
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.