Monday 28 February 2022

So Glad We Asked: an appreciation of Chris M. Barkley

Activist fan Chris M. Barkley
at the 2015 Hugo Awards
(Photo by Olav Rokne)
For more than 45 years, Chris M. Barkley has been quietly contributing to science fiction fandom in the best ways possible: Volunteering on the front lines of Worldcons, adding thoughtfully to the dialogue, and making spaces safer and more welcoming for fans.

Probably best known for his entertaining and personable columns that appear on File 770, Barclay has also written for Locus, Amazing Stories, the SFWA Blog, fanzines such as Argentus and Journey Planet, and numerous convention publications. It’s for this last category of fan writing that we feel Barkley has earned serious consideration for a Hugo Award, and in particular why we would urge you to include his name on your nominating ballots.

One key reason why 2021 has been such an impressive year for Barkley is his long-form work “Fantasy & Science Fiction Media Relations – Press Room Guide” published in August 2021. It’s a resource that should be distributed as widely as possible, to as many convention runners as possible. This thorough and detailed guide to the ups and downs, opportunities and pitfalls of media relations will help future conventions and convention-goers succeed. It’s a resource to use during both preparation and when facing a crisis.

As someone who has headed up the media office at five Worldcons (and staffed 14 others), Barkley has a depth of experience to draw on. It should be noted that this guide is roughly the length of a short novelette, and probably on its own has a word count equivalent to some fan writer finalists’ entire annual output.

Bolstering the case for nominating Barkley are this year’s crop of his “So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask” columns. Having sometimes described himself as an “activist fan,” it should be no surprise that Barkley can often be found agitating for tweaks to the rules that he suggests would make conventions more equitable and inclusive. Case in point, “So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask” number 57, which lays out five proposals on how to ensure the survival of fandom.

Barkley has volunteered in 
the press office of 19 Worldcons,
most recently taking on the role
of head of the press office in 2016
when a previous volunteer was
suddenly unable to do so.
(Image via

Over the years, Barkley has affected real change through his work. He’s often commended for helping to split Best Dramatic Presentation into short form and long form, and for leading the charge to split Best Editor into short form and long form (though with typical modesty, he always offers credit to others). He worked tirelessly to create a Hugo for best Young Adult novel and was an important voice in helping create a Best Graphic Story Award, and co-sponsored the creation of Best Fancast. It could be argued that few people have ever had as much of an impact on the Hugo Award categories.

In retrospect, Barkley has shown a remarkable amount of foresight. He warned in 2004 (a full decade before it happened) that there was the possibility that a slate of politically motivated malcontents might attempt to disrupt the Hugos. This was followed by his urging in 2013 that “The only way traditions like the Worldcon and Hugos will have any future is if the people who are interested and feel frozen out of the process continue to provide civil and constructive criticism and stay involved in fandom … What we need is MORE dissent, MORE thinking outside the box and MORE diversity in fandom, not less.”

The first time the editors of this blog encountered Chris M. Barkley, we were volunteering as photographers for the 2015 Hugo Awards ceremony. For years after, we assumed that he had received a Hugo Award nomination for his blogging, and this seemed like a reasonable assumption to make: his work is consistently good, he writes about fannish activities, and he’s well known in the community.

It was to our great surprise when we learned that he has never been on the Hugo Award ballot as a fan writer. It’s time to rectify that oversight, and 2022 should be his year.

Monday 14 February 2022

Far From The Light Of Heaven - Review

One of Thompson’s great strengths as a writer is his ability to balance poetry and prose for a science
Far From The Light Of Heaven
balances modernity and tradition
within the science fiction genre.
(Image via Goodreads)

fiction audience, providing vividly visceral visuals that don’t slow down the narrative or distract from the characterizations. It’s a skill that’s on full display in Far From The Light Of Heaven, Thompson’s follow-up to the Wormwoood trilogy that earned him both a Clarke Award and a spot on the Hugo Award shortlist.

And what a follow up it is.

Set on an interstellar transport named The Ragtime, first mate Michelle “Shel” Campion awakens early from suspended animation to discover that thirty-odd passengers on the enormous colony ship have been killed and dismembered. Since the ship is at this point relatively close to their destination of Bloodroot, local detective Rasheed Fin is dispatched to investigate, and becomes embroiled in Shel’s attempts to keep the rest of her passengers alive despite The Ragtime’s rogue Artificial Intelligence captain’s attempts to thwart them.

Of course, a locked-room mystery on a spaceship is not a new set-up (notably implemented in Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, which was a Hugo finalist in 2018), but the combination of Thompson’s agile pacing, worldbuilding rooted in Yoruba culture, and evocative prose make Far From The Light Of Heaven a standout. Weirdly improbable scenes such as the appearance of a wolf and flashbacks to a mining town are drawn out with convincingly detailed and precise language that manages to be both clear and evocative.
Mr. Thompson quit Twitter
earlier this year. 
(Image via The Guardian)

Thompson allows the tension to build slowly, and doesn’t play his hand too quickly, which lets the mystery provide both a compelling plot and a device with which to strategically introduce pieces of the setting to the reader. This includes themes of economic justice, leading us to believe that Thompson recognizes that imbalances of power exist across myriad cultures and that these imbalances metastasize in especially destructive ways in environments of unmitigated capitalism.

Far From The Light Of Heaven also provides some of Thompson’s best character work. As the two primary protagonists, Shel and Racheed’s disparate backgrounds and motivations lead to tensions and conflict that feel natural and believable.

Astute readers will, however, find some slight plot hiccups. An “experimental” section of the spacecraft is mentioned in passing at the beginning but only explored midway through the book even though it seems as if a place filled with dangerous life forms would be the first place any fatality investigation should start. Likewise, the fact that the richest man in all the cosmos is aboard would seem like an early lead, rather than a later one.

We might also note that the alien “Lambers” add very little to the overall narrative other than confusion about what they are. Whatever they are, and whatever their relationship to the colonists on Bloodroot, it doesn’t really affect the story.

But these are minor quibbles, Far From The Light Of Heaven is a superb book that deserves your attention.

Sunday 6 February 2022

Subtweetpunk, shadecore, and other subgenres

There is power in the act of naming. 

Labels are part of how people communicate and make sense of the world. This can bring us together, but until new terms have meaning for a larger group, they can also isolate. There
The word is "Midichlorians"… and this
organization you're joining is totally not a cult!
(Image via Lucasfilm) 
’s a reason that numerous cults have their own dictionaries filled with loaded terms such as ‘Thetans,’ ‘Jness,’ ‘HODL,’ or ‘Meeks.’

At times, science fiction likewise seems to be a genre in love with inventing its own dictionaries; and not just as part of world building in books like Lord of the Rings and The Fifth Season. While terms like ‘SMOF,’ ‘mundanes,’ or ‘gafiate,’ can be useful shorthand in fan discussions, their prevalence can compound or create obfuscation for those not steeped in the genre and its convention culture. Often terms are created to describe new subgenres, whether or not the new term has any real meaning to it.

It makes sense that those trying to make sense of science fiction and fantastical discourse (for good or ill) will coin new terms for trends, tropes, and ideas they are grappling with. But creating categories within a genre can be an attempt to exert control and can easily succumb to gatekeeping.

The effects of creating increasingly arcane terminology for subgenres are at least twofold: those who don't understand the new terms are excluded from being able to fully participate in the discussion and the creation of the term divides works into those worthy of inclusion, and those that are unworthy. Stories that are deemed to conform to a nebulous criteria (or are written by an author considered to be a part of the in-group) can be declared to be part of the select subgenre, while those that do not meet their standards (or are written by an author considered to be a part of the out-group) can sometimes be declared to be part of a lesser or derided subgenre.

As an aside, it does seem worth noting that which works are selected or rejected to be considered part of subgenres often show biases based on the gender, age, class, and cultural backgrounds of those creating the categories.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan once noted, “All words, in every language, are metaphors.” And the
Marshall McLuhan
(Image via MediaCentre) 

connotations of these metaphors are particularly evident in many of the invented words of fandom. Take for example “Hopepunk,” the term coined by Alexandra Rowland as she called for uplifting stories that helped inspire people to believe in the future. This portmanteau combines an aspirational ideal of hope with the positive anti-authoritarian connotation of the punk music scene. By doing so, the very word “hopepunk” suggests that those in power benefit from the hopelessness of the masses, and that in fact the most rebellious thing people can do is dream of a better tomorrow.

Thus, naming something sometimes allows the term to define it, and to some degree can help shape how the public learns about it, thinks about it, and even searches for it. But naming also legitimizes a concept, and formalizes it in ways that are often unexpected. Calling music “shoegaze” was originally intended as an insult to guitarists who liked using distortion pedals while they played; it became a badge of honour. Fred Hoyle was trying to dismiss the concept of an explosive start to the universe when he dismissed it as a “Big Bang”; now it’s the common term for how many people believe existence came to be.
Nothing appeals to
the kids like references
to an obscure 75-year-old
Canadian SF author!
(Image via wikipedia)

Usually, naming something connects best with audiences when there is a clear and concise definition of what it is. “Cyberpunk” for example is one of the most enduring subgenres in part because the extent of literature in this category is relatively easy to identify. Likewise, “Urban Fantasy” existed and had tropes and conventions long before anyone tried to put a name to it.

Successful subgenre names are ones that help people find books they might enjoy, but are rarely used to
define something as good or bad. They’re descriptors, rather than pejoratives. In short, the thing being described existed before the terminology.

As fans, we should be careful about the language we choose to describe the genre, the subgenre, and ourselves. The idea that ‘Fans are Slans,’ as example created a linguistic wall around fandom that in some ways persists today. At their worst, these empty ill-defined terms become semantic stop-signs that are a language of non-discourse. They can be the thought-ending cliche of cultural discussions, unquestionable for fear of offending those who accept the term unquestioningly. And they can define and alienate us all from relevance.

Wednesday 2 February 2022

Please give the German android gigolo movie a Hugo nod

It’ll be an uphill battle to get I’m Your Man the Hugo nod it deserves.
(Image via TIFF)

Of the five Hugo Award-shortlisted movies directed by women, only The Matrix (directed by Lilly and Lana Wachowski) was an original screenplay rather than an adaptation. The other four — Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey, Old Guard and Captain Marvel — are all comic book adaptations.

Of the five Hugo-shortlisted movies that were not in English, only Invention For Destruction (1958) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961) earned less than $5-million in North American cinemas. The three foreign-language movies to have been shortlisted this century were all mainstream hits: Pan’s Labrynth ($60 million domestic box office in 2006), Spirited Away ($10 million domestic box office in 2002), and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ($126 million domestic box office in 2000).

So it seems fair to say that a German-language sci-fi romance that earned less than $300,000 in North American cinemas and was written and directed by a woman is unlikely to be noticed by Hugo Award nominators. But this is a shame, because I’m Your Man is a quiet, thoughtful, compassionate, and nuanced movie directed and scripted by Maria Schrader based on a short story by Emma Braslavsky. And it is exactly what the award should be recognizing. 

Set in a near-future Hamburg, I’m Your Man follows Dr. Alma Felser (Maren Eggert), an anthropology
Maren Eggert and Dan Stevens
don't exactly have chemistry,
they have something far more
… calculated than that.
(Image via NationalPost)

professor who has begrudgingly agreed to conduct an assessment of Tom (Dan Stevens), a prototype of an android designed to be a romantic partner. Fesler, a divorcee who has put her career first, is dubious of the android’s value and participates in the assessment as a favour to the head of a university department with which she is affiliated.

Despite an initial clinical detachment, Dr. Felser begins to be enticed by the android’s meticulous focus on being the ideal romantic partner. But she can’t fully buy into the experience because she knows that every perfect moment is the product of research, psychology, and algorithms. Simultaneously, she’s challenged emotionally by her ex-husband and his new girlfriend’s decision to have a baby together. This is all, of course, standard plot tension for a romance film.

What’s refreshing, for both AI and romance films, is that I’m Your Man feels like a deeply personal
Director Maria Schrader might
be familiar to SFF fans as 
Quissima Dhatt in the BBC
adaptation of The City & The City.
(Image via Radio Times)

movie, comfortable both with its own awkwardness, and with tackling the difficulties of relationships and the contradictory desires of humans. This is not a movie that follows standard Hollywood narrative patterns, or focus-grouped easy satisfaction conclusions, but rather tells a story that one person wanted to tell. And it’s stronger for that. Writer-director Maria Schrader is probably best-known in North America for directing the Netflix drama Unorthodox, for which she won an Emmy, though she also had a supporting role in the BBC TV series adapted from China Miéville’s Hugo-winning novel The City and the City.

As a dialogue and interaction-focused science fiction movie that is quite at odds with the dynamics of most American cinema, I’m Your Man might not have worked if it weren’t for the superb performances of the two leads.

Dan Stevens, who is probably most famous to SFF fans for playing David Haller in the superhero TV show Legion or for playing Alexander Lemtov in last year’s Hugo finalist Eurovision, alternates disconcertingly between charm and a lack of affect in possibly his finest performance to date. Evident in this performance are insights into what humanoid robots might actually be like, and this is part of what makes I’m Your Man so good as a work of science fiction. It’s a movie that grapples with the consequences of fulfilling humanity’s emotional needs through simulacra and artifice. It’s a movie that understands the seductive and dangerous allure of lying to ourselves.

But the real stand-out of the movie is Maren Eggert, who fully embodies the complexities and passion of an academic. Viewers who have worked at an institution of higher learning will recognize small details and nuances in her depiction of Dr. Alma Felser; the excitement of new knowledge, and the heartbreak at seeing someone else publish the idea first. Those who have struggled to find a romantic relationship that fits with a self-imposed, demanding career will likewise find a lot to appreciate in Eggert’s performance.

I’m Your Man is possibly the finest robot story brought to the screen since Fondly Farenheit was adapted as Murder And The Android in 1959. It deserves your attention, and no matter how unlikely a contender it might be, I’m Your Man deserves to make Hugo history as the first foreign-language movie directed by a woman to make the shortlist.