Wednesday 31 January 2024

The Maginot Line of Fandom

French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau famously quipped that “generals are always preparing to fight using the tools of the last war.”

Built by France in the wake of the First World War,
the Maginot Line was an engineering marvel 
completely unsuited to the challenges
of the Second World War.
(Image via 
At the time of this writing All Fandom Is Plunged Into War, and we are left wondering if some of the tools adopted in the wake of the last battle are suited to today’s conflicts. Is E Pluribus Hugo the Maginot Line of fandom?

This is the seventh year that the E Pluribus Hugo (EPH) methodology of tabulating Hugo Award nominations has been in effect.

Since it was ratified at the business meeting in 2016, EPH has weighted nominating votes in an attempt to ensure that the shortlist is more representative of Worldcon fandom than it was in years past. By our count, the use of EPH has resulted in changes to the Hugo shortlists on 35 occasions. Over the past eight years, this system has removed some works from the shortlist in favour of other works that were nominated by a smaller (but hypothetically more representative) demographic.

Given that there have been almost 900 finalists across all Hugo (plus Lodestar and Astounding) categories since EPH went into effect, that means the new system has made about a four per cent difference to the shortlist.

In essence, EPH created noise around the edges of the data, to little benefit.

EPH was proposed in the wake of the 2015 Hugo Awards controversy, during which a co-ordinated minority of fans were able to overwhelm the nomination process. It was one of a variety of solutions proposed as a remedy to the problem of slate voting.

At the time, those involved with this blog were in support of the EPH proposal. Sure, sometimes it produced weird results like keeping Arkady Martine off the Astounding Award ballot in 2020 … but that seemed like a small price to pay to prevent another year like 2015, in which havoc raged and resulted in five categories resolving as “no award.”
It's worth noting who gets added and who
gets removed from the shortlist due to EPH.
(Image via Hugo Awards 2017 nominations)

In the intervening years, EPH has not been faced with a significant challenge. From 2017 to 2022, nomination patterns among Worldcon members was as expected, with no “slate” that needed to be accounted for. If the data from this year is correct, however, the highly-correlated list of finalists that all received similarly inflated numbers of votes does more than just resemble a ‘slate.’ (This is not to imply malicious action on the part of those casting nominating ballots, but to say that clustered votes that are correlated due to a highly influential recommended reading list will be treated by the EPH system in a way that is similar to a slate of nominators.) And in the face of this trial by fire, EPH has failed.

EPH has also not lived up to the promise that it would ensure that different factions of fandom would be represented in the final ballot. Looking over the list of those who have been excluded from the Hugo Ballot because of EPH, you’ll find some excellent folks who have yet to receive their first nominations. If not for EPH in 2022, Black Nerd Problems would have become the first fanzine made by Black SFF fans to receive a Hugo nomination. If not for EPH in 2020, Priyanka Krishnan would have been the second-youngest editor ever shortlisted for a Hugo Award. Meanwhile, EPH has secured additional nominations for some of the folks who have been recognized the most often in the past. It was a solution that may have reinforced systems of power instead of mitigating their impact.

Another issue with EPH is that it can be gamed. Sufficient people nominating only one item in a category are likely to boost that one finalist through a process that’s been dubbed “bullet voting.” The effects of this can be extreme. In 2023, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki’s short story Destiny Delayed was omitted from the Hugo Award ballot … despite receiving almost twice as many votes as the shortlisted work Resurrection by Ren Qing.

Equally if not more damning, EPH has created a barrier to the public understanding of how the Hugo Award nominees are selected. The integrity of the nominations process, and thus the awards themselves, is being questioned for a variety of reasons, and an arcane system of tabulation only adds to the problem. People are unlikely to trust a system that they don’t understand, and an obfuscatory system they are expected to participate in is anathema to public trust and participation.

EPH doesn’t offer better results, it simply picks different finalists in a way that seems to increase the democratic deficit in our community instead of removing it.

Fundamentally, we’ve seen that “E Pluribus Hugo” has not functioned as intended, produces a shortlist that less accurately reflects the will of the Worldcon community, and adds confusion to the process. It’s time to abandon it altogether. It’s time to craft tools appropriate for tomorrow’s awards.

Friday 12 January 2024

A New Moon Illuminates The Apocalypse

Rice offers an apocalypse from
a fresh perspective and with 
interesting insights. 
(Image via Goodreads)
Post-apocalyptic fiction is known for its hopeful restarts, but the subgenre can also include ultimately nefarious elements perhaps best described as fantasies of re-establishing paleoconservative social hierarchies. In the aftermath of societal collapses, readers are encouraged to imagine themselves as a heroic survivor, either uniquely prepared, or uniquely suited for the new world that arises from the ashes of the old. Unshackled from the confines and complexities of middle-class suburban civilization, the post-apocalyptic prepper fancies that they’d be able to reach their full potential.

From Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead, to Stephen King’s The Stand, to John Ringo’s The Last Centurion, many authors have used a white cis man empowerment framework to construct a political argument about what sort of idealized rugged individualists would thrive and what kind of world they’d build in the absence of society’s constricting rules.

Almost inevitably, there’s an aspect of libertarianism to these works. The end of centralized government that is inherent to these stories is obviously an appealing prospect to authors who believe government is generally a bad thing.

Over the past few decades the subgenre of post-apocalyptic fiction has sometimes seemed a bit stale. The protagonists are too often fungible, omnicompetent white dudes who live by a rigid moral code. Characters like Joel Miller (Last of Us), Dave Marshall (Slow Apocalypse), Robert Neville (I Am Legend), Miles Matheson (NBC’s Revolution), or Rayford Steele (Left Behind) are basically interchangeable. It should not be lost on anyone that Earl Turner — the protagonist of the white supremacist novel The Turner Diaries — hews closely to this archetype. Race, class and gender are all entwined in the tropes and conventions of apocalyptic fiction, and often with reprehensible subtext.

Given this context for the subgenre, Moon of the Turning Leaves by Waubgeshig Rice is an admirable change of pace. Set a dozen years after a technological collapse, the book follows members of a small Anishinaabe community in Northern Ontario who have used traditional Indigenous knowledge and skills to survive as much of the rest of North America has fallen into ruin.

Although Moon of the Turning Leaves is Rice’s second novel following the Shkidnakiiwin community (after his 2018 novel Moon of the Crusted Snow), it stands on its own fully. Of the two, it offers more depth and insight into what has happened across this post-apocalyptic world.

In Rice’s first novel, the Anishinaabe community located north of Gibson Ontario survived the apocalypse by moving from their government reservation to the banks of a large lake where they’ve been able to subsist on fishing and hunting. By the second book, the resources of that lake and its environs have begun to run out, and the community sends a team of six people south to scout out their ancestral lands near Lake Huron.

Northern Ontario's wilderness provides an
interesting backdrop for an apocalypse.
(Image via Tourism Ontario
Led by Evan Whitesky and his 15-year-old daughter Nangohns (Anishinaabemowin for “Little Star”), the group is forced to confront what has happened to the rest of North America over the post-apocalyptic decade. While Rice’s first novel was about a group of people turning inward and forming community to survive, this second foray is about looking outwards and to the future to thrive.

In this setting, it should come as no surprise just how much time and effort these characters must put into ensuring they have enough food. The depiction of subsistence hunting, for example, brings into focus themes of respect for the land and for traditional practices. There are consequently long stretches of the novel in which not much happens other than surviving without modern conveniences, commercial agriculture, and supply chains. Some of that time might have been better spent on character development, as secondary protagonists can feel indistinguishable.

This is apocalyptic fiction with a rich sense of perspective, a strong authorial voice, and a compelling philosophical argument. In the event of a global societal catastrophe, it seems believable to us that the communities likeliest to thrive might be those who already faced a cataclysm (in this case, one that started in 1492) and thus carry a unique set of survival skills with them.

Is there an aspect of wish fulfillment and empowerment fantasy in Moon of the Turning Leaves? It would be easy to read it that way. But a story about a group of marginalized people seeking to return to their pre-colonization homelands has a completely different resonance than all the tales of privileged yuppies yearning for a might-makes-right world.

Moon of the Turning Leaves breathes new life into post-apocalyptic tropes, and deserves strong consideration for both the Aurora Award and the Hugo.

Sunday 7 January 2024

The Last Trumpet Shall Sound

In 2023, the Campo Grande Treefrog went extinct.
Theres a very real chance that
in the not-too-distant future,
the elephant will trumpet its last.

(Image via Goodreads)

Its loud and distinctive croaking now exists only in recordings. It was one of hundreds of animals that disappeared from the planet last year as human-driven climate change, pollution, and other forms of habitat destruction ravaged ecosystems.

Javan rhinos, orangutans, sea turtles, saolas, pangolins, and elephants are all dying out. Make no mistake: this is a crisis that will have profound downstream consequences for humanity.

Ray Nayler focused his best-selling novel The Mountain In The Sea on this extinction crisis, depicting the extirpation of sea life from the oceans and its impact on humans. But despite the grim subject, the book offers an undercurrent of hope. His new novella The Tusks of Extinction acts as a darker, angrier, possibly necessary counterpoint to the earlier work.

The Mountain in the Sea had its roots in the ecological preservation work I engaged in in Vietnam. That work was preventative and positive, working with youth and with environmental activists to protect the Con Dao Archipelago,” Nayler explained by email in early January. “The Tusks of Extinction has its roots in my experiences in Vietnam dealing with the illegal ivory trade and the trade in rhino horn. That work exposed me to the grimmest realities of human greed, ignorance, and exploitation. The enormity of the slaughter of elephants and rhinos for the sake of useless trinkets and the stupidest pseudo-medicinal ideas.”

The result is an uncomfortable read that will resonate with many and deserves serious consideration in every award category for which it is eligible. It’s science fiction deeply rooted in truth … and the current truth hurts.

As the book begins, scientists are recreating mammoths as a last ditch effort to keep the elephantidae family in existence. Siberia provides isolated stretches of open country, improving the odds for the wild megafauna. Since elephants — and their mammoth cousins — depend on generational knowledge to survive in the wild, the project is forced to recruit the recorded consciousness of a long-dead elephant conservation activist and researcher.

The novella follows three narrators who offer differing perspectives on an attempt to reintroduce the wooly mammoth into the wild: murdered elephant researcher Dr. Damira Khismatullina, uploaded into a mammoth matriarch; young apprentice poacher Syvatoslav; and ultra-rich big-game hunter’s spouse Vladimir.

About 100 African elephants are killed every day
to fuel the illegal trade in ivory. The villain — as is
often the case — is rapacious unchecked capitalism.
(Image via
The protagonists are tragic figures; Svyatoslav is the son of a callous and violent hunter who cares for little other than money. Although he feels revulsion at the senseless slaughter, economic hardship and cultural pressure force him to participate. Vladimir is in a relationship with someone who thinks his apex capitalist money can buy love, and Damira has seen her life’s work destroyed by rapacious capitalism.

While humanity’s role in mass extinction is the main theme of the novella, an important sub theme is the relationship between senses, memory, and self identity. After her resurrection in the mammoth, Damira’s experience of the world is radically different, as is her relationship with memory. Assumptions about mind-body dualism are baked into the SF trope of uploading consciousness, and it’s refreshing to see these assumptions challenged.

“In a large part, The Tusks of Extinction is an exploration of the embodiment of mind, and also of the physical reality — the enormity — of our embodiment in the world,” Nayler says. “The mental changes Damira undergoes as a mammoth are a rebuttal of the idea of mind as separate from body and the sensory apparatus. The Tusks of Extinction is an expression of my anti-Cartesian view of the world. We exist in a physical body which exists in an ecosystem. The idea that we are floating intellects which can do as we will is one of the most damaging in human history: our lives are contingent, at all times, on physical reality and our place in it. The realization of that demands a corresponding ethics.”

The rationale behind the fictional project is expertly mapped out; research has shown that wooly mammoths enabled arctic ecosystems to store more CO2 than they otherwise would have. Having the mammoths back in the environment would disperse seeds, and increase resilience to climate change. Nayler gets the details right, and this helps make his larger arguments more believable and compelling.

Grounded in his experiences, Nayler offers insights about the social and economic conditions that lead to poaching. Svyatoslav, for example, is written with compassion and in a way that reflects on the endurance of those who lack the power to change a system that does not value their lives.

Hitting bookstore shelves during a decade when a significant portion of the SFF community seems to be seeking out comfort reads and hopepunk, The Tusks of Extinction may not appeal to all genre readers. But sometimes, sorrow is warranted and sometimes, there’s value in righteous anger.

It’s worth being angry about the potential loss of 44,000 species. As Nayler puts it: “We are intellectual animals with grand capacities, capable of living ethically and morally. It's time we used our brains to act in ways that prove we deserve to be on this planet, and that the human experiment is not doomed to be a destructive failure.”

We hope this novella finds the readership it deserves, and helps motivate some readers to take action.