Monday 25 March 2024

Call for submissions - Journey Planet "Workers' Rights In SFF" Fanzine

If science fiction has siblings, one of them would be the labour union movement. Both are children of the industrial revolution, when technological progress was creating new types of work and new types of workers, forcing people to confront what that meant. Both are focused on the impacts of change and how we adapt.

We're pleased to be guest editing the
fanzine Journey Planet.

From William Morris' News From Nowhere to Ursula K. le Guin's The Dispossessed, the genre has played with what work means and how humans collaborate in times of change.

We invite people to explore the (sometimes troubled) relationship between labour and science fiction in an upcoming edition of the fanzine Journey Planet.

We are interested in a range of topics in various formats, from broad issues such as the depiction of the management class in space opera, to more narrowly focused analysis such as how Star Trek: Deep Space Nine can offer a model for collective action, as well as the real-world practicalities of exploitative labour practices in fandom-related employment. Reviews, short essays, fiction, art — it's all welcome.

With an anticipated publication date set for American Labour Day (September 2, 2024), we need to have your proposals submitted by May 30, with final copy to the editors due by July 15.

Yours in solidarity,
Olav & Amanda 
Send us your article and art pitches at

Thursday 21 March 2024

A Tribute To Vernor Vinge

Even if you haven't read anything that Vernor Vinge wrote, you've likely read something that was inspired by his work. He was a titan in his field and his work spoke to fans around the globe.
This blog would likely not exist
without Vernor Vinge’s novel
A Deepness In The Sky.
(Photo by Olav Rokne)

When he died yesterday, his influence could be found in almost every corner of science fiction.

Vinge began writing science fiction when he was a teenager, penning the story “Bookworm Run!” while a senior in high school in 1962. It’s a story that appeared in print four years later, about the machine-human interface and the creation of a cyborg. Interestingly, it foreshadows much of Vinge’s career.

Cyborgs had, of course, been a science fiction staple for almost four decades by the time “Bookworm Run!” was written. Up to this point, cybernetic augmentation was depicted as either improving the physical abilities of the human, or challenging their self-identity (as in “No Woman Born” by CL Moore). In contrast, and as he would do often throughout his career, Vinge tried to imagine what it would be like for a human to think better.

“I had tried a straightforward extrapolation of technology, and found myself precipitated over an abyss,” he said about the story four decades after he’d written it. “It’s a problem writers face every time we consider the creation of intelligences greater than our own.”

In an era of punch-card readers and memory measured in dozens of bits, Vinge recognized the potential of computers in a way that most of his peers did not.

He earned his PhD in computer science at the University of California San Diego in 1971, studying conformal maps (functions that locally preserve angles, but not necessarily lengths), writing a thesis on Solutions to Extremal Problems in E^p Spaces. He began teaching computer science at San Diego State University later that year, which became the focus of his academic career.

Over the decades, Vinge became known for stories about enhanced cognition through consciousness uploading (“True Names”), machine-human cooperation (The Peace War), alternate-architecture group consciousness (Amdi in Fire Upon The Deep), virally-altered brain chemistry (Deepness In The Sky), and many more.

 In 1962 when Vinge started writing about computers,
the most powerful computer on Earth was the
Atlas 2 in Manchester UK. It had a 48-bit core memory.
(Image via Chilton Computers)
These ideas of altered and elevated consciousness dovetailed nicely with another of Vinge’s other major themes: the technological singularity, or the idea that more intelligent computers will drive the creation of even faster computers until progress advances so quickly it can no longer be understood.

“Singularity is the point at which our old models will have to be discarded, where a new reality will reign,” Vinge wrote. “This is a world whose outlines will become clearer, approaching modern humanity, until this new reality obscures surrounding reality, becoming commonplace.”

One of these forays into singularitarianism helped launch an entire subgenre of science fiction. First appearing in a Dell paperback alongside George R.R. Martin’s Nightflyers, the story True Names offered a blueprint for cyberpunk that would influence and inspire everything from blockbuster movies to role playing games and television series.

Perhaps just as prescient are passages like the scene at the end of A Deepness In The Sky, when Trixia Bonsol asserts the value of neurodiversity, and the right of individuals to have differing experiences of consciousness. Bonsol is one of a number of characters whose consciousnesses become chained by the villainous Emergents; her will subsumed by neurochemical conditioning such that her brain becomes a living computer. Because her brain has become “focused” on the task that she’s best at (translation), she is no longer neurotypical.

Trixia’s decision at the end of the novel to remain focused is quietly a revolutionary act that can be read as celebrating the value, independence, and agency of those on the autism spectrum.

Vinge is often praised for his wide-ranging imagination and for exploring weird, wonderful, and unique science fictional concepts. He should also be recognized for being ahead of his time on some political matters and his centering the better natures of humanity. He was critical of South Africa’s apartheid regime when many looked the other way. And he was never as reactionary as some right-wing fans wanted him to be.

Vinge accepted the Hugo for Best Novel in
Chicago in 2000 for Deepness In The Sky.
(Image via Midamericon)
“Every anarchical scheme has some set of assumptions for why people will cooperate (you can usually spot the assumption in the names: anarcho-communism, anarcho-capitalism…),” he once wrote. “There’s a fundamental problem all such plans must face: how to prevent the formation of power groups large enough to in fact be the government.”

Vinge’s last Hugo-winning novel Rainbows End is set next year. Published in 2006, the book correctly predicted Uber-like micro-transactions, and widely-available wireless broadband, and the ability for hackers to track everyone via the signals emitted by their devices. Sadly, the ubiquitous use of augmented reality goggles, driverless cars, and a cure for Alzheimer’s all remain on the horizon.

Despite his influence, Vinge was never going to be a household name outside of the genre. His writing was inescapably fannish, he was one of us, and he will be missed. 

Monday 4 March 2024

Open Discussion — What's worth considering for the ballot in 2025?

 The following list will be updated over the next few months as we read, watch, and listen to Hugo-eligible works for 2025. These are not necessarily what we plan to nominate, but rather works that at least one member of the Edmonton Hugo Book Club has enjoyed and believes to be worth consideration. We appreciate any additional suggestions in the comments.

Updated on April 12, 2024 

Items marked with a “*” are ones for which there was significant disagreement within the book club. 

Womb City — Tlotlo Tsamaase
The Siege of Burning Grass — Premee Mohamed
Service Model — Adrian Tchaikovsky

Saturation Point — Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Tusks of Extinction — Ray Nayler
The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain — Sofia Samatar


Short Story
Rail Meat — Marie Vibbert
Nigerian Dreams — Wole Talabi

The Trials of Empire — Richard Swan

Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) 
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters S01E10 "Beyond Logic"
Halo S2E4 "Reach"
Fallout S1E8 "The Beginning"

Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) 
Dune Part 2*
Civil War

Best Game or Interactive Work
Helldivers 2 — Arrowhead Game Studios

Best Editor

Fan Writer
Ann Michelle Harris
Arturo Serrano
Paul Weimer
Phoebe Wagner
Mikkel Snyder
Brian Collins
Alasdair Stuart
RiverFlow 河流
Bonnie McDaniel
Jason Sanford

Fan Artist
Dante Luiz

Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog
Journey Planet
Galactic Journey

Monday 26 February 2024

The Ascendancy of Science Fiction Cinema (Hugo Cinema 1980)

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

The ascendancy of science fiction in mainstream cinema was sudden.
Science fiction's conquest of the movie theatre
hit its ascendancy in 1979, with Alien as the
capstone of cinematic achievement that year.
(Image via

In each year from 1970 to 1975, fewer than five of the top-30 movies (which could only be seen in cinemas at that time) could even remotely be considered genre works. By 1979, just two years after Star Wars, most of the top grossing movies were science fiction.

When the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation began in 1958, there had been concerns raised about whether or not there could be sufficient SFF movies worthy of consideration. Several times between 1958 and 1978, fans voted to present no award because they were dissatisfied with the cinematic fare on offer. That would never happen again.

After decades as a marginal cinematic genre, science fiction was in its ascendancy.

Most of the movies on the 1980 Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo have withstood the test of time: The Muppet Movie, Time After Time, Star Trek The Motion Picture, and Alien remain well-loved today. Only Disney’s The Black Hole stands out as being one we thought was unworthy of Hugo Awards consideration … and even it has some charm to it.

There was a lot of science fiction hitting the screen in 1979, and for the most part those nominating for the Hugo Awards picked the cream of the crop. When you look only at American cinema and television, it would have been difficult to pick five better works. The James Bond movie Moonraker presents the franchise at its most science fictional, but also at its most camp. Sean Connery’s Meteor is a B-Grade disaster mediocrety. Hanna Barberra’s C.H.O.M.P.S. is just a mess. Some contemporaneous fans were rooting for Glen A. Larson’s Buck Rogers In The 25th Century to make the shortlist, but thankfully it didn’t.

The impact of Star Wars was being felt across the globe, but the international boom in screen SF is not reflected in this shortlist. There were, in fact, some legitimately great works from outside of North America that were omitted. In Australia, the first Mad Max movie hit cinemas. Although it’s rough around the edges, George Miller’s debut feature marks the beginning of a revolution in post-apocalyptic cinema. In Japan, Mobile Suit Gundam became one of the most influential animes of all time. Behind the Iron Curtain, two first-rate cinematic adaptations of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novels (The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel and Stalker) hit the cinemas … as well as an adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s The Inquest of Pilot Pirx

"May everything come true. May they believe.
And may they laugh at their passions." 
(Stalker screen capture via
Any of these foreign works would have been worth including on an awards shortlist.

In particular, Stalker (which is regularly listed as one of the greatest movies of all time) seems like a notable omission. In its first year, it made Soviet box office history by selling almost five million tickets in Russia alone (it wasn’t released officially in the USA until 1982). It’s a languid, atmospheric piece about an expedition into a forbidden area with an alien relic that can change lives. The philosophical dialogue, painterly cinematography, and rich use of sound mixing have earned it the status of definitive science fiction cinema — and it should have received at least a Hugo Award nomination (whether in 1980 or 1983).

Certainly, Stalker deserved a nomination more than The Black Hole, a big-budget movie about explorers who stumble upon a haunted spaceship. Although it’s visually impressive, the movie feels like a rejected b-movie script from the early 1950s was resurrected with an enormous budget to catch a rising tide. Reading the various negative reviews in fanzines from 1979 and 1980, it’s surprising to us that it was on the shortlist. Regular film critic Bill Warren wrote in Science Fiction Review that: “The producers took our beautiful space — our beautiful space ships — and shit in them. They used them without any understanding, any care, any ethics, any honest, any respect. They are pandering, ignorant, stupid, contemptable shitheads.” Several members of our cinema club agree with Bill.

The Black Hole placed last on the final ballot, earning only 16 votes … fans placed it below “no award,” which received 127 votes.

"I created the Nostromo to reach the stars,
but she's gone much, much farther than that.
She tore a hole in our universe,
a gateway to another dimension.
A dimension of pure cliche … pure stupidity."
(Image via BFI)
For a franchise that has spawned eight theatrically released movies, fourteen television series, seven major video games, and uncountable ancillary products, it’s interesting to note that the Muppets have only appeared on a Hugo Award shortlist once. The Muppet Movie seems to have made an immediate impact on fandom, being embraced as a metaphor for the found family that many had built within the SFF community. “The marvel is that this film makes the muppets human,” enthused Richard E. Geiss. “See it if you have any child in you at all.”

Following Kermit and Fozzie Bear on a trip from Florida to California as they chase the American dream of fame and fortune, The Muppet Movie plays with the conventions of the ’70s road movie. In addition to smart character development and memorably great original songs, it includes a plethora of weird cameos (Steve Martin! Madeline Kahn! Terry Savalas! ORSON WELLES!) and an understated wit. Replete with visual gags that hold up well today, it is possibly the funniest movie ever shortlisted for the Hugo Award. It's a reminder of the chaos that made the Muppets so amazing in the first place. More recent iterations of the franchise (particularly those produced under the auspices of the Disney corporation) have sanded off the rough edges and turned the Muppets into a more risk-averse product.

Also making the leap from television to the cinema, Star Trek’s inaugural movie was in 1979. In the decade since it had been off the air, Star Trek fandom had only grown. The naysayers had either gone quiet or — like Issac Asimov — had recanted their criticisms of the show. A troubled production from the get-go, the movie had been retooled and revamped in the wake of Star Wars and then rushed into cinemas (with some special effects only completed a few hours before the red carpet premiere). It’s hard to deny that the movie suffered from these production problems, with weird pacing, odd pauses, and plot inconsistencies. That being said, it is a movie based around the sense of wonder that had been at the core of the original series, and for many that was enough.
For us, The Muppet Movie retains its irrepressible
charms, but there was some debate about whether
or not it was science fictional enough to
be a “Hugo” movie.
(Image via this great article in the Guardian)

Over the past four decades, Star Trek: The Motion Picture has acquired a mixed reputation among fans. We were struck by the inventiveness and beauty of the visuals and special effects, and the meaningful character development offered to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Despite the rushed conditions under which the movie was made, legendary director Robert Wise created moments of brilliance that can still hit home today.

Interestingly, the director who would take the Star Trek franchise in a new direction a couple of years later also had a movie on the Hugo shortlist in 1980. Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time is a winsome time travel movie about H.G. Wells chasing Jack The Ripper to modern-day San Francisco. Its premise is used to paradoxically critique the perceived violence of the late 1970s and celebrate some of the social progress that had been made in the preceding century, mostly around gender roles. The cast is first-rate, with Malcolm McDowell playing a slightly bumbling but charming version of Wells and David Warner providing suave menace to his foil. Adding to the chemistry of the cast, modern-day romantic interest Amy Robbins was played by Mary Steenburgen, who would go on to marry her co-star. There are some points where the movie has aged oddly, and the second act drags a bit, but it’s hard to argue against it getting a Hugo nod. Contemporaneous fans were quite fond of the movie, with Bill Coulson writing in Yandro: “Time After Time is surprisingly good. I had thought … that it was going to be a godawful mess (H.G. Wells vs. Jack the Ripper?), but it turned out to be well-written, with excellent cinematography besides.”

Despite 1980 being a year with an exceptionally great shortlist for Best Dramatic Presentation, there was one movie that endured as a favorite: Ridley Scott’s Alien. Watching it in the context of other films
“I belong here completely and utterly at home here.
It’s you who don’t belong, with your notions
 of a perfect and harmonious society,”
Warner’s Jack the Ripper purrs.
“The world has caught up with me.
90 years ago, I was a freak.
Today, I’m an amateur.”
(Image via
released in the same year, it stands out for the strength of its characters, the naturalistic dialogue, and the moody atmospheric direction. Despite a few slightly wobbly special effects (especially during the landing sequence), the movie looks remarkably modern, with a design aesthetic that was utterly revolutionary at the time. Though it owes a debt to forebearers like Planet of the Vampires and Forbidden Planet, it was innovative and continues to feel fresh decades later.

From top to bottom, the cast of Alien shines. While Sigourney Weaver’s no-nonsense turn as Ripley launched her career, it’s easy to forget that Yapphet Koto’s complex portrayal of Parker anchors the crew, Harry Dean Stanton glowers his way through the movie as Brett, Veronica Cartwright’s emotional vulnerability as Lambert draws the audience into the horror of the movie, and of course the malevolent android Ash is brought to life in an understated performance by Ian Holm.

Despite its classic status today, Alien met with mixed to negative reviews at the time. Time Out described it as being laden with “imaginative poverty,” while Variety and Sight and Sound panned it. Within SFF fandom, Bill Lancaster was dismissive of the movie in the fanzine COFUsSing: “Alien is a simplistic movie as far as niceties like plot and characterization are concerned. The storyline is borrowed almost intact from a ’50s B-movie on late-night TV … It is not an artistic triumph,” but granted, “There is, I believe, one aspect of Allen that sets it above most films of this type. There is a certain coherent style to everything.” It is somewhat a relief that the majority of Hugo Award voters recognized how important a movie Alien was.

For the first time, the WSFS constitution required that full voting statistics be made available to the public within 90 days of the convention. Alien won by a landslide, earning almost 40 per cent of first-place votes, and doubling its nearest competition, Time After Time.

In our opinion, this is the first truly great year in the history of the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. It’s a year that offered a variety of innovative, thoughtful, visually stunning movies as a shortlist, and one whose capstone may be the most influential science fiction movie ever made.

Wednesday 7 February 2024

Big Brother's Big Shoes

There’s a graveyard in the publishing world that’s full of authorized sequels and companion novels to famous works. Neither Scarlett nor Rhett Butler’s People are talked about decades following their release or in as fond terms as Gone With The Wind. Return to Wuthering Heights seems to have existed just to cash in on Emily Brontë’s original. The less said about the sequel to Catcher In The Rye, the better.
(Image via Goodreads)

In that context, it seems foolhardy for an author to try and tackle a novel like George Orwell’s 1984, a book that is often ranked among the most important works of fiction in the 20th Century. Few novels have altered the dictionary as often and as profoundly; from doublethink and the memory hole, to Big Brother and the unperson. Moreover, every dystopian novel published in the past 75 years has been compared — often unfavourably — to this Orwellian classic.

Foolhardy or not, Sandra Newman was authorized by the Orwell estate to craft a novel set in the world of 1984.

You have to respect Sandra Newman’s ambition and, in our opinion, accomplishment. For the most part the resulting novel Julia meets the lofty standard to which it aspires.

This success can probably be attributed not to a slavish lockstep with the original, but rather to the fact that Newman’s evident affection for 1984 is tempered with a clear-eyed critical analysis of it.

This is more than an adaptation or retelling — it’s a companion piece that has something worthwhile to say.

As progressive as he was on matters pertaining to class and culture, and as observant as he was in the ways in which freedom could be subverted, Orwell neglected issues of gender equity. Notably in 1984, there are only two female characters, neither of whom is depicted as having agency or given any sort of interior development.
Multiple hit reality TV shows 
have been inspired by 1984,
the BBC has adapted it to radio
on six occasions, it's even been
made into a musical twice.
(Image via

Retelling the same narrative as Orwell did, but presenting it from the perspective of Julia, Newman recasts 1984’s protagonist Winston Smith as a self-absorbed brocialist who is willfully ignorant of much that goes on in the lives of those around him.

Newman imbues her protagonist with sly wit and an understated charm; her descriptions of working at the Ministry of Truth reveal how humour can be used as a coping mechanism for those living in totalitarian regimes. Julia is a warmer, happier person than the melancholic Winston Smith (whose nickname readers learn was ‘Old Misery’), despite having endured worse hardships.

Although it follows most of the same narrative beats, Julia is almost twice as long as Orwell’s original. This can leave the story dragging at places, but for the most part the extra length is used well, taking readers on a tour of proletarian districts, inner-party sanctums, and the wider world.

Julia is a more courageous character than Winston, and leans into the little rebellions that can make life more tolerable in a totalitarian state. Consequently, the story loses some of the bleakness that makes 1984 such a powerful novel. Perhaps this is the cost of storytelling that needs to present readers with a reflective mirror, and one that must recognize the jagged path of social progress that’s unfolded in the decades between 1984 and Julia.

In addition to being true to Orwell’s most famous work, Julia has a 21st-century perspective that might appeal more to readers under the age of 50. Those reading 1984 today may not have a visceral sense of the brooding and malign shadow the Soviet Union under Stalin cast across the globe when the book was published. As such, Newman’s take on totalitarianism — replete with subtle references to modern-day political issues — are likely to make the original more accessible to current generations.
The Orwell estate rejected Bowie's
request to make a musical based
on 1984. What other works have
been lost due to long copyright?
(Image via Rolling Stone)

In most jurisdictions (such as Canada and the United Kingdom), 1984 is already in the public domain, so anyone could have penned their own retelling in those countries — though not in the United States. But Julia came about at the express request of the Orwell estate, who invited Sandra Newman to write this book. We wonder what Newman might have done differently with Orwell’s vision if she had not been operating under the auspices of the rights holders. Likewise, what other versions might be out there ready to be created once Orwell’s book enters the public domain in the United States?

One can see why the heirs to Orwell’s intellectual property selected Newman, who is no stranger to genre fiction, having written about time travel and various apocalypses. But her work has been the type of science fiction that mysteriously ends up in the “fiction and literature” shelves of most bookstores, rather than being placed next to books with rocket ships and aliens on their covers.

This sheen of literary credibility may help Julia find readership in the wider world, but that unfortunately may also dissuade some Hugo Award voters from picking it up. Julia may only be the little sister to 1984’s big brother, but amazingly it’s not lesser.

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.