Saturday, August 26, 2006

Reasons Hominids May Have Won the Hugo (or, In Which One Lone Editor, Armed With Only His Wits, Attempts To Eff the Ineffable)

One of my favorite bits of attempted humor, originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written 9/18/03. I repost it here in honor of tonight's Hugo Awards, and the fights that it will undoubtedly engender in one area or another of fandom:

Well, I just read this book, which -- to judge from the reception it's gotten here -- I could only expect to have been scrawled in crayon on a paper bag, then left out in the rain for several weeks before being OCR'd and then mass-mailed under the header "xjr Biggr Penis_Now!"

Strangely enough, I found it a fun and pleasant read. I still don't think I would have voted it at the top of my Hugo ballot [1], but it's a perfectly serviceable science fiction novel, leading me to suspect those condemning it have never read a really bad book. (Or perhaps I have no taste -- that's always possible.)

But, while reading it, I did notice some elements that may have led to its somewhat-surprising win in Toronto earlier this month. So, in the purest spirit of scientific inquiry (and with my tongue only intermittently in my cheek), I offer the following possibilities:

1) It has an appendix. Serious SF novels -- important books that one must Take Very Seriously Indeed -- have appendices. Witness Dune. Witness Lord of the Rings, the book that was very nearly eaten by its own appendices. (And it will be, one day, if Christopher Tolkien has anything to say about it.) Neither The Scar nor The Years of Rice and Salt have appendices. Nor does Bones of the Earth, a striking omission in a time-travel book, where a five-page wrap-up of "look at how clever I am and wonder at the depths of my research fu" is practically obligatory. I don't have a copy of Kiln People to hand, but, as I recall, it has no appendix.

2) It's, in part, a utopian novel about people with interesting sexual practices and a mildly negative attitude towards Western Religion. (I gather the latter ramps up in the sequels, which I haven't gotten to yet.) SF readers are suckers for that sort of thing, as long as it doesn't go on too long. A little mild blasphemy, a slight kick in the pants to boring 'ol hide-bound religion -- that's what the punters want. Here, it's even Catholicism -- the only religion with a Kick-Me-Hard sign actually embroidered on the back of those fabulous gowns. It does share the "privacy is dead and overrated" meme with Kiln People, but that isn't nearly as appealing to Joe Hugo-Voter as the taut, corded muscles of hairy bisexual Neanderthals. (I'm sorry, but it just had to be said.)

2) Its gimmick is based on traditional skiffy neat-o physics. (Another category that SF readers are inordinately fond of.) It's only real competition in this area for the 2003 Hugo was Bones of the Earth, but the latter book offered the presumably unstoppable double-barreled blast of time travel and dinosaurs. I can only surmise that Swanwick's failure to provide an appendix proved his novel's downfall. Sure, parallel-world travel is cool -- but certainly no cooler than time travel (and possibly less so). And I refuse to accept that sapient hominids -- of any description -- are within a parsec of the coolness that is a living dinosaur (or even a discrete, cooling Triceratops head). Swanwick's book should have won this part of the competition on points, but Hominids must have stayed on its feet long enough to force the judges' decision.

3) Hominids's main characters are working scientists. Again, only Swanwick's book could even lay a glove on it in this area -- but Sawyer's characters spend more time talking to each other about science, and less time running away from dinosaurs, which may have made the difference. Not only that, but two of the scientific team even have Hot Monkey Sex (completely off-page, unfortunately -- but that, too, can be a positive to the puritanical heart of SF, still haunted by the ghost of Kay Tarrant). Another pairing is only prevented from determining if Neanderthal and Sapiens genital plumbing is compatible by the ending of the book. Since no one in Bones of the Earth has sex with a dinosaur, it's out of the running here. There are some working scientists in Rice and Salt, but only for part of that book, so it has to run a distant third.

4) It was published in mass-market in February 2003, in plenty of time for Hugo voters to buy and read it. Therefore I declare that its readership was inevitably immensely larger than its competition! Let us examine the evidence: The Years of Rice and Salt wasn't published in mass until June. The Scar is only available in a relatively expensive trade paperback. However, Bones of the Earth also came out in mass-market in February, and Kiln People beat them into mass-market by a month. (It's always a shame when a dirty little fact ruins a perfectly good theory.)

5) Rob Sawyer is the hardest working man in SF. There's no other way to say it. He's a swell guy, very personable -- and his reading-ending rendition of "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's, Man's World" makes the women swoon and the little chillun's eyes pop out of they little heads.

So, in conclusion, don't play cards with a man named "Doc," don't eat anything bigger than your head, and never try to out-nice Rob Sawyer. He's Canadian, don't'cha know...

[1] Any year with both The Scar and The Years of Rice and Salt is a really strong year to begin with, though.

[2] Though only if you disregard the compensatory damages. This reminds me of an amusing story about my Uncle Robert, who was under the impression that he was a barn-owl. Now he had just reached the age of one hundred and six -- though he would only admit to ninety-seven! -- and was as deaf as a post. But I see this margin is too small to contain the story, which will thus have to wait for later.

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