Sunday, July 31, 2011

I Have Just Voted for the Hugos

...and those of you who have been following these "Hugo Thoughts" posts probably have a decent idea of how that ballot went.

I will say that I left off something in every single category -- admittedly, it was "No Award" a couple of times, but I did deliberately not list nominees in most of the major categories, and I recommend that other voters do the same, whenever there's a nominee you really would not like to see win. (It will win, of course -- that's how popular-vote awards work: the things you hate the most win out over the things you love.)

The important thing, though, is that there's less than nine hours left to vote. (The Hugo Packet will also only be available for about that time, as well -- so download it now, if you're eligible to get it, since there's a lot of stuff in there, and you'll probably enjoy some of it.) If you're a member of Renovation, vote at least in those categories you feel comfortable making value judgements -- you don't have to vote in every category, but you really should vote if you're eligible.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

What I'll Be Doing in Reno

First of all, I need to shoot a man just to watch him die -- I understand that's a traditional pastime there, and I like to participate in local culture as much as possible.

But I'll also be doing actual Worldcon-style convention programming while I'm there as well, and the things I'm scheduled for are:

Thu 16:00 - 17:00, The Science Fiction and Fantasy Canon within Comics (Panel), A10 (RSCC)
        What are the essential science fiction and fantasy comics?

Thu 17:00 - 18:00, The Works of Tim Powers (Panel), A03 (RSCC)
        Tim Powers, author of such masterworks as The Anubis Gates, Last Call, and Declare, is one of the most important fantasy writers of the last thirty years.  The panel discusses what makes his works so compelling and so effective.

(Note: I will be moderating this one, which is already bringing me out in a cold sweat -- a major panel about the oeuvre of the Author GOH, so no pressure, right?)

Sat 14:00 - 15:00, The Best in Recent SF and Fantasy (Panel), A18 (RSCC)
        People often talk about the classics of SF, but there's also a lot of great SF and fantasy being
produced now, including works that will be

(Note: That's the full panel description as it was provided to me; I hope to get the group involved in a spirited round of "guess the rest of the description" early in the proceedings.)

    Sat 16:00 - 17:00, Beyond Harry Potter: What other Young Adult Fiction Everyone -- Adults Included -- Should Be Reading (Panel), A11 (RSCC)
        Harry Potter entertained a generation of kids (and adults). What are other young adult novels that you should be reading?  We'll look at newcomers to the field of YA as well as some golden oldies.

(Note: I think I've personally done this panel at least three times before, over the past decade -- too bad I never save my convention notes, or there would be no prep required.)

I also hope to see a lot of folks along the way; I feel like I'm drifting farther and farther away from the skiffy world, and I hate that. I'm getting into Reno on Wednesday evening (coming straight from a work conference in Las Vegas, actually), and fly out on Monday morning, so that should give me time for plenty of schmoozing even on top of my usual anti-social time. Please feel free to drop me an e-mail if we should make plans ahead of time to meet.

Friday, July 29, 2011

More Awards Than You Can Shake a Stick At

There have been lots of awards and nominations released recently, and I've neglected most of them. So here's a speed round to catch up:

First: the Rhysling Awards for Science Fictional Poetry Winners

Yes, only a few dozen people in the entire world care, but the winners are among them:

Short Poem
  • First Place: “Peach-Creamed Honey”, Amal El-Mohtar
  • Second Place: “Binary Creation Myth”, Karen A. Romanko
  • Third Place: “Dogstar Men”, C.S.E. Cooney
Long Poem
  • First place: “The Sea King’s Second Bride”, C. S. E. Cooney
  • Second place: “Dark Rains Here and There”, Bruce Boston
  • Third place: “Wreck-Diving the Starship”, Robert Frazier

Second: the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award Winner

This award goes to a writer whose work has been unjustly neglected -- all those of you whose work is justly neglected will have to find a different award -- and is given in memory of Cordwainer Smith, a great SF writer who was never massively popular.

(For those of us who like smart, interesting books and stories, the Smith award is bittersweet -- it does bring a tiny bit more attention, but it mostly serves to remind us that these excellent writers are neglected, and will almost certainly continue to be so.)

This year's winner is the first living recipient, Katherine MacLean.

Third: Mythopoeic Award Winners

These are given by the Mythopoeic Society and have complicated rules that I don't entirely understand -- books that lose the first year can go around again for a second try, and all winners must be as similar to Tolkien and C.S. Lewis as possible -- but they exist, and here's the stuff that won this year:

Fourth: Shirley Jackson Award Winners

These are given for "outstanding achievement in horror, psychological suspense, and dark fantasy fiction" -- and, yes, nominees do get a handsomely engraved stone, suitable for flinging at some unfortunate person. This year's winners are:
  • Novel: Mr. Shivers, Robert Jackson Bennett (Orbit)
  • Novella: “Mysterium Tremendum”, Laird Barron (Occultation)
  • Novelette: “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains”, Neil Gaiman (Stories)
  • Short Story: “The Things”, Peter Watts (Clarkesworld 1/10)
  • Single-Author Collection: Occultation, Laird Barron (Night Shade)
  • Edited Anthology: Stories, Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio, eds. (Morrow)

One does wonder what kind of non-edited anthologies the judges have come across, that they feel compelled to make such a distinction.

Fifth: Prometheus Award Winners

These awards -- which were announced a couple of weeks ago, but will actually be awarded at Renovation, the Reno Worldcon in a couple of weeks -- are given by a libertarian organization but are for "pro-freedom" science fiction, which quite often does not seem to fit anyone's definition of libertarianism.

Sixth: World Fantasy Award Nominees

And, to bring up the rear, the nominees for the most prestigious award in fantasy:

Short Fiction
  • Vincent Chong
  • Kinuko Y. Craft
  • Richard A. Kirk
  • John Picacio
  • Shaun Tan
Special Award Professional
  • John Joseph Adams, for editing and anthologies
  • Lou Anders, for editing at Pyr
  • Marc Gascoigne, for Angry Robot
  • Stéphane Marsan and Alain Névant, for Bragelonne
  • Brett Alexander Savory and Sandra Kasturi, for ChiZine
Special Award Non-Professional
  • Stephen Jones, Michael Marshall Smith and Amanda Foubister, for Brighton Shock!: The Souvenir Book Of The World Horror Convention 2010
  • Alisa Krasnostein, for Twelfth Planet Press
  • Matthew Kressel, for Sibyl's Garage and Senses Five Press
  • Charles Tan, for Bibliophile Stalker
  • Lavie Tidhar, for The World SF blog
If the process is still the same as when I was a judge a few years back, the judges picked three nominees in each category, with the other two being added by a vote from member of this year's convention and the members of the conventions of the past two years. Then the judges either already have or are about to pick the final winners. (If you suspect that makes the votes of the members slightly beside the point, that precisely matches my experience as a judge.) This year's judges are Andrew Hook, Sacha Mamczak, Mark Rich, Sean Wallace, and Kim Wilkins.

There also are two Lifetime Achievement Awards given annually, under slightly different rules that I believe are secret (so I won't talk about them here). This year's winners are:
  • Peter S. Beagle
  • Angélica Gorodischer
Congratulations to all of the winners and nominees, and all patience to the WFA nominees, who know that the winners have probably already been decided.

What I Would Have Nominated for the Hugos If I Weren't Such a Goober

I was lazy and disorganized this year, and didn't nominate for the Hugos. (If I had known then that I'd be spending this much time examining and criticizing the nominees, I would have done it differently.)

So this post is pointless -- more than most of mine, I mean. But it's what I would have nominated, if I'd been smarter and more thoughtful and less crazed at the beginning of this year.

Links are to my reviews, which detail much more fully the strengths of these books than I have room for here.

I'm particularly disappointed not to see Shades of Grey nominated; it's a big, biting novel that both creates an amazingly new and intricately imagined world and tells an intensely human story. (It was published right as 2009 turned into 2010, but I think there's enough wiggle room that it would have been a valid nominee -- and it would have been a damn good one.)

And Bitter Seeds is the best first novel I've read in about a decade: tough, clear-eyed, and deeply knowledgeable about both humanity and history. (The other three books, I expect, will already be well-known to the genre audience, so my special pleading is probably unnecessary.)

Graphic Novels:
Here I have a much longer list, in part because I read more graphic novels than I do SFF novels, and in part because I think the Hugo-nominating audience could use a wider view of what's out there. (And I'm arrogant enough to think that some of them might be reading this.)

First -- and, again, these are linked to my original, longer reviews -- are the books that I considered but didn't, in the end, make it to my shortlist. They all have definite strengths, and others might find them easily Hugo-quality.
  • The Good Neighbors: Kind by Holly Black and Ted Naifeh. It's the third in a contemporary fantasy series about a half-faerie teenage girl and how she deals with the two sides of her family. The trilogy gets a bit teen-drama at times, but the art is razor-sharp and Black is great at getting right into the minds of teens.
  • B.P.R.D.: King of Fear by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, and Guy Davis. The latest in a long-running supernatural thriller series; possibly not as accessible to new readers, but part of a grand, intricate, compelling world.
  • Castle Waiting, Vol. II by Linda Medley. Quiet, nice stories set in a kind of medieval never-never land; Linda Medley's stories are just lovely and sweet, but never too much so.
  • X'ed Out by Charles Burns. This loses points for being only a piece of story -- like so many similar "trade paperbacks" from the big comics publishers -- but it's a piece of the latest darkly enthralling story from master-of-the-unsettling Burns.
  • Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love by Chris Roberson & Shawn McManus. It's not deep, but I thought this was a great adventure story, and it's complete in itself, unlike the available bits of the parent book (Fables).
  • Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson. It's somewhat high concept -- housepets, who secretly talk among themselves, solve supernatural problems -- but Thompson's art is utterly lovely and Dorkin isn't capable of ever being twee, so it all works much better than you'd expect.
  • The Unsinkable Walker Bean by Aaron Renier. Renier's art is amazing, particularly when he lets loose his really unlikely gigantic supernatural creatures late in the book, and his sad-sack kid protagonist is more interesting, and has more depth, than a thousand chipper can-do kids of lesser books.
  • Artichoke Tales by Megan Kelso. It's probably a formal allegory -- and not a subtle one -- but Kelso is amazingly good at writing about people and their emotional entanglements in a society torn apart by a bad war -- and her drawing is just as good at expressing what her people are feeling. (I reviewed this for Realms of Fantasy, so, sadly, there's no link.)
In the end, though, these five books below are the ones I should have nominated, and, in some better world, I have to hope that I actually did so. Some are pretty obscure, but all are distinctive, powerful works of imagination that both entertain and provoke thought, and all are, in my humble opinion, entirely worthy of the Hugo award: 
  • Meanwhile by Jason Shiga. Published as a graphic novel for young readers, this complex, multiplex story of alternate worlds, branching timelines, and doomsdays is a brilliant, touching web of stories that demands to be re-read and completely understood in all of its amazing parts.
  • Werewolves of Montpelier by Jason. The latest deadpan slice-of-oddball-life story from the  master Norwegian cartoonist is just as skewed and thought-provoking as his best previous work, and that's very good indeed.
  • Trese: Mass Murders by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo. Yes, I know that it's probably impossible to find in North America, and that it could never have gotten on the ballot. But it's some of the very best urban fantasy I've ever seen, set in a distinctive culture I don't already know everything about, with wonderfully atmospheric art from Baldisimo.
  • BodyWorld by Dash Shaw. A real near-future SF story in comics form, without jokes or space opera or any of the usual "comics" trappings, something like a late '60s Robert Silverberg novel done in phantasmagorical full color.
  • Revolver by Matt Kindt. And this one is another excellent real SF story with echoes of a great prose writer: a Phildickian journey through two alternate worlds, one going along blandly and the other getting worse and worse in every possible way, through the eyes of one "normal" man who lives in both of them.
I didn't nominate any of those works, and so I now can't vote for them. (Then again, there's no reason to believe my single nomination would have lifted any of them to the final ballot.) Next year, though, I'm going to be more organized earlier, and both nominate for the Hugos and talk up my nominations here, for whatever good that does.

(Or, at least, I'm going to intend to do so. We'll see how it comes out in practice.)

Quote of the Week: Knowing

"The fox knows many things; the hedgehog, one big thing."
 - Erasmus

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hugo Thoughts: Related to What, Exactly?

This is the last of my "official" Hugo Thoughts posts, since I've now covered every Hugo category. (Plus the Campbell, which we are all obliged to point out is not a Hugo, even though it's nominated with, voted with, and administrated with the Hugos.)

As before, I must warn those of more sensitive dispositions that I am exceptionally cynical after a couple of decades of Hugo-watching, and that my tastes are often both odd and inexplicable. I try to be as factual as possible in these posts, but I'm also hoping to be entertaining along the way -- and the way I'm most entertaining, as has become clear over the last five years of blogging, is when I'm honest about the things that annoy me the most.

Today's very last category is Best Related Work, the portmanteau container that has been tampered with over the years without essentially changing its place as the spot to reward something that a lot of Hugo voters like but which doesn't fit into any regular category. (In my observation, it typically goes to a work by or about the oldest and best-liked fiction writer available, with pauses to honor really, really popular art books once or twice a decade and the occasional super-magisterial reference work.)

As usual, this year's crop of nominees mixes apples, oranges, crescent wrenches, and shades of the color mauve -- but, then, that's the whole point of this category:

Best Related Work

Wolfe's Bearings is a large book, containing nearly all of his collected reviews from Locus for those five years, and follows the similar Soundings, which collected reviews from 1992 to 1996 and was nominated for this category in 2006. I read Wolfe's Locus reviews for that entire stretch -- I fell out of the habit of reading Locus in the last few years, mostly because I'm reading very different trade magazines these days -- but did not re-read them in book form. Wolfe is a smart, interesting reviewer, and only slightly hampered by Locus's general habit of never running reviews that don't contain some positive mixed in with the negative. He's certainly a worthy nominee here, though this is the kind of work that -- in my experience -- never actually wins this category.

The Business of Science Fiction is another book, reprinting a very long-running series of essays in which Resnick and Malzberg entertainingly (and generally informatively) puzzle through various aspects of the publishing world, from their own inimitable points of view. As far as I know, those essays have all appeared in the Science Fiction (and Fantasy) Writers of America's house organ, the Bulletin, so this is probably the first time they're available to a non-SFWAn audience. (Though there are plenty of affiliate SFWA member and some pass-along readership as well, so I expect plenty of would-be writers have already read and gotten good advice from those essays.) I don't always agree with either Resnick or Malzberg -- in fact, I'd have to say that, at least half of the time, I thought that they seriously misunderstood the situation they were writing about -- but, since I was on the editorial side, I didn't expect to agree with writers talking about their end of the business. More serious, though, is the timeliness of the advice -- I haven't read the whole book (which was included in the Hugo Packet as a Word document, without any prior publication information), but, as I've poked through it, I've found a number of direct references to the late '90s. So I suspect that this book reprints their earliest essays, starting around 1998, and that's a big problem -- the field has changed so radically since then (particularly in the last two-three years) that professional advice for writers from 1998 is less than useless; it's likely to be actively pernicious.

Chicks Dig Time Lords, a book of essays by various women writers about Doctor Who, is a deeply fannish publication, in the best and worst senses of the word: it's informed by a vast and deep enthusiasm, which will leave cold anyone who does not share that enthusiasm. For example, I do not share that enthusiasm; I haven't watched Doctor Who since the early '80s, and I lack the gene for deep fannish enthusiasm to begin with. So all I really can do is point at this and say "these women really really like Doctor Who, and have taken a lot of time and effort to explain why," without entirely understanding their love.

I'm reading the Heinlein biography right now; I don't expect to get it done before the deadline, but I do want to have a sense of it before I have to vote. So far, I'm dubious about Patterson's incredibly expansive introduction, which claims responsibility in the name of Heinlein for nearly everything Patterson believes was good and right in the last fifty years of history. And I have noticed that his footnotes, so far, are entirely rooted in Heinlein's papers and in the recollections of his widow, Virginia Heinlein. (I trust I don't have to explain why a biographer, working up his subject's childhood, should cast his net wider than the memory of the man's third wife, who married him at the age of forty-one.) So the early tests of scholarship are not as promising as I might hope. But I can't say anything definitive from such small a sample, and this clearly is a big book about a major SF figure. If you're voting, take a close look at this book, and think about Patterson's work, rather than your opinion of Heinlein's writing, or his place in the SFnal canon.

Writing Excuses is the shade of mauve this year -- it's not a book; it's not even anything written. It is, instead, a free audio podcast, available on these here Interwebs. I break out in hives whenever I try to listen to spoken-word audio -- seriously; I can't stand podcasts, or books-on-tape, and I don't even like talking to people on the phone all that much -- so I can't evaluate this in any way whatsoever. I'm sure it's a really wonderful podcast, full of great writing advice, but I could only stand to listen to about five minutes of one episode, and even that was while doing something else.

And if you can judge among those five very unlike things, you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din. Good luck putting them into a coherent list -- though, again, I'll note that if you don't think something should get a Hugo at all, don't put it on your ballot.

Hugo voting closes at midnight (Pacific time) on this coming Sunday, July 31st, so you have just over 72 hours to decide and vote as I type this now. Please do vote, if you're eligible.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hugo Thoughts: The Big One

I've been blogging about this year's Hugo nominees for the last couple of weeks, under the heading "Hugo Thoughts," in partial penance for failing to nominate for the award this year. (That means that I still can complain about the nominees -- there's no action or lack of action that can stop SF fans from complaining about things -- but that I feel deeply guilty whenever I do so.)

Today's category is the big kahuna, the one that makes strong men say "Fuck" unexpectedly in public. If any Hugo category is "the" Hugo, it's this one. And so this category should, by all rights, be the strongest and most impressive. Sadly, this year that's not the case:

Best Novel

I think I've made my feelings on Blackout and All Clear utterly crystalline through my many dismissive comments whenever those books come up, but I'll direct you to my long review for the full explication of my disappointment. Connie Willis already has ten Hugos, including two in this category for the much better earlier books in this series (Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog).

Similarly, Cryoburn is a late minor book in a series essentially finished by its author nearly a decade ago. Folks, Lois Bujold said she was out of stories to tell about Miles -- you should have believed her! (I was substantially kinder when I reviewed it a few months ago.) Bujold also already has five Hugos, including four in this category, three of those for previous Vorkosigan novels.

(This is the point at which I would accuse Hugo nominators of being lazy, and only thinking of new books by their long-time favorite writers, if I was to be as uncouth as to do something like that.)

I wanted to love The Dervish House, since it's the kind of book I usually enjoy -- a big, meaty, complicated sprawl of a story, full of unexpected connections and action that circles uneasily before rising into a big crescendo at the end -- but I admired it more than I actually liked it, in the end. (See my review for slightly more on the subject.) McDonald has been nominated for the Hugo six times before -- twice in this category -- and has won once, for a novelette in 2007.

There's nothing wrong with Feed that admitting that it's a particularly manipulative YA-tinged urban fantasy wouldn't set right, but, unfortunately, it keeps insisting that it's science fiction, despite the fact that it has some of the worst science committed in a major fan-favorite since When Worlds Collide. I will admit that I seem to entirely lack the gene that makes people enjoy zombie stories, which perhaps explains part of my reaction, but I just didn't believe in any part of this novel for a moment -- not the supposedly hard-SF zombies, not the amazingly futuristic blogging culture that's behind what actually happened in the 2008 presidential campaign, not the tired old political-SF tropes that Grant mines for her slow, limping plot, not a word of it. (I'm still working on my review, which I'll link here once I'm done.) "Mira Grant" hasn't been nominated for a Hugo before, but her other writing name, Seanan McGuire, won the Campbell last year as best new writer.

By contrast, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms looks very strong: the author knows what genre she's writing in, does it well, and even has interesting twists on some of the standard genre tropes along the way. I wouldn't have nominated it for the Hugo myself -- it's not really inventive or original enough for that, to my eye -- but I definitely wouldn't kick it out of bed for eating crackers. I read it happily because it was nominated for this award, and reviewed it a couple of weeks ago. It's Jemisin's first novel; she was previously nominated for a Hugo only once: last year for a short story, "Non-Zero Probabilities."

I think this is a particularly weak list of nominees, though one could easily argue that's because of my particular tastes.

Hugo award voting closes at the end of this coming weekend, at midnight Pacific time on Sunday, July 31st. If you're eligible to vote, please do -- and please do so thoughtfully, picking the works you really think worthy of the honor.

If you are voting for the Hugos, please look long and hard at what you're voting for, and, in particular, vote for the work rather than the writer.

Remember, in any categories where you're unhappy with the choices, that "No Award" is always an option, and that you shouldn't list at all any works/persons that you don't think worthy of a Hugo at all -- the instant-runoff balloting otherwise will reapportion your vote to a lower-level choice, and you may thus see a work you don't like winning. If you don't think it should get a Hugo, it shouldn't go on your ballot at all.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Hugo Thoughts: Shiny New Campbellian Writers

I've been running through the nominees for the various 2011 Hugo categories over the past couple of weeks, in hopes that this -- coupled with the magnificent Hugo Packet, which has nearly all of the nominated works, as well as many works by nominated individuals in the "people" categories -- will help us all make more informed and smart voting decisions. (That's the dream, at least -- I've spent more than a decade complaining that Hugo voters pick their favorites every year in a thoughtless manner, and decided it was finally time to try to do something about it.)

Today I will not be writing about a Hugo category. I will instead be writing about the Not-a-Hugo category, the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which is administered and voted with the Hugos but is sponsored by Dell Magazines, and has always been officially Not a Hugo.

This is yet another "person" award, given to a new writer -- in the field less than two eligible years -- for the body of work produced to date. The definition of "in the field" has typically been very parochial, allowing (for example) David Anthony Durham to win in 2009 even though he'd published five novels over eight years by that point. (So there may be a competitive advantage to making your reputation somewhere else and then coming into SFF, if you really want a Campbell tiara.)

All of this year's nominees are in their second year of eligibility, and they are:
  • Saladin Ahmed
  • Lauren Beukes
  • Larry Correia
  • Lev Grossman
  • Dan Wells
Saladin Ahmed has been a short-story writer so far -- a novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, is forthcoming -- which puts him in select company in this category. (It used to go more often to short fiction writers, back in the early days of the award in the 1970s, but only a few winners recently -- most notably Mary Robinette Kowal in 2008, Jay Lake in 2004, [1] and Michael A. Burstein in 1997 -- had only short fiction out at the time of their wins.) As one might guess from his name, he's of Arab descent, and has worked from that culture for most (maybe all?) of his published work to date. From his stories in the Packet, he still has a new writer's energy and focus, which makes up for the occasional new writer's shakiness. I think I've met him, actually -- SFF is a small world.

Lauren Beukes is a South African writer (journalist and editor, as well as genre fiction) with two novels out so far -- Moxyland and Zoo City -- and one major award under her belt already (the Arthur C. Clarke, for Zoo City). I've got both of those novels around here somewhere -- or maybe just the sampler for Zoo City in the packet and two copies of Moxyland -- but I haven't read her work yet. I'm pretty sure I've met her, too, at the Angry Robot party at the Montreal Worldcon.

Larry Correia is a writer I don't know; his first book is Monster Hunter International, and it looks like he's setting up his turf on the opposite (masculine) side of the territory defined by urban fantasy at their end. (And that novel is also in the big Packet.) Two Monster Hunter sequels are now out, and another series, "The Grimnoir Chronicles," is also starting up -- all from Baen, the SF publisher that really knows how to do books about guys shooting up monsters of all kinds.

Lev Grossman is what I think of as this year's ringer; he's been Time magazine's book critic for a number of years and his first novel, Warp, was published back in 1997. Yes, his first fantasy novel, The Magicians, only came out in 2009 (when I reviewed it), but why should that be the determining factor? If the Campbell Award already pits novelists against short-story writers, can't we at least insist that none of them have been publishing stuff for a decade already? In any case, Grossman's work is definitely strong, and he's otherwise a very strong candidate for the Campbell.

Dan Wells is another novelist; his first book, I Am Not a Serial Killer, is in the Packet. (It's a book I do want to read -- in part because my old bookclub friend Moshe Feder is his editor -- but I haven't gotten to it yet, either; I do hope to at least read some Campbell first chapters before I have to vote.) Two more novels have followed.

This is always a tough category to vote for, since it's the most difficult to read for -- to be really conscientious, a voter should find and read everything eligible that the nominees have published, and then try to decide which of them is "best." Add to that the question of predictive accuracy of this award for a writer's future career -- are you voting for the writer that's best right now, or the writer you expect to have the biggest, most impressive career later? -- and it's a real tangle. But, if you do get the Packet, you can at least read some prose by each of these writers, which can't hurt in your voting decision.

And, remember: the Hugo voting deadline is the end of this month, a minute before midnight, Pacific Time, on July 31st. If you're eligible to vote, please do so -- and spend some time this week thinking about what works and people are most deserving of your vote.

[1] Added a day later; see comment from Jay Lake for the reason why.

(And, once again, it serves me right for not checking things -- I have a copy of Rocket Science, which I just now checked to see it has a publication date of August 2005, though my fallible memory had it published before his Campbell win. He is another recent winner who notably did so despite the handicap of not having published any novels yet.)

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

We live in an era when SF novels like The Dervish House -- complex, immersive stories with many characters, set in a distinctive foreign culture and the near future, both crisply defined -- are no longer amazing or surprising; they're just another one of the fabulous things that modern SF can do. Ian McDonald has been particularly active in this area in recent years, with works such as Brasyl and River of Gods -- he has a real knack for writing about real people in the context of their real-world cultures, translated through the lens of a decade or three of additional future shock to contend with.

So I want to say that it's a magnificent achievement, full of brilliantly-realized characters and set in a unique landscape, with multiple intertwined plot threads that play off each other over the course of one hot week in 2029 Istanbul, leading up to a mesmerizing and thrilling conclusion. (It's what I would say, in fact, if I were responsible for marketing this book.) But it's not precisely true to my experience of reading: none of the characters really came fully to life for me early on, and I kept forgetting who some of them were until I got about halfway through the novel. The plot wandered around for quite a while, its several strands mostly unified because they each involved people living in the old Dervish House of the title (something like an abandoned Muslim monastery, I gather), and none of them were as compelling as I would have wished. McDonald's writing is excellent, but, sometimes, perhaps a little too self-consciously excellent, reveling in its own texture and bravura moments rather than telling its story -- the opening is a particularly egregious example of that; if you can read through the first two pages without wincing, you'll be able to read The Dervish House and enjoy it.

It does all come together in the end, though, and The Dervish House is far from the first novel saved by a big ending -- all of those plot stands and characters do come together for the climax, and lots of minor points that McDonald has strewn through the earlier pages become suddenly both very important and crystal clear. And we can forgive a novel a lot when it sticks the landing, which Dervish House undoubtedly does. I might not have nominated it for the Hugo -- I didn't read it in time, and I neglected to nominate this year in any case -- but it's the kind of novel that should be nominated, a big, smart novel that thinks about where the whole world is going in the near future and tells a strong story out of that thinking. I wish I had liked it better, but I wish that about a lot of things.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Hugo Thoughts: Stories That Are Also Graphic

This is the latest in a series of blog posts examining the nominees for the various categories of the 2011 Hugo Awards; I'm not in favor of most of them, as you might have noticed by now.

This is one of the newest categories in the Hugo armamentarium; it was instituted three years ago, and has had a rocky road since. (There are lots of great comics/graphic novels/manga out there, and even plenty that have clearly SFF content in them, but the people who nominate for the Hugos have had trouble finding those works, and there's a general feeling that this category is either still finding its feet or not long for this world.)

Even its name is a bit ungainly -- "comics" completely covers any of the things that could possibly be nominated here, but that, one presumes, was too down-market for we connoisseurs of the graphic story. (Pauses to look down his nose, over the pince-nez.)

And these are the very varied nominees for 2011:

Best Graphic Story

Witches is the fourteenth volume in a long-running series that has had great heights, but the current stretch is clearly middle, the kind of vamping that serial stories engage in as they work their way around to the next big story. It's smart and entertaining, but I have to assume this nomination is for Fables as a whole rather than for the bit of it that's actually eligible this year. And I do wonder why the volume number is not part of the title here and for Schlock Mercenary, when it is part of the title for Girl Genius and Unwritten Man. (I also reviewed Witches a few months back.) Volumes of Fables have been nominated in this category the past two years as well; it appears to be one of the few comics that Hugo nominators read regularly.

On Girl Genius, I have only one thing to say to Hugo voters: if you'd like to see this category continue, it's not in your best interests to vote for Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse. The last two Girl Genius collections have won Best Graphic Story, and, if that happens for a third time, it's quite likely that the category for "Best Phil Foglio Steampunk Comic" will be quietly shelved. A Hugo category has to go to different projects to remain viable. If it turns out that the only comic that Hugo voters read is this one, this category shouldn't continue to exist -- and probably won't. (That point is entirely orthogonal to its quality, and to my personal tastes, by the way -- though I did review this in a round-up last week.)

Grandville Mon Amour is the second book in a frankly entertaining -- rather than aiming any higher, I mean -- alternate history high adventure series full of derring-do, steampunk gadgetry, and dashing anthropomorphic badger detectives. I reviewed it earlier this year, and quite liked it -- but everything that is good and exciting in Mon Amour was equally good, just as exciting, and substantially newer in the first book, Grandville (which I also reviewed). On the positive side, this is one of the nominees that isn't coming back for a third go-round, implying that Hugo nominators may be widening their horizons. If this were prose, though, I wouldn't think it would be considered Hugo-worthy. (But I think that's the case for most, if not all, of the nominees in this category for its three-year history.)

Shlock Mercenary is an on-line comic, which is free to read right here; it's been nominated in this category for the last two years as well. Interestingly, the "book" nominated this year hasn't been published as an actual volume yet, though the storyline is all available starting here. (I reviewed this piece of Schlock Mercenary in that round-up last week.) The story is sturdy space adventure, seriocomic division, mercenary sub-division, of the kind most lovingly published by Baen these days -- again, not the kind of thing that typically gets nominated for the Hugo in prose categories.

The Unwritten is a smart, thoughtful piece of fantasy meta-fiction -- aside from a certain coyness about its premise that's an artifact of its serialized nature, it is the kind of thing that I could easily see being nominated for the Hugo in prose categories. (It, too, turned up in last week's round-up.) I don't love this comic, but I respect it, and I can see it being Hugo-worthy, which is good enough for me.

Graphic Story, if it's to last, really has to expand its nomination pool beyond the same things every year, but there are signs that this is already happening. I'd particularly like to see printed-comics nominees that don't come from the biggest publishers -- and I have a post in process about the things I would have nominated for this category this year, if I'd been more organized -- but, if it manages to go to something other than Girl Genius this year, it could well continue and blossom and even, if I'm being ridiculously and uncharacteristically optimistic, introduce prose SFF readers to more and more comics that they'll really like.

For those of you voting for the Hugos, you now have Six Days as I type this -- voting closes at midnight (Pacific time) on July 31st. So grab the Hugo Packet if you don't already have it and start frantically reading.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/23

It's time once again for Reviewing the Mail, the game show that takes place right in your browser window! I, Andrew Wheeler, am both your host and your contestant -- and, if things get any tighter around here, I'll have to be the one in a skimpy outfit clapping for myself as well -- and now, here's Johhny Olson with the fabulous prizes I might already have won! Johnny?

We've heard a lot recently about how difficult and sad it is to be the fan of a writer whose books only appear at multi-year intervals. And it is sad, certainly -- though it's only difficult for the kind of exceptionally limited reader who doesn't read any other writer's books -- but it does make those books, when they appear, even more exciting and special. I'm talking, of course, about Tim Powers, whose last novel was Three Days to Never in 2006, and whose next novel is expected (hoped-for?) sometime next year. But for this year, there's one of his very rare short-story collections -- Powers doesn't write very often at shorter lengths -- in The Bible Repairman and Other Stories, a forthcoming trade paperback from Tachyon. (In fact, it's so forthcoming that it won't be out until October 15th, so I may have to take my copy to Worldcon -- where Powers is a Guest of Honor -- to show it off and make everyone else jealous.)

It's time for the DAW package once again -- the three mass-market books that they publish every month, come rain or shine -- and what I notice first of all this time out (with the August-publishing books) is that none of them are anthologies from the dark satanic mills of Green Bay; all three are novels this month. I'm not sure if that's a trend or a blip, but, in either case, here's what DAW is bringing to the racks next month:
  • Omnitopia Dawn, the first book in a near-future SF series about a company that runs MMORPGs by Diane Duane
  • Path of the Sun, the fourth in the "Dhulyn and Parno" fighting-fantasy series by Violette Malan
  • and Water to Burn, second in an urban fantasy series about Nola O'Grady, agent for a super-secret US government society of psychics, by Katherine Kerr

I still have a copy of Cory Doctorow's first non-fiction collection, Content, on my frankly-unrealistic "to be read" stacks, but he's kept busy writing -- he is a professional writer after all, and professionals do tend to keep doing their professions -- and now a second volume, Context, is coming up as a trade paperback from Tachyon in October. I'm sure I've read a lot of these pieces when they originally appeared -- because, agree with Cory or not, he's someone you always want to read, and to engage with his arguments -- but it's well worth hitting them all again together.

And last for this week is the new novel by a writer I am deplorably unread in: Vernor Vinge's The Children of the Sky, which is coming from Tor as a hardcover in October. This is a direct sequel to Vinge's Hugo-winning A Fire Upon the Deep, which I have to admit I haven't read. (I haven't read a single Vinge novel, actually -- just some scattered stories.) It's unlikely that this will be my first Vinge novel -- even I'm not dumb enough to start off with a sequel to something -- but maybe, just maybe, it will shame me into reading something else by him.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Random Congratulations everyone getting married today: being married is awesome, and welcome to the club.

I particularly want to welcome all of the gay men and lesbians of New York state, several hundred of whom can get married for the first time ever today -- it took too long to come, but it's here now. (Well, not here -- I'm personally in New Jersey, where I expect my "family-values" governor would veto and berate any similar effort, as he does any attempt to be fair or compassionate to anyone.)

It looks like it's a wonderful day for a wedding, and I wish you all the greatest happiness and love in your married lives together. And I really hope more states follow as quickly as possible; this issue seems to finally getting momentum in the right direction.

Again: congratulations! Enjoy your day!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Hugo Thoughts: Dirty Pros (Artists)

Today in "Hugo Thoughts," I'll look at the Best Professional Artist category, another one based on vague body of work (supposedly in the given year, but, in actual voting practice, usually not). Since I worked in the SFF field myself, once upon a time [1], I know several of these artists and have worked, at least through an art director, with nearly all of them. And thus I'll probably be less sarcastic and dismissive than I am in categories filled with people I don't know; it's probably not my most attractive feature, but it is true.

Best Professional Artist
  • Daniel Dos Santos
  • Bob Eggleton
  • Stephan Martiniere
  • John Picacio
  • Shaun Tan
Dan Dos Santos did some great work for "me" back in my SFBC days -- "me" being in quotes, because he always dealt with our wonderful art director, Toby Schwartz, and I was just some editor he met once or twice. He's an excellent commercial artist, greatly in demand because he's really good at capturing the essence of a book in one of his luminous, energetic paintings. So, as a guy who sells books, I love his work. But in this category, with this competition, he comes off as the most conventional -- he does tightly realistic work in the post-Whelan manner, and I've never seen him do anything more impressionistic or painterly. He does have a sly sense of humor (in covers like Alien Tango, in this year's packet) and a fine design sense (as seen in Butcher Bird, an older cover), but the other covers chosen for the packet this year all looked like excellent illustrative work -- Dos Santos is particularly good, as Whelan and Don Maitz before him have been, with painting light effects -- but didn't, for me, transcend that category in those works, which is what I hope for in a Hugo winner. He's been nominated twice before without winning.

Bob Eggleton, on the other hand, has been nominated in this category twenty-two times before, and has won nine times. (He was what I think of as the default winner -- this is one of the categories, like Semiprozine, Fan Writer, and the old Professional Editor, that tend to stick to one person for decades at a time -- for much of the '90s.) He also sometimes does work more loosely, and I like his stuff best when he's smearing paint around, seemingly without thought, and really going to town. But his most popular work, inevitably, is the carefully-detailed retro space rockets and equally detailed dragons; the work in the packet is mostly in that vein.

Stephan Martiniere is something like the default "digital artist" for Hugo voters -- well, nearly all artists do some work digitally, but his work looks digital, slick, and utterly modern in a very influential way, and he's become quite popular as a SF artist along the way. He's been nominated in this category four times before in the past decade, winning once. Even his most representational scenes have a slight shimmer, as if of unreality, that I find deeply appealing and utterly science fictional.

John Picacio has been nominated six times before in this category without winning, but I'm sure he'll have a rocket before long; he's definitely qualified, and I think he's got the "fan-favorite" thing coming along as well. (The dirty secret of all popular-vote awards is that they're, in large part, about popularity rather than the best work, but John is a great guy and often seen at conventions, which I'm sure will put him over the top one of these years.) He's also got a great, distinctive, instantly recognizable style, which hearkens back much more to Paul Lehr, Richard Powers, and other artists of that era rather than the ultra-realistic School of Whelan. His Elric work, one painting of which was in the packet, particularly shows his strengths -- he's great with dynamics and stark, limited palettes.

And Shaun Tan is the most interesting nominee, since -- unlike the other four nominees, and unlike the vast majority of nominees in the history of the award -- he doesn't do covers for other people's books. Instead, he's a graphic novelist (or the writer/artist of books for readers of many ages, depending on how you look at it), who produced such excellent books as The Arrival (my review) and the omnibus Lost & Found (my review). I'm definitely in favor of having this category consider other "professional artists" outside the very narrow field of SFF cover art, as long as their work is clearly fantastic, and Tan's work clearly qualifies. Unfortunately, the only major work that would qualify him for this award that actually came out in 2010 -- the year in question -- is, as far as I can tell, the short film The Lost Thing (based on his book of the same name). And that movie may be totally awesome -- I assume so, but I haven't seen it yet -- but it's also already nominated itself in Short Dramatic Presentation. So I feel a little odd considering it as the reason Tan is nominated in this category. Still, I'd like to see Tan, or someone like him, win this category at some point.

All the nominees are clearly worthy, though my rooting instinct in this category is always to pull for someone who doesn't already have a Hugo rocket on the mantelpiece. If you are voting for the Hugos this year, please take a look at the actual works these five artists produced last year, and compare their actual eligible work rather than your default mental image of good skiffy art. (I'm particularly talking to you, the people who keep nominating Michael Whelan in this category a good decade after he retired from illustration.)

[1] And I'm still very willing to talk to anyone who wants to drag me back in.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Movie Log: Hot Shots!

Hey, remember when my two sons were crazy about watching "spoofs"? Well, it's back -- this evening, we saw -- after several weeks of mild nagging from the elder boy, Thing 1 -- the minor piece of cheese Hot Shots!, which I'd managed to otherwise avoid over the past twenty years.

(There are lots and lots of movies that "everybody's seen" that I never have -- even Top Gun, the movie this one spoofs, is something I only half-saw because it was on the TV at my grandmother-in-law's house fifteen or so years ago during some family function. That side of the family used to be -- they're getting better -- part of the great American tradition of leaving the TV on at all times, to keep from missing anything.)

Hot Shots! comes from the era when Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker was fracturing to run off in their own directions, but they were still all basically making the same kind of movie, and doing a decent job of it. (This one is from Abrahams.) It's a grab-bag of random gags, mostly based on Top Gun, but with Superman and Dances With Wolves and plenty of others tossed in here and there. It's all boy humor -- slapstick, sight gags, and the like -- and my boys mostly liked it, though they oddly had trouble following the plot for a while. (The plot's not complicated in the least; I think they just weren't paying any attention to the dialogue.)

It is indeed a dumb movie, but it's an enjoyable dumb movie, and so, if you have rambunctious boys around the ages of ten and thirteen, I can definitely recommend it. (They won't be sure what to do or think during the making-fun-of-9 1/2 Weeks sex scene, but that's OK: neither will you, since they're also in the room.) 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Comics Round-Up: Hugo Nominated

I recently read three graphic novels primarily because they were nominated for the Hugo in the Best Graphic Story category -- and I had them available to read entirely because of those nominations, since I read them electronically from editions provided in the awesomely complete Hugo Packet -- and here's what I thought about them:

First: I've tried to read Girl Genius several times before, and never quite connected with it. This is incredibly frustrating, since I've been a Phil Foglio fan for decades now -- I've got the full run of xXxenophile, every bit of Buck Godot that ever appeared (and I keep wishing he'd do more), the collected What's New?, and even his great Angel and the Ape and Stanley and His Monster comics from DC -- but it's true. And jumping into volume ten, as I did with Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse, didn't make the situation any better. (And I really don't want to blame Foglio's wife/collaborator, Kaja; it's probably just one of my blind spots.)

Girl Genius is fast-paced and packed full of characters, and smart creators know better than to slow down the action to re-introduce their characters all the time -- all admirable things, but taken together it means that this book is a whirlwind of people whom the new reader has no clue about, all running around, fighting and emoting at top volume, in pursuit of aims this reader is entirely confused about. It also often tries to be both serious and slapstick at the same time, which I didn't find worked terribly well.

In any case: in an alternate steampunk world with the usual vaguely 19th century feel, a young woman with the requisite Mysterious Heritage and Vast Latent Powers is wandering about, having adventures and trying to Learn More About Her Past. At this point, she's reached her ancestral home, trailed and/or accompanied by a vast array of villains, scoundrels, dashing adventurers, hangers-on, spies, henchmen, minions, ghosts, and other less definable entities. It does try to be both deeply silly and essentially serious at nearly every moment, which trick Fandom Assembled clearly believes to be more successful than I do.

Second: I've also read Unwritten -- a contemporary fantasy series written by Mike Carey with art by Peter Gross -- before, having read and reviewed the first collection, Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, last year. I didn't love it, but it had some strengths, so I was happy to jump into the second volume, Inside Man, for Hugo consideration.

Carey still hasn't quite articulated the essential premise of Unwritten yet, which is annoying in large part because it clearly is a premise: Carey must have pitched this series to DC, and he did so with, presumably, a paragraph of Neat Stuff that still, after a year of comics, isn't clear to the reader. It has something to do with fiction bleeding into reality, or perhaps that some people (like the Literals in Fables) can create worlds through fiction, but the peek-a-boo nature of the reveal is all-too-common in modern serialized comics, which always want to have one more shocking reveal up their sleeves for next month's solicitation, to keep the Wednesday Crowd coming back again and again.

But: Tommy Taylor is the namesake of the hero of a ridiculously popular -- and not at all reminiscent of Harry Potter, oh no -- series of fantasy novels by his father, and has been trying to live a normal life since his father's mysterious disappearance. But, of course, there is Something Special -- or perhaps just Something Not Right -- about him, and someday we'll actually learn that he's really fictional, or some variation on that. Right now, he's in a French prison, having been framed for a horrible mass murder by the Shadowy Forces That Don't Want Him To Learn of His True Power.

Unwritten is well-written and illustrated with verve, and, at some point, it will stop the tease and actually tell its audience what its story is. Until that point, it will continue to be somewhat annoying as well as being entertaining.

Third: I read a lot of webcomics, but I tend to gravitate more to gag-a-day strips than to long continuities -- with some exceptions -- and I haven't really gotten into the standard fannish genre favorites, like Gunnerkrigg Court or Schlock Mercenary. But I like to try new things, so I grabbed the just-nominated tenth collection of Schlock Mercenary, Massively Parallel, and dove into this incredibly long story. (Seriously: this took as long to read as all four of the other nominees in this category put together, if not longer; it's a dense, long, intricate story.) Schlock Mercenary was created and is still primarily by Howard Tayler, though he has some (unspecified) help from Travis Walton on this volume.

I don't know if it's Walton's influence, or if Schlock Mercenary was always that way, but this comic is a very close approximation in words-and-pictures form to a midlist Baen space opera novel, complete with tough-but-loveable mercenaries, a vaguely SFnal background that feels "hard SF" without ever actually having any science in it, a kind of we'd-be-rich-if-not-for-those-damn-bureaucrats libertarianism baked deeply into its bones, and damn-the-torpedoes plotting. There's a mercenary company in the kind of lazy pan-galactic medium future that you hardly see anymore in written SF, but they're fun, lovable mercenaries, the kind who presumably hardly ever take jobs to maintain order on company-run manufacturing planets or conquer small mineral-rich worlds in the name of their greedy neighbors. (And they're close buddies with the weakly godlike entities that rule the center of the galaxy, which is always handy.)

As the book begins, their ship breaks in half due to damages and stresses put on it in a previous story, and so they have to put into port to have it repaired. (No one is killed, of course, and hardly anyone is seriously inconvenienced.) Since relatable mercenary companies are always low on cash, they have to scrounge new jobs to pay for those repairs, and so they split the party into several groups to do several jobs. Tayler (and Walton?) structure the story so that each of those sub-stories is told separately, and an intrusive narrator continually gives us the ticking clock counting down to the moment when those weakly godlike entities will once again interfere in the lives of Tagon and his merry band of blaster-bearers, sending them into the final section of the story, in which all the groups meet up at the Gates of Doom to chuck a ring into a volcano (or something like that).

Tayler's art (once again, I'm assuming it's all his, and that Walton helped on the writing side) is serviceable but unspectacular, solid storytelling stuff with a slightly cartoony line but no real energy or verve. So the appeal of Schlock Mercenary rests on the story, and primarily on the characters. The title character -- a protoplasmic blog of something-or-other that looks like an ambulatory turd and has the most popular fictional mercenary character traits: supposedly ultra-violent and gonzo, but actually sweet, soft-hearted, and goofy -- is the best of this lot; the rest tend to have one trait which is endlessly reinforced. Again, it's professional and serviceable, and it probably all reads better daily in single-strip installments than it does all at once.

In sum: none of these three books particularly impressed me, though all are reasonably entertaining and all are clearly quite popular with specific subsets of SF fandom. Since I don't like them on a Hugo level, I clearly should have nominated different things myself -- and advocated for those books as well. (It's too late now, but I may still work up what I think should have been nominated.)