Hugo reading 2017: Asking the Wrong Questions, by Abigail Nussbaum

Abigail Nussbaum apparently has a blog called Asking the Wrong Questions, which is an appealing title at least.  She lives in Israel, and may be the first Israeli ever nominated for a Hugo Award.  God knows what sort of politics this is likely to add to the Hugo ballot.  Hopefully we’ll never know.

Nussbaum provides us with 6 essays as her Hugo Reader Packet.

In Ex Machina. Nussbaum talks about how giving robots gender (which always means making them female, since male is a neutral quality here) reflects anxiety about women and what makes a woman really a woman.  Nussbaum then looks at this through a trans lens – after all, the anxiety and feelings about gender that underlie the question of whether a feminised robot is a ‘real’ woman are not too far from those that underlie the question of whether a transwoman is a ‘real’ woman.  Also, of course, an artificial intelligence who is created to look and feel female has had gender (and its restrictions) imposed on it in ways that it might not have chosen.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, adapted by Russel T Davies is a fun review that makes me want to watch the adaptation.  Nussbaum outlines the (many!) problematic aspects of Shakespeare’s text, and then suggests, amusingly, that Davies’ solution to these problems is to present the story as if it were an episode of Doctor Who, which “oddly enough, turns out to be an endlessly rewarding choice.”  I’m not sure I understand what makes something seem like an episode of Doctor Who, but I’m amused by the idea. I also like her remark that “honestly, if you’re putting on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in two thousand and fucking sixteen and you haven’t made it even a little bit gay, you’ve done something seriously wrong.”  This fits right in with our Shakespeare reading group’s hermeneutic of ‘if in doubt, assume innuendo’.  I really enjoyed this essay.

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead Westworld, Season 1, and Marvel’s Luke Cage, Season 1, are all interesting and extensive reviews things I don’t have any particular interest in.  Nussbaum does a meticulous job of unpacking the ways in which racism is addressed – and the ways where it is left unaddressed – in The Underground Railroad and in Luke Cage.  She is particularly interested in the ways in which Luke Cage distances itself from the Black Lives Matter movement, despite being a show that is intentionally about black stories and about crime, and thus sitting squarely in a place where it could do a lot with it, and concludes that a large part of the problem is that the show is very loyal to its genre, and misses opportunities as a result.  As for Westworld, she doesn’t think highly of it, and definitely doesn’t sell me on it either.

Nussbaum’s article on Arrival (2016), and how it adapts Ted Chiang’s story “Story of your life” is perhaps my favourite piece in this packet.   I enjoy the way Nussbaum reflects on the choices made by the director, particularly speculating on which were made essential by the different medium, and which were less so.  Book and film are two quite different stories, it seems, but they both sound fascinating in their own ways.

All in all, these are interesting essays, though I don’t think my tastes overlap a lot with Nussbaum’s.  Definitely a worthy contender for Best Fan Writer, but I’m still putting Tingle first at this stage, because he is so much fun, and has, in my view, provided a real service to the community over the last year.

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