Hugo reading 2018: No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula Le Guin

Well, this is definitely the last of the related works, anyway!

No Time to Spare, by Ursula Le Guin is, I believe, a collection of her blog posts, and it’s pretty delightful.  I read her Earthsea books when I was a child, and they didn’t particularly make an impression on me, so I don’t think I ever read anything else of hers.  (My general impression as a child of the 80s was that Science Fiction and Fantasy was all either post-apocalyptic or too scary or weird and unpleasant, or all of the above [Looking at you, Z for Zachariah].  I think Earthsea came into the Too Scary category.)  And now I’m thinking I really should, because I like her writing and the way she thinks.

The book is divided into four sections, Going Over Eighty, The Lit Biz, Trying to make sense of it and Rewards.  In between each of these sections, we will have The Annals of Pard, which are stories about Le Guin’s cat, and are absolutely charming.  Clearly, Le Guin understands cats very well.

I’m not sure how to usefully review a book of short essays of this nature, so I might try to say a little about each section and just assert overall that this was really an enjoyable read – I like blogs which are well-written and eclectic, sometimes thoughtful, other times facetious and humorous, and this is all of these things.

Going Over Eighty is a series of reflections on ageing, but even more so a reflection on the way ageing gets viewed by individuals and culture generally.  The ‘No Time to Spare’ quote comes from this, as Le Guin is bemused and irritated by a questionnaire from her alma mater to graduates from 60 years ago asking what they do in their spare time.  Most of them will be retired; and everything Le Guin has done with her life is in the ‘things you do in your spare time’ category anyway.  It was a thought-provoking collection.

The Lit Biz was probably my favourite section, other than the Pard stories.  There were so many fun and interesting essays here – the ones about letters from readers (especially children) were hilarious, especially the letter from the poor child old to write to Le Guin by his teacher whose best shot was ‘I have read the cover. it is prety good.’, leaving both author and child with no possible place to go.  There was a fascinating post about Homer, which reflects on how he and others write about war, and how this interacts with and critiques the idea that might makes right.  She is very taken with the idea of the Jean-Paul Sartre Prize for Prize Refusal, and talks about prizes, politics, integrity, and the prize that she chose to refuse, and what became of it.  And she reflects on the idea of the Great American Novel.

In Trying to Make Sense of It, we get a more random selection of Le Guins thoughts on politics, gender, religion, belief, military uniforms, science and many other things.  I liked some of these and was less interested in others.  The Rewards section was similarly random, but more delightful.  I loved her comparison of a food bank to a cathedral – Our Lady of Hunger, and her reflection on a breakfast in Vienna and the proper way to eat a soft boiled egg, which almost convinced me that I should have a soft boiled egg for breakfast every day (and maybe I will tomorrow, at that).

All in all, I really enjoyed this collection.  I think I still want to put Crash Override first, because while I hate that it needs to exist, I am glad that, given the need, it does; but this will certainly be second on my ballot.  I’ll put Sleeping with Monsters third, Luminescent Threads fourth, the Ian Banks book fifth, and the Harlan Ellison book last in this category.

And so ends another category!

At this point, I’m hoping to finish the Best Dramatic Presentation – short form today, after which I have only YA, Best Series, Best Semi Prozine and the various best Editors to go.  I won’t be reviewing the Best Dramatic Presentation long form ones, because I don’t enjoy watching films enough to watch six in the next month.  And I’ll probably not write about the Best Editor Long Form here, since that’s mostly going to be me looking at the list of books they’ve edited and voting on that basis.

(I must admit, while I’m enjoying the Hugo reading much more this year than in previous ones, I’m rather looking forward to some nice, lazy re-reading of favourite romance novels once this is done…)

Hugo reading 2018: Crash Override, by Zoe Quinn

Crash Override, by Zoe Quinn is the sort of book that makes you want to delete all your blogs and internet accounts and go live in Antarctica. It is a deeply, deeply upsetting book to read.

The Hugo Voter Pack provided us with an excerpt – about 100 pages – not the entire book, which has the subtitle ‘How Gamergate (nearly) destroyed my life and how we can win the fight against online hate’, so I can only assume it gets less depressing and more inspiring as it goes, but I’m not sure I’d be able to read through to get to that point.

The part we get is the beginning of it all – how Gamergate got started, how it escalated – and it’s really terrifying. Reading it, I really felt her sense of helplessness in the face of the online horde (made far more frightening by the fact that it quickly grew into offline threats, not just to Zoe, but to her friends and family). Nothing is safe, really.

Clearly, she has survived to write the tale, and I understand that she has even started a website, http://www.crashoverridenetwork.com, that provided advocacy and support to victims of online abuse, so well done her, but I’m feeling traumatised just from reading an extract of her story.

I have no idea how to rate this. It shouldn’t be a related work for the Hugos – and yet it apparently needs to be. I didn’t enjoy it – but I don’t think I was supposed to. I’m not going to finish it, but I probably am going to put it at the top of my list and make a donation to the website, because nobody should have to deal with this sort of thing.

(Also, the PDF kept breaking my kobo, which started becoming a source of concern in its own right – had Gamergaters somehow infiltrated the Hugo voter downloads and put a virus in this document? Only time will tell, but I have to say, I was getting super paranoid.)

Hugo reading 2018: Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler, edited by Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal

Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler, edited by Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal, is not an easy book to review.  It is a collection of about 50 letters written to Octavia Butler after her death by people who were influenced in one way or another by her work.  The letters are personal, and also political, as is appropriate.

I have not read any of Butler’s work (it always sounded like the sort of stories that were guaranteed to give me nightmares), and don’t know many of the authors of the letters in this book, so the threads, such as they are, are very tenuous for me.  The Hugo Voter Pack gave me the entire book, which may not have been doing me a real service – I understand that there was, at the launch, a sampler booklet, containing two letters from each section for the reader to review, and I think this would have been helpful here.  Rather than attempt to review 50+ individual letters, or try to find some sort of narrative or argumentative arc for them in my head, I decided to choose, somewhat randomly, two letters from each section of the book myself, and review these.

And… that didn’t really work either. How do you review 50 essays by different authors, linked not by a theme, but by a person?  There are certain recurring themes – racism, representation, grief, politics, feminism, and the way these things are reflected in literature generally and the work of Butler in particular.  They are good essays.  They feel a lot like reading the sorts of blogs I like reading – political, left-leaning, concerned with race and gender and intersectionality and occasionally just really good books.

And they are kind of depressing, because the internal evidence suggests that a lot of these letters were written very soon after the election of Trump, and, unsurprisingly, the sorts of people who would be writing letters to Octavia Butler are also the sorts of people who find Trump’s presidency deeply upsetting.

This is, I think, a book to dip into, rather than to read from cover to cover.  I’ve liked the bits I’ve read, but right now, I don’t feel as though I’m going to take much more in if I keep going.  I may come back to it later.  I think I’m putting it second on this ballot for now, after Sleeping with Monsters, and ahead of the Ellison and Banks books.

Hugo reading 2018: Iain M. Banks (Modern Masters of Science Fiction), by Paul Kincaid

Having done one excerpt today, I thought I might as well tackle Paul Kincaid’s Iain M. Banks (Modern Masters of Science Fiction). We only get one chapter of this biography (Chapter 2, which mostly revolves around the Culture books), which is probably for the best as I haven’t read any Iain Banks and am unlikely to be a useful audience. It’s thirty pages, and I thought I could knock this one off very quickly, but oh dear, it was dull. I think you have to be a very engaging writer to write extended literary criticism of an author and make it interesting to people who haven’t read that author, and… this doesn’t manage it.

Andrew has actually read some Banks (though not the ones reviewed in this chapter), and he actually reads literary criticism for fun (why?), so he obligingly read the chapter when I gave up on it, and provided some comments.

Behold, the wisdom of Andrew!

Paul Kincaid’s book about Iain M. Banks appears to be a mixture of literary biography and critical history. It’s represented in the Hugo voter’s packet by Chapter 2, which seems an appropriate choice as it is largely focused on his best-known (and most strongly SF) works, the Culture series. Taken by itself, the chapter begins a little shakily as Kincaid introduces himself into the work and looks at a scattering of critical response to Banks’ early career – I assume that in the context of the whole book this would form the connective tissue between the first and second chapters, but here it just seems unfocused.
 
After this it reads more smoothly, with Kincaid spending most of the chapter looking in detail at the first four Culture novels (1987-1991), with some reference made to later instalments in the series. He provides a good survey of the range of critical response to these four books – one of the things I found most interesting was the difficulty some US critics had in accepting the viability of a successful civilisation developed along communistic lines. Kincaid also includes his own analysis of the books and contrasts the more nuanced ways in which Banks explores the complexities of the Culture with the more simplistic statements he has made about the Culture in interviews.
 
Although the book purportedly covers Banks’s work as a whole, both SF and non-SF, this chapter provides very little evidence of that. Espedair Street and Canal Dreams, both published during the period covered by this chapter, receive a few paragraphs each but are ultimately irrelevant to what Kincaid wants to talk about. Whoever was responsible for choosing this extract really should have included Chapter 1 as well (covering his first three non-genre novels) in order to allow for a more accurate assessment of the work.

I don’t know how to rank this one. I imagine it is doing what it is trying to do, and this is probably a worthwhile thing, and Andrew enjoyed it, so it clearly wasn’t a bad book, but it was fairly unreadable from my perspective. I sort of want to rank it above the Ellison book, because apparently I’d rather be bored than aggravated, but this is probably not fair. Part of me wants to leave them both off the ballot, but that doesn’t seem right, either.

Fortunately, based on Andrew’s review, I feel that I *can* now put it above the Ellison book, which is very pleasing, because did I mention that I really took against Ellison?

(All of this begs the question, how do we judge quality, in any case? Readability for the widest possible audience? Quality of writing – not a useful category when there is no actual bad writing to be seen here –? Personal enjoyment? I’m hoping that the last three related works will just blow me away so that my votes for these two don’t matter.)

Hugo reading 2018: Sleeping with Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Liz Bourke

I wasn’t going to do the Related Works in one big batch, but I accidentally opened Liz Bourke’s Sleeping with Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy on my Kobo and it was engaging enough that I kept reading.

For the Voter Pack, Bourke provided a 90-page extract from her book – the first two sections, I believe.  The book is a collection of reviews and reviewish essays, focusing on women SFF authors.

The first four reviews all talk about Susan R. Matthews’ novels, which centre around characters who do horrifying things because the situation is horrific and the alternatives appear worse. There is a lot of conflict between duty and honour and ethics in her work. Bourke’s reviews are tantalising – they make it crystal clear to me that I never, ever want to read the books, but she brings out elements that sound so fascinating that I wish I could. (Doubly frustratingly, the last, Avalanche Soldier, sounds as though it might be really my style – but evidently one simply can’t trust Bourke not to torture her characters, sometimes literally, so I’m not game to read it…)

The next three reviews are of books by RM Meluch. On the whole, Bourke wants to like them, but doesn’t – they have fun premises (Roman Empire fighting the USA – in space!), but many problematic elements – sadistic homosexuals seems to be a common theme; rape culture is another, alongside male gaze; and a certain background level of denigration of non-western cultures. Also, it sounds like Meluch hasn’t thought through the history that would give you Romans versus the USA in space, something that mildly irritates Bourke but would drive me batty… Jerusalem Fire, though, escapes these issues, and does sound interesting.

We then get reviews of two books she really likes – Slow River, by Nicola Griffiths, and Trouble and her Friends, by Melissa Scott. Both featured strong female main characters who were lesbians. Both went out of print shortly after publication and have only been republished recently. Bourke does not think this is a coincidence.

Part two is a lot of individual reviews. Reviewing reviews is beginning to feel silly, so I’ll just say that these were, by and large, books that Bourke really enjoyed and she sells them well and usefully – I got a good sense of whether or not I’d enjoy a particular book or not from her writing, which is the gift of a good reviewer. It helps that Bourke’s idea of a good book is character-driven, with complex emotional journeys and diverse characters. She’s more drawn to science fiction and darker themes than I am, but she writes about them very well and usefully, and, be it good or bad, everything she writes about sounds *interesting*.

Overall, Liz Bourke is a very engaging writer.  I enjoyed this collection of her work, and will keep an eye out for her reviews generally.

Hugo reading 2018: A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison, by Nat Segaloff

I’ll be doing the Related Work stuff interspersed with fiction categories over the next few weeks, because if last week is anything to judge by, this section can be somewhat hard work to read, because it’s lots of essays. And, like last year, I’ll probably give myself permission to skip a bit through some of the books of essays, just because there are only so many essays I can read in a row and get much out of them.

So, the first item on my list for this year was A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison, by Nat Segaloff (NESFA Press). I went into this with low expectations. The only thing I knew about Harlan Ellison prior to reading this was that he is a big name in SF and that he groped Connie Willis at the Hugos and then made a particularly egregious series of non-poligies. So I started with a certain bias against him, and that did tend to colour my thinking.

The introduction by David Gerrold did not help. It is cringe-inducingly fulsome. (Also, when translated to an ePub on my Kobo, it is in haiku. This didn’t help, and I resigned myself to reading in an incredibly tiny font again, sigh). There are, we are told, two Harlans: Authentic Harlan, who is wonderful and compassionate and witty etc, but only revealed to the Select Few, and Performance Harlan, who is just too, too, provocative and iconoclastic for words, but really, if you are offended by him, that’s probably a reflection on your own lack of understanding or whatever.

I am unimpressed. Frankly, he sounds like a tosser. I tend to feel that if you are only kind, charming and delightful to those you deem worthy, and are rude and obnoxious to everyone else, thenyou are probably not a very kind, charming or delightful person…

The author of the biography, Nat Segaloff, has also drunk the Harlan Ellison Koolaid, but at least provides more content. Though I found his cheery acceptance of the fact that Harlan ‘tests’ people by behaving badly and seeing how they handle it before letting him into his inner circle somewhat disturbing.

The Hugo packet for this book consisted of the aforementioned introduction, and Chapters 1, 5, 6, 10 and 16.

Chapter 1, “Morning in the Sunken Cathedral”, is about Ellison’s early life, which was characterised by a lot of childhood bullying, some of it anti-Semitic in nature, some of it because he was a self-acknowledged brat right from the start. There’s a rather illuminating quote from Harlan here:

“When you’ve been made an outsider, you are always angry. You respond to it in a lot of ways. Some people get surly; some people get mean; a lot of people become serial killers. I got so smart that I could just kill them with their own logic or their own mouth.”

I find this interesting because I was absolutely an outsider and bullied for most of my school life (and certainly used cleverness as a weapon, it being the only one available to me), but while I carry a fair bit of social anxiety and insecurity from that, I wouldn’t say I am particularly angry. Both Ellison’s reaction and the fact that he assumes it to be universal give a fascinating insight into how his mind works…

His family is dysfunctional in some fascinating ways; while his parents were clearly a unified and loving team, his relationship with his sister was toxic from the get-go, and it sounds like there was friction with all his parents’ siblings, too.

The other interesting bit about this section is that his childhood sounds pretty unpleasant, and he is still clearly very angry about a lot of people and things from his childhood (he is still holding grudges and making his childhood bullies into characters in his stories so that he can torture them in literary form), yet he describes his childhood as a happy one. This is an interesting disconnect, and may explain a certain amount about him.

Chapter 5, “Science Friction”, is mostly about Ellison’s attitude to writing, both his own and other people’s.  This didn’t grab me, but the most interesting aspects of it were his dislike for both the term science fiction and for genres generally (he views them as ‘laziness’ on the part of publishers and booksellers), and his very pragmatic view of writing as skilled labour, rather than an art form.

Chapter 6, “Teat for Two”, is probably the most fun chapter.  It mostly discusses his work as a film critic and occasional columnist.  There are extensive excerpts from his reviews, and I feel like he probably found his calling there – being a snarky, superior sort of git with a flair for writing seems to be a good fit for film criticism.  (Actually, this reminded me of the Babylon 5 novels featuring Bester, where he winds up spending a number of years living in Paris and becoming an extremely popular literary critic.  You don’t have to be a delightful person to be a gifted critic – it’s probably easier if you aren’t…) He also expresses his optimism about the human race, which is lovely, until he mentions that people who read romance novels undermine this.  Cheers, Harlan!  If it helps, you undermine my optimism about the human race, too.

Chapter 10, “The Snit on the Edge of Forever” is mostly about an argument about a Star Trek Episode.  Ellison wrote it, the director changed it, and it was interesting to read about the process of this, but having never seen the episode (or indeed much of Star Trek), it was a bit lost on me.

Chapter 16, “The Flight of the Deathbird”, is about ageing, mental illness, his stroke, and diagnosis with bipolar disorder. In fact, this is the most sympathetic chapter, perhaps because it’s the only time where Ellison shows any weakness – he is usually far too self-satisfied and superior for me to want to do anything other than throw rocks at him.

I’m sorry, he really irritated me.

So, here are some things I noticed throughout the book that bugged me, but which I don’t know if I would have noticed without the Connie Willis stuff.  On the one hand, Ellison clearly views himself as a champion of progressive values.  He was a strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, and in fact did a very public boycott of a state that was refusing to ratify it by living in a caravan during the convention, in order not to give any money to the state.  (Notably, this also gave *him* a lot of good publicity, which evidently didn’t hurt).  He was anti-Vietnam, and pro Civil Liberties.

His intentions were good.

But I can’t help noticing that all his most vitriolic criticisms – at least quoted in this book – are reserved for women, and they are just a little bit gendered.  I doubt he is conscious of this, but I suspect there is some baked-in, unconscious sexism there.   He also uses racial epithets like ‘Chinks’ – not viciously, but casually, in passing, when talking about going to the Chinese restaurant that his family went to when he was a child.  It’s hard to imagine that nobody has ever mentioned to him that this is not really OK any more – but it’s also hard to imagine him apologising or changing what he does for the sake of something as minor as someone else’s feelings.  He strikes me as someone who views intellectual superiority as the chief virtue, and doesn’t see why he should change his phrasing if *he* doesn’t mean it offensively.

I could be being unfair, but after reading this biography, I really don’t find myself liking Ellison any more than I did when all I knew about him was the groping incident.

I realise that this review is more about Ellison than the book, but the book is, in fact, mostly composed of quotes and descriptions of interviews with Ellison – it’s a fairly transparent look into how Ellison sees himself and the world, almost a memoir by proxy. In that sense, it succeeds; as a critical biography, it does not, since no attempt is made at criticism.  I’m not really sure how to judge it.  I think it probably does succeed in what it set out to do, but I don’t think it’s doing anything particularly interesting or striking.  And my antipathy for Ellison isn’t selling it to me, either.

Hugo reading 2017: Geek Feminist Revolution, by Kameron Hurley

And this brings us to the last of the Related Works, which is Kameron Hurley’s essay collection, Geek Feminist Revolution.  Hooray!  Or, as Courtney Milan would probably say, Huzzah!  Suffragettes!

I enjoyed this one a lot.  I was also rather pleased by the shout out to LiveJournal in the introduction, because I’m really very easy to please.

This essay collection is divided into four parts.  The first is about writing, and about being a woman on the internet.  Honestly, she makes it sound like very thankless work, especially in her essay about how persistence is the whole game, and in the recurring theme that yes, if you are a woman on the internet, people are going to say vile things to you, and while you shouldn’t have to deal with this, you are pretty much going to have to.  She also talks about sexism in the writing industry (apparently there is a perception that women only write werewolves and vampires, hard SF work written by women gets covers that looks like tampon ads, and of course the there is the predictable business about contracts that are less than what men get for similar work).  Hurley does talk about why she is still here, which is largely, I think, down to being inspired by Joanne Russ, and realising when she died that someone had to keep the torch burning, and that it was better when many people can share the load.

Reading these essays feels very much like reading one of the more fannish feminist blogs. This is probably because Hurley writes a fannish feminist blog.  Since I like reading fannish feminist blogs, this is right up my street.

I think one of my favourite essays in this section is called Taking Responsibility for Writing Problematic Stories. Hurley talks about a story she wrote where the only gay male character died.  She realised that this was problematic and tried to rearrange story to find a way that rescued the character without killing the story, but realised that she couldn’t do it.  So then she decided that she could at least improve representation of gay male characters in the story. But it still isn’t necessarily enough:

And though I stood there talking to the reader about all the things I’d tried to do both here and in later books to mitigate that problematic death, the gay guy still dies. I still played into the stereotype. And that stereotype still hurts people…

How we respond when someone tells us a trope or a story is problematic… is vitally important. It doesn’t always mean “Burn it all down”. It means this piece is broken and needs to be addressed. And if you are willing to live with that broken piece, it means owning up to it, saying yes, I know it’s damaging to people, and I own that.

I’m going to have to chew over that one, I think.

The next section is called Geek.  It starts off by and large being reviews of various movies and shows, rather in the tradition of problematic faves – pointing out misogyny and objectification of women but also pointing out where a show is good enough to capture her and even get her on side despite this.  I especially liked her review of Fury Road (which she does not, in fact, find problematic).  She does, however, believe that problematic stories – stories that are full of sexism and racism are economic dead ends.  Where there are stories available that don’t punch you in the face with things that you really don’t want, people will choose them.

The section then moves on to a collection of essays about gender roles and fictional characters, and what fictional characters are allowed to be.  Women, for example, can be strong, but not scary; they can be complicated, but not unlikeable in the ways men can be.  But men, while being permitted to be more complex, are also expected to cope with levels of violence and just absorb this in some way and not be traumatised it.  She also talks a bit about how a lot of the ideas we have about primitive humans come from 1950s fears and propaganda.

“Let’s be real. If women were “naturally” anything, societies wouldn’t spend so much time trying to police every aspect of their lives.”

She writes a lot of interesting things about assumptions we make about sexuality, including our own, and tells a rather striking story about how when she first had a crush on a girl she had no way to conceive of this outside a heterosexual narrative, and so she daydreamed about being male and thus able to flirt with this girl.  The idea that she could be a girl flirting with a girl didn’t cross her mind, because she liked boys, too, ergo she couldn’t be gay.

There is also a great essay on the importance of not becoming resigned and deciding that the world can’t be changed, which becomes a defense of dystopic fiction.  I hadn’t thought of dystopias as driving positive change – people see the place where they don’t want to go and are driven to fix things.  But you can’t have only dystopias, because people need hope, too.

“When you believe people can’t change the world, they win. Of course people can change the world. Who do you think got us here in the first place?”

Section three is called Let’s Get Personal, and it’s where we get a lot of essays about Hurley’s own life and the things that shaped her and made her who she is, from her weight and chronic illness, to her upbringing in a very white suburb (and subsequent studies in South Africa), to her life on the internet, both as herself and in a second persona who she created to be the things she couldn’t be.  This was one of my favourite parts of the book.  I especially enjoyed the article on Inspires Hate (which is a shitstorm I was never part of, though I knew a lot of people who got drawn into the many iterations of it, so I watched from afar as it all unfolded).

There is a particularly powerful piece on the Affordable Health Care Act, which seems both sad and timely in the current political environment.  I was also struck by Hurley’s view that tragedy is comforting to read about, because one can actually take the time to emote and have all the feelings that one doesn’t actually have the time or space for when one is actually dealing with awful things.

Honestly, this was the point where I gave up on analysing.  There were so many good articles in this section and in the final one, Revolution – on trolls on the internet, on reviewers and authors, on GamerGate and the Sad Puppies, and of course the wonderful We Have Always Fought essay – and it’s much less fun to read them when you have to keep on stopping to write about them.  Besides, at this point, I know that this book will be getting my top spot on the related works ballot, and you probably know enough to know whether you’ll like it too, so I’m allowed to stop.

Geek Feminist Revolution is timely, well-written, and I enjoyed reading it.  And I’m particularly glad I wound up reading it last in its section – it’s always nice to end on a high note!

Hugo reading 2017: The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fisher

Before I even opened The Princess Diarist, I was predicting that it would win its category this year. Princess Leia is such an iconic figure, Carrie Fisher seems to have been an absolutely lovely person, and with so many people so devastated by her recent death, it seemed like a shoo-in.

Having now read the excerpt provided in the Hugo Voter Pack, I’m even more certain that it will win, because it is really delightful – funny, insightful and a bit cheeky. I’m actually a bit sad that we only got an excerpt (a 60-page excerpt, but still), because it is a real pleasure to read.

The subtitle of this work is ‘a sort of memoir’, and Fisher based it on the diaries she kept as a young woman around the time when she starred in Star Wars.

The first section we get is Fisher reflecting on the suddenness of her Star Wars fame, and how she and her co-stars dealt with it. Apparently, nobody expected the film to do so well, so they had booked the three lead actors in for this rather extensive promotional tour which turned out to be entirely redundant. Fisher talks about trying to figure out what her personal style would be for interviews – Harrison Ford was apparently given to quoting from philosophers, something which Fisher, who had dropped out of school in year eleven, was unable to do, so she decided to take philosophy tutorials from a local university. But having done so she quickly ‘determined that to have two actors spouting philosophical gems to the moviegoing public was a bit much – a bit of smuggler monkey see, princess monkey do.’

“So after a very short while, I gave up on looking intelligent, thank God, and I continue that to this day. I would make it look like a devious plan when I seemed less than effervescent and approaching pedestrian (without a cross-walk). You couldn’t accuse me of doing a less-than-stellar job on the Johnny Carson show without my insisting that you had forgotten my telling you that that had been my attention all along.”

This is characteristic of Fisher’s style – self-deprecating, charming, and very much like someone I would like to be friends with.

She is also quite irreverent and not afraid to mince words.  The second chapter in the excerpt is called ‘Leia’s Lapdance’, which is how she refers to paid signings, talks, photographs – essentially the ways in which one earns a living by being an object of fandom’s adoration.  It’s an odd sort of piece, because it mixes a sort of fondness for her fans with what almost feels like contempt for herself for making a living from them.  There are lots of little quoted monologues – probably not reproduced exactly, but clearly quite typical in style – from fans trying to make a connection without tripping over their tongues, which seem both affectionate and a bit bemused – why are these people doing this?  And then she will say something like this:

“I need you to know that I’m not cynical about the fans. (If you thought I was, you would quite properly not like me, which would defeat the purpose of this book and of so much else that I do.)  I’m moved by them.

There’s something incredibly sweet and mystifying about people waiting in lines for so long. And with very few exceptions, the people you meet while lap dancing are a fine and darling lot…”

Fisher also talks about the weird realisation that she was a sex symbol (“It’s truly an honour to have been the first crush of so many boys.  It’s just difficult to get my head around having spent so much time in so many heads – and that time was of a certain quality.”), and the disappointment she gets from people on realising that she no longer looks like her 19-year-old self.

The final section we get in the voter pack is Fisher talking a little about Leia and her relationship with Leia and reflecting on who she might have been without Leia. Again, there is a theme of having been almost overwhelmed by her fame, and by her Leia persona, and resenting this, even as she realises that it was career-defining and career-launching.  There is also a certain amount of reflection on why, precisely, it is always the bikini outfit she is immortalised in.

So there you go.  I’m eschewing all critical thought and putting this one at the top of my ballot for now, simply because I enjoyed reading it,.  It’s just more fun to read something that is a coherent memoir than a collection of essays, at least for me.  Though I may yet change my mind and put Ursula Le Guin at the top again.

One left to read in this category, but you’re going to get some more Campbells first, because I’ve realised that if I read one more short story, that will give me my next batch of two authors to write about.

My goal is to finish the Campbells and Related Works Categories, and then I’m hoping to get through Best Novel and Best Series (the latter because I’ve already read three of the six series, and do not feel compelled to read more than the Hugo packet for the other three).  I think the films and TV episodes will be going by the wayside, as will the Zines.  Ooh, and I do want to read the Fan Writer category for Chuck Tingle.

All in the next nine days.  I may be a trifle over-ambitious here…

Also, I have to finish writing this week’s short story.  I’m doomed.

Hugo reading 2017: The View from the Cheap Seats, by Neil Gaiman

Hooray, only two left after this!  Which probably tells you a lot about how much I am enjoying this section.

I decided to bite the bullet and read the longest work in this section next – Neil Gaman’s collection of non-fiction writing, The View from the Cheap Seats.  It’s 544 pages long, and was the Puppy contribution to the ballot, but to be fair, this is almost certainly trolling, and I suspect it would have got up anyway.

There’s some good stuff in here.  I like the way the essays are grouped into different sections, starting with the basics, where he talks a lot about the things he values and his childhood and the bookshops he loves, then continues on with sections about writers, about music, about comics, about film, and about life in general.  There is a fair bit of humour in the essays, but probably the thing that stands out most for me is the palpable affection with which he speaks about authors and artists he knows – Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Tori Amos, and of course, Amanda Palmer.

But bloody hell, it’s long.

He starts with an essay called Credo, which is about the importance of ideas and of free speech, even (especially) the kind you don’t like.  It ends: ‘I believe that in the battle between guns and ideas, ideas will, eventually, win. Because the ideas are invisible, and they linger, and, sometimes, they can even be true.’

It’s a good place to start the collection.  There are some impassioned defenses of libraries and of reading and of escapist fiction – he quotes CS Lewis (an author who I really had not expected him to like as much as he does) a couple of times pointing out that the only people who are against escape are jailers.  I’m going to remember that one.

There are some nice anecdotes from his childhood – including one aboutf him reading Lord of the Rings and realising that it’s the best book that could possibly be written, which is a problem, because he wants to be a writer, and now what is he to do?  I also like his article about Halloween, and how it is an entirely different and creepier thing in England than it is in the US.  The article is interspersed with tiny, creepy, modern ghost stories.

I’m also interested in his idea of stories having genders.  He feels that all of his do, at any rate.  I’m trying to work out what gender, if any, my stories have.  I’m not sure that all of them have a gender, actually…

We move on to authors, and this section starts with an enjoyable piece about how photos of writers don’t show their true faces.  Writers can only truly be seen in their stories.  But if you see a writer writing, you might see his true face, and then you might never be seen again.

He then talks about authors and their books.  I especially enjoy his love of Diana Wynne Jones’ work.  He talks about always having to read her books two or three times to work out what she did, and comments that Diana Wynne Jones told him that children never seem to need to do that with her work – they read more closely.

I also enjoy his tips on how to read Gene Wolfe, which start by telling you to trust the text, because everything you need is there, and then in the very next line tell you not to trust the text further than you can throw it.

I especially liked his introduction to Poe, and was totally charmed by his introduction to Dracula, where he talks about starting to read it as a seven year old, then turning to the end of the book where he ‘read enough of it to be certain that Dracula died and could not get out of the book to harm me’.

I read books like that, too, only I’m 41.

I’m… a little uncomfortable with some of his introductions of people like, say, Lovecraft. He acknowledges the racism appropriately, but it seems a little too easy for him to set it aside and consider the positive literary aspects of the work. So that was a little something.

But overall, the intros to authors and their books are great – affectionate, informative, and with a real knowledge and love of the work.

I enjoyed his section on fairy tales, but his section on science fiction, while perfectly workmanlike, didn’t do a lot for me.  Bizarrely, I quite liked his reviews of films I have never seen and never will seen, especially his review of Bride of Frankenstein.  The reviews are very lively and thoughtful in considering what makes a film work and what constraints it has compared to other media.  Having written books and comics, some of which were turned into films, he has a very good grasp of this, of course.  Weirdly, I also really liked his essay on Dr Who, and a lot of his essays on comics, which again, I’m never going to read.  Bizarre.

My notes on his section on fairy tales seem to have been deleted – I know I enjoyed that section, but can’t say more.

I was unexpectedly delighted by his section on music, which was, again, a lot of bands I just don’t know and probably won’t see.  It’s particularly fascinating reading what he wrote about Amanda Palmer before he met her, and then after, and I loved his piece about the first time he saw her singing as part of Dresden Dolls, on their reunion tour (the band had broken up shortly before they started dating).  And Evelyn Evelyn, in which Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley sing as conjoined twins sounds fascinating and disturbing and bizarre.

There are a number of anecdotal pieces scattered throughout.  I liked Six to Six, when he was given the assignment of spending a night out in the streets of London.  And nothing happened, continuously, and for twelve hours.

5:40 – Ponder the touching concern in My Editor’s voice when I told her I’d wander the streets, her obvious worry that terrible things were going to happen to me. I should have been so lucky…

There was also a fun piece about going to the Academy Awards as a very unimportant person, a very serious piece he wrote for The Guardian about visiting a refugee camp in Jordan.

It’s a good collection, and a worthy Hugo nominee, with quite a bit of insight and moments that delighted me.  I like Gaiman’s voice, but that was always probable.   But I skimmed quite a bit of it, and I think if I hadn’t been reading it for voting purposes, I’d have given up early on.  It’s going third on my ballot, for now, after Le Guin and Harry Potter, but before the Silverberg.

Hugo reading 2017: The Women of Harry Potter, by Sarah Gailey

OK, I didn’t mean to read The Women of Harry Potter Posts, by Sarah Gailey, next, but my Kobo opened it automatically for me, and since it was only 25 pages, I thought, what the hell…

This is a series of five pieces that fall somewhere between essay and fanfic, each focusing on one of the women in the Harry Potter universe.  I should probably start by mentioning that I haven’t read all of Harry Potter – I think I stopped at the end of Book 5, because it was all getting too dark and depressing for my taste.  But I’ve read a lot of fanfic and essays about it, one way or another, because I find the fandom kind of fascinating.

The first story is about Ginny Weasley, and it is full of frustration and anger about being the youngest and the only girl and ignored and viewed as weak and nobody even thinking to notice that she is the only one who ever actually had conversations with Voldemort (which might, you know, be useful to the resistance).  I like that it points out all the things that we can deduce she is doing off to the side of the plot, and I loved the ending, where she marries Harry Potter ‘because she wants to – not because he’s earned her, not because she’s the prize that’s handed to him once Voldemort is dead, but because she’s decided that he’s adequate. She’s the only woman in the world who can look him in the face and tell him truthfully that she’s not impressed at all, but that she loves him anyway.’

Molly Weasley’s story is in a similar vein, and centres on all the invisible labour of women’s work during the war – making sure people are fed and housed, patching up the wounded, listening to people, motivating people, providing the necessary back up for the fighters, and in the end fighting herself.

We then move to Dolores Umbridge, and her story is a little more essay-like, and quite thought provoking.  Also a little bit too timely.  For me, the core of the story is the idea that Umbridge sees herself as doing good and working to improve the wizarding world and make everyone better off.  This, in particular, resonated with me:

We trust, often, that those in positions of power will use their power more for good than for evil. We trust in our systems: that those who do use power for evil will be removed, punished, pushed out by a common desire for good.

But then, we forget, don’t we? We forget that not everyone agrees on the definition of “good.” We might think of “good” as “everyone equal, everyone friends” while others think of “good” as “those people gone.”

The next essay is really a love letter to Hermione.  It points out just how much she is doing, and how much of a heroine she truly is.  I’ve seen a lot of essays on this topic, and this is a good example, but did not give me anything particularly new to work with, apart from painting her as an Everywoman in her overlooked heroism and emotional labour and all-round brilliance.

Last of all is an essay about Luna, which is really about the incredible courage of optimism.  I really liked this one, but no one quote sprang out at me, quite.

I don’t really know how to judge this against the other works in this category.  It’s very engaging, and definitely the most fun to read of anything in the category so far.  I enjoyed it.  I wasn’t bored. I got some new insights from it. And yet… the scope was quite constrained, compared, say, to LeGuin’s collection. It would make a handful of chapters there, no more.

I think I’m putting it second for now, after LeGuin but before Silverberg, simply because Silverberg, while interesting, was a bit of a chore to get though in the end.  And, in fact, I think it belongs there.  My main complaint about Silverberg was his tendency to forget about women… and this is pretty much the perfect antidote to that, bringing forward the female characters from Harry Potter and presenting them as the heroines of their own stories.