Hugo reading 2017: Jeffro’s Space Gaming Blog

Jeffro Johnson apparently has a space gaming blog and is published by Castilian Huose. Puppy alert! On the bright side, his voter packet is a mere 27 pages. I can handle 27 pages of puppies. I think.

The first item he gives us is a retrospective on “Song in a minor key” by C.L. Moore, and he starts by summarising the pulp ethos as ‘There is always a woman’. I raise a suspicious eyebrow, but I’ve never really read any pulp fiction, so I’m not going to argue. Yet.

… ah, and here we go. He feels that the romantic elements that these mysterious or classy dames bring to a story have been cruelly torn from him by writers of ‘serious’ science fiction, and of course by feminists. But pulp fiction has the last laugh, because apparently it is still being read today, whereas all this dull, respectable science fiction doesn’t get read because it ‘made satisfying the critics a higher priority than serving the reader’. This is because without these ‘romantic elements’ we no longer have human beings with human motivations.

Evidently, the only possible motivation a hero can have in life is unravelling the mystery (and, one suspects, the clothing) of one of these exotic creatures known as women. (Evidently, such an exotic creature could never be a hero in her own right, because what possbile human motivation could she have? She’s not even a proper human, really.) (Sorry, I’m feeling astonishingly objectified by a mere three pages of text, and it’s making me cross. Which is an achievement of sorts.

The next retrospective is of “A spaceship for the king” by Jerry Pournelle. His thesis is that Pournelle created what would inspire the jump drive of the most popular and best developed science fiction role playing game, which is apparently ‘Traveller’. I have no idea about any of this, and don’t really care, but it’s nice that he takes the time to be randomly insulting about The Force Awakens.

Next, our esteemed friend is going to tell us why short stories are awesome. Oh dear – is he going to put me off writing short stories for life? No, he actually has a reasonable thesis this time, which is that short stories give you a chance to speed-date authors without making a big commitment. OK.

We we have an article on why Joanna Russ Feared Heroic Fantasy. I’m pretty sure the answer is ‘because she is a mean feminist who wants to take away all our toys’. Let’s see… Oh, not quite. He quotes her talking about how too much escapism is bad for you, and then quotes lots of important male authors saying that this attitude is wrong and deluded. And then he uses this to explain that the world really needs pulp fiction or there will be no astronauts.

I’m probably not being entirely fair, here, but I don’t think Johnson is, either. Rather than analyse the rest of his essays separately, let’s just say that his theme is very much one of ‘can’t we go back to the old days when things were fun, and there was D&D and lots of action and mysterious, yet hot, women, and manly male heroes?’ And I’m actually with him on escapism being a good thing. I like escapist fiction! But he wants to escape into a world of Ayn Rand and John Wright and Lovecraft and Larry Correia. Or, more wholesomely, perhaps, Lord Dunsany, and Tolkien and maybe Asimov, but Asimov doesn’t really have hot chicks and is a bit too respectable, so maybe not.

It’s a world I’m not welcome in, and that’s fine, really. But I wish he didn’t feel the need to be so obnoxious about the places where I would be welcome.

i have a feeling Johnson is not going to go high on my ballot.

Hugo reading 2017: All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

All The Birds In The Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders is a strange book.  I’ve finished it, and I’m still not entirely sure what happened, but I think the author was deliberately trying to leave things wide open.

Anyway, I quite liked it, which was a nice change.

It tells the story of Patricia, a witch who can communicate with animals, and Lawrence, who is a brilliant scientist.  They meet as children and become friends, but I have to say, that whole first section of the book – about a third of the novel, I think – which takes place while they are children is absolutely harrowing.  They are both bullied, horrifically, and the adults in their lives keep on blaming them for the things that are happening to them.  Also, there is a random assassin who has decided that it is his mission to kill Patricia, so he signs on as the school counsellor.  This doesn’t help.

I was bullied pretty badly at school (though this was a whole new, horrific level), and I found this part extremely hard to read.  Also, beware – there is the now-traditional animal cruelty, though it’s mostly implied.  But I have a bad feeling about what happened to Patricia’s cat after she had to leave.  I do wonder why so many Hugo-nominated books are being sadistic about animals this year.  It’s like they think it’s the Newberry awards…

Anyway, once everyone grows up, it’s easier to read, if you set aside the fact that the world is clearly about to end – the climate is breaking down, and there are food shortages and all sorts of other things going on in the background.  But in the foreground, you have Lawrence, who is part of a team trying to get things sorted so that the human race can move to another planet when this one dies, and Patricia, who is wandering around doing witchy things at the commands of her witchy supervisors who, to be frank, seem to be rather awful and manipulative people.  She is also trying to use magic to repair the world they actually have.

It’s hard to describe this book usefully.  A big part of it is the central relationship between Patricia and Lawrence, who at different times are friends, strangers, lovers, enemies, and allies.  There is some fascinating stuff going on with artificial intelligence.  There are a lot of people who mean very well and do terrible things while meaning very well.  And the world is coming to pieces. Really, horribly, coming to pieces.  This should be a horrifically dark book, but it somehow manages not to be.

The writing style is transparent and coherent and lovely and so refreshing after Palmer and Tingle.  I like the way the book straddles the border of fantasy and science fiction, and even having finished it, I’m not sure entirely what side it comes down on.  I think fantasy – there is a lot of fairy tale structure – but it’s fantasy with a lot of technology and science in it.

… you know, it’s much harder to write about a book that I just quietly enjoyed.  But that’s how I feel about this one.  I liked it.  I’d maybe even read it again.  It didn’t change my world, but it also didn’t ruin my weekend.  It’s a solidly good book which deserved nomination, but I do sort of hope there will be something I like more in the mix.

Hugo reading 2017: Chuck Tingle

I’m putting all of this behind a cut, because Chuck Tingle may be hilarious, but he is in no way safe for work.

Chuck Tingle, for those of you who who don’t know, is a writer of very strange, very silly, gay erotica (for a value of gay that includes gay sex with dinosaurs, Starbucks holiday cups, and the Euro).  It does contain some science fictional themes, but mostly the reason the science fiction community knows about Tingle is that he was nominated by the Rabid Puppies last year, in an attempt to undermine the Hugo awards and show how stupid they were, and he promptly turned around and began trolling the Puppies relentlessly and hilariously. 

Continue reading

Hugo reading 2017: Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer has been nominated for a Campbell Award, and her novel, Too Like The Lightning, which is her contribution to the Campbell voter pack, is also nominated for Best Novel.

It’s a very creative, interesting, clever, book and I haven’t been so irritated by anything in a very long time (including the government and the NHMRC).  It was *infuriating*.

Let me start by saying what I wish I’d known at the start: this is half a book.  It ends with nothing resolved, a whole bunch of secrets half-understood, and most of the cast headed in the direction of danger and likely death.  This, on it’s own, would frustrate me – I have no objection to two or three part stories, but only if the publisher plays fair and tells me up front that this is what I’m reading.

It’s at least twelve times as annoying when you are reading a book that is profoundly irritating on many, many levels, but you continue reading it because the plot, at least, is interestingly convoluted and you want to know what happens.

I wasted a day on this book and I still do not know what happens.  I was literally gritting my teeth and reading because the style was driving me mad but I cared about the characters and what happened to them, but apparently I don’t get to find out what happens to them unless I put myself through another entire book.  You cannot imagine how furious I am right now.

So, about the book itself.  Don’t believe what the blurb tells you, because it bears remarkably little resemblance to the book.  The story is set in a future world where people live in households that are essentially a formalised version of chosen family, with some biological family thrown in.  At adulthood, one declares one’s allegiance to one of the world’s seven political/cultural groups.  These groups are, of course, in competition in various ways, but also have a number of more or less nepotistic relationships with each other. What else?  Well, gender has basically become a thing that doesn’t get used, except when it does, and religion is banned due to its propensity for causing war.  Instead, there are sensayers, who are part philosopher, part counsellor, part priest, and who are authorised to talk about religion and related matters to their clients, so that people can figure out their own religion/worldview.

The narrator, Mycroft, is a former serial killer of a quite lurid and gruesome kind.  The death sentence was considered too easy for them, so instead they, like other serious criminals, are sentenced to a sort of communal slavery, where they must work for whoever asks them to, in return for food.  They are one of the main protectors of a child called Bridger, who has the ability to make toys real – mud pies become food, toy soldiers come to life and protect them, and so forth.  This is a unique and potentially dangerous ability, and so Mycroft is trying to keep Bridger a secret.

And there is a hell of a lot of political manoeuvring going on, including dozens and dozens of characters, which makes me even more furious, because I’ve just realised that if the sequel comes out in a year, I won’t have a prayer of remembering who is who unless I read this bloody novel again.  Aargh.

So, why did this book drive me up the wall?  Well, first, the narrator is literally the most aggravating character I have read in a book this year, and probably longer.  They mimic an 18th century style, love to talk directly to the reader (and often have an imaginary reader answer them), and while they live in a world and are writing about a time where people are never described in gendered terms, they delight in referring to particular characters as ‘he’ or ‘she’ instead of they.  This is evidently a taboo, and one they really enjoy breaking, because they also have to draw your attention to it every. Single. Time.  And, most of the time, they do so by noting that biologically speaking, the person he has just referred to as ‘she’ is actually male, but some particular character trait in this person means that they view this person as female, or vice versa.  (Also, they have a very prurient gaze, which is rather unpleasant.)

I think the author is trying to make some points about gender, but Mycroft’s whole attitude of ‘ooh, aren’t I being transgressive by doing this, and incidentally, I’m flipping the gender around for my own purposes which are probably just to mess with you’ is annoying beyond belief.  It’s extra annoying because I like the idea of a book that explores gender in different ways, but really, all this makes me do is yell at the book and then yell at Andrew about the book, which is not really very much like re-examining my ideas about gender at all.  It’s enough to give one sympathy for the Sad Puppies.

Here is a particularly fury-inspiring example, which I share, because I suspect that if you enjoy this, you will love the book, and if it drives you as crazy as it drives me, you should be warned that if you want to get to the actual story, you will be wading through this sort of thing every couple of chapters.

+++++

Thisbe smirked. “I do have a life outside the bash’, you know.  I’m not a voker like Ockham and Lesley, I’m only on duty twenty hours a week.”

Certainly you too, reader, like Carlyle, had formed a portrait of Thisbe who existed only in that bedroom, drinking tea and waiting for the active cast to come to her.  But let me ask you this: would you have labeled her a stay-at-home so easily had I not been reminding you with every phrase that she is a woman?

Then stop, Mycroft.  Drop these insidious pronouns which force me to prejudge in ways I would not in the natural world.  At times I think thou makest a hypocrite of me simply for the pleasure of calling me one.  Had thou not saddled Carlyle and Thisbe with ‘he’ and ‘she’ I would not remember now which sex each was, and my thoughts would be the clearer for it.

No, reader. I cannot release you from this spell.  I am not its source.  Until that great witch, greater than Thisbe, the one who cast this hex over the Earth, is overthrown, the truth can be told only in her terms.

Thou hadst best be prepared to prove that claim in time, Mycroft.  Meanwhile, since thou insistest on thy ‘he’s and ‘she’s, be clear at least.  I cannot even tell whether this Chagatai is a deep-voiced woman or a man whom thou mislabelest, obeying that ancient prejudice that housekeepers must be female.

Apologies, reader.  And I know it is confusing too that I must call this Cousin Carlyle ‘he’.  With Chagatai, however, your guess is wrong.  It is not her job which makes me give her the feminine pronoun, despite her testicles and chromosomes.  I saw her once when someone threatened her little nephew, and the primal savagery with which those thick hands shattered the offender was unmistakeably that legendary strength which lionesses, she-wolves, she-bats, she-doves, and all other ‘she’s obtain when motherhood beserks them.  That strength wins her ‘she’.

+++++

This is a LOT of gender essentialism and misgendering to stuff into one little piece of narrative in a world that allegedly does not recognise gender anyway.  Also, gah, that style is ANNOYING.  I admit, I’m a lazy reader.  I like interesting characters and an engaging plot, and I object to having to work quite this hard to get to it.  I’m not absolutely slothful – I’m willing to do the work of understanding the worldbuilding and the neologisms required to navigate it, but I find the over-the-top literary style more frustrating than appealing, and the didactic, smug narrative voice and the relentless ‘gotcha’ games with gender are just making me want to throw things.  Probably the book.

Also, the narrative does irritating things like deciding to show an entire conversation in Latin, with the translation in English beside it, and then footnotes about the type of Latin used.  I feel that this is really showing off.

Anyway, for the first 300 pages, the book is worldbuilding and setting all the (many) pieces in place for the various intrigues that are going on, and then all of a sudden we are in Paris and we are in an 18th-century-themed theology brothel.  Where they talk about De Sade a lot.  And philosophy.  But apparently theology is kinkier and more tittillating.  There is also a random nun (not a prostitute dressed as a nun, an actual nun – except that the object of her devotion is one of the characters in the book). This is also about the point where the plot takes off, and I start feeling as though maybe there is a point to reading this book after all.  And I really have to ask myself why one would wait 320 pages to introduce this, when clearly this is what the entire book should have been about.  I feel that this was a mistake on Palmer’s part.  Though I do like the part where someone is described as using theology to incapacitate his enemies.

(SERIOUSLY WHY ARE WE NOT SPENDING THE ENTIRE BOOK IN THE 18TH CENTURY THEMED THEOLOGY BROTHEL???  WHY???)

And then we have enormous amounts of plot and everything starts building to crisis point – and that’s the end of the book, and I screamed in fury and really did throw the book at the wall.

I have no idea how to rank this, either for the Campbells or the Best Novel.  I don’t think it *can* be a best novel, because it is only half a novel.  But 18th century theology brothels in Paris really ought to be encouraged.  On the other hand, really, really irritating narrators and books that are only half books should not be encouraged.  As for the Campbells – I think that technically speaking, Palmer is the most able writer on that list.  But I’m so utterly frustrated by this book that I don’t want to put her first.

Gah.  I’m going to read the Chuck Tingle entry next, as a palate cleanser.  Pure silliness, and if nothing else, I can trust him to actually finish a story, rather than making me work that hard for no good result.

Hugo reading 2017: Malka Older

Malka Older was nominated for a Campbell Award, and has provided the Hugo voters with three short stories and a full-length novel.

The first story is called Tear Tracks, and it’s a first contact with alien story.  Quite a nice, anthropological sort of story about cultural differences with a naive but enthusiastic heroine who nonetheless has a nice professional relationship with her partner on the mission.  It’s a good story, but not subtle, and it ends rather suddenly.

The Black Box is an odd sort of story, and I didn’t quite understand what Older was trying to do with it.  It’s near-future, in a world where children can get a memory chip ‘lifebrarian’ installed in their brains to record their lives.  They can replay events when they choose; others can also replay events stored on the chip with their permission.  The story seems to be about how growing up with such a chip affects you.  Again, it ends quite suddenly.  I felt as though it was trying to be ironic but did not work.

Rupture returns to Older’s fascination with anthropology, and is, I think, the best of the three stories, though it has yet another abrupt ending.  Perhaps this is simply her style?  In this story the planet Earth is slowly coming apart, and most of its inhabitants have emigrated to other planets.  But some people still live there, and a descendant of some of the immigrants decides to visit Earth to work as an anthropologist and study why people stay.  I really liked the characterisation in this, and the awareness of cultural assumptions.

The novel is called Infomocracy and it is… intense.  And fascinating.  It’s a political thriller set in a future world which is divided into microdemocracies.  Essentially, the world is divided into ‘centenals’ (electorates or communities) of 100,000 people, and everyone in the world can vote for any political party in the world.  Whichever party your centenal votes for is the one that governs you, which means that you might share the same laws and culture and government as the centenal next door, or you might not, but you probably also share your laws with a bunch of centenals in Europe, maybe a handful in the US (but probably not many, they tend to still vote Democrat or Republican), a bunch in Africa, a lot in East Asia, and so forth.  Obviously, in larger cities this can be a bit impractical, so practical coalitions form between neighbouring centenals to manage things like lighting and public transport, but in the main, your life is dictated by your specific government.

It’s a fascinating system of government, and I kind of want it.  But of course, it is also rather flawed.  Many of the governments are in fact corporations – Phillip Morris governs a good chunk of centenals, for example – and whichever government has the supermajority can make rather broader laws than anyone else.   For the last twenty years, the supermajority has been held by Heritage.

Our protagonists are Ken, who works for Policy1st, a party that is trying to be about policies rather than personalities, and is doing OK, but not brilliantly, and Mishima, who works for Information.  Information is not a political party – it is part centralised news service, part fact-checker, part library, part Facebook mated with Google and gone metastatic, and basically central to everyone’s life.  There are also two slightly less central viewpoint characters, Domaine, who thinks that the whole system of microdemocracies is fundamentally flawed and that nobody should vote, and Yoriko, a spy for Policy1st.

And they are all in the lead up to an important election, which someone – perhaps more than one someone – is trying to steal, or maybe disrupt, or maybe prevent entirely.

The plotting and counterplotting is well worked out, and I enjoyed the characters and how their view of the system evolves over time.  I also liked the gentle and less gentle prods at our current system (one villainous character starts manipulating the Information at one point, providing contradictory stories to different groups, and cheerfully states that he will get away with it, because people in those different groups don’t talk to each other or view the same information sources anyway…).  It’s extremely clever, and a fascinating extrapolation of our current political system.

The book moves at a breathless pace and felt a lot like watching the entire US election campaign from the standpoint of Facebook while also reading and writing all my blog posts about microparties.  It is *relentless*.  I am as big a politics geek as the next person (as this blog will attest), but possibly not enough for this book.  I was exhausted by the end of it.  But also quite impressed.  I’m not quite the right audience for this book – I’m not hugely into political thrillers – but it was really extremely well done, and I couldn’t put it down.

I liked Older’s work a lot (and also, she didn’t kill any animals which was a VERY PLEASANT CHANGE), though I’m not entirely sure that she has mastered the short story length.  Her fascination with anthropology and politics and how people work was something that I enjoyed very much; it was also noticeable that when her stories were taking place on earth, they tended to be in South East Asia, India, and the middle east much more than Europe or the US (though there was some nice Paris stuff in Infomocracy).  Lots of Asian characters, and lots of diversity generally, which was a nice change.

I think I’m going to put her at the top of my ballot for now, just for the wonderfully compelling world building in Infomocracy.  Which I’m slightly coveting as a political system, because given where I live, I would TOTALLY be ruled by greenie socialists, and I could definitely go for that.

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: Haunted, by Sarah Gailey

Sarah Gailey was nominated for a Campbell award, and provided one short story, Haunted, which came with a content note for domestic violence.  This does not sound promising, but here goes…

The story is written from the point of view of the house in which it happened.  At first, the house identifies strongly with the victim, Marthe, who loved the house, and eventually haunts it, but as time goes by, the house begins to feel trapped and resentful of the ghost which keeps anyone else from moving in, and keeps the house itself from moving on. This is straight horror, with some very good writing. I like this, especially:

He always kept his shoes on.  I should have known, just from that.  He treated the wood on the floors the same as he treated the dirt outside, the same as he treated his wife.

I liked this story far more than I expected to.  I’m not quite sure how to rank it compared to the others (it’s difficult when you are comparing three or four works with just one work), but I think I’ll be putting it second, after Penny, but before Robson.

Hugo reading 2017: Kelly Robson

Kelly Robson provided three stories for the Hugo Voting Packet – two shorts, and one novelette.  Her work is quite explicitly feminist, and tends to revolve around themes of parenting.

In Waters of Versailles, we have Sylvain, who has tamed a nixie, mostly by accident, and is using her to advance his prestige in the court by making water closets and fountains.  This story did a very good job of showing the politics and rivalries of the court, and had a very strong sense of place and time, but for some reason it didn’t grab me.  I did like the way Sylvain went from viewing the nixie as an animal and a pest to viewing her as a child who he needed to protect.  Warning for animal cruelty (monkey death – inadvertant, but fairly brutal).

Two Year Man drove me right up the wall.  It was set in a future dystopia where one’s status, salary, and the jobs one can do are linked to how many years one spent fighting the war.  And I don’t think one gets a choice about how long one is sent for.  The hero of this story is a two year man, which is very low status.  He has a cleaning job in a lab where they cook up babies, some of whom are not quite right – it’s hard to tell whether they are deliberately cooking up designer babies and getting it wrong sometimes, or whether there is a high mutation level in this society.  Anyway, he rescues a baby with a beak from the trash can and brings it home to his wife.  So far, so endearing – he clearly adores the baby, and his wife, and is delighted at the idea of being a father and making this family work.

Except that his wife explicitly married him because she did not want children.  But that’s OK – he concludes that she’s obviously broken, poor thing, but love will fix her.  He also concludes that she will probably throw the child in the trash while he is out, but that’s OK too, because he’ll find another one, and will keep bringing them home until his wife is Fixed.  Which is appalling on too many levels to count, really…  I do think it’s a good story, though.  It couldn’t have upset and frustrated me quite this much in quite this way if it hadn’t been.

The third and final story was called the Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill, and it has all the triggers.  There is an extremely graphic and brutal rape.  There is suicide.  There is repeated death.  There are alien parasites who are trying to cure her, but who are also trying to manipulate her.  There is racism.  There are parent figures and teachers who just couldn’t give a damn about any of this.

It’s horrible all around, and I did not need to read it.  I wish I hadn’t.

In conclusion, then, we have three stories by Robson.  One, I quite liked, and really should have liked more, but ultimately it didn’t grab me. One was deliberately aggravating and horrifying, but what the author was doing was clever enough that I could appreciate it.  And one was an absolute horror and I really wish I could unread it.  She goes above Mulrooney on the ballot, but she’s certainly not going to the top.  That last story was really unpleasant and is largely the reason I dived back into romance novels and stopped reading Hugo ballot nominees for the last month.

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: Novelette category

The first novelette I read was You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay, by Alyssa Wong.  It’s a bit of a strange one to read – it’s written in the second person, which I find a little uncomfortable, and it’s sort of a Western, only with magic.  Specifically, the desert is full of dead things that are walking, and the protagonist can make the bones of the dead come together and walk, too, often without meaning to (for example, the chicken being prepared for dinner…).  It’s a bit of a coming of age story, and it’s fairly sad, and fairly dark. By the end of it, a lot has been lost, but something has been gained, too.

It’s good, but I wouldn’t want to re-read it.

I then moved onto the Puppy Special, which is that edifying work by Styx Hiscock known as Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex. This was clearly an attempt to get back at WorldCon / Chuck Tingle after last year’s Puppy nomination of Tingle backfired on them.

Honestly, I thought this was going to be another distasteful Puppy parody, and was expecting misogyny and rapiness.  In fact, while there is some fairly bad writing in there (Hiscock suffers from a terrible case of adjectivitis, and periodically switches tense mid-sentence), it’s all quite enthusiastically consensual, and clearly being written by someone with a sense of humour and an awareness that the premise is entirely ridiculous.

Let’s see if I can give you a slightly serious review of this…

The heroine is from the planet Fylashio (I feel certain that the author worked hard on that one), and is working as a stripper to earn quick money in order to fix her spaceship, which has broken down.  You need to know that she is bright green and has three breasts that discharge laser ejaculations when she has an orgasm.

The T-Rex at first appears to be judgmental, but turns out to be rather sweet, and with a Tragic Past.  The brontosaurus girl whom he loved died, and things have never been the same for him.

My personal favourite bit in the story is where our alien sympathetically asks him what happened to her, and he replies:

“A, um… a meteor got her… And my family… And friends… My neighbours… My church group… My dentist… My weed dealer…. Pretty much everyone I knew, actually…”

There is much to love in that sentence, as I think we can all agree.

I’m not entirely convinced there is enough here to raise it above No Award, and I don’t think it achieves entirely what the author is aiming for. For one thing, it can’t quite decide whether it is slut-shamey or not (it is, I think, trying not to be, but not entirely succeeding). There is some truly bad writing in places – so many adjectives, and a fair bit of repetition in words and phrases – but on the other hand I have definitely read worse-written sex scenes than the ones in this story, and I did quite enjoy the way the author was rejoicing in the sheer ridiculousness of the whole thing.

I would also note that my research indicates that Hiscock is, in fact, a woman, a legitimate author of SF erotica, and not puppy adjacent.  This might explain why it is that her jokes are actually funny.  I’m thinking I might put her last in the novelettes, assuming there isn’t a truly terrible one to come, but keep her above No Award, since she is clearly being used by the Puppies rather than being a Puppy herself.  And also because I did, in fact, find this story quite fun.  Terrible, but fun.

The third novelette I read was The Jewel and her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde.  This is a high fantasy story, in which the Jewels are royalty, and their Lapidaries are bound courtiers who can speak to jewels and use them to magically defend against enemies, or calm the distressed, or put people to sleep.  The relationship is a symbiotic one – the Lapidaries require their vows and bindings in order not to be driven mad by the gemstones, and the Jewels require the power the Lapidaries bring them.

This story starts by making it clear (via a guidebook extract) that the Jewels and their Lapidaries are all gone, and were in fact killed off some time ago, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this is not a cheery story.  It starts with a palace coup, in which the King’s Lapidary goes gem-mad and betrays him, killing the entire court and then himself, and leaving only the youngest Jewel and her Lapidary alive.

Lin, the Jewel, was never intended to rule, so she was trained only to be a good wife to the prince of another kingdom.  Her Lapidary, Sima, who is three years older than her, is likewise quite weak and under-trained, which is one reason she was bound to a relatively unimportant princess.  But the two of them are all the kingdom now has, and so two teenage girls have to thwart the invading general who wants to marry Lin to her son so that he can take the throne, and take over the kingdom.

I love the relationship between Sima and Lin. Sima is at different times servant, guardian and nursemaid to Lin, and their relationship becomes more equal as the story progresses, with the balance of power tipping one way, then the other, between them.  It is, above all, a very strong friendship, with each trying to protect each other, and each holding an even higher loyalty to the kingdom itself.  I also love the way both girls slowly realise the power they have over the course of the story – not because they have had no power before, but because they have not been required to use it to its fullest degree.

The story feels a lot like a chess game, and I do not understand all of the moves.  I feel as though there is a lot of worldbuilding in the background that doesn’t always make its way quite enough into the foreground to be intelligible, at least to me.  But there is something very vivid about this world, that I think makes it quite compelling, and clearly puts it at the top of my novelette ballot so far.

At the halfway point of this category, I’m feeling unexpectedly heartened, mostly because I really was expecting the Hiscock to be like some of the nauseatingly awful puppy food from last year, and since it wasn’t, everything is just lighter and better!  I do hope that at least some of the novelettes or Campbells will strive for cheerier storylines, however.  I feel like I’m reading a lot of depressing things in a row at present…

Touring with the Alien, by Caroline Ives Gilman, is weird. The aliens have come to earth, but all they do is sit there in their pods. They have translators – children they abducted from Earth and raised, and with whom they seem to be in a symbiotic relationship – but the translators don’t say much and don’t really understand how to be human anyway.

In this story, the protagonist is asked by the government to take an alien and his translator on a tour of the country, with no particular destination. And I don’t really know how to describe the story further. The alien is really very alien, which is good, and there is a lot of discussion about what it means to be conscious and whether this is even important. There is also animal cruelty because apparently the unofficial theme of this year’s Hugo Awards is Let’s Traumatise Catherine By Doing Terrible Things To Cats.

It’s an interesting science fictiony story with some very lovely writing, and I didn’t like it.

The Art of Space Travel, by Nina Allan, was much more to my taste.  It’s only just barely science fiction, and is about the daughter of a physicist who was involved with planning the first voyage to Mars and in analysing the debris when it exploded over Heathrow.  Now there is another trip to Mars planned, and two of the astronauts are coming to visit the hotel at which the heroine works.

This was mostly a story about family, and identity, and history, though there were some interesting little moments, like when the heroine is thinking about the fact that one of the astronauts has two young children, and yet she is choosing to go on a voyage which she will not come back from and which is likely to shorten her life significantly.  The heroine is also trying to figure out the identity of her own father, who might or might not have been on the first, disastrous, Mars voyage, and her mother is dying of a mysterious illness that was probably caused by her work on all the radioactive debris from the first mission.

I’m not sure that a lot happens in this story, and the SFF connection is somewhat tenuous, but it was a relief to read after so many fairly grim stories, so it’s going to go high on my ballot.

I saved The Tomato Thief, by Ursula Vernonfor last, since I always enjoy Vernon’s work, and was pretty confident that this one would be just as much fun.  And it was.  The Tomato Thief is a cranky, subversive fairy tale about an old woman who is more than she seems to be, who lives in the desert and is tired of having her tomatoes stolen, so she lies in wait to find out who is doing the deed.  The answer to this question leads to entirely new questions, and also a quest, with all the proper elements done in Vernon’s lovely, dry, affectionate style.  Her fairy tales are always very concrete and grounded, and her characters are entirely and stubbonly themselves.  The protagonist in this story – I’m not sure we ever learn her name – reminds me a bit of Old Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, which is never a bad thing.

I definitely enjoyed Vernon’s story more than any others in this category though Wilde’s may actually be the better story.  I can’t tell if Wilde’s worldbuilding is actually more complex and interesting or if it’s just that I know Vernon’s style so well that it’s harder to see where it’s original.  This is where things get tricky, because if I were ranking purely on enjoyment, I’d actually put the Hiscock ahead of the Gilman, even though the latter is definitely better written and the former probably shouldn’t be on the battle at all.  I think my final rankings are Vernon, Wilde, Allan, Wong, Gilman, Hiscock.