Hugo reading 2018: In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan

I actually read some of In Other Lands when Sarah Rees Brennan was first writing it on her blog.  I bought it when it turned into a book, and so this is effectively my second-and-a-half time through.  I’ve been enjoying it more on each reread.

Elliott, a bright, abrasive child with an absent mother and a neglectful father, is offered the opportunity to cross the wall into a magical land, where humans dwell alongside elves, dwarves, trolls, harpies, mermaids and more.  Unfortunately for Elliott, this opportunity comes with enrolment into a military school for those who will be protecting the Borderland.  Elliott is not into physical things and is appalled at the glorification of war.  He is also incapable of keeping his mouth shut, ever, and rapidly makes himself as unpopular on the magical side of the border as he was on his own side.

His saving social grace is his instant love for Serene-Heart-In-The-Chaos-Of-Battle, a beautiful elf maiden who has joined the school in order to study both the military and Council tracks.  Elliott may not see much point in the military side, but he respects her intelligence, and also he is in love, so he is willing to put up with Luke Sunborn, a blond, heroic warrior from a family of warriors, and Serene’s ‘sword sister’.

On a surface level, this novel is one long running joke about sexism and gender-based assumptions.  Serene is very much embedded in elf culture, which carries with it, shall we say, a certain level of toxic femininity.  She likes boys, and has an egalitarian friendship with Luke, but her attitude to men in general is both protective and dismissive.  She is concerned for the virtue of the young gentleman in the school, is uncomfortable with emotion and children (gentlemen are so much better at that sort of thing – they are naturally warmer and more caring), and is sympathetic to the fact that men are just more emotional than women, because “women shed their dark feelings with their menses every month… But men, robbed of that outlet, have strange moodswings and become hysterical at a certain phase of the moon”.

That one made me cackle out loud.  And I have to say, I strongly suspect that Brennan sat down with a checklist of sexist tropes and did not rest until she had reversed every one of them, which was a lot of fun.

Of course, human culture, even across the border, has the usual gender biases, so Serene experiences a certain amount of culture clash.

The story does go a bit deeper than this (not that an exploration of gender norms is not worthwhile in its own right), and I really enjoyed Elliott’s relationships with Serene and with Luke, particularly the latter.  Elliott… is not great at emotion.  Or being a human, really.  His father never really spoke to him at all, his mother left when he was a baby, and he had no friends at school.  He has never learned tact, or even seen the need for it prior to this book, and he doesn’t respect anyone who isn’t as smart as he is.  Which, in his view, is basically everyone he meets.  He does – sort of – like Luke, but he expresses this largely by insulting Luke and stealing his pudding.  Luke, while ridiculously nice, does have a snarky side, and the reader can see that he is quite fond of Elliott.  Elliott is naturally blind to this.

The novel is divided into five sections, one for each year that Elliott is in the Borderlands.  He goes home every summer, and it’s… a bit jarring every time.  This is a coming of age story, and an important part of Elliott’s coming of age is deciding which side of the border he will stay on, and why.  He doesn’t want to live in a world without decent plumbing and technology, and one where war seems to be a constant.  On the other hand… he does have friends there, and there seems to be very little for him on the normal side of the border.

This is a long novel – 800 pages on my Kobo, which makes it about twice as long as the average paperback (for Bujold fans, the Cordelia’s Honour duo comes to 1100 pages), and while it doesn’t drag, exactly, it feels long.  I suspect there are places where it could be tighter – the inevitable flaw of a book that started off as a serialised story, and where the author wanted to be sure not to miss a single joke.  (Having said that… they are good jokes.)

I don’t think it has the magic of Hardinge’s novel – there was a lovely depth to that one, like a well which might or might not have poison at the bottom – but it’s clever and funny and more serious than it first appears to be.  It’s a fun, enjoyable read, with some good payoffs, but it is also a novel that it is possible to walk away from.

I’m going to put it second on my ballot, above Summer in Orcus, but behind A Skinful of Shadows.  Akata Warrior will be fourth, and The Art of Starving fifth.

Hugo reading 2018: A Skinful of Shadows, by Frances Hardinge

Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows is exactly the sort of book I would have loved as a child.  It is a fantasy novel, a gothic story of ghosts and possession and strange, creepy families in strange, creepy houses, but it is grounded very solidly in the English Civil War, and feels more like a really good historical novel with supernatural elements.

It’s going to be difficult to talk about what makes this book interesting and exciting without spoiling at least some of the book – there is a fair bit of creepy foreboding in the first third or so of the story before we learn what is really going on with the elders of the family.  For me, the book really takes off once this secret is confirmed and Makepeace starts trying to fend for herself against it.  I’ll cut this where the spoilers start.

Makepeace has a gift, or perhaps a curse – she is able to harbour the spirits of the dead, and the spirits can sense this, and they want in.  Her mother tries to teach her to defend herself, and also to protect her from her father’s powerful family, but after her mother dies, she is on her own, and her father’s family is quick to claim her.  It’s pretty clear that they are a deeply creepy group of people, but her half brother, James who is also illegitimate, befriends her, and they plan to escape together.

Her gift is a family trait, and one which has in fact shaped the family, and there is a pretty sinister reason why the elder family members make a point of collecting any illegitimate offspring who carry the trait of being able to house ghosts.  And the first half of this book is a straight gothic, really.  What is going on in the creepy house?  Who are Makepeace’s relatives, really?  Can any of them be trusted?  Did you really think the answer to that last question was going to be yes?  Of course you didn’t.

But alongside this, England is getting worked up towards the Civil War.  Makepeace’s mother’s family were Puritans, but her father’s family are Catholics and for the King.  And once the war gets going, this creates all sorts of opportunities for Makepeace and her half brother, and the story starts moving out into the world, where it is still creepy and tense, but to my mind, much more fun – perhaps because Makepeace is now doing things rather than reacting.

The setting is just fantastic, incidentally.  I love the English Civil War era, and the space it makes for spies and politics, and I love how Hardinge writes it here, with both sides harbouring men and women of courage and integrity, and both sides harbouring some pretty terrible people as well, until one has sympathy with Makepeace’s feeling that she cares neither for King nor Parliament, just for the individuals who are having to live with this war.  She wants to preserve people, not ideals.

And speaking of preserving people… here be spoilers!

My favourite thing about this book is when Makepeace, half deliberately, half by accident, begins recruiting her own set of ghostly allies.  I love the shifting alliances inside their head, and the way they use each other and fight each other and band together or betray each other in turn – family is a strong theme in this book, and in many ways, Makepeace creates a family of her own from her ghosts.

Of course, you need to bear in mind that not all families are functional…

This is a very, very good novel – the grounding in history makes it feel substantial in a way not all fantasies manage, and there is both light and dark to be found.  I like the spirits, and I like Makepeace’s character – thinking about it, she is very firmly herself from start to end, which might be why she is able to fight so well in her situation.

This is going to the top of my ballot in the YA section.  Highly recommended.

Hugo reading 2018: Two YA nominees enter, neither leaves with a proper review

This is the part where I talk briefly about two novels that aren’t getting a fair deal from me this time around.

Four of the nominated novels were available in full in the Hugo Voter Pack.

For one of them, Akata Warrior, by Nnedi Okorafor, a four-chapter excerpt was provided.

For the final novel, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, by Phillip Pullman, nothing was provided.

You may recall that in the Best Novel category, we were given two books in a complete form, and four with excerpts.  But as it turned out, the four for which there were only excerpts were all available at either our local library or the City library, and I felt that judging more than half of a category solely on excerpts would be a pity.

With this category, it’s a bit trickier.  Akata Warrior is not available at our library.  The Pullman book is, but I feel disinclined to give him more of a chance than I’m giving Okorafor, given that she at least provided us with something, whereas Pullman didn’t even provide a link to so much as a summary.

Also, I’ve read some of Pullman’s other work, and really didn’t like it.  So there’s that.

Given all this, I’ve decided that for this category, I’m going to read only what was given, which means that Pullman will get a null vote (the odds were high he was never going to get higher than fifth in this category anyway).  Sorry, Mr Pullman.  You seem like a nice bloke in your interviews, but all the interesting stuff you talk about doesn’t seem to come through in your work for me.

As for Akata Warrior – well, that’s a tricky one.  Because I’ve read the excerpt now, and I really liked it.  I especially enjoyed the narrative voice in the introduction, which tells us what happened in the previous book, but does so with great personality and charm.  I like the main character, Sunny, and the things she has to juggle.  I like the Nigerian setting and the way magic feels… very different to the way magic works in most fantasy written by Europeans – much more dreamlike and with less obvious logic, at least to my eyes.  But it’s really difficult to judge an extract against an entire book, and I’m also a little suspicious of Okorafor after she pulled that no-ending trick in Binti: Home.  Akata Warrior is the second book in a series, too – is she going to do the same thing?  (I’ve read a couple of reviews now, and it sounds like she doesn’t, so that’s a point in her favour.)

I definitely liked this excerpt more and felt that it was a stronger work than The Art of Starving.   I suspect that it has more depth than Summer in Orcus, but it’s really hard to tell (and I have a feeling that in saying that it has more depth, I’m falling into that trap of thinking that Dark and Tragic is intrinsically more complex and thus superior to Light and with a Happy Ending.  Which I disagree with, but our culture does value Tragedy over Comedy, and sometimes that gets into my head too…).  On the other hand, I really liked the ending and the message of Summer in Orcus, so I’m going to put that first out of the four YA novels I’ve read so far, with Akata Warrior second.

Hugo reading 2018: The Art of Starving, by Sam J. Miller

Why yes, I have been at home today, feeling largely too crampy and depressed to do much.

Which is why I had time to read another novel, The Art of Starving, by Sam J. Miller.

It was not the right novel for my mood.  Or maybe it really, really was.  To be fair, I don’t think I was ever going to love this one, especially in this context.

The Art of Starving
is told in the first person by Matt, who is not having a great time.  He is gay and getting a hard time for it at school, though his mother doesn’t know.  His sister has run away from home, and he’s pretty sure that someone did something terrible to her before she went and that it’s his job to avenge her.  His mother’s job at the meatpacking factory is looking increasingly insecure, and his father isn’t in the picture.

But he doesn’t have an eating disorder.  It’s all perfectly under control, and besides, when you don’t eat, your hunger means that you sense the world more sharply, perhaps even to a degree that is supernatural and allows you to smell what people are thinking and feeling.

So yeah.  He totally has an eating disorder.  There are calorie counts on every chapter heading.  I’m guessing that this would be as triggery as all hell for anyone with an actual eating disorder.

This book frustrated me immensely.  For one thing… it was pretty clear to me from about page 2 what one of the Deep Dark Secrets was going to be.  For another, it was really painful to be inside the head of someone who was doing that to himself.  And for a third thing… these are the Hugo Awards, not the Newberry Awards, so there ought to be some SFF elements, and there weren’t, really.  Or… they were so tenuous that it was possible to spend 90% of the book being pretty sure that this was a combination of the illness and wishful thinking.  The end sort-of-mostly confirms that they were real, but honestly, I wouldn’t call this speculative fiction.  This is an Issues book and a YA book, and I’ve seen more SFF elements in books that were shelved in the straight YA section.

Was it well-written?  Probably.  The author clearly has a real handle on eating disorders (unsurprisingly, since he mentions in the afterword that he suffered from one), and he certainly understands the hell that is being a teenager.  But there were no real surprises in this book, and I felt like I had read similar things before which I had enjoyed more.

This definitely goes below Summer in Orcus for me, and I’m probably going to put it at the bottom of my ballot, because as mentioned above, I don’t think it really belongs on a Hugo nomination list.  It’s a pity, because I can think of several ways to take this premise and make it more interesting, and/or more SF-nal.  But that’s not what the author did or was trying to do.

Hugo reading 2018: Summer in Orcus, by T. Kingfisher

Summer in Orcus is a portal fantasy sort of fairy tale by T. Kingfisher (the YA pen-name for Ursula Vernon).  Eleven year old Summer loves her mother, but wishes her mother didn’t love her *quite* so much, and would occasionally let her do things, like go on school excursions, or play outside where someone might grab her.  When Baba Yaga offer her her heart’s desire, she doesn’t quite know what it is, but she goes through the door anyway, and finds herself in a world that is full of magic, but under a terrible threat.

This is a simple, kind, sort of story, as I expect from Kingfisher / Vernon.  The delight is in the gentle humour and the characters – we have Reginald the Hoopoe, a regency fop of a bird with few brains and a kind heart – think of any character in a regency romance who goes by Freddy, and you will be on the right track.  He is part of an entire avian regency society, with his valet birds (who have a flock-mind), and the Imperial Guard Geese, who are fierce enough to give even a wolf pause.

And there is a wolf, too, named Glorious, who is afflicted by a were-house curse.  He turns into a lovely little cottage at night, and has to beware House Hunters, who will chain him with silver so that he cannot regain his wolf form.

There is a way station which is also a whey station and has magical cheese.  There is a talking weasel.  There are women in animal skins, who may or may not be shifters, and trees whose leaves turn to living animals when they fall.  There are the antelope women, who are not to be trusted.  And there are the villains – Zultan, Grub, and the mysterious Queen in Chains.

While this is an adventure story and a fairy-tale, it is, at its core, a story about figuring out who you are and what you want and how to be the person you want to be.  As mentioned above, it’s a very kind story, and the resolution is absolutely right, I think.  I’m not sure I’d call it Young Adult – it feels a little younger than that, more the sort of thing that someone who is the right age for E. Nesbit would enjoy.

If there is a flaw, it is that the pacing is a bit slow in places, and it drags a bit in the middle.  This is probably not something I’d have minded if I were at an E. Nesbit sort of age – what it lacks in pace it makes up for in avian regency balls and mores – but a little part of me was going, come on now, get on with it…

Definitely a pleasing start to the YA category, however, and I enjoyed it very much.

(It did make me cry at the end, though, but I don’t think it was actually sad, really. I’m just in a strange, sad mood today.)

Hugo watching 2018: Best Dramatic Presentation

We’ve already seen both the Good Place episodes, and I’m planning to come back to them after reviewing the rest of this category to see how they work out of context.  So instead, we started with Star Trek Discovery: “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”.  This was great!  My total previous exposure to Star Trek was The Trouble with Tribbles, and one of the movies back in the 1990s sometime, plus sometimes being in the room when Andrew was watching the new series, so I came to this with very few preconceptions.

This episode is kind of a problem-solving, time travel-ish, race-against-the-clock episode.  The villain of the piece, Mudd, is trying to take over the spaceship and get revenge on the captain, and he does this by putting it in a timeloop, so that each time round, he gets to learn a little more about how the ship works, and, as a bonus, gets to kill everyone multiple times.  But one of the crew, Paul, is actually linked to the ship in some way, so he remembers each loop, and starts trying to find ways to communicate what he knows to the other characters fast enough for them to come up with a strategy to stop the villain.  This… is tricky, because first he has to get them to believe him, and then he has to get enough of the crew on-side to actually work together on this.  Also, seeing his crewmates die repeatedly takes a terrible toll on him.

This episode also has a nice little romantic plot between Michael and Ash, who have clearly been dancing awkwardly around each other for some time and now have to actually talk to each other and work together in order to save everyone.  This was done very sweetly and touchingly.

The resolution was satisfying, though I do find it hard to believe that the half hour timeloop was enough time in which to get THAT MUCH plot set up, given that everyone but Paul was starting from a place of ‘everything’s normal and Paul acts weird sometimes’, but I’m willing to give it a pass, because it was a fun, well-paced story which worked on its own terms.

This one is going to score well with me, I think.

Doctor Who: “Twice Upon a Time” was… fine.  I’m not a Doctor Who fan, and this was clearly a very fanservicey episode, with a return of the first Doctor (or an actor playing him, and doing a very fine job of it), lots of historic footage, visits from former companions, and a namecheck for another well-known recurring character.  There were Daleks, there was a nice, old-fashioned plot involving time travel and creatures that are somehow harvesting something from people in the moments before they die, and there was angst.  And some schmaltz.

OK, I enjoyed it more than this makes it sound, but I did have some issues with it.  The biggest is that it doesn’t pass the standalone test.  I had no idea who the vicious slug-crab-like creatures who hated the Doctor were until Andrew told me.  I didn’t know the significance of the gift given to the Doctor at the end.  I did know about the recurring character (and they did a good job of finding/making-up someone who could very plausibly be the parent of that character), but that’s less irritating.  I think the writing relied a little too heavily on us already having emotional connections to various characters and plot elements, and didn’t work hard enough at creating these connections for everyone else.  Also, if you are going to have the sentimental Christmas ending, you shouldn’t also have the sentimental Last Words of the Doctor soliloquies.  It’s too much.  I’d been enjoying it up until that point, but that made me squirm.

On the positive side, I did like the poor old army captain at the centre of it.  He was an interesting character, and he was played very well.  I liked the running joke about the current Doctor wincing at things the first Doctor said – I gather that the first Doctor wasn’t *quite* that bad, but it was a nice nod to the fact that, yes, we have all moved on in fifty-odd years, and there are scripts written then that would not be written now.

And the reveal at the end… I knew it was coming and what it was, and I don’t care about Doctor Who at all, but somehow, the delighted grin on Doctor’s face when she looks in the mirror and says “Oh, brilliant!” brought tears to my eyes.  I don’t know why.  Something about the feeling of a whole new world opening up before her?  So yeah, I really liked that bit.

I don’t think this was as good as the Star Trek, but it was a perfectly good Doctor Who episode if you like Doctor Who.  We’ll see where it lands once I’ve had a chance to watch the rest.

Black Mirror: “USS Callister”, written by William Bridges and Charlie Brooker, is… horrible.  It does what it is trying to do very well, and what it is trying to do happens to be something I find nightmarish and unwatchable.   I gather the general idea of Black Mirror is that it does standalone science fiction stories, using futuristic technology to reflect on current events.

This review is spoilerish, so I’m putting it in yellow – you will need to highlight it to read it.

In this particular episode, Robert Daly is the creator of a multiplayer, virtual reality game, called Infinity, but he has also created his own, customised version of this game, set on the USS Callister, which is a Star-Trek-ish universe and feel, in which he gets to act out his own power fantasies on digital clones of his colleagues.  Which he creates using their DNA, so the digital versions are aware of who they are and where they are, but unable to do escape.  This gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies.  In many ways, it’s an extended rape metaphor.  What makes it particularly hard to watch, for me, is that the episode took quite a while to tell us what was happening, so I spent a long time going, eergh, white male power fantasy, yes I know this guy is being mocked by his coworkers, but this is still NOT OK.   And we also have lots of that sort of embarrassment humour that makes me squirm in the first half of the show, too.

I think I left the room just after the halfway mark (so about 40 minutes in), and kind of half-listened to it from the study, popping my head in occasionally to see if it was safe yet.  It wasn’t.  The ending is satisfying, but it takes a long time to get there, and really, the vast majority of the episode is things getting worse and worse and more upsetting to watch.

It certainly did a fine job of pressing my buttons.

I’m not sure how to rank something that probably is very good and succeeds at what it is trying to do, but that I can’t finish and really dislike.  I want to put it last because it was just HORRIBLE, but I’m not sure if that’s fair.

We finished our Hugo viewing with the two Good Place episodes.  Michael’s Gambit is the final episode of Season One, and the episode with the big reveal.  It’s a magnificent episode, and there is some brilliant acting – the way the face of one particular character changes at the moment when the reveal happens is absolutely masterful, and suddenly you can see, retrospectively, that expression behind all the other things that character has done on the show.  I’m being very cagey here, because if you haven’t seen The Good Place, you really should, and this is the episode above all that must not be spoiled for you.

Having said that, I can’t give it a high place on the Hugo Ballot, because as much as I love it, it relies on the rest of the season to make sense – I don’t think it can stand alone at all well.

The second episode is The Trolley Problem, which is a total delight, and works much better on its own.  The basic premise of The Good Place is that it’s a version of heaven, to which Eleanor was sent by accident (she was supposed to go to the Bad Place).  But she is matched up with an ethics professor as her soul mate, and so he is trying to teach her ethics so that she can learn how to be good, and thus be able to stay without destroying the entire place.

This may sound boring, the show does a great job of teaching ethical systems and dilemmas while being very, very funny. This is a classic ‘ethics problem of the week’ episode, in which Chidi, the ethics professor, is trying to teach the four other characters about ethics, using the trolley problem as an example.  But one of these characters is basically a demon, so he’s not great at ethics, or at remembering why he is meant to be learning them.  It’s very funny, and you certainly come away with a good understanding of the ethical implications of the Trolley Problem.  And a lot of images of how that works out in reality that maybe you didn’t want in your head.  There is a romantic subplot which is less self-contained, but I think that’s OK, as you can still enjoy the episode as it stands.

I think I’m going to put The Trolley Problem first, since I want to reward the entire show, and this is a good example of what it does well.  In second place, I’ve been hesitating a bit, but I think I want to put The Deep there, because I can’t get it out of my head, so it’s clearly doing something right.  Star Trek Discovery is coming third, because that was a clever and delightful episode.  I think I sort of have to put Black Mirror next, even though I want to put it last, because it is a fine story, just one I wish I’d never watched.  Then Michael’s Gambit and Doctor Who, because while they are perfectly good episodes – and Michael’s Gambit really is brilliant in my view – neither of them really works as a standalone.

Hugo reading 2018: Uncanny Magazine

Uncanny Magazine provided a ‘Best of 2017’ which seems to contain most of the Hugo-nominated shorts from this year.  Nice.  You already know my views on Sun, Moon, Dust; on Small Changes Over Long Periods; on Fandom for Robots; Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand; And Then There Were (N-One); Children of Thorns, Children of Water; and Why I don’t Trust Batman.

This is a full-length magazine, so I’m not going to review every story, essay or poem in it, but I will say, I think that’s one of the highest hit-rates I’ve had in an anthology for stories I’ve enjoyed in quite some time.  I especially liked The Worshipful Society of Glovers, by Mary Robinette Kowal, which is a lovely, edged fairy tale about a journeyman glover who makes ensorcelled gloves – but lacks the money to make the pair that would prevent his sister’s seizures.  It’s very good, and while it does have a sort of happy ending, it isn’t the kind that lets you get away with thinking that magic comes without a cost.  Paradox, by Naomi Kritzer, is short but excellent – it looks like pure humour and light time-travel related silliness, but it has a sting in the tail.  NK Jemisin’s story, Henosis, is another quite short story, about writing, and awards.  It is blackly humourous and very clever.  And Sam Miller’s Bodies Stacked Like Firewood is strange, unsettling, and a little depressing, set at the wake for Cyd, who committed suicide.  Also, there are all these extracts from a fictitious literary essay positing that F. Scott Fitzgerald had some sort of mental illness that led to time travelling and that The Great Gatsby is full of cryptic references to the Holocaust.  And Theodora Goss has a very short story, Seven Shoes, which is a beautiful fairy tale about living and writing.

The non-fiction pieces were all excellent, and clearly heavily influenced by the fun we’ve all had in 2017… so many different stories that were effectively talking about political resistance in different contexts.  Particularly wrenching was the essay by Mimi Mondal, which talks about being a woman from a lower caste in India, whose parents raised her in an age when it seemed that the sexism and caste-based discrimination was ending, only now it has come back – and also about the pain and uncertainty of being an immigrant in the US now.  Elsa Sjunneson-Henry talks about disability and protesting and resistance, and Dimas Ilaw writes about the political situation in the Philippines.

There were some lighter essays, too, but even these had a political feel to them in the current era – I especially enjoyed Sarah Kuhn’s essay about superheroes and representation (Sarah wrote ‘Heroine Complex’, which I reviewed in my Campbell reading).

Halfway through Semiprozines, and Uncanny is going to be hard to beat – I really liked the vast majority of what I read, and absolutely none of it was boring.

Hugo reading 2018: The Book Smugglers and Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Moving on to the Semiprozines, where I’m again going to stick to fairly short reviews, because I don’t read a lot of zines and am probably no eh best judge.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies
provided four stories in their Hugo packet.  Of the four, I really enjoyed the first, didn’t mind the second, felt like I missed the point of the third, and tried several times to read the fourth but it couldn’t hold my attention.  Not the best hit rate.  Having said that, I really did like On the Road to the Hell of Hungry Ghosts, by Richard Parks – it was a very sweet sort of story, part quest, part ghost story, with a snake demon who is trying very hard to figure out how to be a human.  I liked all the characters very much and the ending was satisfying.

The Book Smugglers contains two short stories, a couple of essays and several reviews.  The first story was Nini, by Yukimi Ogawa, which is about an AI robot on a planet which is more or less an aged care facility.  This didn’t quite work for me – the individual sections and characters were good, but they didn’t seem to quite fit together.  I don’t think the author has figured out how to do transitions, and it was a bit jarring.  The second story was called Avi Cantor Has Six Months to Live, and was by Sacha Lamb.  This one, I really did like. Avi receives a note saying ‘Avi Cantor has Six Months to Live’, which is concerning both for its content and for the fact that as far as everyone else knows, Avi is April.  He hasn’t told anyone his real name yet, not even his mum.  It’s a very sweet story, about coming of age, and acceptance, and overcoming all the unpleasantries of being a teenager, and falling in love, and making bargains with demons, and all that sort of thing.  It felt weirdly fanfic-ish, but this might be because there aren’t a lot of conventionally-published school stories about trans kids out there.

There were reviews of Death’s End, Strange the Dreamer, The Stone Sky and Skinful of Shadows.  And there was a longish article called One Girl in the Justice League, by Tansy Rayner Roberts, following the history of women in the justice league and getting frustrated about recent, regressive, developments when it comes to representation.  Also, she has her own plan for a Justice League movie.  There was a short article by Yoon Ha Lee called Fruitcakes and Gimchi in SPAAACE, about the ways in which he has included Korean history and food in his writing.  The only flaw in this was that it wasn’t longer – I wanted more!   Then we have Ana Grilo getting annoyed about the abusive treatment of Mantis in Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thea James discussing where to start with the Star Wars Expanded Universe.

A lot of the pop culture articles were lost on me – I just don’t know enough about the things being referred to.  The reviews were quite good.  Of the articles, the Yoon Ha Lee one was the only one that really spoke to me.  And I did like one of the stories.  So I think this goes higher up the ballot than Ceaseless Skies.

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: Best Fanzine category

I’m not going to be reviewing this section in depth unless I come across something I really love, because reviewing collections of things is fairly hard work, and I’m just not THAT enamoured of fanzines.

So, Journey Planet seems to have quite an interesting premise.  They pick a topic each month, and articles and illustrations / photos centre on that topic.  It’s part history, part anecdotes, part reviews, and the topics are very diverse. Topics in the voter pack include ’40 years of Glasgow Conventions’, which is mostly people’s memories of various cons and is almost archival in its approach; ‘Irish Comics’, which includes interviews with said comic book writers, samples of their work, and reviews of it; ‘The Disney Railroad’ which… has articles about the history of the railroad at Disneyland; ‘Programmatic’, which has lots of people talking about how to create an interesting program; ‘Bob Wilkins’, which has photographs, reviews, an interview, and a series of loving obituaries; and apparently ‘Disney’ again.

I think if you like the idea of digging deep into a completely random subject on a monthly basis, you’ll probably have fun with this.  I may possibly be sulking because their issue on Richard III was not in the voter pack.  It’s an interesting premise for a fanzine, but none of their topics really grabbed me this time.

Nerds of a Feather
is a more conventional zine, I think.  The sampler includes a bunch of book reviews, and then a collection of essays talking about dystopias in fiction.  I especially liked the in-depth history of dystopias in fiction.  They also had a nice collection of reviews of The Last Jedi, which I haven’t seen, but I love spoilers, so that’s OK.  I really enjoyed these, particularly the two longer reviews which went into quite a bit of detail about why they liked and disliked what they did on philosophical and political levels.  (The negative review was particularly interesting, because he felt that it worked as a film, it just didn’t grab him as a good Star Wars film.  Also, he felt it was telling a story that Star Wars had told before, and he thinks there are more interesting ones to tell.  But there was none of the Girl Cooties rubbish here, thankfully).  The sampler then has several interviews, and then lots of discussion of what makes Horror horror.  This wasn’t really of interest to me, so I stopped reading.

I do think this is a more interesting, if less idiosyncratic, fanzine than Journey Planet, so it will score above it on my ballot.

Galactic Journey invites us to the world of the early 1960s.  I don’t really want to go to this world, but ok. This seems to be reviews of books published in this era, articles purporting to be from that time (including one on the first American to orbit the earth, which I’ve just realised must have been the mission the women were working on in Hidden Figures), a review of a convention themed around 1961 science fiction, reviews of fashion magazines – in short, the fandom we are zine-ing about is the early 60s.

It’s an appealing conceit.  My inner historian is delighted.  I love the idea of it.  But a part of me is a little less certain – I can’t put my finger on why, exactly, but something about it says very plainly ‘there is no place here for you’.  I don’t think I would have been very happy living in America 1963, but it’s more visceral than that.  I don’t quite know what to make of it.

I do feel like it belongs high on the ballot, though, because it is trying to do an interesting thing, and I think it’s doing it quite well (though I suspect only someone who was actually alive in the early 60s could judge that).

Rocket Stack Rank gives us three samples to read.  First up, we get a sampler containing four articles.  The first three are really proper, scientific articles on fannish topics.  One is an analysis of how the various puppy slates affected the Hugos between 2014 and 2017; the second discusses which of the various purported solutions would have the desired effect (of not allowing a slate to have a statistically unreasonable effect on the nominees); and the third looks at how story length affects award success. They provide graphs and numbers and describe their methods in such meticulous mathematical detail that I became completely lost.  But as far as my not-particularly-stats-aware brain can tell, they are doing what they are trying to do and doing it well.  And if they aren’t, they are certainly being transparent enough with their data that someone else could usefully critique it.  The final article is a con report, and much more readable!

Sample 2 is a list of the various works that are considered among the year’s best SF/F, either because they have been recommended by prolific reviewers, nominated for awards, or included in Year’s Best anthologies.  And then there are a lot of mini-reviews.  The methodology for selecting the stories is laid out in a level of detail that I found hilarious – this is someone who cannot switch off his inner statistician.  I liked the short reviews, and agreed with them for the most part.  Sample 3 is the same thing, except that it’s just for the current month.  Which is enough.

I liked this quite a bit, mostly because I find scientists fairly adorable.  I am perverse enough in this respect to put it high on my ballot.

File 770 I’m not going to review, because there is TOO MUCH to read, and I have already read a bunch of Mike Glyer’s stuff elsewhere.  Also, I wind up on their site a few times a year, to get my reliable what-has-blown-up-now-in-the-SFF-world news.  So I know that they do solid reporting – they feel more like a fan newspaper than a fanzine, actually – but their articles don’t tend to grab me.

SF Bluestocking gave us two samples to read.  The first contains a handful of nice, long-form book reviews.  It’s hard to judge reviews of books one hasn’t read, unless they make you want to go out and read the book immediately, but two of the reviews were of books I have read, which made it more interesting.  I liked her review of The Bear and the Nightingale, and I can absolutely see why  she found the treatment of Vasilisa’s stepmother troubling, as I also found it uncomfortable (though… I don’t think she is entirely right, given the expectations of the characters and their culture.  I don’t think she is entirely wrong, either, but I think it’s a little more complicated than that.)  I enjoyed her review of Infomocracy, too, and agree that it is a more optimistic world than it at first appears.  I did not read the movie and TV reviews, since they seemed to be all of programs I haven’t seen or don’t much like.

The second sample is from a read-along of Gormenghast.  She’s reading and commentating on three chapters per blog post, so she goes into quite a lot of detail, right down to linguistic and thematic elements.  Again, apparently I’m illiterate, because I haven’t read this, either.  There’s nothing like reading a lot of book reviews to make you feel as though you never read anything worthwhile…

OK, so where does that leave me with this part of the ballot?

I think I’d  put Nerds of a Feather first – their package really appealed to me, and I liked their writing style.  Second place is probably Rocket Star Rank, which I’m unlikely ever to read, but one has to support the shameless use of mathematics in reviewing.  Maybe Galactic Journey next, because it’s an interesting idea.  File 770, because I do, actually, refer to it often enough that they deserve my vote.  SF Bluestocking I might vote for higher in another year, but they didn’t grab me this time.  And that leaves Journey Planet, which is endearing in its strangely random assortment of fandoms, but pretty thoroughly not for me.