Hugo reading 2018: Best Fan Writer category

I’ll be doing this whole category in one sweep, so settle in, because this might take a while.
Mike Glyer has provided a series of links to representative work on File 770 (usually he provides a mini fanzine, but this year he has caring responsibilities that made this difficult).

The first three are in the realm of SF politics.  “Axanar Lawsuit Settled” is a straightforward report of the settlement between Axanar, creators of a fan-made Star Trek Film, and Paramount and CBS, the producers of Star Trek itself.  It seems that Paramount and CBS decided to let Axanar keep showing their film, provided they made no profit from it.  We then have “Jon Del Arroz Off BayCon 2017 Program, Claims Decision Is Politically Motivated”, in which he presents Jon Del Arroz’s statement, alongside BayCon saying “well, actually, we just wanted to have different speakers some years, rather than having the same speakers every year, so we declined to invite a bunch of our regulars, and in fact we’ve already invited Del Arroz back for next year, though we’re kind of reconsidering that now.”  It seems to be a reasonably even-handed story, quoting each party substantially and in context, with a small amount of commentary, but the comments go ballistic because anything with US politics in it tends to do that now.  The final piece is “Saying No”, which I’d describe as being Puppy-Adjacent, and in part addresses those comments.

There is a fun article called “Oscar Gaffe Brings Back Memories of SF Award Blunders” which reminisces about various times when the wrong names were read out at the Hugos and the Nebulas (the one about Gene Wolfe is particularly wrenching).

We then have obituaries for Peter Weston, Ed Bryant and Milt Stevens, none of whom I knew, but they are again well-written pieces.

“Pixel Scroll 12/31/17 Another Scroll Over, a Pixel Just Begun” is an end of year round-up of interesting articles which are mostly other people’s end of year round-ups.  Recursive!

Basically, I’d characterise Glyer’s work as good, straightforward journalism.  It doesn’t set my world on fire, but he’s very reliable and I tend to think of him as my trusted source of fandom news.  He’s certainly worthy of being on the ballot, but it will be interesting to see what the other writers in this category are like.

Next up is Bogi Takács, who has provided six essays to review.

“The Mutant’s Apprentice: Superhero registration tropes, power fantasies and Western-centrism”  talks about why superheroes and magic users tend to be subject to compulsory registration or guild memberships.  Takács’ thesis is that this was intended to be a way of talking about racism and anti-semitism without having to do so directly (or in ways that censorship boards would object to) – but that this became subverted in the minds of (white, male) fans as being about people being oppressed because they were exceptional, just as many fans of comics view themselves as oppressed by the mainstream… thus leading to the opposite effect to that intended by the artists.  It’s a depressing thesis, but Takács writes about it convincingly.

“[Novel review] A Jewish State in Germany? Judenstaat, Or Historical Speculation in the VHS Era” is a review of a novel by Simone Zelitch in which after World War Two, a Jewish state was established in Saxony.  It sounds bizarre and fascinating, actually – the novel is apparently very much steeped in Jewish culture, and also knows its Eastern European / life under the Communist Regime tropes, with Chasidic Jews living in Soviet-style apartment complexes and the tension around the fact that many Communists were secular Jews.  (Takács is Hungarian, and expresses appreciation of the fact that Zelitch got so much right, which is unusual for novels by Americans set behind the old iron curtain).

“[Novella review] The Kid from Hell by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky (multiple translators)” was apparently such an effective and moving anti-war book that it was banned in Hungary, its country of origin, for many years, and could in fact be read in translation in English well before it could be read in Hungarian. It is set in a ‘utopian’ far future where Communism has triumphed and is trying to ‘progress’ new cultures to make them happier.  As the authors of this were Jewish (a community which the Communists also tried to progress), the ambiguous nature of this help is made clear.  It sounds like an unpleasant book – the viewpoint character is a deliberately horrible person – but I’m fascinated at this window into works written in Communist Hungary.

“[Novelette review] Alone, on the Wind by Karla Schmidt (translated from the German by Lara Harmon), Clarkesworld #88, August 2016.” is a brief, fairly negative review of a book that it well-written and well-translated but has some fairly problematic tropes.

The last two pieces, “[Short story collection review] So You Want to be a Robot – 21 Stories by A. Merc Rustad” and “[Comics review] Mirror: The Mountain by Emma Ríos & Hwei Lim. Image Comics, 2016”, were perfectly good pieces of writing but didn’t do so much for me – perhaps because they are more standard, straightforward reviews, and so there is less of a point of difference here between Takács’ writing and the writing of other reviewers.

Overall, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading Takács’ work.  Having grown up towards the end of the Iron Curtain era, I’m fascinated by these sorts of internal glimpses of what was behind it – the cultural history, if you like.  It’s not a perspective you get a lot of in SF written in English, and I’m very glad to have it.  Takács definitely winning so far for me.

Next, we have Sarah Gailey, who has provided three articles.

Facing Facts: American Identity is Based on Alternate History” is a very compelling piece pointing out that the history we tend to learn in schools is already alternate history – it’s a history where everything was fine, where wars were only fought for good reasons, where exploring the world was about discovery and bringing civilisation, not about greed or gold, where slavery didn’t exist, or where it did, slaves were treated well, where racism was solved in the 1960s.  It’s a provocative point of view, and one that will stay with me.

It’s also a strangely frustrating view, in the light of her own alternate history fiction – because while she certainly had a diverse cast in her story, she didn’t seem to me to be doing a lot with her alternate history setting.  I realise that this is harder to do in a novella format, and particularly if what you want to write is a light-hearted caper, but given how creatively she thinks about history and alternate history when writing an essay, I can’t help feeling a bit sad that she wasn’t more creative when writing a story set in an alternate America.

Next, we get an essay from Uncanny magazine – ‘City of Villains: Why I Don’t Trust Batman‘.  This is a lot of fun.  It’s about living in Gotham city if you are just a regular, poor person, who grew up in an orphanage after your dad got killed by a supervillain and your mum ran off to become a supervillain.  The trouble is, the kind of jobs you get if you have a limited education and money tend to be pretty basic – building, painting, a bit of security.  And if your boss happens to turn out to be a supervillain, guess who suffers the consequences?  The story does a nice job of interrogating the Lone Vigilante Hero trope – as well as the Beneficent Billionaire trope.  It’s nice that the billionaire funds orphanages, but why does Gotham City need so many? It’s nice that the vigilante hero fights crime, but how is it fair that he can do so outside the law, and with no regard for bystanders?  Might there not be better ways to ‘save’ the city, if one doesn’t have to be seen as the hero at all times?

I’m sure there are holes in this argument.  I’m sure that Andrew will come here and pick them.  But as someone who isn’t all that invested in the Batman mythos, I found this a delightful deconstruction of the idea.

The third article provided by Gailey is “This Future Looks Familiar: Watching Blade Runner in 2017“.  I have not seen Blade Runner.  I don’t know what it is supposed to be about.  Gailey hasn’t seen it before either, and is a bit horrified by the familiarity of what she is viewing – boiled down to sheer plot, we have a man who takes the job of tracking down and killing escaped slaves.  There is one slave he doesn’t kill – he keeps her for his own, instead.  And – at least to Gailey’s viewing, the protagonist is the character we are meant to feel sympathy with.  We are meant to see him as a good man making difficult choices, and the slaves as not fully human.

Not having seen Blade Runner, I have no way of knowing what the intent of the directors and writers was.  But reading the synopsis… yeah.  That does seem to be what it’s about.  The replicants are AIs, not human, but it does still seem to have some really disturbing parallels to the sort of racism and police brutality that has been getting so much news coverage in the last few years.  And I can certainly see being unable to see anything *else* in the movie once one has seen that.

Gailey is definitely a worthy nomination for this Hugo.  At present, I’m having a hard time choosing between her and Takács for best writer, because while I love Gailey’s work so far, her worldview is more familiar to me and similar to other things I read – Takács has perspectives I don’t encounter often.

Moving on to Charles Payseur, we get five articles to read.

“Mapping Smutty SFF – Part 1: Getting Started” is about writing fun SFF with queer characters, and the difficulty of genre and market boundaries, where ‘serious’ SFF is willing to have ‘sex, but not erotica’, and queer sex or relationships tends to get automatically branded erotica.  And also about being someone who tends to fall between the SFF and the Romance / Erotica categories with his writing, with a side dose of sheer irritation at people who turn up their nose at romance/erotica on principle without having read any of it.  It’s a little rambling, but an enjoyable article with a few bits of practical advice and suggestions about publishers for this sort of work.
“MAPPING SHORT SF/F: Part 2: Fun Short SFF” is about finding SFF that is fun, which Payseur defines as inspiring joy in the reader.  And the way ‘fun’ is often undervalued in SFF, because of a desire to be considered a serious genre (and is thus easier to find in YA SFF, perhaps because fun is also associated with being childlike).  And then he helpfully lists a lot of places where you can find fun fiction, with examples.  I think this review would be a lot more use to me if I wasn’t in the middle of my massive Hugo Reading Project, but I might keep it for later, since fun, escapist fiction is generally what I”m in the market for.
“Year of Garak, part 10: “When It Rains…” “Tacking Into the Wind” “Extreme Measures” “The Dogs of War” & “What You Leave Behind” is part of a series where Payseur has been following Garak through Star Trek.  I skimmed this one, because I think one does need to care significantly more about Star Trek than I do (i.e., to have seen more than two episodes ever) to get much out of it.

“LIVER BEWARE! You’re in for a Drunk Review of Goosebumps #12: BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR”.  What it says on the box.  It’s a review of what turns out to be a really terribly bad Goosebumps books, which Payseur hates quite thoroughly.  I’m enjoying his writing style while drunk and infuriated, but that’s about it.

For a contrast, “PRIDE 2017 GUEST REVIEW: THE ART OF STARVING BY SAM J. MILLER” is a sober, thoughtful review for a book that Payseur likes very much.  Again, it’s a good, well-written review, but I must admit, I’m reaching my limits for reading reviews of books I haven’t read.  I really want to finish this category today, because it will be a pig to read on my Kobo (too many PDFs – I’m home from work with horrible cramps, so now’s the time to read things on my computer), but I’m hoping very much that the other two writers aren’t too review heavy!

Overall, I enjoyed Payseur, and am ranking him about equal with Mike Glyer.  Which means I have two ties in my lineup, and that’s going to be great when I go to vote, but I’ll deal with that then!

Camestros Felapton provided a kind of anthology of bits and pieces from his blog, which initially made me groan at its length, but I was so very wrong.  This was great fun, and turned out to be exactly what I needed to read today.

There was a really fun and spoilerific review of The Last Jedi, which I have not seen yet, but I love spoilerific reviews of things I haven’t seen, so that was fine, which particularly looked at how it plays with and subverts tropes from earlier films.  He made the interesting and quite plausible argument that once one sets aside the purely political criticisms, many of those that remain in fact spring from people who hated the prequels but nonetheless internalised them in particular ways that have shaped their expectations.

Other reviews in the area of science fiction were a discussion of whether Hidden Figures can be counted as science fiction (it’s about science, it isn’t a documentary, it’s fictionalised…), and an article about the ways in which he thinks the new Star Trek just doesn’t work (mostly because it can’t quite decide what it’s trying to do.).  Another article was a little piece of research about Henry Still, who was nominated for a Hugo in 1956  alongside Ellison, Silverberg and Herbert in the category of upcoming writers, and then disappeared off the radar.  He tries to discover what happened to him and may well have succeeded.

Ask a Triceratops had several columns about writing.  I especially enjoyed the article about use of the first, second and third person, followed by a description of fourth person in its many variants. This is apparently the preferred triceratops style, and consists of the perspective of somebody discussing events indirectly.  I liked the playfulness of it, with grammar and literary tropes being the toys of choice. I also enjoyed the discussion of Triceratopian sub-genres and literary tropes, which mostly involve drunken T-rexes climbing trees.

Timothy the Cat has a few pieces.  There is a review of La La Land which is a dialogue between Camestros and Timothy.  Timothy thinks that he is going to see a Star Wars film, and takes a while to be disabused of this notion.  Having found that it is not, he decides that, fine then, it’s really just like Inception.  He seems to mostly find this in order to annoy Camestros.  This made for a highly entertaining and surprisingly insightful review, which also managed to include the main critiques I’ve heard of the film. Nice work.  Timothy also goes to WorldCon, which turns out to be the vet.  This is also funny and sarcastic and endearing.

There were several nice creative pieces.  I adored the review of Great Britain (“While the deeply amoral but wonderfully costumed historical series of “Great Britain” won huge ratings in the past, critics have claimed that this was “largely due to a hugely powerful navy forcing us to watch”.), and the piece on How to Cook a Frozen Pizza the Hugo Way, which gently parodied each of last year’s Best Novel nominees

“The witch Frisby approached the oven, her humanist boots clipping the floor in a rhythm like the spears of Menelaus approaching the walls of Illium.

 
Must thou once again use such words, Mycrust? We have had words on this thou and me already. Speak more on the cooking of this ‘pizza’ and less on witchcraft.

Speaking of Mycroft, Camestros’ review of Too Like the Lightning was particularly thought-provoking.  He likes it, but can’t recommend it – he agrees more with its detractors than its fans, and thinks that it is woefully incomplete, but he still likes it.  I found myself agreeing with a lot of his review, while still loathing the book itself.

All in all, this turned out to be the ideal reading for someone lying around feeling miserable with cramps – a pot-pourri of light but relatively serious articles, quirky humorous pieces, and strange little cartoons or poems – nothing requiring too much concentration, but all entertaining and with plenty of variety.

Also, he’s an Aussie! Yay for Aussie writers!

I’ve added his blog to my feedly, and he’s going to the top of my ballot.

Foz Meadows provides us with 5 articles to read.  The first, “Westworld: (De)Humanising the Other” is a review of the HBO show Westworld, which sounds absolutely horrific, frankly.  Apparently it’s very well acted and directed, but… well, the very premise of people being able to go to this theme park where all the hosts are AIs who behave like humans and can pass a Turing test but basically exist for tourists to act out their Wild West fantasies on or with (mostly on, apparently) is pretty repellant.  Meadows deconstructs this further – beyond the inevitable (and gratuitously sexualised) abuse of the AIs, there is the treatment of LGBTQI characters (who are either villainous, doomed, or both), and the extra level of degradation dealt out to Hosts who appear to be people of colour.

To be fair, I’ve never heard of the show, but if the premise is as written, it’s hard to imagine how it could be anything other than deeply squicky.

Her next article is called “Shin Godzilla: Disasters, Tropes & Cultural Memory”.  This is a Japanese disaster film, and Meadows’ review centres around how different the tropes are to the sort of tropes found in American disaster movies.  Japan is a country that puts a fair bit of effort into disaster preparedness and values cooperation and knowledge, and the movie reflects this, with the disaster/monster itself as the main antagonist to be defeated – American disaster movies tend to reflect an idea that if disaster strikes, it will be every man for himself, and any sort of organised structure or authority (the government, the army) will in fact be adding to the problems and be something the heroes have to overcome.  This is a troubling cultural insight – libertarian ideals seem to be baked into US culture at an even deeper level than I’d have thought, even in the so called ‘liberal’ media.

“YA Discourse: Witch vs Vulture” deconstructs a recent controversy among YA readers and reviewers over Laurie Forest’s book, Black Witch; a review that quoted it extensively, claiming that it was deeply toxic and bigoted; and the inevitable flustercluck in response to that review.  The key sentence, I think, is this one:

Which is what Sinyard means when she says The Black Witch “holds no regard to the feelings of marginalised people” – the big emotional reveal is seemingly predicated on the reader either learning from, being surprised by or sympathising with Elloren’s transformation, which means caring enough about her – caring more about her than those she victimises – to feel invested in the first place. And if you, as a reader, are one of those she victimises, then that’s unlikely to be a fun experience.

She moves on from the book and the general controversy around it (which takes the shape of pretty much every controversy I’ve seen around a book in the last decade) to thinking about cultural change online and the intersection of this with young people who are just beginning to make their own literary judgments online.  There are so many obnoxious folk out there who like to pretend to want to be educated on Diversity 101 that people have been burned out on helping them, and start defaulting to rudeness in answering those sorts of questions, which is rough on young people who genuinely are trying to figure things out (and possibly the goal of some of the obnoxious folk in the first place.)

The essay also discusses issues of censorship, of how we respond to ‘bad’ books and what makes books ‘bad’ in the first place.  It’s a very thought provoking essay, and well worth reading.  Also, I love a good fandom drama dissection, and this was a very good one indeed.

I didn’t really engage with the last two essays, “Movie Thoughts: SF, Pulp & Grit”, which is about Alien: Covenant, and “Final Fantasy FXV: Thoughts”.  I think they are perfectly good examples of their type, but of limited interest to me.

This is a hard category to judge, because everything was pretty good.  Camestros Felapton is definitely getting my first place vote.  After that, I think I have Sarah Gailey and Bogi Takács (final order may change), the first for some really interesting essays, and the second for a really interesting perspective; Foz Meadows, Charles Payseur and Mike Glyer are kind of equal fourth for me, but will probably go in that order.  I feel bad about putting Glyer last – I feel bad about putting ANYONE last.  Really, there was nothing bad in this section, so I may still mess around with my votes down the track.

Felapton was a real find, however.  I’m very glad I read him.

Hugo reading 2018: River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey

River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey is a Western, with hippos.  That’s… basically it, really.  If you like Westerns, and like hippos, you’re going to like this one. I don’t feel strongly about either of these things, so I quite enjoyed it, but feel no need to reread it.  It has lots of good Western archetypes and tropes. We have the protagonist, who fell in love with hippo ranching, but had his ranch burned to the ground and then had to sell the land to a villainous casino owner; he is now a lone cowboy (‘hopper’) type, living just-barely within the law – his best friend is his hippo, and he’s out for revenge and to make a buck.  He joins forces with a heavily pregnant assassin, a female con artist, an agender explosives expert, and the fastest gun in the West, to clear out a bunch of feral hippos from the river, and inevitably comes into conflict with the casino owner.

It’s all competently done, the characters are fun and well-drawn, and there were enough twists to keep it interesting.  My main complaint would be that it wasn’t very fantastical – it’s alternate history (based on a real-life plan at one point to point to breed hippos in the US for meat), but beyond that, the story is played very straight.  I don’t know my US history, but there’s no sense that the hippos have changed anything beyond some of the geography of the land (there was a need to build more swamps, obviously). It’s almost too convincingly mundane as a world to feel like it’s fantasy.

Where this goes on my ballot will depend very heavily on the other books – it’s doing what it set out to do, indisputably, and it’s doing it well.  But… I’m just not sure that what it is doing is ambitious enough to be worthy of a Hugo.

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: The Women of Harry Potter, by Sarah Gailey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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