Hugo reading 2018: Escape Pod

Escape Pod turned out to be unexpectedly fantastic.  This is a Fanzine where they also produce each story as an audiobook, and I probably should have listened to some of the audiobooks, but I am running very low on time now, so I didn’t.  It contained five stories, two of which I loved and all of which I liked, so that might be the best hit rate yet.  Though there were a lot more stories in Uncanny, so it’s a hard call which should win.

The first story I loved was Run, by CR Hodges.  This is a really lovely, touching story about two teenage girls, one living in Denver and one on the moon, who are effectively on opposite sides of a war – the girl on the moon is Russian, and the nations are jostling for power, and nuclear shelter drills are increasingly common.  They are both fascinated by Morse code, and communicate with each other during the brief periods when the moon is in the right position relative to earth.  And then the first bomb strikes.  I love the relationship between the two girls; I love that the parents, despite having their own agendas (Ivana is pretty sure her mother is a Russian spy, and that her stepfather is a French one) still enable the friendship and, when it matters, help the girls to communicate what is important.

Texts from the Ghost War, by Alex Yuschik was also fabulous.  It’s the story of an unlikely friendship between a fighter pilot (I *think* – it’s a little hard to tell what he is piloting, though), and someone in a position of familial power, told entirely through text messages.  It’s funny and endearing and tense, and just enormous fun to read.  It’s also an interesting world, which we discover in bits and pieces through the comments in the messages – everyone seems to be under attack by ghosts, to the extent that mourning now requires approval and safety training, because it’s so easy to attract ghosts by accident.  But it’s the dialogue and characters who sell this.  I don’t know why it makes me think a little bit of Miles and Ivan in Bujold, but it does.

The other three stories are clever and fun and touching, and pack a good emotional punch.  I was also rather taken with Ms Figgle-DeBitt’s Home for Wayward AIs, by Kurt Pankau, which is not your average killer robot story. Also, there are so many ways to ruin a caramelised banana cake if you are a robot!  I had no idea. Also, now I really want to make caramelised banana cake.

I think my final order is going to be Uncanny first, then Escape Pod, then Fireside and Strange Horizons, then the Book Smugglers, and last of all Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Hugo reading 2018: Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons was a bit of a mixed bag for me.  The two stories were good, but did not blow my mind.  Utopia LOL was funny and wrenching and didn’t quite work for me; These Constellataions Will Be Yours worked better – it was unsettling and cleverly emotional, set in a world where space exploration is reliant on turning certain members of a conquered race into the minds of spaceships (and conditioning them to think that this is the best way forward).  The protagonist is such a ship, and she is repelled, appalled, and then reluctantly fascinated and fond of the young dancer who refuses to be enslaved as she is.

There were two poems, one of which was at least half in a language I don’t speak, so I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

I think the most interesting part of this issue was an article by Erin Horakova, called Freshly Remember’d: Kirk Drift.  It was a multi-part essay, discussing popular ideas of Captain Kirk and how they are so pervasive that one ceases to be able to see the actual character through the stereotype. There was a really interesting and thorough investigation of Kirk’s character and relationships with women, and how ideas about masculinity – oh, let’s just call it toxic masculinity, because that’s what it is – have kind of retconned his character into something different from what t is. Very thought provoking, especially in pointing out the ways in which the discourse around masculinity has actually changed for the worse in recent years, and how current perceptions change how we see the original Star Trek, as well as the ways in which we form false memories and the difficulties of overcoming them.  I’ve seen maybe two episodes of the original Trek (or maybe one), and this was compelling enough to make me want to watch a lot more.

There was a roundtable on indigenous futurism and recolonising science fiction, which was good, but I don’t know what to pull out of it to write about. The thing that struck me most was when they were talking about how First Nations people in the US don’t really have exist in the present in modern fiction – they are missing from works set in the current era, and only appear as historical figures, so they have no place in the now, let alone in the future worlds of speculative fiction. This is an aspect of representation that had not occurred to me and bears thinking about.

And there were three reviews, one so literary I couldn’t understand it, one nice and straightforward and interesting, and one that was angry and fairly brilliant in discussing an anthology called ‘Deserts of Fire: Speculative Fiction and the Modern War’, edited by Douglas Lain, which is apparently attempting to be anti-war while being entirely US-centric and rife with American exceptionalism and no voices from the countries in which these American wars are taking place.
I think this goes below Uncanny, and probably below Fireside.  The only thing I absolutely loved was the essay about Captain Kirk, but that was good enough to put it above Book Smugglers and Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Hugo reading 2018: Fireside Magazine

For the Best Semi-Prozine category, Fireside Magazine provided a Hugo packet containing essays, novellas and short stories from their magazine.

The thing I notice immediately with this collection compared to other publications is that it is absolutely at ease with being political.

There is a series of essays talking about the Black SpecFic Report, which looks at rates of publishing for writers of colour in the field of speculative fiction, followed by responses talking about how to improve these rates, the need to combat unconscious bias, how to create diversity (it doesn’t just happen), and the experience of trying to get published as a black speculative fiction writer.

There is also an essay by John Wiswell called ‘Evil isn’t a disability’, which talks about how illness, particularly mental illness, gets portrayed in films, how Donald Trump’s mockery of disabled people plays into similar cultural norms, and horror movies that miss opportunities to be interesting by making the disabled = monster sterotype.

Some of the stories are political, too. Black Like Them, by Troy L. Wiggins, is full of biting, black humour. It purports to be a series of interviews by an investigative journalist about a drug called ‘Nubianite’ that makes people Black for 24 hours – only for some people, it doesn’t wear off. I especially like the interview with the boy who was going Black on weekends because he thought it was cool, and then wound up stuck with it. He likes that he can dress like a rapper and be cool, but the shit where he gets stopped by the police all the time is just not OK, because he’s Ivy League, man… And the ending is an absolute kick in the stomach. Brilliantly done.

‘The Revolution, brought to you by Nike’, by Andrea Phillips, is also shamelessly political. It’s about a marketer at Nike who decides that the best way to improve the brand’s image is to fight fascism and encourage a popular revolution. It’s political wish-fulfilment fantasy, set very much in the current presidency, and it’s great fun.

The other stories were hit and miss for me. I think the best of them were ‘Geppetto’, by Carlos Hernandez,the tragedy behind Pinocchio; ‘River Boy’, by Innocent Chizarim Ilo, a lovely, rather sad take on the changeling / magically given child story; and The Fisher of Bones, by Sarah Gailey, which is a disturbing and creepy novella about a Prophet who must lead her people to the promised land, and what happens when they get there.

I really like the diversity of authors in this magazine, and the essays were thought-provoking, but I feel that Uncanny Magazine had a better hit rate for me on the stories. This is going second on my ballot for now.

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.