Hugo reading 2018: Wind Will Rove, by Sarah Pinsker

I saved “Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker for last, because I enjoyed her novella so much. I’m… not quite sure what I thought of this one. It is set on a generation ship on its way to a new planet, and the protagonist, a history teacher and a fiddle player, was born on the ship and will die there. Her grandmother was one of the original colonists, who boarded the ship with her nine-year-old daughter, the protagonist’s mother. The generation ship originally had extensive archives of all the greatest art, literature, music and other cultural artefacts of the Earth, but about ten years into the voyage, the archives were destroyed by sabotage. As a result, the travellers have created a series of ‘memory Projects’, whereby they recreated and re-recorded everything they could, based on their memories, but also continue to memorise specific pieces and pass these down through family lines, in case of another loss of the archives.

This is a lot of background, but that’s because the story is almost more a slice of life than anything else. The protagonist teaches Year 10 history, and is faced with students who want to know why Earth history should even be considered relevant to them, since they will never see Earth or indeed anywhere but this ship, and are unlikely to face any problems of historical significance in their lifetime. Her grandmother was one of the founders of the music Memory Project, but her mother felt that the old art was irrelevant and left to join a commune making new art, and her daughter, too, rebelled, performing new music that was never to be recorded.

The story, then, seems to be about the significance of art, of creativity, of history and of memory – of the relative importance of retaining the best of one’s old culture (and who exactly judges what this is?) versus creating new cultural artefacts, when there is not, realistically, the space to do both. These are questions that are addressed and explored but not really answered, perhaps because they cannot be answered.

I liked this story, and the characterisation of it, but for me, the most compelling image was of all these generations of people whose lives are constrained by their ancestors’ choices. They did not choose to be born and die on a ship, after all, or to spend their lives preserving and learning skills which will be used only by their great-grandchildren. To an extent, I suppose, all our lives are constrained by those of our ancestors, but not to this degree.

I don’t know. It’s a story about music and about history and about creativity, and I feel like I really should have liked it more than I did. I have a feeling it’s going to win its category, but I don’t quite want it to.

I think my ballot will be “Children of Thorns”, “A Series of Steaks”, “Extracurricular Activities”, “Wind Will Rove”, “Small Changes Over Long Periods” and “The Secret Life of Bots”, but to be honest, the top four could easily all switch around – I’d be happy to see any of them as winners.

Hugo reading 2018: Extracurricular Activities, by Yoon Ha Lee

Extracurricular Activities” by Yoon Ha Lee is set in the same universe as Ninefox Gambit, which I haven’t read since last year, and so it took me a little while to realise that, oh, wait, THAT’s who the protagonist is. THAT being a young Shuos Jedao, years before his atrocities, and thus many, many years before his consciousness decanted into the brain of Kel Cheris at the start of Ninefox Gambit. So that was a double take.

This story is basically a spy story caper, in space. It contains many of my favourite tropes – I love characters who seem to be utter dilletantes or wastrels on the surface who turn out to be super competent, and we had some of that; I adored Jedao’s mother, who is even more formidable than he is, in her own particular way; and Jedao himself was a delight, and very nearly as brilliant as he thinks he is. I enjoyed the humour in the mis-translations when he is trying to infiltrate the Gwa Reality (and what IS the problem with his haircut?), and I liked the interactions between characters. (Also, just randomly, genderqueer characters seem to be a thing this Hugo year. The puppies must be feeling very sad indeed by now.)

In fact, I enjoyed everything about this story except… the story itself, really. I did not want that ending. I especially did not want that ending in that universe, given the prevalence of torture everywhere.

I’m not sure quite how to rate this one. Up until I realised where the story had to go, I liked it most of all the novelettes so far – but I don’t think the story was flawed in and of itself. Just… not the story I wanted. Which is probably unfair, because Yoon Ha Lee is always going to write well, but he is definitely NEVER going to be writing the sort of stories that make me happy – he likes to raise the stakes too much.

Hugo reading 2018: Short Story Nominations

I’m doing this category in one giant batch, because I don’t think anyone really wants blog posts that go for two paragraphs at most…

Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience, by Rebecca Roanhorse is a near-future science-fiction story with a theme of cultural appropriation that expands to… appropriate the whole story, for want of a better description. It’s hard to talk about this story without spoilers, but the protagonist works in a virtual reality studio, providing ‘authentic’ Indian spirit guide experiences, which have more to do with what people have seen in old movies than anything relating to either the historical or contemporary experiences of American First Nations people. The story is told in the 2nd person, which is cleverer than it sounds, given the context.  It’s very gritty, and a bit single white female, with a twist at the end that I’m not entirely sure I understood.  It was fine, but didn’t grab me – it’s a bit grim for my tastes.

(Incidentally, Roanhorse was also nominated for a Campbell award, and this story was her contribution to the voter pack.)

Fandom for Robots, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad, on the other hand, is a total delight.  In this story, a somewhat obsolete sentient robot who works in a museum discovers an anime series about a human and a robot on a revenge quest and becomes hooked. And then he discovers fanfic. Which is not logical, nor does it portray the robot character accurately. So he decides to see what he can do to increase the standard of accuracy in fanfic, first by commenting, and then, when he sees that honest critiques are not always well received by authors, by writing fanfic himself.   I absolutely loved this story – it’s funny and clever and affectionate and a complete joy to read.

Carnival Nine‘, by Caroline M. Yoachim is an odd sort of story. All the main characters are clockwork toys, who are wound up by the Toymaker every night, and have a certain number of turns during the day. These are determined partly by the quality of the clockwork, and partly by the Toymaker. As the toys get older, their clockwork tends to wind down a bit and they get fewer turns. It’s not very subtle, but the worldbuilding is fun.

The first part of the book introduces our protagonist as a child. She lives with her father, and has a LOT of turns by most standards (generally 35-45), so she is restless and wants adventure. She visits the carnival and meets Vale, and later on runs off to live with him and work at the carnival. It’s fun and the worldbuilding is cute, and it’s all light and fun and enjoyable. And then they decide to make a child together and things go wrong. The child only has four turns a day, which means he can do very little. And so she has to use a lot of her turns on his behalf.

If I’d never heard of spoon theory, I’d probably be fairly impressed by the analogy. As it is, I sort of sat back and watched the author ticking off all the boxes of Life With A Child With A Disability. Relationship falling apart under the stress – check. Guilt about doing anything that wasn’t related to caring – check. Worry about what would happen to child when protagonist dies – check. Resentment at having to use almost all her turns to look after child – check. Guilt about said resentment – check. Focusing on respecting child’s autonomy – check. Finding new ways to accommodate child without completely losing herself – check.

(Andrew wants to point out that this is an instance where the worldbuilding / fantasy genre is helpful in getting people who might not be interested in reading a story about disability to be exposed to these ideas, and he has a point. But I still think it could have been less heavy-handed.)

I like what the author was trying to do, but it felt a little heavy-handed, to be honest. And I felt that the tone of the story was really uneven – it started off very light and bright, but then kind of became a bit of a grim endurance exercise.

Also, I couldn’t help noticing that this was very much disability from the perspective of the carer. We never really know much about what the child thinks about the situation, which I think is a bit of a shame, really.

(Andrew’s perspective is a bit kinder than mine – he sees it more as a slice of life / average life in this world sort of story, though he agrees that the disability stuff is central to the story – but he also pointed out the centrality of not wanting to repeat the mistakes of her parents.)

To me, this story is definitely less successful than Prasad’s story. I’m not sure whether it’s better or worse than Roanhorse’s story. I’ll have to think about that one.

Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde is a strange, strange story, where I’m not entirely sure I know what happened. It is told from the point of view of, I think, a carnival freak, who is showing you through some sort of exhibit. The nature of the exhibit is odd and uncanny and seems to have an unpleasant effect on the person viewing it. It mostly creates an atmosphere of gentle horror, rather than having much in the way of plot, but it does this very well. There are little, unpleasant, allusions to the sorts of medical studies done on the guide and people like her; a place where photos are taken of souls; and the atmosphere is such that when she asks ‘may I take your hand’, one is not at all sure that the question is not a literal one.

It’s very well done, if not quite my cup of tea.

Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon is good fun, as stories by Ursula Vernon always are. Allpa, a nice, unambitious, down-to-earth farmer, is bequeathed a magical sword by his grandmother, and has to deal with three spirits who want to train him to be a hero and go forth and conquer when all he really wants to do is grow nice potatoes. It’s funny and sweet, and there’s a hint of a romance to it, and I like it very much.

The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata is a science fiction tale about a future where everything seems to be doomed by lots of little things – natural disasters, antibiotics failing, Mars colonies not working out. The protagonist, Susannah, views time as a Master Torturer – killing the world and the human race inexorably, but excruciatingly slowly, and responds to this by deciding to build a tower on Mars – a monument to the human race that nobody will ever see, since nobody is there except the robots who are doing her bidding. Except that… maybe someone is there. Or maybe it’s just another AI, or a rival corporation, or something else. This is a story about whether it’s safe to hope, and whether one should hope anyway, and it’s probably one we need right now, but mostly it left me depressed (and also quite pissed off with Nate, who withholds some fairly important information from Susannah, with the specious excuse that she didn’t want news… but I feel that he must have known she would have wanted this news, he just didn’t want her distracted from the project…).

This is a hard category to judge, because there were a lot of things I liked (or at least wanted to like) in it. I’m putting Fandom for Robots first, because it is just such a delightful story. If I’m pretending to be all lit-crit-ish, I could comment that it does some interesting things with the ideas of sentience, logic and emotion, but mostly it’s coming first because I just plain like it. “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience is clearly last, because it did nothing for me even after reading it twice, and “Carnival Nine” is fifth, because I got irritated with its lack of subtlety. But I like all the others for different reasons and just don’t know how to rank them! Right now, I’m inclined to put “Sun, Moon, Dust” second, “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” third, and “The Martian Obelisk” fourth, but they could swap at any time, and may well do so before I put in my final vote.

I should probably look at this as being quite a good thing – there is a 2/3 chance that I’m going to be happy with the winner of this category, after all, and a 1/6 chance that I’ll be very happy with it!

Hugo reading 2018: A Series of Steaks, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad is just a world of fun.  In it, we meet Helena, an artist in 3D printing, which in this world can be used for everything from making meat from animal cells, to creating replacement organs for human beings.

Helena… started off on the latter track, but after a catastrophe, she found herself on the run from a powerful family, and had to change her name and go underground.  She now makes a living forging steaks, something which is apparently illegal in this world. When she is blackmailed into forging a large order of T-bone steaks, she hires an assistant, Lily, who is perky and energetic and very competent, and who has, shall we say, hidden depths. I sort of want to be Lily when I grow up…

I don’t want to say too much about this story, because it’s too delicious to spoil.  It has moments of darkness – I mean, technically you might say it was in the noir genre – but the relationships between the central characters are delightful. I also really appreciated the description of the artistry involved in forging meat – making sure the marbling is just random enough to look real, but not so random that it no longer looks organic, for example – not to mention the anatomical knowledge required to put a steak together that looks and behaves like a steak.

Also, did I mention that I adored both Helena and Lily?

I found myself chortling with glee as the story wound towards its conclusions.    Highly recommended.

Prasad was nominated for a Campbell Award, and this was part of her voter pack, alongside her short story, Fandom for Robots, which was also enormous fun.  I’ve put her high wherever I’ve seen her on the ballot, and hope to read more of her.

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: 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: Laurie Penny

Next up in the Campbell Awards was Laurie Penny. I read Your Orisons May Be Recorded first, and somewhat by accident.  This is basically a story about a call centre staffed by angels and demons (there was a recent merger) to answer prayers.  Not necessarily with positive answers, mind you, but still.  It’s quite amusing, rather cute, and often endearing, but slowly gets darker.  It’s also strongly reminiscent of volunteering at Lifeline.

Laurie has a nice, humourous, understated way of writing, and by the end of the story, I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.  It’s almost horror.  Maybe it is horror.  But it’s quite funny, and the ending is rather sweet.  I quite liked this.

Having realised that this wasn’t actually part of the Novella nominations, I then moved on to a Laurie Penny Binge read.  Next up in the Hugo pack for Penny was Blue Monday which was utterly distressing and definitely in the horror department.  Basically, any story that starts ‘I used to want to change the world. Now I just want my cat back.’ is unlikely to end well for this reader.  And it didn’t.

It is about a government-funded company that mass produces cute animal videos, because this keeps the population happy even when they are poor and hungry and have no prospects.  The animal cruelty implications of this are explored.  And when the protagonist’s girlfriend leaves and leaves her cat behind, and the protagonist starts making videos of the cat looking sad because she misses her person, the company sees an opportunity to make viral videos of unhappy animals.  And steals the cat.  And it gets worse from there.  Nothing is made explicit, but the implications are distressing enough.

I found this very upsetting to read and I very nearly didn’t get any further, but I decided to give Penny one more chance.  Which was a good thing, because her next story, The Killing Jar, was fantastic.

Once again, we have a heroine in a very banal job (Penny is very good at putting people in petty admin jobs with quirky or fantastical contexts).  She is an unpaid intern working for a serial killer in a world where serial murders, provided they can prove artistic merit and get funding, are considered a fine art.  People even apply to be victims.

This one was very funny, because you have all the usual hallmarks of a horrible boss, who has a lot of raw talent but is fixated on fame, and completely exploits his intern, along with the bureaucracy (grant applications, complaint forms) and misogyny (women just don’t have the right sort of passion and upbringing to become truly great serial killers, you know) that goes with it.  I love the girlfriend who is a taxidermist who shows her care by killing butterflies especially for the protagonist.  And I love the way the protagonist comes into her own in the end, in the only possible way this story could end.

I actually really loved this one.

So I decided to read the fourth book in the pack after all.

Everything Belongs to the Future is a novella about a world in which someone has found a cure for aging, but the patents are held by a pharmaceutical company that charges enormous sums for the privilege, and so only the rich can afford not to age.  An underground cell becomes involved in stealing the medication and distributing it freely as part of a soup van thing, but we know from the start that they have been infiltrated by Alex, who is genuinely in love with Nina, one of the women in the cell, but who also fully intends to betray the group.

This was the most overtly political and science-fictiony of Penny’s works, and it was very good.  The characters were well-drawn – I rather love Daisy, the scientist and inventor of the initial process who is 90 years old but looks like a teenager because she was ‘fixed’ at a young age – and the worldbuilding was horrifyingly plausible.  It looked like pretty much what I’d expect to have happen, if such a cure was found in America (we *might* do better here with the PBS, but I don’t know).  It explored rather lightly the ways in which such a fix would change society, but went more into the dynamics of the team of rebels themselves, and the various different responses they have to the problem that is to hand.

It was, in many ways, a dark story, but it’s quite compelling, and at the end, there is definitely hope.  And I liked the way it twined into the story of the Devil’s Bridge.

Overall, then, for Laurie Penny I have one story I loved, one which I hated, and two which I quite liked.  All were well-written and quite clever, and I do like the way she takes very banal, mundane jobs and adds science fiction or fantasy to them.  I like her humour and ability to use understatement, too.

So far, Penny is clearly worlds ahead of Mulrooney, because even when I hated what she was writing, I was engaged and she was writing it well.  It will be trickier if we get a writer in there who doesn’t give me nightmare material but who doesn’t compel me as much, either…