Tuesday, April 28, 2015

SNARL: Big Boys Don't Cry

There has been a big kerfluffle about the Hugo awards in Science Fiction this year, and most of it has been about the political and cultural implications of the works and the award process. At this point we have a set of nominees. I will be voting in August for which author will take home the coveted rocket-shaped Hugo trophy(s). This is the second of several actual reviews by me of those nominated works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of: "Big Boys Don’t Cry", Tom Kratman (Castalia House)

This novell is not awful. I would even call it readable. In plainer terms; after reading this novella you should not feel the desire to scoop your brains out with a plastic spoon in the hopes of removing the residue of having read it.  After the last Hugo-award-nominated novella that alone earns this story at least one star. There are other worthwhile elements of the story, and by the end of this review it will have earned a total of 3 stars (out of 10).

This story takes place in a bolo-type universe. For those of you not familiar this refers to a series of short stories written by Keith Laumer starting in 1960 with the short story “Combat Unit” (though the term "Bolo" does not appear until 1966 in the story "The Last Command"). The Bolos are huge (thousands of tons) cybernetic super tanks. They have super pre-programmed abilities, simplistic emotions, and kick major ass. One of the major drawbacks of Bolos are that they are almost unstoppable, and page-after-page of them overwhelmingly destroying much lesser opponents gets rather tedious. It was almost tedious in Laumer’s original stories, and though he earned two Hugo and four Nebula nominations, none of them were for a Bolo story.

Kratman calls his Bolos “Ratha” for some reason. A Ratha is a type of top-heavy-looking religious cart used in some Hindu festivals. In the opening battle(s) the matronly Ratha named “Maggie” (or Magnolia) fights an alien described as “slugs”; I almost thought I was in for an interesting twist with a large ceremonial cart fighting an agricultural pest. We are at a point in the development of SF where the use of a classic Boloverse could be an interesting vehicle for the examination of subtle and profound ideas (like in AI or cyberpunk). Kratman gets another star for successfully creating a Boloverse-story at a time when it might be very interesting to do so.

The story is schizophrenic. Intense battle scenes are interspersed with morality vignettes. There are a couple of places where Kratman expounds on Rathaverse technical details; like musing over the decision to use tracked or antigrav or some type of hybrid propulsion system. Then Kratman goes on to ignore plausibility without explanation to try and make the Ratha appear more badass than even traditional Bolo. For instance, he has a Ratha calculate the time of arrival of an incoming salvo to six significant figures (4.23963 seconds), and then describes the salvo as resulting in the combined impact of six to ten close detonations of Hiroshima-level atomic bombs, and then goes on to point out that more than 60% of the Ratha’s ablative armor is still intact.

“Magnolia… report … report follows. I… have sustained six… close… nuclear bursts in the fifteen to twenty-five… kiloton range. Ablative armor… down by thirty-seven percent.” – Ratha Magnolia (Maggie) reports her condition after nuclear salvo.

The battle scenes get tedious, but I do find battle scenes to be tedious for the most part. I suppose these battle scenes are less tedious than some, and so I give this story one more star for the battle scenes.

The story really starts to come apart during the morality vignettes. Several of them announce some major issue as if it makes sense, and then proceed to let the story go on as if there were no glaring questions or implications left dangling in the wind. The vignette in the first chapter describes 113 years of an anti-human genocide campaign by the fuzzy praying-mantis-like aliens called the Nighean Ruadh. The NR were destroying “Six to eight”, and as many as thirteen, entire planets every terrestrial year. After one planet (Beauharnais) falls a group of Washyorkstons kill a hundred-some-odd security guards and politicians (dragged to the lampposts) to … do what exactly? Do they start a revolution? Do they convince the political establishment of some set of unstated demands? Do they have no effect at all? Do they plunge the human world into a chaos they barely escape from? And how does any of this happen?

In another vignette a commander is a poor commander because he is too busy –presumably- having sex with a redhead than commanding.

The vignettes are not stitched together well. It is as if Kratman is trying to get across a system of morality and belief in a way that only someone with the same system of morality and belief would understand. Each vignette might stand for something if it were more developed, but developing them more might make them sound ridiculous or something? In the final analysis the part of the story where real literary impact could have at least been attempted was spent half-developing some undecipherable moral structure. He could have picked up 6 or 7 stars here, but he only gets one

Finaly the programmed-for-obedience Ratha, damaged beyond repair, frags a group of human officers. There are so many really great reasons for this Ratha to frag the officers. One could even develop a PTSD thread from the interminable battle scenes, but Kratman chooses “none of the above”. The final straw is that they wish to reclaim the metal which the Ratha was made of ;"And now they argue over who gets the price of my bones". It could even be that she resents her humans for trying to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks”.

The end of a good SF novella is a place tailor-made for contemplation and discovery. The end of this felt more like immature retribution.

Over, and over again, this story came close to delivering, and then fell short. There was so much promise in this story. It may have gotten fewer stars from me because this failure to deliver disappointed me. However, this is a Hugo nominated work, and as such it should not fail to deliver.

Monday, April 27, 2015

SNARL: “The Plural of Helen of Troy”

There has been a big kerfluffle about the Hugo awards in Science Fiction this year, and most of it has been about the political and cultural implications of the works and the award process. At this point we have a set of nominees. I will be voting in August for which author will take home the coveted rocket-shaped Hugo trophy(s). This is the first of several actual reviews by me of those nominated works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of: “The Plural of Helen of Troy”, John C. Wright (City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, Castalia House)

I purchased it from Amazon, and read it in Kindle format. Twice I literally passed out while reading it. My eyes drifted closed, and the Kindle slipped from my fingers onto the floor. I have two more novellas, one short story, and a "Best Related Work"  from this author to read, and I will try and read them after I have gone to bed, and the ability to quickly fall into a dreamless sleep without the help of pharmaceuticals will be very worthwhile. I give this book at least half a star for being potentially useful.

The idea of the story is that a pure innocent JFK (yep... John Fitzgerald Kennedy POTUS) who has never had sex with Marilyn Monroe (aka Helen of Troy or HOT) appears as a vision to impure JFK and tells him how he can prevent himself from raping HOT by hiring a PI to shoot a magic-crystal-containing-bathroom-door. This then “pushes anyone passing down that particular artificial spacetime continuum path back into the real spacetime” which causes “the first world holding the original version of this city” to come out of the mist, and almost everyone is saved.

Time travel is a best complicated, and at worst is just stupid. Unfortunately it is rarely at its best, and there is very little middle ground.

There are three big problems with time travel.

The first being that any shifting in time changes the nature of the universe in bizarre ways; energy, mater, and the laws of physics themselves stop making sense when time travel is involved. It is difficult to apply energy, mater, and the laws of physics to the goal of time travel when they stop making sense when you do. Time travel is an actual unsolvable impossible problem, and therefore must rely on the reader's suspension of disbelief in order to be an acceptable part of the story. Whenever an author uses time travel in a story they owe the reader something for not closing their book and moving onto something less silly as soon as they realize time travel is part of the story.

The second problem with time travel is actually the reason why it is such a worthwhile story device for science fiction writers. Time travel introduces paradoxes. A good writer can turn the paradoxes into something that repays the reader for their suspension of disbelief.

The third problem is that time travel too easily devolves into deus ex machina. The lazy writer easily uses time travel to fix continuity or plot elements. Deus ex machina can so quickly become so convoluted in a time travel story that the author must begin inventing special half-baked rules for time travel... rules that in the more insipid stories are seemingly made up whenever the story goes off track, and then begin developing exceptions.

““Time Travel makes everyone's head hurt,” I grumbled. “It should be against the law.”” John C. Wright's character Jacob Quirinus Christoforo Frontino explaining to Helen Of Troy/Marylin Monroe something John C Wright should have taken as advice.

Wright creates a world where time travel is happening so regularly that some structures and devices are actually made of “time stuff”; there is a continual time paradox weather condition called the mist. People and things travel through time in “The Plural of Helen of Troy” using a dizzying array of devices that have different sets of rules and exceptions. There is also real spacetime and artificial spacetime, and differing ability to perceive changes happening in anything. There is a “hard” memory which is involatile to changes caused by manipulations of physics, space and time except when it is altered by amnesia inducing objects which –I assume- cause changes in the “hard” memory by manipulating physics, space and time in some particular way.

Then, in the hopes of creating tension and an artificial reveal at the end (beginning) Wright writes the story in reverse order. It is as if he thinks that making the story confusing enough will hide how awful it is. I was left thinking that the story was confusing enough, and that the author was actively trying not to tell it in a way that would help the reader understand.

Luckily Wright created the gritty fedora-loving PI Jake Frontino who though “a bit unclear on how jet planes fly without a prop” is able to pull out just the right deus ex machina whenever the story has painted the author into a corner. He has a super gun shaped like a Police Special he keeps in a shoulder holster; actually the Police Special is just an aiming unit “The real weapon was the size of a warehouse sitting in a null-time vacuole in the forth-and-a-half dimension”. He also has a dream coffin, an anything maker, and a picture of the American flag that becomes a magic picture window when he whistles at it. The magic picture shows him whatever he wants by simply knowing what is on his mind, and the volume can be controlled by pointing at it.

The science in this science fiction book comes across as if the author believes science is just amalgamating a bunch of important-sounding words together. Get this description of what protagonist Frontino’s police special does when it is shot at something.

“The gun emitted a magnetic force field shaped like a tube to guide the missile to the target and built an invisible set of braces and baffles out of nucleonic energy-tension to suppress the explosion within a five-foot radius. Then the gun focused a time distortion hole on the spot to sweep the wreckage of the door panels and part of the wall sideways out of the continuum, into the non-being between time streams, as the missile plasma ruptured and made a miniature version of the sun.” – What happens when Jake Frontino shoots a wall with his super gun.

There is more to be said about this work. I could point out how the author became tired of the entire cast of history to choose characters from, and dipped into the pool of fictional characters without explanation. I could point out how the author’s description of women was two-dimensional and patronizing; like what would be expected from a young boy who had never really dealt with a female who was not his Mom (at least in his eyes). How he continually used continuum to name something he was describing as a disjoint-ium. But I want to end this on a positive note before it gets as long as the novella itself.

This work was inspirational. I read several passages to AYD, and she stated that: “even the kids in remedial English could write something better than that, maybe someday I will win a Hugo?!”

Thursday, April 23, 2015

SNARL's Not A Recommendation List

I have "put my money where my mouth is". This is not something I like to do. Firstly, I am a cheapskate, and spending actual money is irritating. Secondly, I dislike the metaphor. I would rather put words or food where my mouth is as that is what a mouth is for. I could even identify a second tier of things that I would like to put where my mouth is that the mouth may not really be made for*, but which would be more pleasant than putting money there. So I would prefer to say I have “ponied up” and purchased a supporting membership to WorldCon  (or more accurately the World Science Fiction Society) rather than say I have done so to "put my money where my mouth is".

I now get to vote for the Hugo awards. If you would like to have a vote like me then you can follow this link (https://sasquan.swoc.us/sasquan/reg.php), pony up your own $40.00, and get a vote of your very own.

I am not alone. Between March 30th and April 15th more people purchased supporting memberships than voted in the nominating process. WorldCon now has over 7,000 members. That is a lot of ponying up.  Which means there must be quite a few ponies, and I suspect the piles of horse dung left after this year's Hugo awards will be impressive. 

 I suspect that over 10% of them will read a significant portion of the books on the nomination list. I will be in that rarified group.

I may not have time to read the novels (even though I already own one of them) before August. I have a acquired a good day job since my gafiation several decades ago. If I cannot read the novels I will not vote for a book in that category.

I will start with the novellas. The list looks disappointing, and the only way I think reading these might be fun is if I give myself permission to critique them on this blog. If I like them I will tell you -my loyal readers- what I like about them, and if I dislike them I will flamboyantly describe the experience of reading them.

I hope some of you will consider buying a supporting membership in WorldCon now that you know you will have my snark to keep your decision company.

Just so I can be part of the “in” crowd I will use my critiques to develop a set of recommendations. I suppose I should call the list “yet another type of puppy”, but I've not figured out why that is not as dumb as it sounds. Instead I will create a recursive acronym; I like recursive acronyms.

SNARL = SNARL's Not A Recommendation List

I love the way a part of my brain gets stuck on an infinite loop when I read that, and I have to hit some metaphorical Ctrl-C to move on to the next paragraph.

The nominated novella list is:

Best Novella (1083 nominating ballots, 201 entries, range 145-338)
  Big Boys Don’t Cry, Tom Kratman (Castalia House)
  “Flow”, Arlan Andrews, Sr. (Analog, 11-2014)
  One Bright Star to Guide Them, John C. Wright (Castalia House)
  “Pale Realms of Shade”, John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House)
  “The Plural of Helen of Troy”, John C. Wright (City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, Castalia House)

Finalists are listed in alphabetical order. The order listed has nothing to do with their relative number of nominations received. “Entries” means the number of individual works or individuals nominated in that category. The “range” listed in each category is the number of nominations the last-place finalist received and the number of nominations the first-place finalist received.

And I am not even sure where to get any of these. I usually prefer to only pay for books that someone I respect has told me were worth reading (maybe I will eventually let slip which of the novels on the nomination list I already own). Access to the novella may dictate where I start....

Look! Three of the novellas are by the same author. He must be the greatest science fiction author ever. I will probably start with one of his.....

*The term "made for" does, on a first pass at least, imply a creator acting with a purpose in mind.  I do mean made by evolution for a particular set of functions.   This illustrates a basic problem with eliminating god from our culture.  Language was devised by humans, and one of the most important things for that social species to talk about is other humans.  Because of this colloquial language includes an anthropomorphizing bias.  It is  natural to use terms that imply a humanity behind anything.  There is no reason, however, to demand that the humanity behind everything is anything more than the humans behind creating the language that is being used to describe all this stuff we need to talk about. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Once and Future Hugo

Not content with re-writing the past and re-framing the present, the Neofeudalist machine has decided to re-write the future. The future is –of course- sandwiched between the covers of science fiction books. Some of the best science fiction has been awarded the prestigious Hugo award. Anti-Atheist Neofeudalist crusaders have successfully hijacked this year’s Hugo awards. There may be no place for you in the future they are creating.

The Neofeudalists have been telling you what is best in everything that has, or is, happening. Now they have branched out into science fiction to tell you what is best in what will happen.

The Hugo awards for science fiction writing may have started in 1953, but they sputtered about until a full slate of awards was presented in the late 1960s. The way the Hugo awards were decided was a reflection of the era in which it formed. A bunch of people who read too much science fiction (the Fandom) plunked down a small membership fee (now $40 USD) and wrote down which science fiction stories they liked the best. Those that got the most votes received a lovely rocket-shaped trophy.

By contrast the Nebula awards are decided by a group of professional science fiction writers (SFWA). Most of the time there is an uncanny similarity between the nominees for Nebula, and those for a Hugo. Many of the winners are the same too; especially in the Novel category. I suppose this is partly because there are a limited number of brand new science fiction novels that most people can read in a year. Though, in my experience, there does appear to be a vast, almost limitless, number of bad science fiction novels.

The Hugos therefore suffer under the burdens of choice presented to the “average” obsessive reader of science fiction. I tend to be more likely to spend money buying the new book by some author I have liked in the past rather than splurge by investing scarce time and money on reading someone new. The Hugos have a number of repeat winners. Victor Vinge won three Hugos out of the six times he was nominated; in contrast he was nominated for three Nebula awards, and never won. I happen to really like Victor Vinge’s work (It is smart insightful science fiction), and so I think this is a real plus for the Hugo awarding process. On the other hand Robert Jordan, who died in 2007, garnered a 2014 nomination (he did not win) for his interminable “Wheel of Time” series; the last –hopefully- of which was created from his notes in 2013 by Brandon Sanderson.

The second most important category for these two awards is the Novella (a story of between 17,500 and 40,000 words). Like the Novel category there is usually overlap in the nomination pool, and some overlap in the winners. That is, there was overlap until this year. In 2014 there were two overlap novella nominations (“Six-Gun Snow White” by Catherynne M. Valente and “Wakulla Springs” by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages ). In 2013 there were 3 overlap nominations. In 2012 there were 5 overlap nominations, and the winner was the same for both awards (“The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson). This overlap is not a new phenomenon. In 1968, the first year there was a Hugo Novella award, there were three overlap nominations. This means that about half, give-or-take, of the five or six nominations are usually overlaps. In 2015 there are NO overlap nominations; none.

Another interesting feature of the 2015 Hugo novella nominations is that three of the five nominations are from the same author! Four of the novella nominations are from the same publisher (Castalia House); a publisher whose works had never before been nominated for either a Nebula or a Hugo award! Similar schisms in the fabric of space and time exist for other categories as well. For instance Theodore Beale using the pseudonym “Vox Day” (apparently a phonetic spelling of the Latin “Vox Dei” or voice of God) is nominated for the first time as an editor, at Castalia House, in both the long and short form categories.

Sharp increase in Hugo nominating ballots

The nominating pool for Hugo awards has increased over the years, but has, until recently, been a diversely voting small group; 800 or less, and usually closer to 500. Starting in 2009 there has been a steady increase, with a large jump in 2014, and now the number of nominating ballots for the novel category stands at almost two thousand. Nominating margins before 2014 had been small, and even in 2014 an organized group of a couple hundred could swing the decision.

Since 2009 there has been a demographic trend in the nominees. The number of female nominees has increased.  In 2010 it achieved the previous maximum (about 50% for both 1992 and 1993) and stayed there for three years in a row. This may not sound amazing since parity had already been achieved for about the same length of time, but to some it was evidence of a secret conspiracy. The 2014 nominee list brought the number females down to the historical average of 20%, and the 2014 list almost eliminates females from the nominee list, especially if you count John C Wright as a male every time he appears on the ballot.

The problem with suggesting that there is a loose knit conspiracy of science fiction fans that drives the voting is that the very basis of the Hugo award nominating process requires a conspiracy. The voting even takes place at a special convention (Worldcon) where voting members gather to talk about science fiction and influence what other voting members read. I’m sure many dress in special uniforms, and some have secret handshakes. If  changing demographics are correlated with an increased interest in Worldcon, and an increased readership for science fiction, then isn’t this a good thing?

The doubling of nominating ballots in the 2014-2015 time frame appears to be of a different sort. Diversity amongst nominees, as evidenced by the same writers earning multiple nominations, suggests that these new voters joined up to vote rather than to experience an enhanced level of Fandom. Lack of relevance, as evidenced by no overlap in some categories with the Nebula awards (despite great authors such as Daryl Gregory, Nancy Kress, Ken Liu, Mary Rickert, Lawrence M. Schoen, and Rachel Swirsky being nominated for Novella Nebula awards), suggests that these new voters are voting based on an entirely alien set of aesthetics. In other words it looks a lot like the ballots are being stuffed to rig the election.

Some individuals have decided to fight back. The choice of “No Award” has been used in the past. In 1987 “No Award” beat out a posthumously published L. Ron Hubbard novel in the battle for fifth place. There is a push to vote in “No Award” as the overall winner in several categories (like novella) this year. If the numbers do not lie there may be more shadow voters than there are individuals willing to vote in “No Award”.

Why should atheists be concerned about this breakdown in an idealistic science fiction awards process? We should be concerned because of the individuals who will likely be awarded Hugos. Though the apparently homophobic trodlodyte John C Wright deserves significant attention because of his multiple nominations, it is Vox Day who should gain special attention from Atheists.

In 2014 Vox’s first wave of ballot stuffing did not work as well as he had hoped. His novelette "Opera Vita Aeterna" was able to get nominated, but came in sixth out of the field of five nominees, just behind “No Award”.

 In 2012 Vox ran for president of SFWA, and lost by an embarrassingly gigantic margin. He responded by throwing temper tantrums on twitter (allegedly calling one author a “half-savage” in reference to his race). This lead to a closer examination of Vox’s blog where, apparently, one can find all sorts of racist-sexist-homophobic-bigoted ramblings. He was unanimously voted out of the SFWA organization by mid august 2012.

     “We invented the Crusade and the Inquisition, two institutions so historically intimidating that atheists still shiver and tell each other scary stories about them centuries after the event.
     We will revive them before we will abandon our faith. And while we would prefer to live with both Christian and traditional Constitutional values, if we are forced to choose between the two, we will choose the former without even thinking twice.” – Vox Day in his blog "Vox Populi" 3 April 2014

Vox Day wrote “The Irrational Atheist” in 2008. It was praised by far right and Christian proponents as a “secular” set of arguments against Atheism, and Dawkins-Harris-Hitchens in particular. Others have called it a string of loosely connected logical fallacies. I have not read it, but I did look over it in preview on Google Books. I read a chapter on the crusades where Vox insists that religion did not have as much to do with the crusades as everyone believes. It is interesting that six years later he is laying claim to the crusades, and suggesting that they are evidence of Christian power that Atheists should not ignore.

Vox has also written a book explaining the current economic situation, and grew up the son of famous tax protester Robert Beale. Vox’s dad Bob was a religious zealot who was on the board for Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential bid, was a board member for Living Word Christian Center and was also on the board of the far-right propaganda outlet “WorldNetDaily” (WND). Vox literally inherited access to far-right war chests. In recent years these have swelled to the size where they can blow almost a million dollars propping up a small-town pizza joint just because they were stupid enough to state they would not cater a gay wedding (though, as far as I know, no gay couples had ever asked them to cater their wedding). $40,000.00 to rig a Hugo award is well within the discretionary spending limits for such deep pockets.

From what little I could stomach of his blog it appears to me that Vox is also a climate change denier, and generally antiscience. What is he doing even being considered as a science fiction anything? If he is what has become of the best of the genre then I will start reading romance novels or something.

The 2015 Hugo awards are an attack on a secular future because they attack our ability to communicate what we think of a future. Even if that future is far in the past in some alternate universe.

What can be done? If the ballots are rigged using shadow voters then Worldcon should use some of the money that the new voters spent on membership fees, and validate that these new members actually exist. We could call on publishers to ignore the 2015 Hugo awards. A couple nominees, and one presenter, have declined their invitations to participate; we could ask more presenters and participants to refuse to participate. In any convention the exhibitors are a big factor in the event’s success, we could ask exhibitors to send a note of protest instead of a display. We could all also pony up $40.00 and vote for “No Award” (although I am not sure memberships are still open).

One of the most damaging things this really shows is how easily Hugos can be bought.  The cost of the 2015 Hugos will end up being less than the marketing budget of a small Finish-based close-to-vanity press publisher like Castalia House.  If the Hugos turn into a bidding war then Worldcon should do something amazing with the extra revenue; like build a space ship or even a future where everyone is really smart and good looking, or just a talking cloud of pulsating colored energy.

I would suggest that Worldcon make a time machine, but I do not trust them to use such an awesome super power for good, and they already have one.  For the past couple years Worldcon has awarded retro Hugos for items published before there were Hugos.  They call them "retro Hugos".  In alternative 1939 (2014) Ayn Rand's novella titled "Anthem" was nominated for a Hugo.  It did not win, but solidly beat "No Award" by about 100 votes in the 5th round of voting.  In real 1939 few people read, and fewer liked, Rand's dystopian novella.  In alternative 1939 it was one of the five best novellas.  I've always wondered why, when people time travel back to the beginning of world war II, they can't go and kill Adolph Hitler.

I know many of us are members of the greater science fiction Fandom. Those that are not really should consider joining. It is amazing how many of the really utopian-like futures feature people who have forgotten about religion, at least those future people have forgotten about it until now….