Saturday, May 30, 2015

Don't crush THAT Hugo, hand me the SNARL

My ballots for the Best Dramatic Presentation categories are, except where they are not, fairly well developed. I probably will not decide until the last minute about Captain America and the Lego Movie, but one of these will come in 3rd place, and the other will be 4th.

 Best Dramatic Presentation
 Short Form
 Long Form
  1.  Orphan Black: “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried
  2. Doctor Who: “Listen
  3. No Award
  4. The Flash: “Pilot
  5. Grimm: “Once We Were Gods

  1.  Interstellar
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy
  3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  4. The Lego Movie
  5. Edge of Tomorrow

I will be using “No Award” in the short form category, but only to distinguish the two works I really think are worthy of a Hugo from the two I do not. The GOT nominee does not appear on my ballot because I have not had access to it; I suspect it would have been a preferred choice, perhaps even my top choice.

The Best Dramatic Presentation category(s) is not a stranger to the “No Award” option. In fact it represents the only real remaining category that has been won overall by “No Award”. “No Award” has won the Best Dramatic Presentation category four times (1959, 1963, 1971, and 1977).  It was not divided into the short and long form categories until 2002. 

I am still wounded over the 1971 loss of “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers” to “No Award”. I remember people using the title of that slab of vinyl to improvise tests of human cognition and communication. Aldus Huxley may have theorized about the “Doors of Perception”, but the Firesign Theater tried to adjust the hinges of those doors with pliers. By manipulating the intonation, spacing, and emphasis of that Hugo-nominated album title one could develop multiple meanings. The spaces within conversations could be filled with experimental versions of the title:

  • Don’t crush THAT dwarf! Hand me the pliers.
  • Don’t Crush THAT! DWARF! Hand me the pliers.
  • Don’t CRUSH that dwarf. Hand me the PLIERS!
  • Don’t crush that dwarf, hand ME the pliers.

Decades later I would find out that “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers” did not barely lose out to “No Award”, and that “Blows Against the Empire “ by Jefferson Starship had actually come in second place. I know that the Jefferson Starship supergroup that put out “Blows Against the Empire” was not really the same band that “Built This City” in  1985 ("Worst song of the 80s" by a Rolling Stone Reader's poll), but the fact that they had the same name, and several of the same members, makes me think it was better that "No Award" won in that year.

In addition to the dubious distinctions of most “No Award” winners, and for propelling films like "Flesh Gordon" (nominated 1975) to prominence, the Best Dramatic Presentation has been a place where stories too far ahead of their time could be reconsidered in a digested visual format some of the members of fandom could better relate to.

During his life none of Ray Bradbury’s stories would be nominated for a standard timeline Hugo. Ray Bradbury is a name that defines the genre of science fiction to generations of readers. The first science fiction I read was Ray Bradbury. In 2004 Worldcon did use their time machine to go back to 1954 and present Bradbury with a Hugo trophy for the novel "Fahrenheit 451", and the adaptations of two of his stories were nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation on that same time-travel excursion. A film version of "Fahrenheit 451" had been nominated for a Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo in 1967; it was the first of four (1967, 1970, 1981,1984) Best Dramatic Presentation nominations that adaptations of Bradbury’s stories would receive before the time travel trip from 2004 to 1954. Because of the timeless excellence of Bradbury’s science fiction and fantasy it is likely that adaptations of his stories will sporadically be nominated far into a future where our Hugo votes are pulled effortlessly from the fabric of our thoughts by the glowing blue Worldcon-being of pure energy.

I am happy with this year’s Best Dramatic Presentation nominations lists. If you vote exactly like me the best nominee will win. If you decide to be wrong and vote differently, and if enough of you vote differently as well, then it is highly likely that another Hugo-worthy nominee will win in these categories.

Remember, that if you want to vote there is still time to buy a sustaining (voting) membership for only $40.

Friday, May 29, 2015

SNARL: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

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). I have read and reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella and for best short story and for short form Best Dramatic Presentation .  Now I tackle all the nominated long form Best Dramatic Presentation nominees. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

I watched all of these movies before I saw them on the Hugo nominations list. They are all good movies, and worth a bit of hard earned down-time to watch. I get to review them without reflexively asking “Would anybody want to watch/read this?”, and get down to the more important business of defining my own personal opinion. All good reviews are subjective because they arise in part from the reviewer’s enjoyment of the subject, and resonate with the reviewer’s reasons for picking up the subject of the review to begin with.

These reviews will be short. All five nominated works will be reviewed here in this single post. I present them in the order in which they were listed on the Hugo nominations list.

This is a review of the entire Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category
(1285 nominating ballots, 189 entries, range 204-769)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, concept and story by Ed Brubaker, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (Marvel Entertainment, Perception, Sony Pictures Imageworks)

This is my least favorite of the movies, and it was a pretty good comic-book movie. The problems I had with it are most likely derived from an accurate presentation of material from the comic books. This movie loses two stars; one for straining my suspension of disbelief too far in attempting to create a too-gigantic hydra conspiracy, and again with the multiple modifications to simple physics needed to visualize the dramatic destruction scenes. The loss of two stars for these elements is probably not fair since these issues most likely arose from talented artists succeeding in creating what they set out to create.

This movie is the work of talented artists. The acting is reserved enough to appear pulled from the pages of a comic book without being wooden or incompetent. The action is well choreographed. I was in awe at how well the CGI overlaid incredible SF action and destruction over wonderful views of Washington DC. The story of two friends uniting after decades apart is touching, and skillfully creates the 4D humanity I have always enjoyed from the 2D offspring of Stan Lee’s creativity.

Go see it. Buy some popcorn, and turn off your cellphone for a little while. I give it 8 stars (out of 10)

Edge of Tomorrow, screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth, directed by Doug Liman (Village Roadshow, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, 3 Arts Entertainment; Viz Productions)

Every time I see Tom Cruise absolutely nailing a science fiction role I can’t help but imagine he has an unfair advantage because, as an outspoken scientologist, he actually believes stuff like this is real. THAT is method acting at its finest. If you cannot stand to sit and watch Tom Cruise for an extended period of time then do not go see this movie.

This movie loses three stars, and for similar reasons. One star gets flushed for the manipulation of physics the artists used to compress the action; I think they wanted to put so much action on the screen at once that they often put heavily incompatible elements too close together. The other star gets flushed by the alien menace. Although there were no glitches (that I saw) in the CGI the characteristics of their movement and abilities made them appear like they were CGI movie effects. The third star is lost for raising too many distracting questions about how there is such a massively high tech futuristic Earth war being fought almost entirely on a tactical level. Din’t the aliens think to destroy the factories where those nifty mech-like battle armor suits were being made? Didn’t they see the D-Day-Like invasion coming and nuke the bases from space before the troops turned towards the English Channel? Perhaps these questions could have been answered, but the constant stream of trivially unanswered questions cost this movie another star.

But this movie shines in so many ways. I LOVE the way they handled time travel. Time travel is so impossible that many writers will pretend that they have a solution only to create a burden for the story when that explanation provides more weight than effect. The writers for Edge of Tomorrow did not even try. They had an alien bleed on another character, and suddenly they were time-looping. They did not insult me with a half-explanation. Anyone watching the movie knows that explanation makes no sense, and this allows the writers to go on to use the time-looping in their story without being encumbered with a threadbare pseudo-science explanation.

The battle armor is great, the battle scenes are fun, the filming is stunning (although a bit heavy on the dark and moody) and I thoroughly enjoyed watching this movie. I give it a well deserved 7 stars (out of 10), and seriously debated giving it 8.

Guardians of the Galaxy, written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, directed by James Gunn (Marvel Studios, Moving Picture Company)


9 stars (out of 10)

Interstellar, screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, directed by Christopher Nolan (Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures, Lynda Obst Productions, Syncopy)

This was a great science fiction movie. The characters must grapple with concepts as large as space while in space grappling with being human. I’ve longed to see an intelligent film where a black hole in space cause issues with warping space that the characters have to deal with. The most common complaint I have heard about this movie is that it was confusing and hard to follow…. Well, it is space, turn on your warp drive and catch up!

Yes, there was a big chunk of suspension of disbelief dropped in the laps of the viewer. The whole “we can make anything happen in a black hole that the story progression needs” is goofy. However, on a grander scale, the characters actually looked into a zone where space and time were warping to get a clue about how space and time could be warped.

The writers just ignored many questions. Why was the Earth “dying”? How come going through the wormhole one way was just a little psychedelic, but going through the other way was a watching-time-and-faces-melt-together trip? I think they ignored these –and other- questions well. The story wanted to go on unrestricted by partial answers, and it did.

In the end I am tempted to take a star just because of the length of time Matthew McConaughey was onscreen, but Michael Cain can give any film at least a half a star just by showing up (and he has been in some movies where that half a star is all they got). In the end this film gets 9.5 stars (out of 10)

The Lego Movie, written by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, story by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, LEGO System A/S, Vertigo Entertainment, Lin Pictures, Warner Bros. Animation (as Warner Animation Group))

I was tricked into watching the Lego movie after it came out on DVD. I was pleasantly surprised by how really good a movie it was. I expected very little. For several weeks afterwards I would tell people in meetings that “everything is Awesome when you’re part of a team!”. Instead of thinking that it would really require an unhealthy obsession with Lego to give this movie one star I only think that would be needed to give it more than the 8 stars I gave it.

This movie loses two stars because of Lego. One star is lost because it is basically the latest (and best) installment of Lego commercial-based movies. If I wanted to see a Lego advertisement I would …. I actually don’t know because I have no desire to watch Lego advertisements. The other star is lost because it suggests that an expensive complex tabletop display of Lego is somehow connected to imagination in ways that other, less expensive, activities are not. I may have carried these prejudices into the movie, but this is my review.

Despite Lego this movie works on many levels. The idea of gluing bricks is the evil power that drives the conflict in the story. This conflict brilliantly translates into all levels of the story, from the conflict between the man and his son in the “real”world” to the interaction of characters in the fantasy Legoverse. The idea of conformity being examined in a world of mass-manufactured plastic bricks is engaging, as is the “Everything is Awesome!” song used as a soundtrack to that theme.

The animation is superb, the dialog is good enough, but it is threading the conflict through all the many levels that really makes this move worthy of all 8 stars (out of 10)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

SNARL: Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

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). I have read and reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella and for best short story.  This is an actual composite review by me of all the nominated short form Best Dramatic Presentation nominees. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

I am not, in general, a big fan of TV. However, almost everything I watch, or want to watch, is on this list. My reviews for the Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form category will be short. They will be short enough that I can fit them all together on this one post. I present them in the same order in which they appear on the Hugo nominations list.

This is a review of the entire Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form category
(938 nominating ballots, 470 entries, range 71-170)

Doctor Who:Listen”, written by Steven Moffat, directed by Douglas Mackinnon (BBC Television).

I kinda overstated not being a fan of TV. Elements of Dr. Who have been a staple part of my family's vernacular for years. Being late is “getting caught up in wibbly-wobbly timey-whimey stuff”. I have been known to offer people jelly beans at oddly inappropriate times, and insist on calling them “Jelly Babbies”. I like the new re-boot (that’s now a decade old, so maybe a little too old to call it a “new” reboot). I like Peter Capaldi as the newest doctor; although if he lightened up on the Scottish accent I might understand a few more of his lines.

I am not a big fan of everything DW. I never much cared for the Sarah Jane Adventures, and the imagining of the Tardis as a big benevolent house is tempting a shark jump, which is almost inconceivable for a series that uses shark-jumping as a plot device. I also did not find “Listen” to be amongst my most favorite episodes.

“Listen” scrapes greatness as a DW episode several times. The idea that the scary monster under the bed could actually be a real monster that is actually under the bed is a classic bit of DW silliness. The use of chalkboards in a hyper-advanced craft with mind-meld interfaces is fun and visually provocative.

The use of touching childhood stories to humanize the Doctor is counter productive. The Doctor appears too human most of the time, and working to make him more human is only work that will have to be undone in the future.

So I have mixed, but generally positive, and admittedly prejudiced, feelings towards this episode of DW. I give it 7 stars (out of 10).

The Flash:Pilot”, teleplay by Andrew Kreisberg & Geoff Johns, story by Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg & Geoff Johns, directed by David Nutter (The CW) (Berlanti Productions, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Television)

I did not like this show, and the pilot was the only episode I managed to actually watch. The writers did almost engage in the creation of an engaging backstory, but then stopped before they succeeded. I picture it being written by a committee of writers where everyone refuses to really listen to the guy with good ideas unless they can somehow make them their own. The plot suffers, but does not disintegrate. It is the framework for a good story, but not a good story.

All the actors are beautiful and clean. They can deliver lines well enough, but they sounded more like they wanted to be in a “Saved By The Bell” remake rather than a super-hero show. I was not moved by them, but I did not turn off the computer in disgust.

So this was “meh”. I give it 5 stars (out of 10).

Game of Thrones: The Mountain and the Viper”, written by David Benioff & D. B. Weiss, directed by Alex Graves (HBO Entertainment in association with Bighead, Littlehead; Television 360; Startling Television and Generator Productions)

I was unable to watch this show. I love the books, and have devoured each one as soon as it came out. I have a first edition copy of the first book. I have heard the show is excellent, and I want to watch it. However, HBO has been aggressively pursuing people who download this, and been making it rather unavailable otherwise. I anticipate binge watching it at some future time, but I cannot give it a rating today.

Grimm:Once We Were Gods”, written by Alan DiFiore, directed by Steven DePaul (NBC) (GK Productions, Hazy Mills Productions, Universal TV)

This was just not very good. It felt like a cute concept had been worn out. The writers use all sorts of made up words, and half the characters get animal heads when they shake their own heads or stretch their necks. The effects look like unsophisticated use of very high-tech equipment.

“Fortunately” I had watched a good portion of an earlier season with my teenage daughters. I had an understanding of what many of the made up words meant, and even recognized most of the characters. However, we stopped watching it because we had been overloaded by stupid in the process, and this episode did not appear to have traveled very far back to the watchable side of the shark.

I basically disliked this. I gave it 3 stars (out of 10).

Orphan Black:By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried”, ” written by Graham Manson, directed by John Fawcett (Temple Street Productions, Space/BBC America)

Discovering Orphan Black has been discovering something great about TV. The show is complex, reasonably plausible, and wonderfully acted.

The filming ranges from hyper-realist to imaginative. This particular episode uses overexposure in one scene with four characters in it to set a mood that seamlessly integrates one characters coming down off drugs with a convoluted conversation about fear and love between a mother and her daughter. The special effects are understated and brilliant; this episode features a scene where the same actress plays four different people dancing together in the same small space.

The complexity works against voting for this particular episode. There is intricate backstory to almost every scene, and sometimes there are separate backstory to almost every major element in a single scene. The result to someone who has watched the previous episodes is delicious. The result to someone who has not might be confusing.

To get to the bottom of how confusing it might be I successfully invited a friend over to watch this episode (and others on the list) with me. They quickly picked up the major plot elements specific to this episode, but were very much aware of the fact that they were missing huge chunks of the complete story. Missing out on the backstory degraded the watching experience. So I’m going to take a star away from Orphan Black for this incredibly worthwhile aspect of the show which works against them in this particular instance.

Orphan Black scores 9 stars (out of 10).

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

There can be only one SNARL

The short story nominations list provided me with my first Hugo voting dilemma of the year. I think that one of the nominees is a reasonably good short story. The dilemma arises from the fact that the same mechanism which presumably put this short story on the nominations list also filled the other four short story nominations slots, and all the novella nominations slots (and perhaps other categories I have not reviewed here yet), with sub-par entrants. I don’t feel like I could vote for the only short story without tainting that vote with the equivalent of an asterisk.

Were there worthy contenders that were shut out? The other awards that vie for prominence with the Hugos all were able to fill their slates with nominees this year, and none that I have yet seen include any of the Hugo nominated works for short fiction. Normally there is quite a bit of overlap between some of the nominee lists at least. Perhaps I should read some of the stories from the other awards’ lists and compare them with “Totaled” before accepting or rejecting this story based on the mechanism by which it was put on the ballot? Unfortunately I’ve still got a few categories to go, and may not have the time to create a speculative nomination list to vote on. The decision on how I vote –Whether for “Totaled” or “No Award”- may wait until just before I submit my Hugo ballot.

This conundrum motivates me to look at the politics of the 2015 Hugo nomination process a little deeper. Much hay has been made over the use of recommendations for putting items on the Hugo ballot. This was certainly a concern in 2014 and 2013 when Puppy works began showing up on the nominations lists. None of the Puppy contenders won, and some placed after “No Award”. This year the puppies have pushed all other works off of the ballot so it is either them or “No Award” in some categories. There is a very big difference between putting a crappy story or two onto the nominations list and forcing out most if not all worthy contenders.   

Ask why this group of fans, and I am not at all convinced it is a group of fans, did not want to have anyone voting on anything other than their approved list and you will circularly find out that they needed to do this because they were not being allowed to vote on anything other than approved choices. The pre-puppy approval process was some secret –largely invisible- conspiracy of CHORFs and SJWs and SMORFs and other mostly insulting acronym-based names.

Apparently all my motives are political. I recently allowed someone to paste a portion of one of my SNARL reviews on Amazon. They were struck with threats of being reported to Amazon, and told they were following “instructions to give drive-by one-star reviews to Wright because Wright has the wrong politics, wrong religion, and wrong temperament to be permitted to win a Hugo by the politically correct powers-that-be.”. Further, the portion of the review they used was also negative and supposedly proved that I was “ not intellectually equipped to shine Wright's shoes, much less read his work.”. This idea that anyone who does not share your taste for horrifically bad prose is an intellectually inferior pawn in the schemes of some secret cabal sounds familiar to me. It sounds like it would fit seamlessly in to a rant about how the POTUS is a communist dictator and the Sandy Hook massacre was a false-flag operation designed to take away everyone’s guns. If this is to become a standard marketing device for Hugo-nominated works of fiction I want no part in it. I worry that voting for the only good short story from amongst the Hugo nominations will validate the premise that many people I view as really quite a bit more intelligent than myself are not “Intellectually equipped” to read works nominated for a Hugo. Maybe Worldcon can provide a test to weed troglodytes like me out in the future.

This sort of reaction to a bad review is a well-worn bit of self-serving circular "logic". If you don’t like this work you are prejudiced against it and you were not able to judge it based on its quality. The proof that you were not able to judge its quality is that you gave it a bad review.

“I knew that when an admitted right winger got in they would be maligned and politicked against, not for the quality of their art but rather for their unacceptable beliefs.” -- Larry Corriea

“They opposed him, not because of the quality of his work, but because of who he was. In effect, the Left was enforcing a blacklist in which no right-leaning science fiction writer can be allowed to win awards.” -- Robert Tracinski from “The Federalist” 8 April 2015

The generally accepted blame for the poor state of the Hugo award nominations list this year is laid at the feet of a group calling themselves the “Sad Puppies”. “Sad Puppies” is generally blamed on two authors; Brad Torgersen and Larry Correia. The “Sad Puppies” campaign has been going on for a couple years, but did not gain traction before Vox Day swooped in and saved them from extinction by creating, and perhaps financing, the parallel “Rabbid Puppies” campaign. There are very few items on the “Sad Puppies” slate that are not on the “Rabbid Puppies” slate, and fewer still that were only on the “Sad Puppies” slate which made it onto the Hugo nominations list. Still, the “Sad Puppies” is where this idea started, so they are worth a little bit of a look.

One author –Larry Corriea- started the Sad Puppies to get himself nominated for a Hugo. He explains how it is important to “Stick it to the literati” in a series of blog posts titled “How to get Correia nominated for a Hugo” on his blog. Interestingly Larry says he declined a nomination this year because of the level of controversy, and this is one of the reasons why the novel category might have worthy contenders. Another novelist also removed his novel from the list of nominees as he was put on the rabid puppy slate without his knowledge; thus further reducing the number of puppies in the novel category.

Perhaps a little peek under the “Sad Puppies” hood, at Larry Correia, might illuminate where they are coming from?

On an LDS literature site Larry describes himself as: “Writer. Merchant of Death (retired). Firearms Instructor. Accountant.

On a much longer-winded bio from his own blog Larry goes into much more detail. Shortly after Larry converted from Catholicism to Mormonism he headed out on a Mormon mission in Alabama, after which he graduated from Utah State University, and then started his career as an accountant; writing gun-porn fiction for internet gun forums on the side. He eventually put together an entire novel called “Monster Hunter International” which he self published and marketed on the same internet forum till he was able to break out into the real world. The “Real World” began in the ironically named Uncle Hugo’s bookstore until he was picked up by BAEN Books. He then sold a bunch of books, and believed that qualified him for a Hugo award.

Gun forums, like gun shows, are a place where enthusiasts and fanatics find the pace of conflicting viewpoints slowed to the point where their own voices can float to the top in a marshland of decaying violence.  Men -overwhelmingly men- argue incessantly over the relative merits of the 9mm vs 45ACP, and talk about fast draw concealed carry holsters when many of them might be in more physical danger after running a mile than spending a decade unarmed in public.  Some of my hobbies take me to gun shows on occasion, and when I have gone there are tables of books.  At one show -around 2007- I asked a vendor why he was selling so many Y2K books, and he informed me that "you never know when it will come back".  Lots of creative paranoia in the "gun community". 

"Only you can stop literary snobs and their abuse of pulp novelists”—Larry Corriea

Where did such a foolish name as “Sad Puppies” come from? Larry apparently likes cutesy names; he was co-founder of a gunshop he named “Fuzzy Bunny Movie Guns”. The gunshop went under, but the enduring flikr record of it shows racks of plastic-furnitured AK-47s, and glass cases with handguns lovingly laid out for display. “Sad Puppies” is a name derived from the kind of immature humor that wants to be irony when it grows up.

The idea for “Sad Puppies” pre-dates the Hugo kerfluffle. On Larry’s blog one of the first posts he tagged with “Sad Puppies” is a reactionary commentary-style rebuttal to a September 2009 POTUS speech to a joint session of congress, and the next is a similar reactionary commentary to the 2010 SOTU. So “Sad Puppies” in Larry’s mind is political in the strictest sense of the word. Yet somehow everyone else is really political people –whether they say so or not- and poor Larry is just trying to give his embattled writers the only chances available because he perceives them as having been shut out.  And the only way to get "his" writers a fair shake is to shut out any competing works that might try to leverage some unfair literati elitist advantage by not being crappy. 

The reason the Sad puppies can pee all over the Hugo process is because of complacency in fandom. When I talk about complacency I am mostly talking about myself. I ask myself “How can you make good nominations when you haven’t read more than a dozen SF novellas this year?” The nice voters packet provides a guided reading list; the trufans have done the heavy lifting. So far this year there are over 9,000 voting members of worldcon, and membership is open for a few more days. For $40 you can get a vote and a nice electronic voting packet; unfortunately many of the stories in it are crap. Some of the Hugo nominations this year received less than 30 votes. There needs to be some way of bridging the complacency gap so the large numbers of fans who care enough to vote for a Hugo are presented with a couple choices worth voting for.  Perhaps that means I need to get off my rear and wade through the vast number of published SF/F stories to make recommendations and vote during the nomination process instead of waiting until after the nominations list is published.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

SNARL: A Single Samurai

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). I have read and reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella.  This is the fifth of what will be five actual reviews by me of the nominated "short-story" works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of "A Single Samurai" by Steven Diamond

This is the recollection of a Samurai’s adventure battling a (怪獣) kaijū by climbing into its skull and then committing ritual suicide.

You can read the above synopsis twice and it will still say the same thing. This Samurai actually climbs up into the giant monster’s skull and then kills himself to kill the giant monster. The really unfortunate thing is that the Samurai must get so close to the giant monster’s brain in order to cause the kaijū to die by killing himself. It would have been much simpler if the Samurai could have destroyed the kaijū by offing himself as soon as he first glimpsed the kaijū; it would have made this entire story delightfully unnecessary.

This story ends with two different issues vigorously competing for the title of “Most annoying thing about this story”. In one corner is the question of how shoving a sword into his own belly helps the Samurai kill the giant Godzilla-like monster. In the other is the question of how the Samurai is recollecting the story to me if he is dead before it ends. Unfortunately it does not matter which wins as the reader is the only real loser.

I also think the proper Japanese term should have been (大怪獣) daikaijū which is the giant monster made famous by the likes of Godzilla and Mothra.

At this point –dear readers- I should point out that writing my own reviews allows me to capriciously score the stories that are reviewed. For this story I am going to award a couple of points. I will give this story one star just for having a daikaijū  in it because I dig daikaijū. I will also give it another star for having a Samurai in it because I like the films of Akira Kurosawa.

The Samurai is obsessed with his weapons, and they are magic. The Samurai’s obsession with the weapons even constitutes some of the proof that they are magic.

“A unique bond is formed between the samurai and his weapons. Should the blade break—which is rare in the extreme—a samurai’s soul breaks with it, and dies. Likewise—and far more common—when a samurai dies, his sword crumbles to dust. “

Somehow that crumbling to dust is the very magic power the Samurai calls upon to kill the giant monster. When the Samurai finally reaches the glowing green room with the suspended green brain in the center of it he realizes that he could hack away at it “for days” without killing the kaijū. So instead he plunges his katana into the house sized kaijū brain with his right hand, and then plunges his wakizashi into his own belly with his left. Somehow the magical connection combined with the crumbling to dust kills kaijū more effectively.

"I had mere moments left, but I knew that when I died, the connection of my life to the kaiju’s would remain. When I died, it would die."

The author wants to create a two-dimensional (at best) Samurai character. The Samurai is not given a name. He imbues it with testosterone-laden machismo ethos: Pain is nothing, Honor is more important than life…. This imbuing is not a subtle process.  The author underlines these attributes in metaphorical crayon.

“Pain is nothing. It is simply a feeling, like hunger, or worry. It can be tolerated and banished with proper discipline. There are demons that live off that pain, that thrive off their victims succumbing to it. So I feel no pain. I do not just ignore it, for that implies a recognition that it was there to begin with. “

Later in the story the author changes his mind about how the Samurai interacts with pain. I get the feeling the author was simply interpreting what he saw on some poorly rendered Japanese-language monster-Samurai anime. The character just did not appear to flow from any understanding of who the character was.

“The ground pitched beneath me and I tumbled, striking my wounded leg. The pain was the worst I had ever felt previously. It was a pain that, even as a samurai, I was unable to ignore.”

I don’t know if it would have made for a better story if the author was able to maintain the Samurai attributes he obviously wanted the Samurai to have. I don’t know if continuity could have saved this character. It probably would have made for a better story if the author decided on who the Samurai was before writing a story starring him.

There is probably a lot implied in this story that I may have missed. That is ironic because I generally feel the author could have implied the entire story instead of going to the trouble of writing it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

SNARL: Turncoat

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). I have read and reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella.  This is the fourth of what will be five actual reviews by me of the nominated "short-story" works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of "Turncoat" by Steve Rzasa.

For a story where there is so much happening there is very little going on.

There is a lot of space-battle-porn going on in this story. Lots, and lots, and lots of explosions, and torpepoes, and cannons, and lasers, and BOOM-KABAM-ZZZZIIIITTT-ARRRGHHH-TAKETHAT-BOOOM-PEWPEWPEW. In fact, that is a fairly good summary of the story. I did warn you there would be spoilers in this review. I think I will give it two stars just for the space-battle-porn.

The author does try and inject a little philosophy.  Very little.  I should say the author drops an unattributed bible quote (it is Isaiah 29:16)  into an interlude where I suppose we are to see the protagonist as searching for answers to moral questions, but the AI is never developed to the point where it has a convincing set of morals, so we just see the AI randomly searching databases of philosophy. 

One, however, resonated with me. I find myself running and re-running a single selection from it again and again, fruitlessly seeking to understand it.
 Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing should say of him, “He did not make me,” or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding?”

The story starts with a bit of space-battle-porn where the protagonist AI uses kamikaze nanobots to carefully dismantle an opposing ship’s control systems so a few choice control orders can be slipped in, and the story ends with the protagonist AI simply beaming its entire self over to an opponent ship so he can become the control system for the ship, and end the story. I’m left wondering why simple orders require a nanobot ballet, but huge-bandwidth data dumps with integration boot-up just requires wanting it to happen.

The ending may have been predictable, but I had given up predicting it by the time I got close to it; I was looking forward to the place where the words ended entirely.

One of the things that irked me was the prevailing sense that the author wanted to write science fiction, but disliked science.

I’ve never liked it when authors throw numbers and units around in the futile hope that it creates context. Numbers demand context; they do not intrinsically create it.

I am also nonplussed by awkward units. The author of this story uses decaseconds and kiloseconds as if they speak to the audience. He also uses random bits of precision to make the story sound more “machiney”. The resulting Dunning–Kruger ambiance is annoying at best.

“Thank you, Alpha 7 Alpha. The enemy patrols are more frequent. This is the third such incursion in 584 kiloseconds.”

Why not make it an even 604.8 kiloseconds, and call it a week?

“The explosion is so near, and so intense, it overwhelms my visual and scanner feeds to starboard for nine point eight seconds.”

So all the scanners come online at once in a thousandth of a second? Do some come on at 9.75, and then some at 9.85? Why not call it “about a decasecond” and provide a little acknowledgment that events take time rather than being instantaneous. Also, you’ve already forced your readers to look up decasecond (who uses decasecond? Wiktionary: “Decasecond is not in official scientific usage and is rarely found outside dictionaries and word lists.”) , why not reward them with using it one of the few times when using it makes sense?

“The declaration came forty-seven point six days ago. Any human who resists Integration is now considered outmoded, pre-evolved, unnecessary.”

Is that forty-seven point six days when you started writing the sentence, or when you were done? OK, point one days is a lot longer than it takes to write a sentence. In fact it is impossible to resolve the time it takes to write a sentence using huge units like point one days. Anyone should know the level of precision communicated, and not confuse it for a more significantly-defined time span... Anyone that is except the author, who goes on to make that very same mistake:

“Our preparations take eight point six standard days. That is fifty-seven seconds longer than it takes for our six ships to arrive at Shandari Prime.”

Fifty-seven seconds is actually 0.000659722 days, which is much too small to be communicated with a measurement resolved to only tenths (0.1) of days. Fifty-seven seconds is also a rather awkward number to convert to fractional numbers of days; you need a large amount of precision to effectively denote 57 seconds. If you truncate the fractional day equivalent to 0.0006 days you are only talking about 51.84 seconds, and if you round it up to 0.0007 days you are actually talking about almost a minute and a half. So in order to effectively communicate a number of days that could be resolved to present a fifty-seven second time difference the author would have to say something like “Eight point six zero zero six five nine seven two two standard days”. I know why the author did not do this; it sounds stupid. Of course “eight point six standard days” sounds stupid, and pretending that you can resolve fifty seven seconds in such a number is just ignorant.

I will end this review in six point nine zero four seconds, which is –now-. Unless you are reading really fast, which would make it –now-. Of course you could be an ultra-speed reader, which would allow you to read this last paragraph over twice, and only then realize that the place this review really ended was –now-.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

SNARL: The Parliament of Beasts and Birds

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). I have read and reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella.  This is the third of several actual reviews by me of the nominated "short-story" works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” by John C. Wright

This is the second Hugo-nominated story from John C. Wright’s book called “The Book of Feasts and Seasons” that I have read. I am more convinced after having read this second story that this book is not a collection of stories meant to be in the science fiction or fantasy (SF/F) genre. I suppose they were written for some religious genre that somewhat resembles SF/F, but I can’t help lumping them into the “life is too short to waste it reading this crap” genre.

So this story gets zero stars, but these are zero “Hugo Nominated Story” stars. I suppose there is an alternate point of view or alternate universe where the number of stars this story received was multiplied a million times or more, but not here in this mundane world of personal Hugo idealism.

I picked up this book expecting SF/F, and I was disappointed. Imagine someone going to the store and buying a box of “Best NUTTY NUGGETS Ever” because they love “NUTTY NUGGETS”, only to find that they were so awful they might not even be “NUTTY NUGGETS”, and were quite inedible. Then imagine them going back to the store and buying another box of “Best NUTTY NUGGETS Ever” only to find out that they were similarly not even edible “NUTTY NUGGETS”. I’m sure they would be Sad, and maybe even Mad; some people might do things that were Bad.

“SAD, MAD, BAD” sounds like a children’s book, and so does this story. It has talking animals that start to walk upright because … God.

I had a hard time reading this story. I would run into something like this every half-dozen sentences:

Lion said, “How dare you raise your voice to me, Worm? You have neither stature, nor eyes, nor legs.”

And I could not stop my mind from wondering why Lion did not say something like

“How do you have a voice, Worm? You have neither lungs, nor lips, nor tongue.”

Worm probably has fewer neurons than letters in that quote.

And then my pesky brain reminds me that the parasite load of wild animals is sometimes shockingly huge. Do Lion’s intestinal parasites get a voice? What about the proglottids stuck to Lion’s fur? Do the dozens of tiny wormlets that each proglottid gives rise to each get a voice? Is that voice high and squeaky like a prepubescent child? Do they sing together like the Vienna boy’s choir until they go through adolescence and their voices change? What is adolescence for a worm? What songs would the prepubescent intestinal parasite choir sing?

Later Worm becomes a dragon because god liked Worm. That would be a much bigger problem for Lion than his singing poop.

At one point they all go and see Cat who has been to the city of Man to find out what has happened. Cat becomes ashamed of only being covered in fur. Cat tells them of being “led by an unseen hand”:

“to a street of tailors where I was given a robe exceeding white, whiter than any fuller could white it, ablaze with a purple hem, and bound with a golden girdle. And on my feet, which had never been shod before, were sandals.”

Cat is licking its fur and “admiring her own sangfroid” while telling this.

None of the animals asks:

“So what did you do with this fancy frock?”
“Sandals with furry socks, how gross!”
“Purest celestial white before memorial day? Really Gurlfren?”
“White with purple trim?… puuullleeeze!”
“If you are going to wear a golden girdle without earrings you might as well be naked!”

It is good that I purchased this on the Kindle. If I had borrowed a paper copy from the library I would have been tempted to scribble in my own immature ending.

“Rabbit and Beaver had been missing for several hours; ever since everyone became aware of their own nakedness.”

Instead prudish old Mr. Owl delivers the story’s punch line:

Owl said, “It is the first Sabbath after the Paschal moon following the Equinox of Spring! Not only Man, but all nature is redeemed! Rejoice!”

And that is why old Mr. Owl does not get invited to the really good parties. Well,… that and the fact that he pukes up pellets of fur and bones after a big meal.

SNARL: On a Spiritual Plain

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). I have read and reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella.  This is the second of several actual reviews by me of the nominated "short-story" works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of "On a Spiritual Plain" by Lou Antonelli

Dead people on the planet Ymilas get trapped as ghosts, when they get tired of that they travel to giant Stonehenge at the pole to “move on”.

It is a weak premise executed poorly.

I suppose the pilgrimage is a vehicle to answer questions about death, heaven, souls, and everything. Unfortunately the glaring questions staring the characters in the face are just not what they are interested in.  The pilgrimage to dispose of the ghosts is more of a garbage run than a spiritual journey. 

The semi-transparent ghosts have no souls and so they are really just waste consciousness as far as the author is concerned.  The characters patronize the thinking-feeling garbage, but are more than ok with flushing them into the big glowing green drain.  The author does not go into detail about what would be different between a worthy soul-possessing ghost and these unworthy soul-less ghosts.  The Ymilians apparently find enough worth to keep them around for generations, but the human ghost is disposed of in a few days. 

The Methodist minister who tells the story has a very non-Wesleyan description of what a soul is:

“The Ymilians believe – as do so many Terran religions – that each individual has a spark of eternal extradimensional over-arching consciousness that is imbued in each of them at birth and ultimately returns to a higher dimensional plane when the physical form is no longer viable”

He also has an interesting, and very science-sounding, description of what a ghost is: 

“While alive we develop an electromagnetic imprint as a result of the experiences of life that survives after death. “

Unable to derive a Methodist name for such a construct Antonelli has the minister reach back to the ancient Terran Egyptians, and calls this ghost a “ba”. This ba-ghost can interact, hang out, display emotion, and generally do all those things we identify as products of consciousness. It is not a real consciousness because of…. I guess stuff we are supposed to pick up the story already knowing.

The planet has a strong magnetic field, and this prevents the ghosts of the dead from escaping. Some families apparently have five generations of ghosts living with them. The whole thing is so humdrum that it is obvious that ghost research has progressed to the point that I imagine tables of ba-ghost containment levels for various shapes of magnetic fields.

The ease with which the author provides sciencey-sounding descriptions of the soul and the ghost implies an entire field of after-life research.  The way the author implies disinterest with the long-term ghost persistence on Ymilas suggests that after-life research is not very interesting. This is aggravating.  How can one read a story about after-life issues in a world where most if not all of the questions about after-life have been answered by science without wanting to know what answering those questions did to the world?  These questions are not left unanswered in a provocative way.  It is as if the author did not think of them. 

The Methodist minister takes a “Faraday segway” on a 12 day trip with a bunch of pilgrims on foot from the equator to one of planet Ymilas’s poles. There they find a huge “1,000 Terran feet high” (I guess they still don’t use the metric system in the future) Stonehenge under a glowing green vortex. The ghosts go in, and then they are gone. Then, without a backwards glance, everyone just goes home.  Kinda like taking out the talking emotionally fragile trash.

The idea of being unimportant because of a lack of soul really worries me.  Everyone in the story sort of takes this lack of value for granted.  The ghosts even realize that they are not “real” people, and because they have no soul they just stop (“he knows nothing awaits him”). Is it possible to extend this innate knowledge to develop a classification for souls? Are some souls less developed or mutant, making the people possessing them less worthy? Do souls require maintenance, or are they transformed by religious experience, and do these activities make the possessor of the soul more worthy of continued existence than someone who does not maintain their soul correctly?

I suppose I should give this story at least two stars for being aggravating.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

SNARL: Totaled

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). I have read and reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella.  This is the first of several actual reviews by me of the nominated "short-story" works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of“Totaled” by Kary English

I liked this story. I am not using “liked” as a euphemism for “reading this did not make me sick”. This story is a worthy Hugo nominee; the first story that has earned that description from amongst what I have so far read of this year nominees.

Before I get into what is right with this story I should point out the a couple issues. This story is told through the juxtaposition of communications, but is recalled in near real time to the reader who does not exist in the story. The reader must carefully examine the types of communication; where it originates, how it is read, how the information is stored, even what type of images are implied by the mechanism of communication. However, when it comes to the story itself the reader is expected to unquestioningly act as an omnipotent recording device.

The tone of the story make it appear as if the reader is definitely not simply the protagonist’s (The disembodied brain of Maggie Hauri neurobiologist) internal voice. The author tries to bring the reader up to speed with little history lessons that sound out of place in an internal dialog:

“The personal total wasn’t a new concept. It started back in the Teens when the Treaders put their first candidate in office. Healthcare costs were insane. Insurance was almost impossible to get. The Treaders said taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for medical care someone else couldn’t afford, so they instituted a review board for totals.”

Here I think “Treaders” refers to the “Don’t Tread On Me” from the TEA party’s beloved Gadsden flag. I’m not sure, and it does not really matter. The titular “Totaled” concept is not very well developed or really necessary for the story. If all mention of totaled was removed from the story it would be essentially the same story. The totaled concept also sounds complex enough that I am glad the author did spend any more valuable wordcount adequately describing it.

Here is the part of the review where I begin talking about what I most liked about this story. Most non-professional reviewers really do reviews just to get to this part. Getting here means I enjoyed reading this; I had an enjoyable experience. That is why I read science fiction; to seek out and explore new enjoyable moments where I have not gone before.

This is a clever story; a clever story on many levels. Maggie’s brain is limited in its ability to communicate. It can only flash pleasure and disgust. This is BF Skinner’s operant conditioning turned inside out. Instead of providing stimulus that stimulates the brains simple response centers Maggie must engage the simple response centers in order to elicit a simulated stimulus response. Maggie’s brain’s former lab assistant responds to the seeing the stimulation response on an MRI, and interprets it as communication.

By requiring Maggie’s brain to dredge up memories with emotional content the author creates a wonderful tool to introduce who Maggie is. Maggie’s Brain’s simple yes/no answers becomes a slideshow of detailed experiences. A YES becomes:

“Hot, fresh coffee with farmhouse bacon sizzling in an iron skillet.”

A NO becomes:

“Cockroaches swarming over kitchen tiles, invading the cupboards and …”

I do think the author could have used this wonderful tool better, but it is a wonderful tool for character development that would only be at home in a science fiction story.

The story exist in a complex world that Maggie’s Brain can interpret, but not fully participate in. She is just a collection of memories and limited perceptions, but she is the most real feeling person in the story. We are literally inside her head, and it is the head of a researcher/ soccer mom; it is a human head. Are we all just a collection of oxygen-fueled memories?

The tech is delicious. The reader is asked to skip over the obvious tech needed for simple communication with a bundle of nerves in order to accept the incorporation of complex “bionet” nerve pairings, but the reader is rewarded. By seeing her kids at a simple school assemble, by wanting desperately to hug them, we feel the maternal humanity of Maggie’s brain. We would not get the same feel if they had plugged e-mail into her cerebellum; even if an e-mail connection might sound more technically feasible.

Of course, if Maggie’s brain had an Internet connection maybe it could read this review and realize that I gave her story eight stars.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Post Nuclear SNARL

I can't help but think that The overwhelming desire experienced by the majority of Hugo reviewers for the novella category will be that the whole thing just go away. First the novellas individually, and then, when they are done reading all five nominees, the entire category in which one of these stories might win. This can be achieved by voting “No Award” in as the winner for the novella category this year. This is a nuclear option, but what genre of literature could be better suited to exploring a nuclear option than Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF)?

I personally don't think the No Award option is nuclear enough. I would kinda like a refund on the purchase price of the books, and I would certainly like to prevent people in the future from being hoodwinked into purchasing any of these novellas by reading the endorsement implied by seeing “Nominated for a 2015 Hugo Award” on the cover. I would like these novellas to have never been nominated, and I believe that could be done. I almost would like for these novellas to have never been written, but I am afraid that is not possible.

Because Worldcon owns the Hugo trademark intellectual property they can manipulate it in order to maintain its value. They have done this incrementally in the past by adjusting the rule-set needed to be nominated for, or win, a Hugo. They can do it again by removing nominees that loose to “No Award” from the list. This would prevent unscrupulous publishers from realizing an increased prestige or profit as a result of stuffing the nominating ballot boxes.

I have no idea how to go about creating such a rule, or even proposing such a rule for that mater, but I do think it would be a good move. It may even be necessary, as the puppy thought police are not the only ones who might gain from a critically injured Hugo award process. The puppies are not the only ones who have the wherewithal to corrupt the nominating process for their own gain, and they are not even the ones who could do it best.

Across the spectrum of popular literature and dramatic presentation religious fiction has attempted to compete. There are cross-over artists who have made a name for themselves in both areas, like Orson Scott Card, but most do not break out of the cloistered audience that the religious publishing houses provide them.

When AOD was in elementary school there was a big push in her school to get all the kids reading a book called “Fablehaven” by an author named Brandon Mull. I was told that the book was just a great little fantasy novel, and that it was probably going to be the next "Harry Potter". Posters went up for it all over school, and I believe there was a group buy we were being pressured into participating in. I think Brandon Mull was also invited to talk to the children in the school district; it was a while ago. Fablehaven would go on to become a New York Times bestseller.

I was interested in why this book was considered to be so great. Many of the people suggesting it had not read it. I was told that it contained “the right kind of message”, so I wanted to see who was behind it. The book was published by “Shadow Mountain” publishers, which I had never heard of. Further digging uncovered the fact that “Shadow Mountain” was actually a division of Deseret Books, which is a publisher wholly owned and operated by the Mormon church.

Deseret Books also runs a bunch of book stores, and these book stores are one of the only places that Mormons with current temple recommend cards can buy the famous magic Mormon underwear. They also publish many books and stories each year that could contend for a Hugo if the nomination process could be tweaked enough.

Several religious groups have learned how to game crowd-sourced review processes. Meet the Mormons was the 10th highest grossing movie in the US the weekend it opened, and rotten tomatoes gives it a 90% positive audience score. However, I have yet to meet anyone who does not think it is really anything more than the slick continuous-loop-at-the-Mormon-temple-visitor's-center-indoctrination-pablum it was originally designed to be. The movie “God's Not Dead” grossed almost four times as much as “Meet The Mormons” when it opened, and sports a 79% positive audience score on Rotten Tomatoes; it also has a 2.5/10 average and a 17% overall critics score.

There are thousands of True Believers who will pay a few bucks to vote for what they believe in. If a fraction of these True Believers decided that it would be in their best interest to manufacture a Hugo nomination for the works they thought would be best for the rest of the world they could. They could do it with a fraction of the effort the rabid puppies expended.

Several of the stories that have been nominated this year (including the short story “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” by John C. Wright that I just read but have yet to review) are religions fiction. The puppies have stated that it is the content of the Hugo nominated works which they wish to change, and they are stuffing the ballots to nominate religious fiction.

”The Christian worldview alone is where reason and science flourish without being strangled by superstition or corrupted by cults, political or otherwise." – John C. Wright

There are many awards for Christian fiction: The Carol Awards, The Christy Awards, The Illumination Award, The Catholic Press Award, The ECPA Award, and the list goes on; why should the Hugo be another? A true believing minority has shut out all reasonable candidates for the Hugo Novella, and in the process shown how vulnerable all the other categories are. If this group can profit off of the nominations it will likely continue, and more powerful players will enter the field. There are more True Believers than there are active members of Worldcon.

”You Will Be Assimilated” – Borg

The fabulous freaks are leaving town... SNARL

The Hugo award for Best Novella has been given every year from 1968 to 2014.  Here is a list of the winners:

year            Novella
1968 Riders of the Purple Wage” by Philip José Farmer and “Weyr Search” by Anne McCaffrey
1969 Nightwings” by Robert Silverberg
1970 Ship of Shadows” by Fritz Leiber
1971 Ill Met in Lankhmar” by Fritz Leiber
1972 The Queen of Air and Darkness” by Poul Anderson
1973 The Word for World is Forest” by Ursula K. Le Guin
1974 The Girl Who Was Plugged In” by James Tiptree, Jr.
1975 A Song for Lya” by George R. R. Martin
1976 Home Is the Hangman” by Roger Zelazny
1977 By Any Other Name” by Spider Robinson and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” by James Tiptree, Jr.
1978 Stardance” by Spider Robinson and Jeanne Robinson
1979 The Persistence of Vision” by John Varley
1980 Enemy Mine” by Barry B. Longyear
1981 "Lost Dorsai” by Gordon R. Dickson
1982 The Saturn Game” by Poul Anderson
1983 Souls” by Joanna Russ
1984 Cascade Point” by Timothy Zahn
1985 Press Enter []” by John Varley
1986 24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai” by Roger Zelazny
1987 Gilgamesh in the Outback” by Robert Silverberg
1988 "Eye for Eye” by Orson Scott Card
1989 The Last of the Winnebagos” by Connie Willis
1990 The Mountains of Mourning” by Lois McMaster Bujold
1991 The Hemingway Hoax” by Joe Haldeman
1992 Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress
1993 Barnacle Bill the Spacer” by Lucius Shepard
1994 Down in the Bottomlands” by Harry Turtledove
1995 Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” by Mike Resnick
1996 The Death of Captain Future” by Allen Steele
1997 Blood of the Dragon” by George R. R. Martin
1998 …Where Angels Fear to Tread” by Allen Steele
1999 Oceanic” by Greg Egan
2000 The Winds of Marble Arch” by Connie Willis
2001 The Ultimate Earth” by Jack Williamson
2002 Fast Times at Fairmont High” by Vernor Vinge
2003 Coraline” by Neil Gaiman
2004 The Cookie Monster” by Vernor Vinge
2005 The Concrete Jungle” by Charles Stross
2006 Inside Job” by Connie Willis
2007 A Billion Eves” by Robert Reed
2008 All Seated on the Ground” by Connie Willis
2009 The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress
2010 Palimpsest” by Charles Stross
2011 "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" by Ted Chiang
2012 The Man Who Bridged the Mist” by Kij Johnson
2013 "The Emperor’s Soul" by Brandon Sanderson
2014 Equoid” by Charles Stross

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


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 fifth of several actual reviews by me of those nominated works of fiction, and the final novella review. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of “Flow” by Arlan Andrews, Sr. (Analog, November 2014)

Overall this was an engaging novella. This is such a grand departure from the other four nominees that I will have awarded this story five whole stars (out of 10) by the time I have done reviewing it. I am sure it would have not scored as well if the competition was not so utterly dreadful.

There were some significant issues with the story, and I will get to them at the end of this review.

It is risky to do much world building in the novella format. It is just not long enough, and one either spends so many pages making a world that the story suffers, or one does a crappy job of world building and the story suffers. Andrews deftly uses some tried-and-true SciFy literary tricks to develop his world through a continual process of discovery. The protagonist, and voice, for the story is an apprentice “reader” named Rist who travels from the misty cold lands to the sunny warm lands where most of the story takes place. Rist is new to the warm lands, and as he discovers what is going on there the reader does as well. This technique can be a bit tricky, so Andrews earns two stars for his story simply by pulling it off.

Andrews does stumble a few times. He continually describes the cold lands as misty with low clouds, and yet he describes them as cold and dry in the context of food storage in peat caves. He either has little experience with peat, has never been in a cloud, or simply forgot what they were like when he needed to talk about them in his story.

Although all the characters speak English (or "peoplespeak") there are other languages that are sometimes used when the warm-landers speak amongst themselves. Do the lower caste warm-landers all speak English simply to accommodate sporadically-arriving groups of a half-dozen ice traders?

Andrews uses English common verbal mannerisms (like “sumpin’” for “something”) to draw us in to the identity of the characters, and then uses invented words (like “dim” for “day”) to spotlight important concepts in his developing world. He does the reader a service by choosing descriptive words rather than just making up difficult-to-pronounce alien words. I love the choice of “dim” for “day” as it describes a sky where things are never fully illuminated. He gains another point for cleverly using simple language to sneak descriptions into the reader’s mind.

One of the words Andrews invented to spotlight a concept –using “wen” for “female”- is actually a bit disturbing, but more on that later.

One of the problems with creating a world through the process of discovery by an uneducated protagonist is that the world can be as small as the bredth of that character’s understanding. Andrews creates an interesting larger world using hints at former civilizations. Giant frozen “gods” are uncovered in the ice of the cold lands, and the warm-lands have mines that yield products from lost civilization(s). These hints work for the story, and Andrews earns yet another star for the way he uses them.

Andrews also manages to create an actual story. The protagonist does stuff that leads to the ending. Some stuff he is forced to do, and some stuff he chooses to do. The novella is a length of story that could create a tale that resonates with conflict that the reader might be experiencing in the real world. Andrews goes for a more personal story. Rist ends his journey by embarking on a new one. Though this does avoid intriguing story elements it is at least a story. Andrews earns another point for this.

The story is not without its problems, and the most glaring problem the story has is with its “wen”.

“Wen” apparently is the universal word used for “female”. I think it is derived from “wench”. Because most of the females in the story are prostitutes that the characters meet in bars it is natural to picture the author deriving his term from the characteristic name for prostitutes found in Ye Olde English bars.

Andrews does not give any “wen” lines… at least none of note. The “wen” have no personality or character. The “wen” are more like furniture than people; except that I suspect Andrews understands furniture a little better than his description of “wen” suggests he understands women.

At one point Rist uses the term “wen-licker” as an insult. Perhaps I don’t understand what Andrews meant by “wen-licker” as it sounds more like a boast than an insult to me.

The degree to which Andrews apparently lacks experience having flesh-and-blood women in his life can be seen in his clumsy attempts at objectifying women in his story:

“He looked back at that wen, and then others in the crowds. Unlike wen back home, these seemed to have a heaviness around the chest, covered by their smoother clothing. The sight was unsettling, but strangely attractive to him. When he asked Cruthar about the extra muscles the wen had, his companion just laughed, “Bird-boy, they ain’t muscles. You sees why we likes to bring in the ice down here, even though it be a long, long walk home. They’s a lot more to these Warm Lands wen than you be used to in The Tharn’s Lands. You’ll find out, this dark.”

Rist mentions many physical encounters with “wen”. How does he not know what breasts are? Perhaps Rist , or his creator Andrews, were never breast fed? Perhaps Andrews is communicating a homo-erotic fantasy through Rist… where Rist finds the breasts of the warm-lander “wen” erotic because he thinks they are the deltoid muscles of buff men? Whatever is going on between Andrews and his “wen” it is undeveloped, and it leaves a huge chunk of his world undeveloped.

Andrews could have done more with his story. He could have done things that would have earned him enough stars to be a worthy Hugo contender. It was as if he was interested in telling something other than the story he was telling; as if he was using it as a vehicle to get across a specific message, and it was a message that did not fit well into the story. I think both the story and the message came out of their relationship the worse for having coupled.

Monday, May 4, 2015

SNARL: Pale Realms of Shade

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 fourth of several actual reviews by me of those nominated works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

I had hoped to post a review for “Flow” by Arlan Andrews Sr. before the third story by John C. Wright, but I had a little difficulty tracking down a copy of it. I now have a copy in hand, and should be able to review it soon.

This is a review of: “Pale Realms of Shade” by John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House)

This story is a bad entheogenic trip trying to pretend that it is really straight, and hoping it will come down before the reader gets annoyed by the way it scratches itself in public. The best thing about it is the way it starts with the protagonist being dead and a bit of questionable grammar. Neither the story nor the protagonist ever recovers. I don’t really think this story is a science fiction or a fantasy story. I give it zero stars.

The story is a straightforward “Jesus Saves” morality lesson; like the poorly penned ones street preachers sometimes hand out. Mr Wright has added psychedelic visions to his in the hopes of making it profound. He fails.

The protagonist (a Mr Flint of Flint and Steel psychic detective agency) has died and become a poltergeist as a result of his jealousy (his widow takes up with his ex partner after his death). He flies around a bunch in what would pass for a very bad trip if he were not dead, and eventually meets a devil character. The devil character gives him the choice to blow his ex partner up (with a bunch of collateral damage), but Mr. Flint chooses not to, and then he gets to confess to the angel Gabriel who then leads him back in time to Jesus.

"Then shall he say, 'Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain; they are retained.' Without these words being spoken, no sins would be forgiven."

I love how when true believers go back to ancient Israel it is so common for them to discover everyone speaking Ye Olde English.  Just like the original Star Trek.  I bet Mary Magdalene wears a really short miniskirt like Yeoman Rand did. 

Before his death Mr Flint dealt with all sorts of miraculous stuff. Werewolves, and magic items, and exorcists, and all sorts of wild supernatural stuff populated Mr Flint's life. However the presence of this stuff did not work to make him more religious; even when -by his own recollection- he witnessed miracles that proved the power of the biblical God:

“I saw the ice crack open, and the river leap as if with joy and reach with watery fingers white as foam to drown the scowling Egyptian king, who shouted in rage as ghosts of jackals howled, unable and unwilling to believe the God of the Hebrew slaves could fell him. “

The idea that a person would become too jaded by the supernatural to find salvation in Jesus if they lived a life where religious items and magic were commonplace is not profound, and does not really make sense to me. The idea that they would then want to find salvation after an extended period of floating about in some time-soup between worlds is misguided. The idea that adding random images of psychedelic stuff will create an atmosphere worth trudging through to find out if the story goes anywhere is just bad writing; especially when the only thing perfectly clear about the images that author is pushing is that they spring from a bigoted fearful mind:

“I did not look closely at the future shadows of the city in years to come. Somehow, I did wish I could warn the living to enjoy what they had now, to give thanks, and to cherish what they were so soon to have never again, not even as memory. The people and things living and not living in times to come would make sure no undistorted record, no uncorrupted memory, would remain. There were no steeples in that future, no church bells, just thin, wailing cries from thin, ugly minarets.”

So the future is some Islamic Orwellian nightmare with too many commas?

This nightmare is foreshadowed at the very beginning of this story. This story begins with a single-sentence paragraph. This story begins with a comma splice:

“It was not the being dead that I minded, it was the hours.”

Some people do not think there is anything wrong with the comma splice. Others think of it as a way of throwing sentence structure convention to the wind in order to create an effective voice. Still others believe the comma splice is a way of invalidating the petty desire some readers have of reading a story that begins with a well-crafted sentence.

This initial paragraph could have worked well as a two-sentence paragraph:

“It was not the being dead that I minded. It was the hours.”

I can picture using a semi-colon here; because I like semicolons:

“It was not the being dead that I minded; it was the hours.”

Not everyone likes semicolons. Kurt Vonnegut famously hated semicolons:

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, “A Man Without a Country

 Since Mr. Vonnegut was one of the greatest writers of all time such disdain for an element of grammar cannot be capriciously dismissed, but he was wrong, and now he is dead.