Monday, July 16, 2018

Reading the Hugos: John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer

Welcome back to Reading the Hugos: 2018 Edition! Today we're going to look at the writers up for the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

I know. I know. The Campbell is "Not a Hugo". It is only "administered" by the World Science Fiction Society. It is sponsored by Dell Magazines. But, beyond those technicalities, I'm not sure I really care much about the distinction. It's not a Hugo. It's totally a Hugo. It's not a Hugo.

The Campbell is an award for a writer whose "first work of science fiction or fantasy was published in a professional publication in the previous two years." See here for eligibility rules, but it mostly follows the SFWA definition of professional publication or professional rates above a nominal fee. With the vagaries of publication, short story writers can be somewhat disadvantaged if they get one story published professionally and then years pass before they are truly noticed or place additional stories. Novels often make larger splashes, even if there is only one published in the eligibility window.

Writers like Rebecca Roanhorse have more of an uphill fight since she only has the one story published last year. That one story needs to make a huge splash.

Let's see how big of splash everyone has made over the last two years. It's a weird category.

Katherine Arden 
Sarah Kuhn
Jeannette Ng 
Vina Jie-Min Prasad 
Rebecca Roanhorse 
Rivers Solomon 

Jeannette Ng: Ng is one of two writers on the Campbell ballot on the back of a single novel, which for a novelist is not necessarily unusual because there is only a two year eligibility window. Under the Pendulum Sun is Ng's debut novel. In Victorian England, a missionary who journeyed to the realm of faerie in order to proselytize and bring the fae to Christ, has disappeared. Catherine Helstone, his sister, undertakes her own search of faerie and the estate of Gethsemane to find him.

Under the Pendulum Sun is beautifully written and atmospheric as hell. The weight and weirdness of Arcadia shines through on every page. The novel feels Victorian without bogging the reader down with faux Victorian prose. The only problem, and this is quite clearly my problem and not Ng's is that there is something about the novel that I struggled to engage with and care about. There was a distance growing between me and Under the Pendulum Sun and it wasn't one I cared enough to overcome. It's a weird dichotomy, understanding the novel is a beautifully written piece of fiction and still not being able to fully appreciate it. Even so, that's where I'm at with this.

Rebecca Roanhorse: Rebecca Roanhorse has only published one eligible story over the last two years and it's "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience". It's a major, important story. I wrote about it when discussing the short story finalists. While it didn't take the top spot on my ballot for that category, I noted that it marked the arrival of a major new talent and that Roanhorse is an author to watch.

That's where the Campbell is an interesting and a difficult category. We are only evaluating the writers based on their work during the previous two years, so we can't consider Roanhorse's debut novel Trail of Lightning even though those who have read it can't help but factor it in. Where the Campbell gets tricky is that there is an aspect to the category that makes me want to think about what the work of the last two years says about the writer's potential for the future. It's a forward looking category even though it only looks at the work of the past two years.

So I only have one story to work with here, but it's a damn good one. It's a story I'd rather read several times than I would read, say, Under the Pendulum Sun a single time. Novels and short stories aren't at all the same thing and if not for this category, it would be folly to compare them or to compare writers working in different forms.

Vina Jie-Min Prasad: Prasad is on the Campbell ballot on the strength of three stories: "A Series of Steaks" and "Fandom For Robots" are finalists for the Hugo Awards for Novelette and Short Story, respectfully. "Portrait of Skull with Man" was published at Fireside Fiction and is not on the Hugo ballot, which is not all that remarkable. It's much more remarkable to have a single author with more than one story on the ballot and even yet moreso for those stories to be almost the entirety of the writer's published output (Rebecca Roanhorse is another example of this, with one published story at the time of being a Campbell finalist).

It continues to be a difficult and uncomfortable thing to compare and rack and stack writers against each other. The stories, yes, but this is an award for Best New Writer. Are Prasad's three stories better than Roanhorse's one, and how do those stories compare to the single novel of Rivers Solomon or the two novels of Sarah Kuhn?

That's the real challenge here. Both of the Hugo finalist stories are quite good and show an author I want to follow and read more from, and the story from Fireside is a trippy bit of goodness. Does that make Prasad a "better" writer than Roanhorse? Probably not. But in comparing the writer of three stories against the writer of one, it does show that Prasad's skill across multiple stories. If Roanhorse and Prasad both make the ballot next year, we may have a different comparison because Roanhorse will also have an eligible novel out by then an we'll be able to see how she works in a longer form. But for now, Prasad get the nod.

Katherine Arden: Arden is eligible for the Campbell following the 2017 publication of her novel The Bear and the Nightingale. Comparatively, it is more similar to Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun in that the prose is more deliberate and beautiful on a sentence level than Heroine Complex or An Unkindness of Ghosts. That’s the only worthwhile comparison to the other novels because they are all so different in tone and function and story and emotion. The Bear and the Nightingale touches on Russian folklore and is a tight family story mostly set in remote regions of Russia.

I absolutely want to see more from Katherine Arden (and hey, she’s written two more books in the Winternight sequence that began with The Bear and the Nightingale). She’s an author to watch and follow and I’m as excited to read The Girl in the Tower as I am to see what she’s doing ten years from now. The Bear and the Nightingale is the announcement of a major new talent. It’s a slow burn of a novel, but it pays off and it sucks you in. Arden could so easily trade places with Sarah Kuhn on my ballot, but as of today, this is where I’m ranking her (which, as noted, is an impossible fool’s errand).

Sarah Kuhn:  Sarah Kuhn has two eligible novels, Heroine Complex and Heroine Worship (the third volume in the series, Heroine's Journey, was published this year). I'm basing my thoughts / placement on the ballot on Heroine Complex since I'm simply not going to have enough time to read Heroine Worship before voting closes.

Kuhn's been on my radar since Heroine Complex was published. The novel is set in a modern day San Francisco which, as far I can tell, is just like what San Francisco is like today except that random demon portals open and spew out minor demons that are then vanquished by super heroine Aveda Jupiter. So - just like the regular world. There are other low level super heroes around. Nobody is on the proper level of Wonder Woman, Wolverine, or Captain Marvel. The powers aren't that epic. The story, however, is. It's a wonder and a delight.

Kuhn's writing is punchy and compelling and I loved reading about Evie Tanaka impersonating Aveda Jupiter (who also happens to be her childhood friend), her adventures / misadventures, her romance. It's just so smooth and (seemingly) effortless. I was hooked early on and I immediately wanted to read Heroine Worship right away. Unfortunately, I was three hours away from my house, without an internet connection, and nowhere near a bookstore. The point being, Sarah Kuhn is fantastic and I can't wait to read more. It was exceedingly tough to decide how to slot Sarah Kuhn and Katherine Arden on my ballot. Kuhn got the edge simply because I am more excited to read the next Sarah Kuhn novel right this moment and I want to savor Arden's writing and take longer breaks between books.

Rivers Solomon: Solomon is here on the strength of An Unkindness of Ghosts, a debut that is as much a novel as it is a statement and announcement of arrival. I have long loved the concept and often the execution of a generation ship, but I have never read anything quite like An Unkindness of Ghosts. It is not uncommon to read a generation ship novel that focuses on the divide between the more affluent privileged class and the poor workers living in squalor in the underbelly on the ship. It is uncommon to read a generation ship novel that takes that conceit and drives a knife straight in the gut by running the ship like a plantation. The white overseers are in the upper decks and have significantly greater freedom and luxury. The darker skinned workers are exploited, stigmatized, and brutalized for their very existence.

An Unkindness of Ghosts is a deeply uncomfortable novel to read, but every time I put the book down for the night I immediately wanted to pick it up and keep reading deep into the night. Solomon describes their novel as "a science fiction meditation on trans-generational trauma, race, and identity" and if you take that into the novel, you can see what they are doing. Slavery and trans-generation trauma is central to the storytelling of Unkindess of Ghosts, but so is that idea of identity. Through the generational trauma, so much family and personal histories have been lost. Characters barely know who their parents were, let alone grandparents or farther back. More, Solomon's writing of their protagonist, Aster, is so vital and central to the novel. Aster's voice and characterization of a neurologically atypical narrator is so incredibly well done and distinctive that it is almost impossible to imagine the novel written any other way.

An Unkindness of Ghosts is an almost impossibly accomplished and incredible novel and marks Rivers Solomon as an essential writer to watch.

My Vote
1. Rivers Solomon
2. Sarah Kuhn
3. Katherine Arden
4. Vina Jie-Min Prasad
5. Rebecca Roanhorse
6. Jeannete Ng

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POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.

Joe's Books of 2018: Part One (January - June)

Good morning and welcome to my cataloging of all of the books I read in the first six months of 2018. I started this feature last year (see here and here) and it's something I really enjoy doing. I love making lists of books and I only review or even write about a small fraction of what I read in any given year. Doing all twelve months in one go would be overwhelming, but six months seems about right to me.

As with every year, I've read some pretty spectacular novels - though this time very few of them are 2018 publications. Readers who have followed me from Adventures in Reading will not be surprised that I absolutely loved Elizabeth Bear's The Stone in the Skull (my review). I've been a huge fan of her work for years and this is Bear operating at the height of her mighty powers. An Unkindness of Ghosts is a searing generation ship novel. It is uncommon to read a generation ship novel that takes that conceit and drives a knife straight in the gut by running the ship like a plantation. This debut novel marks Rivers Solomon as an essential writer to watch. It is difficult to maintain a high level of quality and excitement for a novel seven books deep into a series, but Persepolis Rising is one of my favorite novels from The Expanse. It resets the deck and expands the story in a natural way and still delivers a fresh story.

I still need to make it a point to read more novellas published in other venues, but I have been following and reading nearly every book put out by Publishing over the last several years. This year has been no different. The thing is, they publish some fantastic books that are quickly becoming some of my favorites. I've read 17 books from this cycle.

Taste of Wrath (my review) wraps up Matt Wallace's Sin du Jour series, damn, he goes out with a bang. Sin du Jour has been one of my favorite things running and if there is any justice, Taste of Wrath will be a Hugo finalist next year and Sin du Jour will also make the shortlist as Best Series. I love these books and they deserve the widest possible audience. Black Tides of Heaven received a exceedingly rare 10/10 score from me (my review), and anything Lois McMaster Bujold writes and publishes is of the highest quality. She's not yet one of the SFWA Grandmasters, but that should only be a matter of time.

One thing I look forward to every year is The Tournament of Books (here's a link to this year's offering). I've mentioned it before here, but think of it as March Madness for novels. Literary bloodsport. The good people at The Morning News recognizes and acknowledges the absolute absurdity in judging books in a competition and then leans in hard on that concept. The winners are chosen by the capriciousness of a single judge for each match up and half the fun is trying to read as much as possible before the tournament starts and half of the fun is reading the judgment and arguing (or agreeing) with that judgment.

Some of my favorites from this year's tournament were Manhattan Beach, Pachinko, and The Animators. Naturally, none of them made it to the final. If you're curious about how it all shook out, spoilers, but here's the final between Lincoln in the Bardo and Fever Dream. I didn't really care for either novel, but I pretty much hated Lincoln in the Bardo. Between that and Civilwarland in Bad Decline, I think I'm done with George Saunders.

Speaking of being done with George Saunders, there were a few reading disappointments (besides George Saunders). I'm a huge fan of Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos novels, but Good Guys just did not work for me. Likewise, I've enjoyed previous books from Caitlin R. Kiernan, but her last two works from Publishing felt, to me, to be disjointed messes. I'm still confused as to what story is being told and what's going on. Black Helicopters did nothing to help me out. Finally, even with all of the conversation about how Andy Weir's Artemis does not live up to The Martian (a tall order), I was still disappointed in the novel. I appreciate Weir looking to tell different science fictional stories, and I look to see what he does next in the hopes that he'll be able to equal the excellence of The Martian, but Artemis just wan't it.

Finally, I would like to take a look at my reading statistics for the first half of 2018 as it relates to gender. This is something I've been thinking about and working on for a number of years now and I have found that I tend to do a better job at meeting my goals when I check in after every month and continually monitor my progress. Even with four years of thoughtful reading choices, it is so easy to find myself reading fewer women than I would like.

It should go without saying, but I know there will be misunderstanding if I don't. This isn't about denying one set of books (written by men) for another (written by women). It's not. This is about embracing as much as possible. This is about discovering new favorite books and new favorite authors that I never would have discovered if I didn't make a point to see out authors I've "always meant to read" but never have. How many of these women have written my favorite books, if I only I took the smallest amount of effort to find them?

Ultimately, I want to read everything. All the books.

If my count is correct (and I have been known to miss a book or two, despite my obsessive list making), 41 of the 69  books I've read were written by women (59.42%). That's not bad and I aim to keep it going throughout 2018.

I should also note that I am only counting those writers who use female pronouns in my count of female writers versus male. Any mistakes in this count are mine alone and I apologize for any misunderstandings I may have propagated.

Here are my stats from the last four years for a point of comparison.
2017: 51.50%
2016: 56.21%
2015: 58.59%
2014: 45.92%

Now, on with the lists!

1. The Stone in the Skull, by Elizabeth Bear
2. Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
3. Persepolis Rising, by James S.A Corey
4. La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman
5. Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan
6. Dear Cyborgs, by Eugene Lim
7. The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard
8. Idaho, by Emily Ruskovich
9. Pachinko, by Min Jin Kee
10. The End of Eddy, by Edouard Louis
11. Goodbye, Vitamin, by Rachel Khong
12. Stephen Florida, by Gabe Habash

13. The Warrior Within, by Angus McIntyre
14. The Animators, by Kayla Rae Whitaker
15. The Barrow Will Send What it May, by Margaret Killjoy
16. The Idiot, by Elif Batuman
17. So Much Blue, by Percival Everett
18. Obama: An Intimate Portrait, by Pete Souza
19. Memory’s Blade, by Spencer Ellsworth
20. Lucky Boy, by Shanthi Sekaran
21. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson
22. Time Was, by Ian McDonald
23. Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz

24. The Atrocities, by Jeremy Shipp
25. Dark State, by Charles Stross
26. Oh Crap! Potty Training, by Jamie Glowacki
27. Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado
28. Tomorrow's Kin, by Nancy Kress
29. Taste of Wrath, by Matt Wallace
30. The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang
31. Good Guys, by Steven Brust
32. Penric's Fox, by Lois McMaster Bujold
33. Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee
34. A Local Habitation, by Seanan McGuire
35. Outbreak, by Melissa F. Olson

36. Void Black Shadow, by Corey J. White
37. Discount Armageddon, by Seanan McGuire
38. The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter
39. Black Helicopters, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
40. The Red Threads of Fortune, by JY Yang
41. The Mongrel Mage, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr
42. Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells
43. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
44. An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon

45. Artemis, by Andy Weir
46. Emma in the Night, by Wendy Walker
47. Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime, by David Maisel
48. The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold
49. Mira's Last Dance, by Lois McMaster Bujold
50. Less, by Andrew Sean Greer
51. Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler, by Alexandra Pierce & Mimi Mondal
52. The Million, by Karl Schroeder
53. Under the Pendulum Sun, by Jeannette Ng
54. The Descent of Monsters, by JY Yang
55. Midnight Blue-Light Special, by Seanan McGuire
56. King Javan's Year, by Katherine Kurtz
57. Rogue Protocol, by Martha Wells
58. New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson

59. Crash Override, by Zoe Quinn
60. The Outsider, by Stephen King
61. The Black God's Drums, by P. Djeli Clark
62. So Lucky, by Nicola Griffith
63. Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich
64. The Female Persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer
65. Modern Masters of Science Fiction:  Iain M. Banks, by Paul Kincaid
66. No Time to Spare, by Ursula K. Le Guin
67. Deep Roots, by Ruthanna Emrys
68. The Anomaly, by Michael Rutger
69. Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Microreview [book] Shadow Sun Seven by Spencer Ellsworth

Shadow Sun Seven Deepens and improves upon the Space Opera verse of Spencer Ellsworth's A Red Peace

The complex tale of Jaqi, reluctant opposition to a Resistance that has in turn just toppled an oppressive human galactic empire, continues in Shadow Sun Seven, sequel to Spencer Ellsworth debut novella A Red Peace. This second novella jumps off not long after the first. It should be said that discussion of this second volume, a short novel, does necessarily spoil the first novella.

That novella, which posited, explored and depicted a wide ranging universe with half-Jorians, lots of biological weapons and creatures that would fit in a Kameron Hurley novel, and a net of complicated characters. By the end of the first novella, Jaqi, Half-Jorian, and Half Human pilot, had managed to spirit away two children from the Resistance that are looking for them at any cost, and had slowly started to learn that she has a destiny and power that she never knew, a destiny and power tied to the original, extinct race of which she is just a hybrid descendant gene engineered cross. Or is she?

These novellas are secondarily the story of Araskar. Araskar started his life fairly high in the Resistance, and even more poignantly, tied to Rashiya, daughter of the Resistance leader John Starfire. In the events of the first novella, Araskar’s sense of morality and what’s right led him to kill his former love and turn against the Resistance, and join Jaqi’s crew. Thanks to the circumstances of her death, Rashiya’s ghost is a recurring presence in Araskar’s head and provides dry and mordant company for Araskar. Their weird relationship is something that Ellsworth does not use overmuch, and in fact I could have stood far more of.

With this gang assembled assembled, on the run, and with a large price on their heads, Shadow Sun Seven is the story of what happens once this team is together and under the gun. In order to protect themselves from a mercenary group , the Matakas, ooking to cash in on their fugitive status, Jaqi and Araskar agree to lead them on a mission of plunder for an even bigger payoff than they’d get for turning them in. The dynamic between the main characters and their allies is a nice running tension throughout the novel, their lack of trust in each other driving character and plot.

Jaqi and Araskar are the highlights of this novel, from a character point of view but the novel is full of colorful characters, writ large and small. The warrior Z, given relatively little play in the first novel, gets a lot of character development in this novel, as it turns out that Z’s people, the Zarra, have a dark history with the head of Shadow Sun Seven. And so when the gang arrives at the station, Z has a distinct agenda of their own. Also of interest is the Queen of the Matakas, whose negotiation with Jaqi and Araskar is a delightful dance of culture and species conflict.

Worldbuilding is something that readers of my reviews know that I key on, and this novel delivers with verve and invention. The biopunk-esque nature of Ellsworth’s space opera universe continues to delight and interest me as a reader. The expansion of space and length in this second volume over the first, I think, allows the author the opportunity to more fully explore the sometimes gonzo universe that he has created. Far from a standard issue space opera universe with pointy eared and rubber headed aliens in a verse seen a hundred times before, the author provides a breath of invention that allows his characters to inhabit a world that is always surprising. Even as the plot in the abstract is simple and straightforward--an infiltration and break-in with the mercenaries to a mining space station (the eponymous Shadow Sun Seven) to get a valuable commodity (and free the key prisoner), the uniqueness of the world makes it intriguing and fresh. The valuable commodity are pure oxygen cells, uncommon and extremely necessary for space travel. The mining/prison space station is an imaginative space of prisoners, a fighting arena and much more. The aforementioned untrustworthy mercenary allies and their Queen working with Jaqi? They are distinctive and wonderfully realized inhuman, insectoid aliens. And then there are the Moorcockian style soul-sucking swords that Araskar wields.

That breath of invention and reinvention,, combined with interesting characters, a slowly revealing backstory of a universe and a future destiny for Jaqi, make Shadow Sun Seven a winning read. It is novels like this that reinforce and reify my love of space opera, making it tangible and real. This is a most successful jump from novella to novel for the author. I look forward to more with Jaqi and Araskar in this most interesting universe.

The Math

Baseline Assessment 7/10 

Bonuses: +1 for good development of characters backstory and depth +1 for an absolutely gonzo universe overstuffed with intriguing ideas, locations and species.

Penalties: -1 the science fantasy elements may turn off readers more interested in a purer Space Opera experience.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 well worth your time and attention


POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Reading the Hugos: Related Work

Today we’re continuing our series on the Hugo Awards with a look at the Related Work category.

3.3.6 Best Related Work: Any work related to the field of science fiction, fantasy, or fandom, appearing for the first time during the previous calendar year or which has been substantially modified during the previous calendar year, and which is either non-fiction or, if fictional, is noteworthy primarily for aspects other than the fictional text, and which is not eligible in any other category
Related Work is a bit of a catch-all category. It’s for work that is primarily non fiction and that is related to science fiction and fantasy, and which is not otherwise eligible elsewhere on the ballot. This is how you can have an encyclopedia compete against a folk album against a podcast against a collection of essays about movies (this was in 2012 when the Fancast category had not yet been created. That particular lineup of finalists can’t happen today. You may also note that albums and songs have been included in Dramatic Presentation – because the two Clipping albums in question are narrative driven whereas Seanan McGuire’s Wicked Girls was not.). There may also be a single blog post competing and winning in the category. Or a series of blog posts focusing on the women of Harry Potter. In the case of this year, there is a biography, a scholarly examination of a writer’s career, a memoir, a series of essays / letters to a deceased writer about the importance of her work, a collection of book reviews, and an essay collection of blog posts.

I believe this is the first year I have read all of the Related Work finalists, though I came close last year. As a general rule, most of my reading is fiction – though I’ve been meaning to hit that stack of biographies I have on my bookshelf downstairs (a statement at which my wife would roll her eyes at given how many years I’ve been saying that). Related Work is an interesting cross section of another side of the genre and another side of fandom.

Let’s take a look at the finalists.

Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate, by Zoë Quinn (PublicAffairs)
Iain M. Banks (Modern Masters of Science Fiction), by Paul Kincaid (University of Illinois Press)
A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison, by Nat Segaloff (NESFA Press)
Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler, edited by Alexandra Pierce, and Mimi Mondal (Twelfth Planet Press)
No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Sleeping with Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Liz Bourke (Aqueduct Press)

Luminescent Threads: I'm of two minds about Luminescent Threads. The first is that this is an incredible selection of essays and criticism about Octavia Butler and her works. The love and connection so many readers felt with her novels is undeniable. Many of the essays, the "letters", are deeply moving and compelling. The second mind is that when taken as a single work in larger bites, the letters often feel like more of and perhaps too much of the same. Many letters hit the same beats, aim at the same targets, reach the same conclusions. Unfortunately, I attempted to read Luminescent Threads as a book, rather than taking one essay at a time. Doing so muted some of the power of the work. On the plus side, our own Paul Weimer has an essay / letter in the book.

A Lit Fuse: Here’s my genre confession: I can’t be sure if I’ve actually read Harlan Ellison before. I’m sure I’ve stumbled across a story of his in some older anthology or another, but I can’t say what or when. I don’t know if I’ve read his most famous stories. I have copies of both Dangerous Visions anthologies and I may still own Shatterday, but I haven’t read them. Harlan Ellison has mostly been this towering figure shouting “Pay the Writer” from the clouds. I know him from his modern reputation, which includes his groping of Connie Willis during the 2006 Hugo Awards. I don’t know him from his work. Now that he has passed away, I know him from his eulogies and his reputation.

Nat Segaloff’s biography is necessarily a slanted one, biased towards Ellison. Segaloff doesn’t hide Ellison’s flaws, but he does minimize them and give them Ellison’s context and Ellison’s shading. As a biography, it’s a fairly well written and comprehensive one. If I were a fan of Ellison, I would probably be thrilled by detail of the man’s life. Also, a person doesn’t need to be likeable to be interesting or to be worth writing about. This is good, because I’m not sure I would have liked him much. I’m quite sure he wouldn’t have liked me. The problem is that there is a bit of tedium to the writing and the recounting of Ellison’s life. Time will tell if A Lit Fuse turns out to be an important science fiction biography in the long run, but it is certainly a less vital and immediate work on the Hugo ballot.

No Time to Spare: While I understand that what we're doing here in evaluating the finalists for Related Work is racking and stacking them against each other and not comparing to finalists or winners in previous years, I can't help but briefly compare No Time to Spare to last year's Related Work winner, Words Are My Matter. Both are essay collections from Ursula K. Le Guin, but where Words Are My Matter was more focused on writing and also came from the text of speeches given and other essays published in various places, No Time to Spare is much more general and appears to be taken completely from Le Guin's blog.

Also, apparently Ursula Le Guin had a blog, which is one of those most basic and astounding facts that I would not have considered (sort of like when Frederick Pohl started blogging and won a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer in 2010). That's beside the point. Much moreso than her speeches in last year's winning collection, the essays in No Time to Spare are focused on whatever topic she chose to write about. This will come as no surprise given that we're talking about Le Guin, but the writing is strong and compelling. The compelling part is important here because last year that's what I felt was lacking. Again, I'm not really comparing No Time to Spare to Words Are My Matter in terms of this year's category, but I do find it an interesting contrast.

Regardless, No Time to Spare is a strong collection of essays and would be a worthy winner. I have it a bit farther down my ballot this year, but that's just a mark of the strength of the category than it is a statement against the collection. No Time to Spare would be a strong contender in any year, but Ursula Le Guin passed away in January and I have to think that is the sort of thing that might push No Time to Spare a little farther up a few ballots and maybe enough to award Le Guin consecutive Hugo Awards. Of course, I thought that about Carrie Fisher's Princess Diarist last year and, well, Le Guin won for Words Are My Matter.

Sleeping With Monsters: I knew I was in good hands when I kept telling myself “one more review” rather than just reading two reviews a night like I had originally planned. I kept adding books to my “To Read” list on goodreads and reveled in Bourke’s excitement and appreciation for books which were already my favorites. Sleeps With Monsters is a collection of Liz Bourke’s previously published reviews, whether from, Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, or her own blog. A very small number of reviews are original to this collection.

I’ve followed Bourke’s column since it started on For me, it’s essential reading and adds to my exponential reading list. Her reviews are well considered and accessible. I wouldn’t normally go back and read a collection of reviews that I’ve already read, but Sleeps With Monsters is exactly what I didn’t know I wanted. Bourke’s commentary on science fiction and fantasy is a vital perspective on the genre.

Crash Override: If you're reading Nerds of a Feather and have engaged any any sort of online activity over the last several years, you've likely heard of Zoe Quinn. Quinn is now an activist, crisis hotline operator, a woman working in tech. She has worked with law enforcement, social media companies (and other tech companies), Congress, and the United Nations to address online abuse and harassment. You probably know Zoe Quinn's name because in 2014, an abusive ex boyfriend targeted her with a widespread campaign of lies, threats, doxxing, and ultimately launched Gamergate. I wish  I didn't know Gamergate exists, but I also live on the internet.

This is fucking terrifying. This is Zoe Quinn's story, but her expose on Gamergate and the methods of online harassment (which extend beyond "online harassment" to physical intimidation and assaults, harassing employers, friends, families, everything) are absolutely terrifying and heartbreaking and this is a necessary book. Crash Override is a book that made me angry with almost every page, but I didn't want to put it down either - and the work Quinn is doing with her advocacy is nothing short of heroic. Crash Override is a testament to that.

Iain M. Banks: Confession time. I've only read two of Iain M. Banks' Culture novels, Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games. It took me years to pick up Consider Phlebas, and that was almost enough to stop me from reading anything else Banks published. I know the place Banks holds in the science fiction / space opera cosmos, but that first novel did not work for me at all. Or maybe I didn't work for it. Either way. The Player of Games hooked me right off.

I led with that bit of introduction because I'm not sure if the audience for a scholarly work of the career Iain M. Banks is for those who are well familiar with and love his fiction or if it is for readers who may barely be familiar with his work. I'm the second category. I expect reading through Kincaid's relatively slim volume spoiled some things in Banks's novels, but at this pace it will be  years before I encounter them.

This book, from the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, gets at why (and perhaps how) Banks is important as a writer (and not just as a science fiction writer). It ties together how and when the books were written, what Banks might have been responding to, and some of the critical responses to his work. Perhaps more than anything else, this book made me want to read more of Iain M. Banks (and of the more mainstream work published as Iain Banks). It is an important scholarly work on a major science fiction writer.

My Vote
1. Iain M. Banks
2. Crash Override
3. Sleeps With Monsters
4. No Time to Spare
5. A Lit Fuse
6. Luminescent Threads

Our Previous Coverage
Short Story 
Professional Arist
Fan Artist

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.

Thursday Morning Superhero

Before I hop into our final pre-SDCC post, I wanted to share this amazing Kickstarter from Nerds of a Feather favorite Matt Kindt. The creator of Mind MGMT, Dept. H, and many others has launched his first Kickstarter! It is for a read-along one-off set in the Mind MGMT world!  You get an actual vinyl to listen to as you read the story!  It was a no brainer for me and you can check it out here.

SDCC Comics Edition:
While television, film, and exclusives have taken over comic con, a large volume of comics content still exists and is well worth the effort to check out. For the final pre-SDCC installment, I will focus on convention exclusive books and panels that I hope to check out.

Exclusive Editions:

Sword of Ages #1 Deluxe Edition - Limited to only 250 copies, this issue kicks off Gabe Rodriguez's epic fantasy series that is wrapping up soon. The series features a blend of technology and fantasy and is a delight.

Redneck #13 - Just look at that freaking cover. This horror series from Donny Cates has been one of my favorite series in the past couple of years and this SDCC exclusive cover is unbelievable and a must own.

Rick and Morty #37 - You had me at Pickle Rick Foil Variant. What more do you want from a cover than Pickle Rick embossed in glorious foil! This series has done an admirable job filling in the void due to the delay in new episodes. While I haven't been blown away by every issue, it has been an enjoyable read.

Spotlight on Jeff Lemire - Thursday gifts us this gem of a panel at 3:00pm in Room 25ABC. Jeff Lemire is one of my favorite creators and is well know for his creator owned titles including Sweet Tooth and Essex County. In addition he had an amazing run with Old Man Wolverine and has an innate ability to connect his characters on an emotional level with his audience. If I can only convince my 10 year old to join me for this one.

Skybound Entertainment: What's Next - On Friday I hope to learn more about what the future holds for Skybound Entertainment. Hosted in room 6BCF from 5:45-6:45pm Robert Kirkman and CEO David Alpert will share insights as to the future of Skybound.  In addition to the future of its comics, content will highlight expansion into video and board games.

Spotlight on Jeff Smith - Bone is one of my family's all-time favorite series. My son is beyond excited about sitting in on this panel in room 28DE from 2:00-3:00pm on Sunday. The panel will focus on Smith's new book, Smiley's Dream Book, and the future of the Bone movie.

POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Microreview [Book]: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Charming on the surface but with dark moral undertones, Spinning Silver is a technically accomplished but unsettling read.

Spinning Silver is the latest offering from the author of the Temeraire series and the Nebula Award-winning Uprooted, based on a story which started life as a novelette in Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien's Starlit Wood anthology. Alas, I haven't read that anthology yet, so I can't compare this to its previous incarnation, though I certainly didn't notice any obvious seams; Spinning Silver reads like it was always meant to be a novel. Like Uprooted, the book takes a fairytale recognisable to Western European traditions (Rumplestiltskin), but weaves a more complex mythology and world around it based on Eastern European traditions. Though Spinning Silver is not set in the same world as its predecessor, there's some commonality between the two settings, particularly the role of the forest as a threatening presence in the protagonists' lives; friendships and support networks between women are also foregrounded in both stories.

 The protagonist of Spinning Silver is Miryem, daughter of a moneylender whose family are the only Jews in a small, poor town. Miryem's father has made a name for himself by being generous to a fault, rarely collecting what is owed, and sinking the family into poverty as the community happily takes advantage of him. Miryam's only moments of comfort come through visits to her mother's wealthier family, and when her mother becomes ill, she feels she has no choice but to take over the job her father has done so poorly. To the horror of her parents and the approval of her grandfather, her foray into moneylending quickly becomes successful and Miryem is soon able to take pride in her ability to turn silver into gold. There are two serious dangers to this ability, however: first, her success quickly draws the attention of the Staryk, the dangerous spirits of the winter forests, who are known to kill humans that hunt their animals or travel on their roads. Second, her business sense quickly plays into the current of anti-Semitism in Miryem's town, creating an increasingly hostile environment for her family at the very time when they might need support from the community. It's the first threat that kickstarts the story, as Miryem is pushed into an unwinnable bargain with the Lord of the Staryk and finds herself caught up in the politics of both fairy and human courts, with the fate of both lands at stake.

Miryem starts off as the only narrator in Spinning Silver but her voice is soon joined by that of two other young women. The first is Wanda, eldest daughter of a widowed, alcoholic farmer who is indentured by Miryem to pay off her father's debt. From the perspective of Miryem's narrative, this is an early turning point signalling the character's willingness to inflict harsh punishments on for the sake of her profession. However, we immediately discover that from Wanda's perspective, this represents a shot at freedom from her father's house, and his desire to marry her off. The third major perspective is that of Irina, the daughter of the local human lord, overlooked since her own mother died and her stepmother started running the household. After being indirectly affected by one of Miryem's schemes to avoid the Staryk, Irina catches the attention of the Tsar, only to find herself in a highly unsafe, supernaturally charged situation of her own. These three perspectives are supplemented by occasional narration from secondary characters, including Irina's nurse and Wanda's younger brother (who unfortunately narrates in Stereotypical Autistic Voice). 

The interweaving of characters' stories and lives in Spinning Silver is masterful, with multiple subplots touching and intertwining as Miryem, Wanda and Irina try to find their way out of the constraints of the men and monsters in control of their lives. The common thread here is that of bargaining and debt, and of the cultural expectations surrounding it. Novik takes this value system very seriously throughout: there's no sudden but predictable subversion where "it turns out the only real value is love", or other such easy options here. This doesn't mean friendship and kindness don't play an important role in the text: the positive relationships in Spinning Silver significantly outweigh the negative, and characters are always rewarded for being kind rather than cruel to those around them. However, these positive emotional bonds always end up becoming part of the framework of deals and promises, working alongside recognisable human economic systems as well as fae-inspired exchanges that encompass knowledge, status, safety and rights. In Spinning Silver, nothing comes for free, because any gift you give still causes the other person to give up something of themselves in return, even if it is just gratitude or a feeling of being in your debt. While I was impressed with how deeply and effectively this system is entrenched into the narrative, I found the implications uncomfortable at times, particularly when it came to the various marriages and the power dynamics within them. 

(Spoilers follow, with a content warning for normalisation of abusive relationship dynamics) 

Despite appearances, there's very little romantic love in this book (and you can forget about overt LGBTQIA+ representation). Both Miryem and Irina find themselves in marriages through no choice of their own, and towards the end of the book Irina pushes her female cousin into a quick forced marriage which is universally portrayed as a positive development for the cousin in question. Only Wanda is able to repudiate male power by avoiding marriage, and even then the takeaway is ambiguous: is the problem that her father has been trying to sell her off, or simply that he keeps undervaluing her when he attempts it? Miryem and Irina's only option is to level the power dynamic in their existing marriages: both do manage this, but its hard to escape the fact that these situations are likely to read to modern audiences as dangerous and abusive even at the end. 

(Spoilers end)

Spinning Silver doesn't celebrate these outcomes, and I think the text intends us to question the assumption that the ending really represents a "happily ever after" beneath the surface. However, it also makes no apology for the aspects of its value system that may read as negative to modern readers. There's no reason it should, of course: the overall effect will be a feature or a bug depending on the individual reader. However, given that Spinning Silver, like Uprooted, is likely to be recommended on grounds of being a "nice" story, I think its important to note that the regular moments of kindness and solidarity that make this a charming read on the surface are underpinned by a worldview with highly unsettling implications. I wouldn't recommend this as a comfort read to anyone sensitive to abusive or imbalanced relationship dynamics in their media, although I also wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it for the same reasons.

Despite its uncomfortable undertones, however, there's no question that this is one of the best books I've read in 2018 so far. As a technical accomplishment, it's excellent (except for the awkwardly stereotyped autistic-presenting character), hitting a perfect fairytale tone that weaves multiple character's lives together in a compelling way. There's plenty of kindness and positive relationships, especially between women and across cultures, to keep a reader company even during the story's darker turns. I recommend picking up Spinning Silver with eyes open and critical faculties engaged: much like that dark forest at the edge of the town, its not a place to be taken lightly, no matter how lovely it may look from the outside.

The Math

Base rating: 8/10

+1 Rich, complex worldbuilding that takes fairytale retelling to the next level

Penalties: -1 Yes, that's how marriages work in some cultures... but it doesn't mean I have to like it.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 "Well worth your time and attention".

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke.

Reference: Novik, Naomi. Spinning Silver [Del Rey (US) / Macmillan (UK), 2018].

Westworld Wednesday: All Good Things

Welcome back to Westworld Wednesday, a series of essays/ramblings about the themes & philosophies of Westworld. NOTE: while we deal more with themes here, rather than plot, the emphasis is not on what happened this week; HOWEVER, if you are reading this an?d wish to avoid spoilers, you should be current on the show (Seriously, there are spoilers in this).

Westworld was a heck of a ride in its second season. It certainly wasn't for everyone; there was no shortage of people who tired of the twists and turns and time jumps (and people who didn't get it and blame the show shut up DESR you said you wouldn't go there). But we live in what has been termed the 'golden age of television', and Westworld is emblematic of that. Back in the, uh, Bronze Age? of TV, it was a pain to rewatch a show. You had to set a VCR (remember those? Quaint) and/or be there to watch the show in person, sit through a gajilllion years of commercials.

You know what? We're calling those the Dark Ages now.

Point is, a show like Westworld didn't - couldn't - exist back then*. It is a show that benefits from rewatching; while some shows get boring once you know once the mysteries are revealed, but with Westworld, it's actually better once you know. There are details and layers, to say nothing of the fact that upon a rewatch, you see how much of it is foreshadowed from the word go.

So, maybe not for everyone, but I (obviously) loved it, and loved writing this series of essays/ramblings about the themes. For all the great day-in, day-out aspects of Westworld, like plot and acting or whatever, it's those themes that set it above. The ability to weave manifold concepts through each episode is really unparalleled. From family, to religion, to the afterlife, to mortality and a whole bunch in between, for my money, Season Two had it all.

Too much praise? Maybe, but anytime a show makes me consider the afterlife more than a very conservative religious upbringing, I have to give it credit.

It had some weak points - what was up with Maeve suddenly being the favorite child? - but overall, my largest concern going into season two was that all the momentum was gone, that the twists wouldn't land, that the magic would be gone. I think they did a great job with it, telling the story from Bernard's perspective, where the twists and turns of time made sense with his warped memory.

I wish I had a grand conclusion for this, but really, like with the show, I hope you enjoyed the ride, and if you want to read (or reread) any of the Westworld Wednesday's, you can do so here.

See you next season.


*Babylon 5 notwithstanding