Monday, August 21, 2017

Microreview [film]: Seconds (1966)

Shadowy, Faustian, and Sci-Fi-Adjacent

The premise of Seconds is solidly science fiction — a middle-aged, middle-manager type tired of his life allows a shadowy company to stage his death, give him a new face, a new name, and a new life — but the execution doesn't spend much time on the fantastic elements. Billed as a sci-fi movie, it actually unfolds more like a paranoid thriller. This feels natural since director John Frankenheimer's two previous movies were the paranoid classics The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May.

The scenes inside The Company have an almost surrealistic feel to them, with unexplained rooms full of people sitting around and waiting for...who knows?...and offices with random people present, staring at the wall doing...who knows? This is essentially the extent to which the movie characterizes the science fictional or fantastic aspect of its tapestry. The main character, Arthur Hamilton, undergoes the surgery and recovery process, and emerges as Rock Hudson, well, his name is now "Tony Wilson," but as played by Rock Hudson. Rock Hudson was never one of those movie stars that pushed the boundaries of film acting, you might say — he always feels to me like Cary Grant, but not as witty or sharp-edged. He had a great role in Giant and did a good job with it. But he really surprised me in Seconds.

The bulk of the movie concerns itself with the reality of actually escaping oneself. Ok, let's just take as a given that some mysterious group can provide you with a new face, name, house, all that. But under the new exterior, you're still "you." And is it your circumstances that you were tired of, that made you want to go down this bonkers rabbit hole, or was it Beach house, servant, new girlfriend, sure, but can that make you happy? Can you really hit the reset button as easy as all that?

One of the most effective sequences in the film is also one of the strangest. Arthur/Tony goes with his new girlfriend, Nora, to a wine festival, and suddenly people start stripping off their clothes and dancing around in the wine vats naked. Arthur/Tony is repulsed at first, the way a middle-aged baner from 1966 might well be, but slowly lets himself go, allowing himself to get caught up in the moment. This is the first moment in the film where he really loosens the fist clenched around the idea of who he's "supposed" to be, and feels the freedom of this new, second chance at life. This sequence — and it has a lot of female nudity — was unsurprisingly cut from the American theatrical release, but has since been restored. I think without that experience, though, this would feel like a very different movie. From a character standpoint, I think it's an essential scene, and a lot would be lost without it. It's one of the only moments where I felt like I could start pulling for Arthur/Tony.

This is the most natural, and engaging performance I've ever seen from Rock Hudson. And he does a really convincing drunk, in one crucial scene. I have to wonder how much this role was informed by his real life as a closeted gay man. It feels like the kind of role, where he is having to hide his true self and can only let go in a couple of stolen moments, that he was probably living off-screen, as well. It is a heartbreaking idea to consider.

This movie did poorly on its initial release, but in recent years has bubbled up again. I first became aware of it because I am a big nerd for movie title design, and I saw the Saul Bass-created opening sequence maybe a couple of years ago. Criterion and the Library of Congress National Film Registry have helped raise the movie's profile recently, and I think it's well-deserved. It's an odd movie, and not perfect, but in the end, Seconds feels like an extended, darker-than-usual episode of The Twilight Zone. If that sounds good, you'll probably dig it.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses:: +1 for Rock Hudson's performance; +1 for Murray Hamilton's brief, but unsettling performance; +1 for gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by the legendary James Wong Howe

Penalties: -1 for an outcome that feels like a foregone conclusion; -1 for the sort of blasé approach to the sci-fi setup

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

Posted by Vance K — cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather since 2012. Emmy-winning producer, and folk musician.

Friday, August 18, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 07/2017

I realized after I had chosen the stories for the July Monthly Round that the flavors are dominated by a few persistent themes. Distance. War. Loss. Corruption. Given the news and trends recently, maybe that’s not such a big surprise. These are stories that weave together settings magical and awe-inspiring…and dark. Empires of exploitation, planets on the verge of catastrophe, whole realities in danger of being swallowed up into the void. And in the face of it are characters just trying to find love, or comfort, or security. Discovering that for all they want rest and release from conflict, there is no way out that leaves their souls intact. That to strive for good requires a constant effort and constant struggle against corruption and hate.

These are not stories about burdens being lifted. They are stories that examine the burdens that cannot be lifted, the damages that cannot be wiped clean, the wounds that never fully heal. They are not about despair, at least not about giving into it. The stories don’t lose hope, and though the burdens they reveal cannot be lifted, they can be shared, and through sharing the weight of them can be managed, and slowly shifted without anyone getting crushed. These are stories about community, and the breaking of isolation, and the crossing of impossible distances. These are stories about resistance, and revolutions.

July is the height of summer, yet even so the days are growing shorter, the nights longer. The sunsets seem to last forever. Come in and pull up a seat. Enjoy the view. I can’t say you’ll find much relief in what’s on tap, but you might find just a bit of refreshment, enough to get you back on your feet, and back to the fight. Cheers!

Tasting Flight - July 2017

“A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power” by Rose Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Notes: With a nose of spice and dry heat and a body of fire painting the world in hues of red, the first taste smolders—the second ignites.
Pairs with: Imperial Rye IPA
Review: Sometimes a story captures all things I wish SFF had more of—an extended cast of diverse, flawed, queer af characters; a setting full of magic and history and conflict; sex and sexuality, enthusiastic consent, and intimacy; and a cohesive mix of personal growth and a larger, layered narrative. And, well, this story delivers on all count, finding the Old Royal worn thin after a long life full of betrayals and deceits, mistrust and violence. They are a sort of phoenix, full of transformations and the prospect of renewal, even if it does come with a death, as well. But when the Raker happens along, a much younger person with hurts that run to the core and some serious trust issues, the two find in themselves a sort of renewal that doesn’t require a death, but rather a lowering of defenses, an intimacy that is an act of rebellion in a situation pushing them toward conflict and ruin. And I love that the story imagines a world where the very fabric of reality and magic is weakening, where further strain could tear everything apart. It mirrors the situation between the different cities and nations of the world, where violence and war is common and people like the Old Royal have very few reasons to trust a powerful stranger. In such a delicate landscape, though, the story does not act with caution or suspicion. Instead the characters find hope and meaning in bridging the distance between them, in finding peace and companionship, learning and love. It’s not without complication, but the story is brilliantly hopeful and joyous, even as it brushes against some very serious themes and content. And for my money, it is perhaps the best story I’ve read this year.

Art by Geneva Benton
“Cracks” by Xen (Fiyah)
Notes: With a smoky flavor like a plunge into darkness, the pour is deep brown, the nose a memory from a life that could have been, where burdens seem lighter.
Pairs with: Doppelbock
Review: Asad and Tarif are brothers with a duty to patrol the streets of their city looking for cracks, portals into another world that, if allowed to grow, consume their world and threaten to shroud it in nothingness. For Asad, this duty has consumed most of his life, because he is needed, because the price of failure is so high. And yet for Asad, queer and closeted, sure that there is no hope of finding someone while everything about him seems dominated by the work he does, one particular crack offers him a glimpse of something he’d never allowed himself to hope for. Happiness. Leisure. Love. It’s a siren’s call that strikes at the foundations of his resolve, revealing him to be the young person that he is, still struggling with the injustice of having to spend his life trying to fix something he didn’t break, something he won’t ever be free of. And wow, yeah, I love the way the story shows his anger and his bitterness, his isolation even as he is always among family. Because his family cannot offer him the kind of intimacy that he craves, that he yearns for, and it is wrenching, heartbreaking to watch him confront the warped reflection of what his life might have been like if only. The stakes of the story are certainly high, dealing with disaster and cataclysm on a planetary level, where one wrong move could lead to the destruction of an entire city, and yet I love how the story shows that the human cost is no less important, that Asad’s struggles are not selfish or indulgent, but rather embody the conflict at the heart of such settings, questioning whether survival is enough if it means giving up the hope of happiness. And the story finds a way forward despite the threat of despair, despite the distance and doubt. It finds meaning and hope and love and beauty even in the harsh reality of a world cracked under the strain of its past sins.

Art by Victo Ngai
“Waiting on a Bright Moon” by JY Yang (Tor dot com)
Notes: Conflict mingles in the form of a carbonated fizz, giving this drink a shine that cannot hide a complex and mature flavor, and packs a surprising punch.
Pairs with: Belgian Ale
Review: Tian’s life is defined by duty and distance, and as an ansible singer she is part of a power that allows her empire access to the far reaches of the galaxy. As the story opens, though, bubbling tensions are beginning to boil and the relative safety of being an ansible is shattered as corruption, magic, and murder all meet to devastating effect. The story looks very closely at the ways that Tian has been pushed into living as a literal resource for the Empire, used for her talent but denied the open expression of her identity, stripped of her chance to be someone important because of who she loves. And even then, the story shows that as the Empire allows her a sort of space to be herself, it’s defined by distance, by denial. She isn’t allowed to be with the person she loves, isn’t allowed a physical expression of her desire, is instead pushed into being ignorant and, save for the beauty of the song she shares over lightyears, alone. Until a different woman enters her life with magic of her own and the power to break through the walls keeping Tian isolated and repressed. It’s an opening up even as it comes at a time of growing fear, uncertainty, and danger. They both end up becoming a part of a resistance that pushes them to the breaking point and maybe beyond, each of them willing to risk everything once they realize that they never really had anything, just the lies and illusions of securing and contentment they were fed by the powers that be. The story is violent and fast while still maintaining a definite weight around the very small and intimate actions Tian makes. And even amid the galaxy-altering conflict the story doesn’t lose sight of Tian and her desires, holding to the hope that they won’t be consumed by the ravenous jaws of war.

“Owl vs. The Neighborhood Watch” by Darcie Little Badger (Strange Horizons)
Notes: Teetering between dark and light, the pour is a gold tinged in shadow, the taste a breath of autumn woods where the setting sun reveals a foreboding presence.
Pairs with: Amber Bock
Review: Nina has always been haunted by the specter of owls, harbingers of bad luck. All her life they have come before a tragedy, before a period of stress and difficulty. And not just owls, but Owl, a singular presence that has steered circumstances toward ruin, who keeps finding her to focus on, to bring down bad luck upon. So when Owl steps into her life again, when Nina has finally settled into something of a good life, a life of quiet employment and joy, she decides she’s not going to wait around to find what he’s bringing—she’s going to fight back. What follows is a delightful story about Nina’s battle against the forces of bad luck, against the magic that seems out to get her. What I love about the story is the tools she wields to fight back—informational packets on safety and by keeping an eye out for something strange or dangerous. I guess what I love is that in the face of this magical power, this being that brings bad luck, Nina isn’t afraid to fight back the way she knows how, not with spells or anything like that but with the magic of caution and care. As a scientist it’s a magic she knows well, how to take steps against the unknown—how to come together as specialized people to do something big, to do something as a community. The idea of the neighborhood watch is just that, where responsibilities can be portioned out and some measure of control can be regained in the face of seemingly random disaster. It’s a fun story, full of determination and the hope that even if you’ve never succeeded before, it doesn’t mean you won’t this time, or the next time. And that people helping people creates a sort of magic that can overcome even a supernatural being like Owl.

Art by Dario Bijelac
“Elsewhere” by Meera Jhala (Flash Fiction Online)
Notes: Cloudy and dull as tarnished dreams, the nose is strong and bracing and the flavor a harsh bitterness tinged with the slight saltiness of tears.
Pairs with: Bitter Ale
Review: Mrs. Bhatia knows she has to move her family away from Earth. The pollution, the climate—things are not good, despite the technology that makes it possible. That same technology, after all, has helped humanity to move to other worlds. But it’s not cheap. Still, Mrs. Bhatia and her husband are ambitious, and they imagine what life could be like if they could get off of Earth and be a family somewhere else. The story is about bargaining, about compromise, and about corruption. Mrs. Bhatia makes her decisions for her family, makes a plan and sticks to it, but at every step the costs are just so high. So she over works, and her husband over works. So she has to send her children ahead, and live apart from them. Every decision seems like a smart one, because it takes her closer to the vision in her head of what it will be like afterward, when they’re all together, when their hard work has been rewarded. And what the story reveals is that such dreams are often illusions, sold to people so that they will be complicit, so that they will go along with the system enough to be eaten alive by it. The story is a gripping tragedy of the failure of this system, this world, to live up to the promise of Mrs. Bhatia’s dreams. She believed she was making a deal, her own misery and the misery of her husband for a future payoff, but such payoffs are not givens in a world where corruption has doomed the planet to a slow decay. Instead of working in the moment, instead of trying to work toward a better system, Mrs. Bhatia tries to use the broken one to get herself away, and learns that using a broken system comes with its own grief and losses.

Art by Jennifter Johnson
"A Question of Faith” by Tonya Liburd (The Book Smugglers)
Notes: Aromatic and full of the breath of gods, with a sweetness tucked away under layers of earth and dreams and the hope of a better life.
Pairs with: Semi-dry Hard Cider
Review: Ceke navigates the changing roles in her personal life even as her professional life takes something of a turn when the young man who was volunteering for her research suddenly starts exhibiting god-like powers and an ego-trip to match. The story seems to me very much about ideas and identity, Ceke struggling with the changing roles—her wife pregnant with their first child and neither of them sure what exactly to expect. Their research flows around the idea of godhood, of archetypes that exist in the brain that can be tapped to gain very real powers. The world building is fresh and complex, the setting drawing on ancient Egyptian aesthetic but blending in science and magic, psychology and dreams. The action is intense as Ceke must confront the being that she’s helped create, a man who has lost himself to a god, to the idea of a god. And the story looks at the thin line between ideas and reality, between roles and identities. Ceke is a driven character, full of fear that she might not measure up as a parent, as a partner, as a scientist, as a mentor and friend—but her fears do not stop her from acting, and acting decisively to protect those she cares about and to prevent tragedy from striking at her and hers. As with many of the stories on tap this month, the villain of the story isn’t exactly the man with the power to kill, but rather a system that has left him without a strong sense of himself, a corruption that Ceke fights against, striving to prevent her friend from becoming a victim of a larger injustice. It’s a tightly paced, moving story with a pervasive darkness that can’t overcome the dazzling light of the characters’ spirits.


POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Thursday Morning Superhero

While I am not one to normally care for the big events from Marvel or DC, there is a perfect storm of quality writing and interesting stories that has me back on the bandwagon. Secret Empire feels reflective of a lot of what is currently happening in politics and is written by Nick Spencer of Morning Glories fame. DC's Metal event is bringing back the dynamic duo of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, whose Batman run is one of the best I have ever read. I am not sure if it is the fact that these events are being led by some of my favorite talents in the industry, or if Marvel and DC are turning a page in terms of the impact of said events.  They obviously sell issues, which with the growth of smaller publishers is needed for both, but I like to think that they are trying to tell compelling stories that will bring in new readers who are getting introduced to the two through their cinematic offerings.

Pick of the Week:
Dark Knights Metal #1 - Reunited and it feels so good! Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have rejoined forces for a new DC event. The DC Universe finds itself in the Age of Metal and I feel I need a proper soundtrack to listen to as I read this book. I didn't get to make it to one of the midnight release parties, but this event is off to quite the fun start. Mongol has trapped the Justice League on his war moon and has crafted armor to limit each heroes abilities. To make things worse they are forced to battle a group of robots in a coliseum for the amusement of everyone else on the moon. Upon escaping and returning to earth, the JL is surprised to learn that a giant mountain has risen in Gotham City. Without spoiling anything, Snyder is tapping deep into the DC vaults and bringing things back from before the New 52, including a bombshell that was leaked early, but one that I won't spoil. The final reveal (you can Google it if you are curious) is one of the most jaw-dropping moments I have experienced as a casual DC reader and has me chomping at the bit to go back and read some older titles. I have read that Snyder reached out to the character's creator and has permission to bring this being into this event as a central character. One that could have a lasting impact on the DC Universe, or one that will mess with the heroes for a good story, and then return everything to the way it was. This series looks to be absolutely bonkers and a heck of a lot of fun.

The Rest:
Southern Bastards #17 - All out war has broken out in Craw County and it isn't pretty. Coach Boss opened up a can of worms when he injured a player from Locust Fork.  Jason Aaron does not pull any punches in this issue that features a car dealing, monkey owning, Burt Reynolds-esque character named Colonel Quick McKlusky. I swear this comic gets darker and more violent with each issue, but high school football in the south is no joke and Coach Boss is desperate for a win. It looks like a resolution has been reached, but it doesn't look good for the Rebs. Still enjoying this series and anxious to see what happens in the big game.

All New Guardians of the Galaxy #8 - Drax's vow of non-violence has been broken and Rocket has been poisoned.  While the Guardians were able to fight off the Shi'ar Raptors, it isn't looking good for the crew. Wielding one Nega-Band, Quill invades the Raptor ship to find the antidote and get the other Nega-Band back. Quill is able to pull a fast one on the Raptor, who knows who Star Lord is, and return with the anti-dote. While he may have sacrificed the Nega-Bands, Star Lord has no idea of the dangers that await him and his crew. The only one who does is Groot, and with Rocket on the mend, I doubt anyone else will understand what they are up against.

Star Wars #34 - It is hard to believe that is has been 34 issues since Marvel got the Star Wars license from Dark Horse. I have really enjoyed the Marvel run and this issue is up there with the best of them. We met Sana Starros, who was once rumored to be married to Han Solo, earlier in the series, but haven't been able to appreciate her properly until now. She is tangled in a smuggling operation with Lando, and it is clear why she would be associated with someone like Solo. Always two steps ahead of who she is working with Starros weaves a tangled web of deception and stolen blasters that is quite the enjoyable tale. Definitely one of the stand out issues thus far in this series.

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Thoughts on the 2017 Hugo Awards, Part Deux

Hopefully you've all read Joe's thoughts, which posted early today. I'll be relatively brief and add a few reactions of my own. -G

1. Best Fanzine

We came in 3rd, which is pretty good for a 1st time finalist. The winners, Lady Business, were last year's runners-up. This year's runners up, Journey Planet, won in 2015. So I'm feeling pretty good about our performance. Also worth noting that our vote tally was essentially equal to SF Bluestocking, who came in 4th on the final tally but actually had more points than us in the initial count. Hopefully we will both be back next year, especially since I'll probably be able to attend.

Even though we didn't win, I'm happy. Lady Business are very deserving winners, with great content, a dedicated following and strong brand recognition among WorldCon voters. Renay has also been very kind and generous over the years to 'nerds of a feather, flock together,' as well as to me personally. Losing to your friends makes losing much easily to handle--as much as you want it, you are also rooting for them. I had them second on my ballot, with SF Bluestocking third (I had us first, duh). Yay friends!

2. Year of the Woman

Others have noted how female finalists dominated the awards this year. Women won all four of the fiction categories, which isn't really surprising to me, especially in the short fiction categories, where year in, year out, most of my favorite stories are written by women. Perhaps more surprisingly, every other category save the two dramatic performance categories* were won by women or teams that include women. Certain parties are sure to see this as evidence of something deliberate at play, and it's always possible that there's an element of residual reaction to the attempting slating of the awards by aggrieved anti-feminists in 2015 and 2016.

More likely, in my opinion, it's the result of barriers coming down, and how that affects distribution over time. On an equal playing field, assuming that men and women produce roughly the same amount of quality product over time, there will inevitably be years where there are more of one than the other. If, as I suspect, female authors are overachieving male authors in the short fiction categories, then there will also be a slight bias toward female authors in those categories, due to the larger number of "award-worthy" stories in circulation. In most of the other categories, I think it's just randomness at play--voters just happened to prefer more stuff by women this year, and may prefer more stuff by men in another. I don't have data to back this up--it's just an educated guess. If I'm correct, however, and barriers against women in the Hugos are truly gone, then all I can say is: good riddance.

[For the record, my ballot also heavily favored women--specifically, because that's who I felt did the best work among the finalists. My favorite overall entry in the fiction categories was Amal El-Mohtar's wonderful story "Seasons of Glass and Iron." If you haven't already, go find it and read it. ]

*Gender barriers are stronger and stickier in film and TV, at the creator-level, than they are in fiction.

3. Arrival was good, but...

Come on--Stranger Things was like the best thing ever!

4. San Jose: here I (hopefully) come! 

I really wanted to go to Helsinki, primarily so I could meet a lot of the people I interact with regularly on twitter. It wasn't in the cards this year, but next year seems much more plausible. Fingers crossed, and if it happens, I look forward to meeting all of you in the flesh!

Thoughts on the 2017 Hugo Awards

The winners of the 2017 Hugo Awards were announced on Friday and I would like to offer a hearty congratulations to all of the winners. I've listed them below and for those who don't quite remember who all was nominated (we were!), here is a link to the full list of nominees.

Best Novel: The Obelisk Gate, by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit Books)
Best Novella: Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire ( publishing)
Best Novelette:  “The Tomato Thief”, by Ursula Vernon (Apex Magazine, January 2016)
Best Short Story: “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, Saga Press)
Best Related Work: Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer)
Best Graphic Story: Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening, written by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda (Image)
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long FormArrival, screenplay by Eric Heisserer based on a short story by Ted Chiang, directed by Denis Villeneuve (21 Laps Entertainment/FilmNation Entertainment/Lava Bear Films)
Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: The Expanse: “Leviathan Wakes”, written by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, directed by Terry McDonough (SyFy)
Best Editor, Short Form: Ellen Datlow
Best Editor, Long Form: Liz Gorinsky
Best Professional Artist: Julie Dillon
Best Semiprozine: Uncanny Magazine, edited by Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, Michi Trota, Julia Rios, and podcast produced by Erika Ensign & Steven Schapansky
Bet Fanzine: Lady Business, edited by Clare, Ira, Jodie, KJ, Renay, and Susan
Best Fancast: Tea and Jeopardy, presented by Emma Newman with Peter Newman
Best Fan Writer: Abigail Nussbaum
Best Fan Artist: Elizabeth Leggett
Best Series: (Special Category) The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)
The John W Campell Award for Best New Writer (Not a Hugo): Ada Palmer

This is the rocket we did not win, photo credit to Michael Lee

This is a somewhat weird and difficult essay to write. Every year I write about the Hugo Awards because I love this process and I love being a part of the conversation about the awards. The thing is, when I did this in the past I was doing so from the outside. I was writing as someone who could only dream of being a finalist for the Hugo Award, let alone a potential winner.

This year. This year Nerds of a Feather was a finalist for Best Fanzine. We said thank you when the final ballot was announced, and let me tell you, it was difficult to keep that news quiet for the few weeks between being notified and when the announcement was made public.

We would like to again thank everyone who thought well enough of us to actually put us on their nominating ballot and did so in sufficient numbers to place us on the final ballot. That is awesome, amazing, and humbling. The field is so diffuse and there are so many venues producing really great writing and commentary that it is difficult to truly come to a consensus on which blogs and websites and more traditional fanzines are the ones to stand out from the field. That Nerds of a Feather was considered to be one of them last year is a true honor. So, thank you.

Next, we would like to thank everyone who then considered us for the Hugo when it came time to vote. Wherever we ranked on anyone's ballot, thank you for taking the time to thoughtfully consider our submission to the voter's pack and to then vote for us. We knew this was going to be a difficult ballot for us. Lady Business had been on the ballot last year and the editors there do fantastic work. Discussing our chances, we always figured they were the odds on favorite.

Journey Planet had been a finalist 2012-2015, finally winning in 2015. As a now five time finalist, they were always going to be a strong contender. SF Bluestocking is my personal favorite blog that isn't called Nerds of a Feather. Bridget McKinney does some of the best fan writing today. Rocket Stack Rank has a strong focus on short fiction reviews and has been an excellent resource, to the point that it is linked on the Hugo Awards website as a "third party recommendation" site.

The fact that we came in third place, behind only the winning Lady Business and the second place Journey Planet is astounding. We're grateful to everyone who ranked us so highly on their ballots (or, to be honest, included us on their ballot at all). This was a fantastic group of fanzines to share our first Hugo Award ballot with and we are honored to have had the opportunity.

The Obelisk Gate (my review) was my favorite novel of 2016 and I could not be happier that it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. It truly is. The Broken Earth is shaping up to be one of the most spectacular fantasy series ever published and I do not intend that statement as hyperbole. This also marks the second consecutive Best Novel win for N. K. Jemisin (the first was The Fifth Season (my review) at the 2016 Hugo Awards). This isn't unheard of, but it is uncommon. Lois McMaster Bujold last pulled off the feat in 1991 / 1992 with The Vor Game and Barrayar. Before that it was Orson Scott Card for Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead (1986 / 1987). Before that, well, there is no before that. Not in consecutive years. It is an amazing accomplishment and one that is so very deserved for the excellence that is The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate.

Equally thrilling for me (and presumably for Seanan McGuire since she's the actual writer of the book) is the Best Novella win for Every Heart a Doorway (my review). It garnered an exceedingly rare 10/10 review here at Nerds of a Feather and it's one of the few books I wish I had the chance to read as a teenager. I think it would have been good for me twenty five years ago. While I hope that next year there will be a greater variety of publishers represented on the ballot, Every Heart a Doorway was one of the true standout novellas from Publishing's year of releasing top notch novellas.

I could otherwise spend time on each category at far greater length, but I will leave that to simply say: congratulations to all of the winners.

I'm perhaps not going to as deep into this as I have in previous years, but one of my favorite things about the Awards (besides being a finalist for one, obviously) is the wonkery of digging into the statistics released after the Hugo Ceremony.

Voting Statistics from the Final Ballot
Nominating Statistics.

We can learn all sorts of interesting things from these reports. For example, The Obelisk Gate was in second place through the runoff tallying until the very last round when it finally gained enough votes to pull ahead of All the Birds in the Sky. Every Heart a Doorway had a definitive lead the entire time. Carrie Fisher almost received a posthumous Hugo for The Princess Diarist before eventually placing second behind Ursula Le Guin for Related Work.

Looking at the vote tallies for Fanzine it was very clear the race was between Lady Business and Journey Planet. Nobody else was seriously in the running. Once you get past the fight for first place, you'll see a fascinating battle for third place between Nerds of a Feather and SF Bluestocking. We were so tight during the runoff for First Place, Second Place, and for all passes for Third Place until the final one. It looks like more of the voters who preferred Rocket Stack Rank had us more consistently higher than SF Bluestocking.

The other thing I find fascinating about how runoff voting works is how Chuck Tingle had a very strong and dedicated voting base, but pretty much every other voter preferred other writers. This is how Tingle was in the lead for Fan Writer through the first four passes before Abigail Nussbaum overtook him for the win. But - despite how strong that voting base was, Tingle was not ranked high enough on other ballots to place higher than Fourth as the ranking continued.

Some changes were made to the nomination process this year. First, while voters were still able to nominate up to five works, the final ballot would now include six finalists. Second, the rule requiring a finalist to be on at least 5% of all nominating ballots was eliminated. Though this was not an issue for most categories, prior to the nonsense of the last two years, there had been several years where Short Story only had 3 or 4 finalists. The number of venues publishing short fiction were increasing beyond the ability for most readers who are not our own Charles Payseur to keep up with everything (check out his Quick Sip Reviews) and that's a lot of short fiction to build enough of a consensus to hit that 5% mark over hundreds of nominators.

The third major change is in how nominating ballots are tallied. The previous method was simple: the five or six works with the most nominations get on the final ballot, assuming eligibility. The newer method is a bit more complicated. It works on the same overall concept, but has a different mechanism for counting. It is called E Pluribus Hugo (out of many, a Hugo) and rather than my trying to come up with a better way to explain things, here is how EPH was described by the good people at Worldcon 75.

Under E Pluribus Hugo votes are tallied like this:
  1. First, the total number of nominations from all ballots is
    tallied for each nominee.
  2. Next, a single point is assigned to each individual voter’s
    nomination ballot. That point is divided equally among all
    nominees on that ballot. (After the first round of calculation, it
    is divided equally between remaining nominees.)
  3. Next, all points from all nomination ballots are totaled for
    each nominee in that category.
  4. Next, the two nominees with the lowest point totals are
  5. Whichever of those two has the fewest number of nominations is
    eliminated and removed from all subsequent calculations.
  6. Back to step 1 with the remaining nominees after the elimination.
The above steps are repeated until there are only six nominees left.
Those six become the finalists.

It is about building a wider consensus while limiting the ability of groups of individuals to hijack a ballot by nominating in lockstep (as had happened in 2015 and 2016). It does, however, permit that same group to get behind a single nominee in each category and have a greater chance of getting that single nominee on the ballot. When that group is the one behind the ballot hijacking of 2015 / 2016, it comes across as a flaw, but the wider possibility is the mobilization of single issue voters having immense power to get their nominee on the ballot (for example, if just enough fans of Mur Lafferty’s excellent novel Six Wakes only nominate Six Wakes for Best Novel it would take fewer ballots for Six Wakes to make the final ballot than if those voters were diffused across other novels which also have a chance at the final ballot.)
This is how we see that The Obelisk Gate was on 480 nominating ballots, but only received 295.97 points. It means that The Obelisk Gate also shared ballots with some of the other finalists, thus diffusing the vote. Likewise, Nerds of a Feather was on 77 nominating ballots, but received 38.58 points in the end. It does raise a concern that individuals with a vested interest will start to nominate more strategically in order to boost the possibility their most preferred finalist makes the ballot. Will someone then only nominate two works they feel the strongest about if they think the other works they might have voted for would otherwise make the ballot? I wonder how much that could change the complexion of the ballot in the future, except there is no way to know how people would have behaved under different rules.

It used to be easy to tell how close a particular work came to making the ballot. If sixth place received 87 nominations and the next work down had 85 nominations we know it missed the ballot by 2 votes. But, if you look at the stats for Fanzine you see that Galactic Journey appears to have more total points than SF Bluestocking, but SF Bluestocking was added to the ballot when File 770 declined. The report notes, though, that Galactic Journey needed 6 more votes to push SF Bluestocking off the ballot.

The thing is that when a work is found to be ineligible after the notifications go out or when a finalist declines to accept a slot on the final ballot, the Hugo administrators do not rerun the calculations because that could actually remove one of the notified finalists and push a new one on and that would not be fair to the notified finalist. So, the last eliminated work is added to the ballot. I believe that’s the cause for the weirdness of how the tally for Fanzine looks. I do believe that the category is all the stronger because SF Bluestocking was on the ballot. I hope to see Bridget McKinney receive many more nominations both for Fanzine as well as for Fan Writer.

But look at the notes for Fan Artist. The administrators note that if Galen Dara had .33 more points, eventual winner Elizabeth Leggett would have been eliminated in an earlier round of counting. Dara probably would have made the ballot at that point, but they would have had to continue to run the numbers to confirm that. They go on to note that Ariela Housman was 1 point away from knocking Leggett off the ballot and then run different scenarios that would have also changed the finalists.

This goes to show that voting matters. Just a tiny change in voting patterns (or one more voter who preferred Galen Dara) and the winner of Fan Artist would not have made the ballot and 2013 winner Galen Dara may well be on it. Voting matters, and now how you vote makes can make a difference as well.

I'm not sure there is any specific takeaway this year, except that some really awesome stories and novels and artists and writers won Hugo Awards. Because of E Pluribus Hugo, the ballot was shenanigans-light and that is a vast improvement over the past two years. Though I am naturally disappointed that Nerds of a Feather did not win (I really, really wanted a Hugo), I am so very happy for the editors of Lady Business. I've been reading them for years and they do excellent work.

Finally, thank you again to the 77 people who thought well enough of us to nominate Nerds of a Feather to place us on the ballot and thank you for everyone who ranked us on their final ballots - especially the 148 people who ranked us first. It means more to us than we can express. It truly has been an honor to be nominated. These last four months have been surreal and weirdly stressful and hopefully we get to do it all again next year.  We'd love to all go to San Jose and meet as many of you as possible.

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Writer / Editor of the mostly defunct Adventures in Reading since 2004. Minnesotan. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Microreview [book]: At the Table of Wolves, by Kay Kenyon

At the Table of Wolves is the fantastical, spy-thriller I didn't realize was missing from my life, and now, all I want is more!

It is the spring of 1936. Kim Tavistock, born in Yorkshire, England but raised mostly in America. She has been living with her father in England for the the past three years after a controversial article she wrote cost her her job at a Philadelphia newspaper. At thirty-three years old, Kim is uncertain of a lot of things, but especially about her Talent.

During the bloom, an onset of Talent development within random individuals of all ages but without a known origin, Kim gained the spill Talent. Rating a level 6, on a scale of 10, Kim has been working with a top-secret government run organization, Monkton Hall, researching Talents. However, Germany has been studying Talents for nearly a decade already, seeing potential for their application in war.

Kim has hated her Talent since its onset in her adolescence. The spill Talent causes people to share guarded secrets and while helpful as a journalist it often made friends fearful of being around Kim, even if they didn't understand why they were sharing too much. Her work with Monkton Hall provides a cover, that she is working on a writing assignment, and it helps give her some purpose after the scandalous dismissal in America.

Kim's case worker at Monkton Hall asks her to help uncover some evidence against a potential spy within their ranks. When her Talent produces needed intelligence beyond what even the highest levels of British Intelligence are aware of Kim finds herself swept up in trying to get answers.

The novel only takes place over the course of a couple of months, contributing to the fast-paced plot. And yet, I felt as though I'd spent years getting to know Kim, speaking to Kay Kenyon's skill and how she crafts such a real character in Kim Tavistock. Kim doesn't magically become the perfect spy, nor is her Talent a flashy one. She is anxious about life and her future, troubled at he lack of a relationship with her father, but she is still driven to do more and try for more. An animal lover, devoted friend (to the few she has), I can see myself in her.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this world are the characters and how events are happening at lower, everyday people kind of levels. This isn't top-tier, Bondesque spies reporting to a nation's leaders. This is bureaucrats and people simply doing the right thing trying to determine if their boss is a traitor to England, dealing with the frustrations inherent to dealing with a chain-of-command, trying to make the people with actual training move and take action.

It made for a really immersive read because the people felt so real. This is how things could actually happen. A slightly bumbling, well-meaning woman with a not-so-flashy Talent she can't even perform on command tries to do the right thing.

Kenyon is definitely one to watch. I was sucked into At the Table of Wolves because the book as a whole flows so perfectly.

I love everything about this book. I especially love that we might get more in this world. I want to see what Kim is capable of with proper spy training. I want to see if she can hone and control her Talent. I want to see what other Talents might exist. There is still so much to explore in Kenyon's world and I'd love a pile of Kim Tavistock books on my shelf!

The Math:
Baseline Assessment: 7/10
Bonuses: +1 non-super-spy heroine I loved, +1 stellar plot pacing Penalties:  -1 slightly lackluster villain that doesn't feel equal to our heroine
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 - A new series perfect for the big screen and your bookshelf!

POSTED BY: Shana DuBois--extreme bibliophile and seeker of raindrops.
Reference: Kenyon, Kay. At the Table of Wolves [Saga Press, 2017] Our scoring system explained.