Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Reading the Hugos: Related Work

Welcome back to Reading the Hugos. Today we continue our series on the 2020 finalists with a look at Related Work.
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 hodge podge 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. The history of the category will see critical works next to art books next to encyclopedias next to podcasts next to essays next to speeches next to documentaries next to websites. There may also be a single blog post competing and winning in the category. In this case of this year there is one memoir, two critical biographies, one documentary, another biography (though not a critical one like the other two) and an acceptance speech. Related Work is an interesting cross section of another side of the genre and another side of fandom.

  • Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood, by J. Michael Straczynski (Harper Voyager US)
  • Joanna Russ, by Gwyneth Jones (University of Illinois Press (Modern Masters of Science Fiction))
  • The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, by Mallory O’Meara (Hanover Square)
  • The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, by Farah Mendlesohn (Unbound)
  • “2019 John W. Campbell Award Acceptance Speech”, by Jeannette Ng
  • Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, produced and directed by Arwen Curry

Photo Credit "naye" @unnaye
2019 John W. Campbell Award Acceptance Speech: In 2012 an acceptance speech from the editors of The Drink Tank fanzine (Christopher Garcia and James Bacon) was a finalist for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. Up against three episodes of Doctor Who and one of Community, it didn't win (the Neil Gaiman penned "The Doctor's Wife did). So, it's interesting that Jeannette Ng's Campbell Award acceptance speech was nominated as a Related Work this year - though it does fit somewhat better here than in Dramatic Presentation. The Drink Tank also would have fit better in that year's Related Work category, matched up against Seanan McGuire's Wicked Girls album and a season of the Writing Excuses podcast, but that isn't really here nor there.

Jeannette Ng won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer last year and her speech was fiery, inflammatory, and absolutely perfect for the moment. You can read it or watch it if you need a refresher on what Ng said, but if you pay attention to the genre at all (if you're a reader of Nerds of a Feather and follow the Hugo Awards) you're probably already aware of it.

Ng's speech is important. It crystallized conversation within the genre that has been taking place for a number of years and was the final push that helped drive the change of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer to the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. That was an important and necessary change that ever so gradually moves the field forward and Ng's acceptance speech was a significant part of that change (though not the whole).

It seems that honoring Ng's acceptance speech here is a recognition of what the speech did more than what the speech was. Ng's speech was passionate, but it was not necessarily the best piece of genre related work from last year. What Jeannette Ng's speech did, however, that was vital and likely merits its inclusion here.

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein: I wonder if I was more familiar with Heinlein's work if I would have appreciated this more. The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein is a scholarly look at the works (and partially the life) of Heinlein. Farah Mendelsohn digs deep into Heinlein's work and examines his attitudes and beliefs as presented in the text - whether it is on guns or race or equality and the answers are more complex and surprising than a cursory understanding of Heinlein might suggest.

This is a major biography of one of the giants of the genre's history and it lives up to its billing. Unfortunately for me, I've only read Starship Troopers and Job and have no familiarity with any of Heinlein's short fiction - and that's left the The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein to be a bit of a dry tome. On the other hand, Paul Weimer reviewed the biography last year and described it as an "essential volume of genre criticism", which is certainly true.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin: I've joked with Adri the last couple of years about there always being another Ursula K. Le Guin work eligible for the ballot and there always will, whether it is a work you could reasonably consider being created by Le Guin or "simply" about her and her work. Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin is this year's / last year's Le Guin.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin also happens to be a rather excellent documentary and is engrossing from minute one to the end. I watched it back in August 2019, so my memories are a little fuzzy - but what I remember most clearly is that it was one of the best genre related documentaries I was likely to watch. It's a thoughtful film of a thoughtful writer and I won't be surprised if it wins this year - especially after Le Guin won Related Work in 2017, 2018, was a finalist in 2019 and her illustrated Earthsea book won for Art Book based on the illustrations of Charles Vess. It's the late resurgence of non-fiction Le Guin.

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: If you haven't paid much attention to the history of animation in the United States (or even if you have), you may not have heard of Milicent Patrick - one of the first female animators at Disney and the primary creature of The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The Lady from the Black Lagoon has a dual narrative - the triumphs and drama of Patrick's life, as much as could be gleamed from limited records, and that of Mallory O'Meara's quest to discover what she could of Patrick's life. There's as much story in the discovery as there is in Milicent Patrick herself. As such, this is a less traditional biography but is an effective way to tell the story of a woman so central to monster movies and yet so erased. It seems that Milicent Patrick never quite shared the sense of loss for the career she could have had if only she had any real institutional support for her skill and her craft - but Mallory O'Meara conveys it all the same - it's a loss that occurs time and again in so many fields.

Joanna Russ: I can be a sucker for an accessible critical biography and that is exactly what Gwyneth Jones has delivered with this look at Joanna Russ. This is a deep dive into the work of Joanna Russ, not quite into her personal life and Jones examines the scope of Russ's career.

In her earlier review of this volume, Adri wrote "Jones's reading of The Female Man, in particular, was interesting in the way it presented a radically different lens than the one I had read the novel in, taking the different aspects of the Joanna personality as a reading of identity across time rather than dimensions. It's a reading which brings Russ into conflict with her own identity as an SFF writer and Jones doesn't hold back from the implications of that reading, tracing it throughout the rest of her work and noting where the seeds come in at earlier points. If, like me, you don't often approach literature from a strongly academic lens, some of this will probably be well in the realms of "well I'd never thought of it like that", but it never comes across as particularly prescriptive or inherently dismissive to other readings, so I was able to enjoy the different ways of thinking about the texts rather than feeling put in my place by them, as is always the risk with more academic takes."

I generally agree with Adri's take here, both in her wishes about more of Joanna Russ's conversations with other writers, as well the general appreciation of the breadth of this volume. It's exceptional.

Becoming Superman: For more than half of this book I came out of each chapter wanting to give J. Michael Straczynski a hug. If someone made a movie of his life and incorporated his childhood and then his family's backstory, it would be unbelievable. Straczynski's childhood is just about as bad as it can get, and yet each time a revelation about his family comes up - it gets even worse.

The good thing is that we know from the subtitle that this is his "journey from poverty to Hollywood" and we know as science fiction fans that he is the creator of Babylon Five, winner of two Hugo Awards and a finalist for two others. We know that he makes it out and he is successful. Becoming Superman is an incredible story and Straczynski keeps it engaging the entire time. He never shies away from the worst, but the worst never overpowers either - possibly because we know there is a better life ahead.

My Vote
1. Becoming Superman
2. Joanna Russ
3. The Lady of the Black Lagoon
4. Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin
5. The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein
6. 2019 John W. Campbell Acceptance Speech

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 4x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. He / Him.