Monday, September 20, 2021

Interview: The Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog

Congratulations to the Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog on their Hugo nomination for best fanzine!  As the title of their blog suggests,  the Hugo Book Club Blog focuses on discussions of past and current Hugo  nominees and winners (with a multitude of other scifi-fantasy discussions and guest posts as well), and they are in truth, a functioning book club!  Based in Edmonton, the book club discusses hugo nominated novels, novellas, dramatic presentations, and everything else, focusing on one or two items per month. As the book club discusses the item, notes are taken and edited down into a blog post. In a way, the club's in depth blog posts are a journal of their meetings and discussions.   

The blog's editors, Amanda Wakaruk and Olav Rokne took the same approach the interview they kindly organized for Nerds of a Feather.  As they do with all their blog posts, Wakaruk and Rokne invited input from the members book club to answer the questions I posed to them.  I am especially impressed by Wakaruk and Rokne's ability to ensure all members of the group are heard while ensuring the club keeps it's local and intimate feel and maintaining a blog with widespread and international readership.

NOAF: Welcome to Nerds of a Feather, can you tell us a little about yourselves?

Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog: Thank you for inviting us to be interviewed. Amanda is an academic librarian whose career has focused on access to government information and, more recently, copyright. Olav is a former journalist who now works in the public service as a media relations professional. We are the founding members of the book club that the blog is named after.

The book club is based in Canada’s most northerly city (Edmonton, Alberta) and we do our best to travel to Worldcon each year.

NOAF: How did the Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog get started?

UHBCB: If there is a start date, it’s probably Apr. 4, 2015, when the Hugo shortlist was announced. Our existing book club had decided to read the shortlist that year, as some of us were voting.

Of course, that was the year that the final ballot was largely made up of niche works that had been promoted by a politically motivated slate campaign. Several of those works were sub-par, in our opinions.

This prompted us to try to become more involved in the nominations process the subsequent year, and later to engage more in positive, iconoclastic, and proudly progressive discussion of Hugo Awards. Which led us to start posting blog posts.

It’s been a process of evolution.

NOAF: How does your book club work, and how long has your book club been going?

UHBCB: It works like a lot of book clubs do; we gather every month or so to discuss a book. Usually, one of us takes notes and turns the discussion into a blog post.

During Hugo voting season, we try to read all the Hugo-finalist novels and discuss them as a group. When it’s not Hugo voting season, we try to pick books that seem likely to be in contention, or books that someone in the book club thinks are worth talking about.

In its current form, the book club has been going for a little more than five years.

NOAF: On the blog, you talk about more than just Hugo winners, Hugo nominees, and books that should have been nominated. How do you decide what else to review, and other related topics to blog about?

UHBCB: The process is somewhat chaotic, and governed by who is willing to write something up.

Anyone in the book club can write up a draft post. Then it gets edited by Amanda and Olav, and then goes back out to everyone else for comment, review, feedback, etc. Lately, most of the posts have been generated by conversations amongst book club attendees, with Olav actually putting pen to paper for (or, more accurately, typing out) the first draft.

Occasionally, there’s a disagreement over a particular point or approach, at which point we try to build consensus through discussions… or, in rare circumstances even nix a piece if someone has a strenuous objection to it.

Reaching consensus can be a time-consuming process, so blog posts sometimes sit on the shelf (or, more accurately, the shared drive) for months before being posted.

NOAF: What is your favorite blog post that you published in 2020? Why is it your favorite?

UHBCB: If we have to pick one, it would be “The Movement of Goods in Science Fiction”, which was based around Marshall Boyd’s observation that SFF tends to place a priority on trading and transportation industries, with an emphasis on resource extraction industries, but largely neglects primary manufacturing.

So what does this say about the underlying assumptions of the genre? That’s a question that Boyd, Olav, Amanda, Ken, and a few others argued about for more than a year. The draft of that blog was probably one of the longest-incubating pieces we’ve ever posted. But we’re quite pleased with the finished version, because we think it does a pretty good job of asking questions about some of the under-examined economic assumptions that underpin a lot of science fiction.

NOAF: In 2020, you did a series of posts where some club members watched Hugo nominated Dramatic Presentations (movies). Well? How did they hold up? Any surprise favorites?

UHBCB: Well, we started that series in August of last year, and we’ve only gotten through the first eight years of movies . . . so there’s 55 years of movies left to view. That series is going to take us a while. Also, the viewers that contribute to those blog posts are different from the book club membership, with Olav and Christy joined by a couple of other friends who are interested in film studies and reviewing but never attended a book club meeting.

There’s been a lot of surprises; often it’s the less-well-known films that have held up best. The big blockbusters directed by George Pal haven’t held up as well (7 Faces of Dr. Lau is the possibly most egregiously terrible Hugo nominee of all time).

Everyone in the group watching Hugo-finalist movies was impressed with The World, the Flesh and the Devil; Harry Bellafonte is terrific in a weird post-apocalyptic love triangle movie. We also really got a lot out of the 1961 disaster movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire which is scarily prescient about the threat of global warming.

We’ve also been checking out movies that were omitted from the shortlist, and the one we think every fan of SF cinema should check out is the Chech space opera Ikarie-XB1; it’s basically a forerunner to Star Trek and its visual grammar has echoed throughout almost all space-based science fiction. It’s remarkably influential.

NOAF: What are some of your favorite novels, novellas, and short stories so far in 2021?

UHBCB: "Crazy Beautiful" by Cat Rambo, which was in the March edition of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It seems completely bizarre to us that Cat has yet to be shortlisted for a Hugo Award. She’s been writing so many delightful stories for so many years and is so active in the community, that you’d think that the Hugo-voting public would have rewarded her by now. (As an aside, Sheree Renée Thomas’ editorship at F&SF is off to a great start!)

These Lifeless Things by Premee Mohamed is an excellent little novella about a weird alien invasion, and the historicity of events. It was the first in Rebellion’s Solaris Satellites series of novellas, which we really dug. Hope that they continue doing these, since the 2021 titles have been stellar, and Mohamed’s entry was a real highlight of the year so far. (Funny to think that Mohamed and Olav worked for the same organization for two years, but have only actually met once — at her book signing.)

NOAF: What will winning a Hugo award mean to you?

UHBCB: There are so many deserving fanzines on this shortlist — several that have yet to win — that we’re honestly uncomfortable with even speculating about winning. We’re really grateful to everyone who included us on their nominating ballots alongside these other superb fanzines.

Getting shortlisted for this quirky little project has meant a lot to us, in that it does make us feel like we’re recognized within the community of science fiction fandom. Between the blog’s heterodox hot-takes on some aspects of SFF media, and our unabashedly pro-working-class politics, it sometimes feels like we’re out-of-step with the majority of science fiction fans. The fact that enough fans decided to put us on their nominating ballots to get us this nomination does make it feel like we’re welcome and accepted at Worldcons.

NOAF: Thank you so much, and good luck!

POSTED BY: Andrea Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and too many books. She can be found on twitter, @redhead5318 , where she posts about books, food, and assorted nerdery.