Friday, February 23, 2024

Microreview: Dragons of Deepwood Fen by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Introducing a new fantasy world, filled with the intrigues of an empire, its unwilling vassal state, a grasping church, and oh yes, dragons.


Rylan Holbrooke has a problem. Well, a bunch of problems. He is the illegitimate son of the local governor. He has a rapport with dragons, in fact he is a dragon singer, able to calm and work with the dragons that the empire relies on. But he is also a thief and scoundrel stealing from said empire as well.  His checkered nature, his straddling (however very uncomfortably) of two worlds puts him in position to notice the threads of a dreadful and dangerous plot. A plot that will change the vassalized realm of forest known as The Holt forever. And, perhaps, the entire Empire as well.

Rylan's story, and the stories of his fellow protagonists, are the matter of Bradley Beaulieu's The Dragons of Deepwood Fen.

Rylan is our primary protagonist and gets the most screen time out of all of the characters we see. He's caught between two worlds and trying to balance his lives in both worlds, and the author aptly shows his inner and outward struggles in handling that. This is best shown in the points of conflict--his lack of desire to have anything to do with the Red Knives except when forced, and then later, on the opposite site, the very prickly relationship he has with his half-siblings in his father's house. Where does, in fact, Rylan fit in and feel himself, the best? Alone, flying over the holt with his dragon, and, it is shown, nowhere else. 

Our other major protagonist is Lorelei. Lorelei is an Inquisitor (investigator) for the Empire, and with her queer partner Creed, she, like Rylan, goes from her day job to being wrapped up in the tendrils of the conspiracy and danger to the Holt and beyond. Starting off with investigating a drug smuggling ring, Lorelei starts to learn that there is something rotten in the Empire city of Ancris. Lorelei is a fascinating character and perhaps even slightly more interesting than Rylan on a character level. Rylan is interesting because of his spending time in two worlds. Lorelei is more connected, with her partner, with her mother. She also very clearly has what we would call undiagnosed ADHD with a side order of social anxiety disorder. We don't use and see those terms of course, but Lorelei is so clearly not a social creature, is always leaping ahead in her mind, and really is only herself when she is working on a puzzle or problem, in limited company. She does a lot of the intellectual heavy lifting to see the scope of the problem. 

Third, and to a lesser extent, is Rhiannon. Rhiannon is the youngest of the three, and has magical potential and power that she herself does not quite understand. Also, being young, she is also the one who is the most manipulated out of these three characters. This makes sense, but it makes for sometimes a bit of a frustrating read when she is on stage. Also, hers is the point of view that seems to have the most flashbacks to them. While these flashbacks provide extremely important context and development of the byzantine and labyrinthine "plots within plots" that the novel revels in, it means that as a result, that Rhiannon feels like she has less agency than Lorelei and Rylan, and is much more of a narrative device and tool than an actual character that I could really feel for. I could imagine (while holding my nose thanks to his odious smoking) talking with Rylan and meeting his dragon. I could definitely imagine getting to know (carefully!) the shy and introverted and socially awkward Lorelei. Rhiannon, by contrast, I have a far less good hold on, as a character in my mind. 

There are a couple of other viewpoint characters (this is epic fantasy, and so we have a good half dozen of them in all), but I actually want to hold my fire in discussing them, because it is very easy to get spoilery regarding them. Suffice it to say, Beaulieu is firmly in the Point of View Solves Problems school of writing, and we get other sides to the conflict through these characters. We also get some rather unusual twists regarding these characters and their nature, and once again, the author gives our characters very understandable, and sometimes rather painful flaws to deal with.

So given a thick fantasy novel with a complex plot, where does one start? For one thing, let's lay the groundwork. Refer to the map in the book (this is a case where audio is a weaker medium, because the map is definitely important here). The Holt is not part of the Empire at the heart of this world, it is an uneasy vassal state with a government that is a messy hybrid of control from the central Empire and local magnates having their say, with the current holder of the position, Rylan's father, about to face a regular vote of confidence. It feels like a somewhat more aristocratic and less monarchist version of the Roman Empire era Kingdom of Armenia. It's not officially part of the Empire, but its government certainly is overshadowed by the nearby Empire.

In point of fact, the right model is surely a flavor of the Roman Empire. Latin terms and names abound in the book. The Five rulers of the empire are called a Quintarchy. Lorelei's last name is Aurelius.  The center of Ancris is called the Quadrata. There are legionnaires as the military force. And so on.  Fortunately, as witness Lorelei itself, this is a far far less patriarchal Romanesque world than the real thing. Lorelei is not unusual for being a woman, she is unusual in her lack of social skills and the convoluted method by which she became an inquisitor in the first place. We see women in power and authority throughout the Empire, and the Holt as well. 

The plot of the novel does move slower than what is good for it. Beaulieu, even with the shorthands above, has a lot to try and get off the ground. So a lot of the novel has Rylan bustling about, and Lorelei wrapped up in her police procedural storyline that proves far more important than even she realizes. So this fantasy novel adds that as one of the balls that it is trying to juggle along with the hybrid low fantasy world of a lot of the work (a notable touchstone here might be the world of Joe Abercrombie except with significantly more magic and less gore). It does feel like its a while before Lorelei truly gets out of her storyline and really into the main action, or the main action in general. Beaulieu lays down a lot of the world in the time, including, of course, dragons.

So let's talk about the dragons, given the title of this work. There are two schools of dragons, and two supergroups of them. The metallics, based on metals, are the dragons used by the Empire. They are magically controlled and coerced, the Empire turning to raw power. This is what makes Rylan so valuable, his Dragonsinger nature means he has a better understanding of his charges than even the dragon's owners in many cases. It is a very hierarchical, dominance based system (I wish that Rylan made his feelings about this system planer earlier, but he eventually vocalizes just how horrid he thinks this whole thing is). 

By contrast, a rebellious faction living in the Holt, the Red Knives, and as mentioned above, secretly, Rylan, use a magical ritual of bonding to tie a rider to their sragon. The dragons of the holt are non-metallic, and their scales are often used for alchemical reagents. There is a much more sure pairing of dragon and human, and the connections to McCaffrey are obvious (also, Robin Hobb and Tracy Hickman, among others). Given how fraught the first meetings can be, I was also reminded of the movie Avatar, as Jake must bind and tame a flying mountain banshee, and then that bond is permanent.  The Rylan-Vedron connection and their relationship is one of the highlights of the book. 

In all, yes, Beaulieu does deliver on the dragons, and really, given all the intrigue and characters as given above, the prose and the feel of the book really do achieve lift-off when Beaulieu is writing passages with his dragons front and center. Be it a glorious aerial battle of dragon versus dragon, or the quieter ministrations of Rylan doing his job as Dragonsinger, Beaulieu clearly wrote this novel with the dragons front and center. 

I give good credit to Beaulieu for going beyond the usual settings in creating The Holt. Empires and colonialism are complex and complicated subjects. Rather than going for an occupied province, or a land outside the boundaries of the Empire entirely, The Holt is instead a vassal and dependency. This is inherently an uneasy and uncertain status for it and its inhabitants. It allows Beaulieu to have some of his cake and eat it too. They aren't quite part of the Empire, but the Kin (the inhabitants of this region) are certainly connected to the Empire. Rylan himself is half-Kin and suffers prejudice, particularly from the Empire, for his nature. It helps give depth and feeling for both Rylan and the Holt itself. I mentioned Hobb above, and I do believe that the Rain Wilds were an obvious inspiration for the forested vastness of The Holt, although more temperate in climate.

I do have some thoughts about other aspects of the worldbuilding here, ones that frustrated me.  Fortunately, not the map itself or the basic geography. There are no rivers that fork unexpectedly, or anything that violates basic conventions of geology. I am less clear on something that really isn't touched on and I wished it were. This is a novel, as discussed above, that is all about the vassalized but not incorporated Holt and how it chafes under that indirect control, and the interesting ideas that entails. We've plenty of works set in empires, and in "barbarian" (sic) lands, but the polder and borderlands of vassalized and client-kings, is a setting we get little of. But my question is, just where is the heartland of the Empire? It's not entirely clear. We have these important cities in the mountains, and we have the fivefold Quintarch structure to the government representing these five cities. But are the mountains truly their heartland? It sure seems so, and if that is the case, he missed a big worldbuilding opportunity. The Holt is very different than the mountains, but we never get a sense of the sense of place of those mountains. We definitely get a feel for the Holt, as mentioned above. But an Empire built and developed in those mountains, well, the denizens are sure to have opinions about lowland forests as a terrain. I've mentioned before how much Beaulieu has modeled his empire on the Roman, right down to the Latinate names. Well, the Romans complained incessantly about the cold north of England and Scotland, the forests of Germany, the desolate heat of Syria, the weirdness of ancient Egypt. And yes the Romans went there anyway. But this Empire feels pale by comparison. In making the Holt as such a rich tributary vassal and place for the action to take place, the Empire itself as a place suffers. Ancris, one of the five capitals, suffers in comparison to the Holt as a setting. 

The ending of this novel doesn't really have an offramp if you want to one and done the series. The immediate threat and problem, once the true scale of what is going on is revealed, is thwarted but not defeated. All of the major characters have gone through a lot, and the stage is set for the next novel, the next round in the conflict. Despite my reservations above, I did enjoy the novel, as I have enjoyed Beaulieu's work going back to his earliest novels. Perhaps with worldbuilding under him, the second volume can move from the strength of the last quarter of the novel (where things ramp up) into a stronger second book.

--

The Math

Highlights:

  • Diverse and interesting fantasy world
  • Rylan and Lorelei make a strong two hander of the primary protagonists and viewpoints
  • Some issues with the worldbuilding and pacing. 

Reference: Beaulieu, Bradley P.,  Dragons of Deepwood Fen, [Daw, 2023]

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

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Microreview: The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi, by Shannon Chakraborty

The gang is reunited to buckle some swashes, but they sure took their time getting to the good bits

The hook of S. A. Chakraborty’s newest offering ticks all my boxes: Piracy and magic and spirits and daevas? Ships and trade and 12th century Islamic world? A middle-aged mother who has Lived A Life is strong-armed out of her peaceful domestic retirement into taking One Last Job? Please and thank you, yes, may I have some more?

The story is told from the perspective of Amina Al-Sirafi, who made a name for herself in her youth as the most ruthless, terrifying pirate captain in the Arab world. Tales of her feats are known everywhere:  She is tall, fights like a man, has gold in her teeth and scars on her arm. She poisoned a feast during trade talks in order to rob the attendees; she stole horses from the emir of Hormuz. She robbed Chinese envoys of their cargo and stole their ship while they slept through it all, only to awake drifting in the sea on dinghies. She is not to be trifled with. 

 Or was not to be trifled with. Now, though, she just wants to be left alone to live quietly and raise her beloved daughter, secluded and hidden from the girl’s father, who is clearly bad news of some sort. (The exact badness of his news is kept an irritating secret from the reader, but not a terribly secret secret; I'd figured it out by page 49.) So when a wealthy woman whose daughter has been kidnapped comes to hire Amina to find the daughter, she knows exactly which pressure points to push to make Amina take the job: threaten her quiet retirement, and make it known where the fabled pirate captain now lives. Of course Amina takes the job---and since deep down she misses the old life, the excitement, the seafaring adventures, it’s not a complete catastrophe. One last job. One terrific pay-out. Then she’ll definitely absolutely retire for real. No fooling. Absotively posilutely. Forget that this is marketed as Book 1 of a trilogy. Just one last job, that's all.

From here the plot proceeds in two halves. In the first bit, Amina gets the gang back together. She must track down her old ship and her old crew and get them on board (hah) with her new endeavour. Friends must be sprung from prisons, ships must be stolen from soldiers, and poisoners and cartographers must be persuaded to give up their own comfortable retirements to help Amina find the kidnapped child.  Next, once the gang is all gathered, Amina and company set out to rescue the child. And since the child has been kidnapped by a collector of magical artifacts, with his own plans for how to use them to his advantage, things get real magical real fast.

This book delivers on all of its promises. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book that provides so fully and completely everything that it promised on the tin. We have sea battles, heists, poisoners, and trips to the world of the Unseen where trees grow people as fruit and court finery includes cloaks of porcupine quills. We meet loyal friends, ambiguous former lovers, mysterious (sexy) strangers, teenage waifs with hidden depths, and a ship’s cat who is so bad at being a cat that it clearly is hiding some other secret. From the midpoint to the end, this book is a sterling example of the sort of historical Arab-centered fantasy that Chakraborty did so well in her previous Daevabad trilogy.

The problem is that in the first half, the Getting-The-Gang-Back-Together-Again half, I found myself chafing a bit, getting restless. Some of these relate to my own personal preferences in reading fantasy, but some of it reflects a slight clumsiness in execution.

I understand exactly what Chakraborty was doing in this bit. She has chosen a wonderful, underused (in western fantasy at least) setting for her story. The medieval Arab world is this delightful mishmash of cultures and languages and peoples, trades going east to China and India, south to Madagascar, north to the Mediterranean. The cities of Aden, of Socotra, Mombasa—these are wonderful, vibrant, exciting settings. By sailing from place to place to gather up her old comrades, Amina is taking the reader on a tour of this world, allowing us to visit the markets, run into the local governments, learn about the world that is so different from the more familiar knights-and-stone-castles of medieval Europe historical fantasy settings.

This approach also allows us to sink into the character histories some more. We learn about Amina’s previous exploits in the regions, we see her thinking about her youth, reflecting on what she has learned and what she wants from her future, having conversations about growing up and growing older with her former (and once-more) shipmates. Structurally, it is a very effective decision.

But, see, it’s boring. There’s only so much navel-gazing about responsibilities as a parent conflicting with one’s desire for adventure that I can take before I start wanting less talk and more plot. And this was a little bit over that line. Not a lot. But a little.

The other issue with this first half of the book is something that is really, really hard to get right, but which must be addressed in historical fantasy. And that is the importation of modern progressive values into a very, very different world. Slavery was a thing in the 12th century Middle East. Women didn’t have much freedom. Queer people and trans people existed, and did not always have an easy time of it. Previously, if such issues were addressed in a historical fantsy, they were folded into the worldview of the narrator and characters, because ‘historical accuracy’. More modern texts don’t accept the presumed worldview of a person ‘of the time’ so blithely, and so must find a way for their characters—who absolutely are ‘of the time’—to be people that won’t come across as despicable bigots to a modern reader.  

This is a hard task. It’s true that we often assume a sort of knee-jerk reactionary worldview in historical fantasy that isn’t actually all that historically accurate, but it’s also undeniable that a 12th century pirate captain is not going to be flying a rainbow flag and speaking the language of trans rights. There’s a balance to be struck. And Chakraborty works very, very hard to strike that balance. Amina knows about the practice of slavery and abhors it. She knows that some of her crewmates are gay, learns that one is trans, and accepts it easily. There’s nothing in Amina’s head that would, I think, offend the modern reader. Chakraborty makes sure of it. She’s very careful. I can tell. She’s doing her job. 

 And that’s the problem—not that Chakraborty’s doing her job, but that I can tell she’s doing her job. It doesn’t feel organic. It feels careful. It feels attentive. It feels like there were sensitivity readers consulted. It feels calculated.

In a way this criticism might be unfair. What else is Chakraborty supposed to do? Not consult sensitivity readers? Not acknowledge that slavery was a thing and queer and trans people existed in this setting? Make her heroine a bigot who accepts injustices unthinkingly? Of course not! But all the same, the seams of her process showed a bit more obviously in these bits than they did in the swashbuckling action, the descriptions of the world of the Unseen, the parry and thrust of the villains and heroes, the negotiations with the daevas. The bits that felt smooth and natural and engrossing and enchanting were all in the second half. The bits that felt laboured and slow were all in the first half. The half without magic.

--

Highlights

Nerd coefficient: 7/10, an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws

  • Pirates

  • Medieval Arab world

  • Daevas

  • Modern worldviews in medieval minds

References:
  

Chakraborty, Shannon. The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi [Harper Voyager, 2023].

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at wandering.shop/@ergative.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Review: True Detective Season 4

The dark and icy fourth season of True Detective is the first deserving follow-up to the incredible first season, and Jodie Foster & Kali Reis help showrunner Issa Lopez stick the landing in the finale. (Spoilers abound below.)


It's been a cold winter here in Georgia, and my six Sunday night journeys to Night Country have felt strangely similar to True Detective season 4 as it explores the dark and frigid world of Ennis, Alaska. There are no one-eyed polar bears or months-long night in Atlanta, of course, but isolation, cabin fever, and icy winds give you a taste of what life at the edge of the world would feel like — basically microdosing Alaska.

And that claustrophobic and cold weather-induced feeling is such an important part of this season. Arctic horror has a long and storied history in the popular imagination, starting with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and progressing along to tales of Franklin's lost expedition (Shout out to Dan Simmon's The Terror, a book that I think about at least once a week) and John Carpenter's The Thing. Why is Arctic horror so effective? Because cold, icy dark is inimical to life. Because it's inescapable, unforgiving, and just damn uncomfortable. And maybe, just maybe, because the kind of chill that months of dark and damp and ice make you believe that anything could be possible, even monsters on the frozen sea. 

A brief recap

This season starts with the death of a team Arctic research scientists who, for reasons unknown, ran out into a blizzard, undressed, and froze together into a corpsicle. Chief Liz Danvers (played with incredible aplomb by Jodie Foster) and Trooper Evangeline Navarro (the divine Kali Reis) work to unravel the mystery, tied up as it is with the local pollution-generating mine, a prior cold case concerning the murder of local Iñupiaq protester, and possibly even her vengeance-seeking spirit. 

Along with the plot-driven elements, we also get fascinating character studies of the people who choose to live in Ennis, and the things that haunt them. 

Danvers is a cold, brusque and no-nonsense detective — she's also utterly unliked by most of her coworkers and a good chunk of the town's residents. Try as I might though, I just couldn't bring myself to dislike her. Jodie Foster is too intelligent, too charming, and too damn competent to truly be an Arctic Karen, despite her best efforts. 


Navarro is the opposite. While she's tough, intelligent, and good at her job (and a military vet), she really cares about people. It's why she hasn't given up on the Annie K. cold case from six years prior. She threads the needle delicately with her Iñupiaq heritage, turning to it sometimes while also trying to stand apart as an officer of the law. 

There are tons of other fascinating characters, from the monk-like scientists at Tsalal research station to my favorite character in the show, Rose Agineau (played by Fiona Shaw). 

She lives on the outskirts of town, butchers wolves, listens to Tim Buckley, and throws elaborate Christmas dinners for herself. She's a former professor but also the kind of person you call when you need to hide a body (she knows you have to puncture the lungs so a body won't float under the ice). I would watch an entire season of Alone with her as the star (and yes, she would absolutely win it all). 

The finale, explained

We get a super-sized episode to tie everything together, and it's fairly safe to say that nobody guessed this one. It turns out that 6 years ago, Annie K. was killed in a fit of rage by the scientists at Tsalal when she broke in and destroyed their years of research. The scientists knew that the mining company was polluting Ennis, and they encouraged this since it was melting the ice faster and helping their tests. Hank Prior disposes of the body for the mine bigwigs, and then her case is closed with no further investigation. 

So, who killed the scientists, then? Eventually, we find out, the cleaning ladies and local worker women discover what happened, and they barge into Tsalal and drive the men out onto the ice. It's an interesting turn of events, because in the first episode we learn a little about these scientists, and they seem like quiet, intellectual milquetoast types. Danvers goes through their belongings and sees a Wilco t-shirt, a Cormac McCarthy novel, and Ferris Bueller appears to be a station favorite. The scientists appear to be the liberal kind of men that are nice dads, that wouldn't dream of hurting a woman. 

But when their precious research (and years of hard work) are destroyed, they killed Annie K. in a riotous rampage, stabbing her dozens of times. 

We learn the truth in a powerful scene where the detectives question these women about the events that transpired. The viewer gets to witness individuals who are usually voiceless (native women) being given the power to enact justice when the law can't — or won't. 


Seeing a group of women like come together gives me the same rah-rah feeling I got from the Vuvalini in Mad Max: Fury Road. Action movies and revenge stories aren't usually the realm of older women and minority characters. When we get to see it, it's revelatory. 

A brilliant choose-your-own-adventure of supernatural belief


In this fantastic interview with showrunner Issa Lopez, she talks about her intentions with the mythological and supernatural elements of this season. Every single thing that happens in the show has a reason grounded in reality. But just how far you want to take it depends on your point of view, and what you want to believe. In a setting as spooky as Night Country, you can really lean into it. Over the past few weeks, I watched countless TikToks of people speculating on all sorts of conspiracy theories and supernatural bit-parts that people believed where actually happening. My favorite was idea that Rose was a ghost à la Sixth Sense

We get callbacks all throughout to the first season of True Detective, from the swirled line imagery and Rust Cohl's Alaskan-born father to the infamous "Time is a flat circle" line. It's never completely explained what all of these things mean, but they add up to create a spooky vibe that can make you start rabbit-holing into various ideas.

Adding to the supernatural timbre of the show are certain aspects of the Iñupiaq folklore, specifically Sedna, the goddess of the sea. Peter's son is drawing a picture of her way back in episode one, which is our first introduction to her. In the myth, she angers her father and he cuts off her fingers and throws Sedna off the side of his kayak. She falls to the water below and becomes the ruler of the monsters of the sea, her fingers becoming sea creatures like whales and walruses.

At the end of the day, though, the show isn't focusing on the supernatural — it's about people. The first season was the same way, too (though people may argue this point). Homicide detectives, the focal point of each season of True Detective, see the absolute worst parts of humanity. They have to do their job while not crumbling inside when faced with rage, torture, anger, racism, misogny, everything that contributes to and leads up to one person killing another. Rust Cohle in season one takes a nihilistic, pessimistic approach. In this season, we see a different approach. Danvers is haunted by the death of her family, but she still is a mother at heart and continues to keep trying to make a difference.

Navarro loses everything, and while the show is ambiguous about her destiny (Does she die? Does she leave? Is she on a walkabout away from Ennis?), we learn that her Iñupiaq name means the "return of the sun after a long darkness” — I choose to believe she settles with her past and looks to the future, and lives.


Unanswered questions

  • Where has the tongue been for 6 years? 
  • Has it been in a freezer like a piece of wedding cake?
  • What happens to Navarro at the end?
  • Will the mining company ever face justice?
  • Did Hank ever have a real mail-order bride?
  • How did that polar bear lose his eye?

--

The Math


Baseline Score: 8/10


Bonuses: Stellar performances by the lead actors; a feminist twist ending; coldness is personified in the icy, blizzardy city of Ennis


POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, new NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, growing corn and giving them pun names like Timothee Chalamaize, and thinking about fried chicken.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Review: Extraordinary Visions: Stories Inspired by Jules Verne

A curious experiment in probing the minds of fans

More or less a year and a half ago, the North American Jules Verne Society posted a call for submissions to a planned anthology of short stories inspired by Verne's oeuvre. These could be sequels, prequels, sidequels, or original pieces using the same vibe or setting. The result is the book Extraordinary Visions, which contains thirteen stories from across the Anglosphere.

What this collection contains is the purest form of fanfiction—and here I must be very clear that by "fanfiction" I don't mean anything derogatory. These stories consciously seek to honor and perpetuate Verne's style, buttressed by the state of scientific knowledge that existed during his lifetime. This is the highest form of flattery Verne could have hoped for from his readers; indeed, one can read Extraordinary Visions as a historical register of the state of English-speaking Verne fandom at this moment of the 21st century. However, in terms of literary quality, the success of the experiment is mixed.

The Dominion of All the Earth, by Joseph S. Walker, a belated epilogue to Journey to the Center of the Earth, suffers from too much loyalty to the original text. The dialogues try for antique but come off as stilted and verbose. The protagonist has done all his actions prior to the story proper, leaving him only with the role of sitting and listening to seven pages of exposition, and that's the end. If we judged this text by today's narrative conventions, the first criticism would be that this is not a protagonist propelling the action; this is a protagonist having the action dumped onto him.

However, when considered as what it really tries to be, an epilogue to the original novel, it fits perfectly. On its own, this story can't boast much in the way of structural quality (nor can the novel), but if we imagine this story printed at the end of the novel, extending the plot beyond its original non-ending, it helps it reach the completion Verne couldn't give it.

To Hold Back Time: A Baltimore Gun Club Adventure, by Michael Schulkins, more a stealth remake than a true sequel to The Purchase of the North Pole, also shows the limitations of prioritizing faithfulness to the original. In speech, mannerisms, personalities and interests, this story achieves a credible recreation of the Baltimore Gun Club, one of the most suffocatingly ultramasculine creations of literature. However, this outdated vision of scientific progress still finds resonance. The scenes where the Club's entrepreneuring gentlemen meet to plan the improvement of human life via the all-purpose power of firearms bring to mind today's equally overconfident tech bros, obsessed with moving fast and breaking things.

This time, the Club's big idea is to give themselves more free time each day "for extended gunnery practice" by slowing down the rotation of Earth. How, you ask? With huge, carefully positioned cannons, of course. The story delivers the bits of humor that can be expected from such a premise, but the plot follows the beats of The Purchase of the North Pole so closely that the reader will not be surprised to find a similar ending that happens for similar reasons, with the added disadvantage that this ending requires experienced cannoneers to commit an elementary mistake about how recoil works.

A Drama in Durango, by Alison L. Randall, is a more original story, even if it's partly inspired by A Drama in Livonia and less directly by Master Zacharius. Its protagonist is a fan of Verne's books who lives in the age of cowboys and uses the same logical methods of Verne's characters to solve the case of a wandering bank robber who turns out to be linked to a much larger conspiracy. The plot is woven impressively tight, with each step in the chain of secrets, betrayals, plans and counterplans fulfilling its function in harmonious order.

Old Soldiers, by Gustavo Bondoni, is rather problematic. It's set decades after the ending of The Steam House and deals with the reconstruction of its mechanical elephant so that it can be used in World War I. Although the idea of defending France from the Kaiser's troops with a steam-powered robot is a potent premise, that adventure is only reported in a late flashback by a minor character; we don't see it happen. The focus of the story is centered instead on an Indian man who worked as a servant of the British pilot of the Steam House, and who even in his last years continues to feel for his old master a reverence that is disturbing to read. The abusive power dynamic between colonizer and colonized is never addressed, and the rightness of arming the British Empire with a huge metallic fighting machine is simply taken for granted, as it was in the original novel. Add to these problems the two lead characters' fixation with manly emotionlessness and the story's unquestioned pro-militarism, and the result is a deeply uncomfortable read.

Want of Air, by Janice Rider, is another story about Verne fans. With a gentle touch over the wounds of grief, the author draws a poetic parallel between a widow and a son comforting each other during a winter night and an episode in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas where Nemo and his crew are trapped with only a few hours of oxygen left. This story gets the closest to the stated spirit of the anthology in that, instead of playing with Verne's fantastic machines, it goes straight to the more vital topic of readers' shared love for Verne and what that shared love can bring to your life.

Nellie and Jules Go Boating, by David A. Natale, alludes to a real-life incident. In 1889, American journalist Nellie Bly embarked on a solo trip around the world, in an (eventually successful) attempt to complete it faster than Verne's imagined 80 days. During one of the stops in her itinerary, she happened to be close to Verne's house in France, so of course she took the opportunity to meet him and discuss the adventure she was undergoing. No one knows what they said to each other. This story imagines what might have happened in those brief hours.

The premise is a good one, but the dialogues suffer from the frequent appearance of untranslated French in the middle of lines supposed to be transcribed in English for the reader. Also, for a story about a woman's determination, independence, and accomplishments, there's a bit too much of focus on Verne's relationship with his father. Those sections distract from the events that are actually of interest, and are written with less technical finesse than the rest of the text.

The Highest Loyalty, by Mike Adamson, is a standard rescue adventure starring Captain Nemo. He receives a call for help, he helps, the end. The briefly mentioned backstory, where the Nautilus was part of the Underground Railroad carrying Black people to freedom, would have been far more exciting to read than the plot that is instead told here.

Embrace of the Planets, by Brenda Carre, is a surreal potpourri of Verne references, as well as a multilayered dramedy about the stories we keep about ourselves and that not everyone deserves to hear. Bonus points for Doctor Who vibes.

Rust and Smoke, by Demetri Capetanopoulos, plays with the possibility that Captain Nemo's diaries might have been found ashore in Norway, but not recognized for what they were. This story carries a bittersweet aftertaste of how quickly the most precious memories can fade into the indifference of time.

Gabriel at the Jules Verne Traveling Adventure Show, by Joel Allegretti, captures with the sincerity that can only come from first-hand knowledge that primordial experience of being a child who meets the worlds born of Verne's imagination for the first time and naturally, as we all once did, wants to become part of them.

Tyranny Under the Sea, by Christopher M. Geeson, presents a terrifying scenario: what if a fragment of the Confederacy had survived in a secret city on the ocean floor? And what would a slave revolt look like in such a place?

Trumpets of Freedom, by Kelly A. Harmon, merges the plots of Robur the Conqueror and The Lighthouse at the End of the World into something less tragic than either. Vasquez, the lighthouse keeper, has built mechanical workers to help him with his daily tasks, which makes him exactly the type of unconventional thinker that Robur is eager to befriend.

Raise the Nautilus, by Eric Choi, is the blood-pumping adventure you want a collection like this to end with. The British Empire has its hands full, what with fighting the Kaiser in Europe, so what good would it do to send warships to the South Pacific in an improbable attempt to salvage what could remain of Captain Nemo's shipwrecked invention from the ruins of the Mysterious Island?

It is to be commended that this story takes the time to consider the moral tensions inherent to having British soldiers steal the life's work of an enemy of the British Empire. Unlike in World War II, the Great War had no good/bad divide: all parties were criminally culpable. The single-minded, never-ending pursuit of bigger and bigger guns is hinted at in some dialogues. However, the story stops short of attributing any tactical advantage to possession of the Nautilus; one central character explicitly predicts that, in the new kind of war that the 20th century has brought, even Nemo's advanced weaponry will make very little difference regardless of who captures it. So, in the end, the core question this story hinges on is not whether the British will remain unconquered by the Germans, but whether Nemo will remain unconquered by the British.

Extraordinary Visions is a worthy read despite the uneven selection it's composed of. It especially piques my curiosity that the most innovative, thoughtful and creative of its stories are those written by women. If I may be allowed a very rough generalization, the men wrote about interacting with Verne's settings and characters, while the women wrote about what Verne means. Verne himself might have felt more at home with the first style of writing, but both are compelling ways of exploring the legacy of one of science fiction's biggest forefathers.


Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Southard, Steven R. and Hardesty, Matthew T. [editors]. Extraordinary Visions: Stories Inspired by Jules Verne [BearManor Media, 2023].

Monday, February 19, 2024

Review: Finding Echoes by Foz Meadows

A novella with a distinctive voice in a distinctive city, that knows how to focus in on what really matters.


There is a story in this novella - a good one, as it happens, well crafted, well paced and interesting - but it's not what my lingering memory is, when I closed the last (digital) page. There were two other things instead.

The first, unsurprisingly, was the slow revelation of the relationship between the two main characters - their history, their circumstances, who they are and were to each other. We learn about them and their past through the slow unveiling of the world and their places in it, and there is a tentative deliciousness to the slow pace of our understanding, as well as an immediacy to it too. We met Gem and I immediately knew - as I imagine everyone does - "old flame". So it's not that we are waiting for a grand reveal that takes ages in the telling. We know the shape of it. But the deliciousness is in the slow unravelling of the details, a gradual understanding of all the steps that brought these two people to where they are now, strangers who were once close. And it is, let me stress, beautifully paced. There's a glorious suspense to the full understanding that lasts almost up to the final page and I loved it.

Why isn't this a surprise? I've read Meadows' work before, and he excels at this kind of emotional cave-diving. A Strange and Stubborn Endurance was full of thoughtful introspection, from two people is a slowly closing orbit, and it shares a substantial DNA in that regard with Finding Echoes. It is not misunderstanding, exactly, that fuels the drawn out unclarity of the relationships of Meadows' characters. I am by far less frustrated by misunderstandings in romance than most readers seem to be, but even so, that isn't what this is. Instead, it is a subtle and deeply empathetic understanding of the gulf between people, no matter how close they have been, want to be, might well someday be, that takes real effort and determination to cross. Especially for characters who are full of doubt, or wariness. Characters who have learnt not to trust, as Gem and Snow have in Finding Echoes.

And it is particularly well done here, because we only ever see the story from Snow's perspective, and yet we still get that depth of feeling from them both, through the interactions between them, and particularly the dialogue.

Which is the other strength I want to pick up on.

Language in fantasy is hard. It's hard to make up a bunch of concepts, and words for those concepts, and smush them all together in a way that the reader understands, but also reads as natural, as the sort of thing humans (or non-humans) would really say. There are so, so many stories in the failure-state of awkwardness where too many neologisms have been coined that the reader is swamped in them, and the author feels they have to spell too many of them out, lest confusion reign, and we never know that this things is basically a horse, it's just not called a horse*. Even if you avoid the worst of it, it is also just incredibly hard to hit just the right vibe, just the right atmosphere, just that natural voice that people have when speaking that needs to be crafted from the ground up.

But Meadows has done it. And done it so well I found myself noticing how coherent a voice all the characters from the same background really had when speaking to one another. There were a lot of terms thrown around, a lot of concepts to learn, about drugs and magic and mushrooms and technology and crime gangs and just slang, and yet they all coalesced into something that felt actually human. In the banter between Snow and Nixa, both living and working in the same section of the city, for the same criminal gangs, there emerges a distinctive tone, a dialect, that forms into something that feels real. Other characters share it, to greater or lesser extents, and the way they use the words, the way the unfamiliar terminology peppers their speech, never rings untrue as you read it, even as you don't understand it all.

And some of that is the charm - Meadows trusts the reader to pick things up in context, to go with the flow and learn the context as and when it comes (which it absolutely does). While I finished the story with some questions unanswered, I did not finish with any confusion. Everything that needed to make sense absolutely did - often in the way of the best novellas, with just enough explanation and no more. I could give you no etymological details, no fascinating trips down exposition lane, but I knew the stakes, the setting and the slang well enough to grasp what the story wanted to tell me, and to ponder at points where it might take me, before I got there.

The flip side of this, of course, is that this is not a story for the lovers of deep, expansive world-building. I do not say this because it is done badly - far from it - but it is simply not the focus. The world, and to a lesser extent the plot, exist to support the core the story is interested in. For me, this felt like it was that central relationship between two once-close people long-estranged. The plot isn't weak, but it's not the thing that felt like the sharpest focus at every point. Snow's gaze, through whom we see it all, is too often drawn back to Gem, or back into himself and his memories. Even as he lives through the events of the present, he dwells instead on the past, on the past of his life, of Gem's, of the city, of all of it, and so our focus too is drawn backward and inward, with the events of the now as a vehicle to carry us through. As someone who likes character-driven stories, for me, this was a strength.

I like that the world was sketched, rather than filled in meticulous detail. It felt spare in a way that was artful, rather than rushed - thoughtful about what was needful to tell the story being told. Especially in shorter format stories, I often find that cramming in too many extra bits and pieces of information makes the story cramped and bloated, when much of the delight of the novella comes from the brevity and speed, the snapshot story rather than the sprawling epic.

If you like this too, if you like stories that know what their focus is, that use every tool within them to support it, to create an artful centre - this may well be for you. It has a strong, interesting and admittedly somewhat traumatised pair of men at its centre, and if you delight in watching two people relate to one another across a gulf of years of separate experience, there will be delight here. I left it wondering - hoping - for other stories set in this world, about other people, other brief snippets of life and introspection in this setting, and with plenty of space and willingness to learn more about a strange city of walls. But equally, if this sits alone, then it will be more than sufficient, because even alone, it was a small delight.

*a passage in Trudi Canavan's Black Magician trilogy sticks out particularly in my mind for this, where she goes to great pains to explain the exact nature of a ceryni (after whom one of the characters is named), only for us to get to the end of it and realise... it's a rat. It's just a rat.

--

The Math

Highlights: two beautifully drawn, traumatised people trying to relate to one another, beautifully spare world-building, excellent use of language and dialogue

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Foz Meadows, Finding Echoes, [Neon Hemlock 2024]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroformtea.bsky.social

Sunday, February 18, 2024

The Hugo Awards Crisis Deepens - Where We Stand and How to Save the Awards

 


Previously Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together issued a joint statement of concern about the administration of the 2023 Hugo Awards and the inexplicable disqualification of several nominees, including our Editor Paul Weimer. 

In light of recent revelations, we are going to each make an individual statement, which you can find below. The reasons for this are simple: this is arguably the worst crisis of confidence the awards have ever faced - worse, even, than Puppygate. As such, this crisis necessitates a strong response. 


This is not a collective statement that we all agreed on. Rather, what follows are our individual reactions - points of which are shared broadly across our editorial and creative teams, but which also highlight the different perspectives and concerns that each of us, as individuals, want to address. We each take responsibility for our own views and words.

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The G - As I see it, here are the main points of crisis: 


  • According to emails obtained by Jason Sanford and Chris M. Barkley, the administrative team overseeing the 2023 Hugo Awards made eligibility decisions based on whether the works - or nominees - might potentially be seen as “politically sensitive” by Chinese authorities. 

  • There is no evidence of direct intervention by Chinese authorities, but rather the individuals appear to have taken it upon themselves to proactively censor the awards shortlist. Information is still coming out, so this may change - but it is how things look as of right now.

  • The administrative committee allegedly collected information on nominees to determine whether or not they were politically sensitive. These “political dossiers” were then allegedly used to make the eligibility decisions; members of the Chinese diaspora were disproportionately (though not exclusively) targeted for political review. Our own editor Paul Weimer appears to have been targeted for traveling to Tibet - which he in fact did not do (he went to Nepal).

  • The leaked emails show that the administrative committee made other questionable decisions, not least of which to disqualify ballots they decided were part of a “slate.” If true, this would be deeply problematic  as administrators are not supposed to eliminate ballots. These efforts appear to have disproportionately affected Chinese-language nominees in the fiction categories. 

  • Vote tabulation has also come under scrutiny after Camestros Felapton and others noted discrepancies in the nominating statistics. Author Mary Robinette Kowal revealed on Bluesky that vote tabulation is accomplished through proprietary software; its author - administrator Dave McCarty - allegedly refuses to share the code with others, making it impossible to verify results. 

  • The lack of transparency and ability to verify results, according to Kowal, predates Chengdu Worldcon. While there is no specific reason to doubt previous years’ results, we can no longer just trust that previous awards were administered according to WSFS guidelines and ethical principles.  



To read further, please see:


There are two sets of problems here: (a) the proximate issue of what was done in 2023 and (b) what this reveals or illuminates about the the cartel of self-proclaimed "SMOFs" (secret masters of fandom) who treat the Hugos - and Worldcon more broadly - as their birthright, playground and personal fiefdom. The Hugo Awards are supposed to be democratic in nature and process; the behavior of the self-proclaimed "SMOFs" is fundamentally anti-democratic - and this is by no means confined to Chengdu Worldcon.

Now here are my suggestions for how to rebuild trust in the Hugo Awards:


  1. No one involved in the administration of the 2023 Hugo Awards, or who assisted in the collection of political evidence, can ever be allowed to have any role in administering the awards ever again.
  2. Vote tabulation must be performed in a transparent manner using software that multiple people have access to for purposes of validation. 
  3. All tabulations must be independently audited for purposes of verification. 
  4. Individual Cons should no longer administer the Hugo Awards - this should be done by an independent, rotating committee.
  5. All decisions by said committee must be audited; all disqualified nominees must be notified and given time to appeal.

 

Failure to implement these or similar guardrails going forward will render the Hugo Awards irreparably damaged.

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Vance K - from the jump, I want to acknowledge Paul Weimer in this situation. Not only is he a valued and dedicated editorial colleague here at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together, but he is a tireless advocate for the very best of the science fiction and fantasy community. Paul’s output is prodigious - not only for this site but for several other outlets - and it is broadly dedicated to elevating exciting voices and talents, and celebrating their work. I am biased, certainly, but Paul represents the best of fandom, and is the kind of writer you hope to see hoisting a Hugo Award statue because the goddamn Hugo Awards are fan awards, and a vibrant community needs engaged, passionate fans like Paul to grow and thrive.

He has comported himself with tremendous dignity throughout this deeply undignified situation. So here’s to Paul.

Since the Sanford and Barkley reporting came to light, I have read many diverse insights from members of the SF/F community that have highlighted the various different ways in which this scandal eclipses anything about a genre, or an award, or a convention. Members of the Chinese diaspora, Chinese fans and writers, creators who were recognized for their work and now have a long shadow cast over that recognition, individuals who had political dossiers compiled on them by awards administrators – awards administrators! – and creators across the globe who did not get the recognition that they earned by being wrongly excluded from the Hugo ballot are all experiencing different ramifications from these revelations. I see in that variety, and the depth of the hurt that people are experiencing, confirmation that the damage done here is profound, wide-ranging and potentially irreparable.

This is not the online bickering of a cloistered fandom. This is a situation where Americans and Canadians voluntarily stepped up to do the work of silencing creators on behalf of a repressive authoritarian state with an appalling human rights record…and for what?! To have a fun party? 

It turns my stomach.

I echo the calls for change stated here by my colleagues, but I don’t know how that change happens. I don’t know what the collaboration and teamwork looks like that will be necessary to bury this shameful circumstance in the past and ensure it cannot possibly happen again. But let’s figure it out. 

______________________________________________________________________________


Arturo - The recently revealed conduct of the 2023 Worldcon administrators is unacceptable, all the more so because the celebration of the Hugos is supposed to be led by people who love science fiction. It was precisely science fiction which taught each generation for the past century how to identify and resist totalitarian dystopias, which makes this incident a disgraceful betrayal of the literary tradition of which this award is supposed to be the crown jewel - and against the writers, editors, artists, readers, collectors, gamers, and various other enthusiasts who seek in science fiction a refuge from the corruption of the ordinary world.

How dare Dave McCarty maintain a position of prominence in the fan community when he clearly hasn’t taken to heart the lessons of the genre? Which science fiction fan worth their Orwell, their Bradbury, their Huxley, would willingly submit themself, not even to a threat of repression, but to the mere imagined shadow of a threat? Which science fiction fan who ever dreamed of joining a community of peer minds would choose to supplant the many voices of that community, the voices praising the stories that most spoke to their hearts, and deny the hardworking creators of those stories the public honor they deserve? Which science fiction fan aware of the centuries-long battle between the pen and the sword would take the sword’s side?


It’s no coincidence that so many of our heroes hold truth as one of the highest causes to fight for. This is the genre that immortalized the courageous truth-tellers Clark Kent and Tintin and Sarah Jane Smith and April O’Neil and Gordon Krantz and Isaac Leibowitz. What Dave McCarty has defiled is not only the mechanics of a contest, but the very values that inspire this art. Truth is the first duty, to quote Captain Picard. I don’t know what science fiction Dave McCarty likes, but he somehow missed the most important message repeated across every masterpiece.


The nature of the offense is multiple: it shows blatant disregard for the will of Hugo voters, for the hopes of Chinese fans, for the agency of local Chengdu committee members, for the effort of authors, for the legacy and prestige of the Hugo Awards, and for the universal human obligation to oppose tyrannical regimes. On a personal level, the moral character of my colleague and friend Paul Weimer as a Best Fan Writer candidate - and of the Nerds of a Feather team as a Best Fanzine candidate - were insulted by what amounts to a hunt for kompromat. To quote Batman: that is the weapon of the enemy. The voices of artists who imagine better worlds deserve better than being suppressed by fear of the Chinese Communist Party, let alone by copying the same tactics of the Chinese Communist Party.


There’s no point in expecting a proper apology. Dave McCarty seems incapable of realizing the wrongness of his choices. I don’t know enough about the procedures of Worldcon logistics to offer any coherent proposal on vote tallying methods, but any remedy to this shame must begin by banning Dave McCarty and his co-conspirators from membership in any future Worldcon.

______________________________________________________________________________


Adri - I write this statement from a position of great privilege.


I am privileged to be a part of this fandom. I am privileged to be inundated every year with amazing books and stories, thanks to all the people who go into writing and publishing them (often for very little recognition). I am privileged to have been part of an award nominated and award winning team here at Nerds of a Feather, and to get to see the work this team puts in every day to bring the best SF criticism, reflection and analysis to the wider world.


I am also privileged, in my professional life, to have worked with some of the most dedicated activists, researchers and advocates, working alongside them to help make the world a marginally better place. I have spent time with people who have spent decades in exile, who make travel plans around the countries they can and can’t go, who occasionally drop offline for a while and re-emerge having been at the police station, and who don’t let any of that stop them from doing what they believe to be the right thing for their communities. I am privileged enough that, when I think of my professional history with China and its neighbours, and what that might mean for my future travel plans, the worst case scenario I seriously think about is a rejected visa. I am privileged enough that I wouldn’t lose the ability to connect with family or close friends as a result of that scenario.


I am privileged enough that my first reaction, on finding out that a small group of American and Canadian Worldcon admin had compiled dossiers about the geopolitical leanings of potential Worldcon finalists, my emotional reaction was “and they didn’t notice me?” That’s a poor reaction, unworthy of the seriousness of political profiling, and I make no excuses for it - but I think it’s emblematic of this whole sorry mess, that most of us are privileged enough to be splashing around in the shallow end of state oppression and censorship. That doesn’t make it less valid to be furious that we are in this situation, of course! If anything, it’s even more infuriating that the Hugo awards have been kicked into the mud by a few North Americans who thought it would be fine to LARP as secret police while running an award they claim to care about.


As always, the victims of this fandom garbage fire are disproportionately folks of colour, and particularly Chinese and Chinese diaspora creators. The scrutiny on Chinese and Chinese diaspora writers writing in English, or putting their art out to Western audiences, seems to have been higher, and its implications - both practical and emotional - much more serious.

Even more seriously: the decision to cancel an undisclosed number of votes due to allegations of “slating.” The idea of canceling ballots was previously so anathema to Hugo administrators that in 2016, then-administrator Dave McCarty allowed a slew of racist, homophobic, fascist content on the ballot across multiple categories under the Rabid Puppies because the alternative was unthinkable. This “valiant protection of the soul of the Hugo awards” caused a large number of Chinese works to be removed from the ballot, and their authors denied the ability to compete on their home turf. To say these creators, and the fans who nominated them, deserved better is like saying the ocean is a bit wet: nobody involved in making the decisions that took this honour away from them (without apology!) is fit to be part of this community.

It’s difficult to see where the Hugo awards go from here in repairing the damage done. From a Western fandom perspective, I echo The G’s recommendations above. More broadly? It’s a privilege to be part of a global SF/F community full of talent, passion and diverse perspectives, and it’s time for WSFS to shape up and be worthy of that community - not the other way around.

______________________________________________________________________________

Chris Garcia - The Hugos were damaged. A team entrusted with the task of administering the awards failed fandom in the worst way possible. 

For the last 12 years, I have been lucky enough to have a Hugo trophy living in my home. When people in fandom think of me, it’s almost always in relationship to the Hugos. The trophy came with me during the evacuations when our house was threatened by fires less than half-a-mile away. The Hugo Awards means so much to me personally. I love them, the history they represent, the joy they bring. 

And so, this blatant disregard for the integrity of the award is like being slapped in the face. Dave McCarty and his team chose a path that led fandom into a new, dangerous territory. We can no longer feel like the processes we relied on will be faithfully executed because of the incredibly poor judgment of the team. Many choices they made were Ill-considered, both in the lead up to the nomination announcements, and up through today. McCarty’s refusal even to apologize is magnified by either his inability, or simple refusal, to deliver the actual statistics the community has relied on for decades. 

We can’t let this happen again, and we must fix as much of the harm done as we fortify the systems the Hugo Awards rely upon moving forward. 

First, the Hugo subcommittee from 2023 should turn over raw voting data to an outside auditor tasked with producing a true set of results. Second, the Mark Protection Committee must remove all representation for the Chengdu WorldCon as well as any seated member who served in a senior capacity at the Chengdu WorldCon.  Third, we must begin the search for an outside group to annually administer the awards, or at the very least serve as auditors of the Hugo results on a permanent basis. Finally, the Chengdu team must make formal apologies to each and every person in fandom for failing them so thoroughly, and specifically to those individuals they wronged most directly. I know that last one is incredibly unlikely to happen, but we must demand it because it speaks to the very heart of the problem. 

Let us stand together

______________________________________________________________________________

Paul - For years, the word “Hugo Award finalist” or “Hugo Award Winner” has meant something to readers. Some of my earliest steps into fandom was reading copies of Locus to find who was nominated and who won, and then reading those winners.  The Hugos have taken a strong hit in terms of reliability, credibility, prestige and their value to the community. I may be one of the Ineligibles, but the damage this has done goes far beyond me; it goes to all of Science Fiction fandom, and the wider community of readers. As noted by others, this especially hits marginalized readers and members of fandom.  

In recent years, those marginalized writers, readers and fans (and fans and readers outside of the US and UK) have started to find a voice in fandom and in science fiction in general after too many years of being muted, ignored, belittled, and forgotten. The inexcusable actions of the Chengdu team mar and weaken those efforts for readers and fans alike. It’s time for the WSFS to work toward the global inclusive community of readers, writers and fans that it has long given lip service to being in its very name.

______________________________________________________________________________


Alex - I will admit to the readership point-blank that I am not a neutral observer of all this. I voted for Winnipeg for 2023’s WorldCon specifically to deny it to the People’s Republic of China, and afterwards wrote a piece for Warped Factor decrying the decision.I tried to start a social media campaign, which I called #GeeksAgainst Genocide which never got off the ground, to boycott the convention specifically over human rights abuses in the People’s Republic.

I reiterate the question I asked in that previous piece: if bids for Israel and Russia led to boycotts, why wasn’t the bid for the People’s Republic treated likewise?

The other thoughts that ring through my mind: supremacists find common cause with supremacists, and that petty tyranny flourishes under autocracy. We have talked about how the far right in the Western world wants to deny the very existence of objective truth. Here, we are being denied even a right to figure out what happened with the various disqualifications, including of our very own Paul Weimer. 


The People’s Republic has put so much effort into censoring fandom before. Why did anyone think that this would not happen to our fandom? I would like to highlight one particular quote from the linked article:

In a strange twist, the very fandom communities the CCP is most concerned about may also be the ones that are unexpectedly helping to spread its political agenda. A recently published study from researchers at Concordia University and York University, conducted between January 2020 and October 2021, looked at the way danmei fans online interacted with the CCP’s restrictions. They found that in the absence of clarity around many of the restrictions, the fans themselves, through a mix of speculation and “accusatory reporting” — that is, reporting or threatening to report each other to authorities for perceived transgressions — were doing a more efficient job policing themselves than the government ever could. In essence, the fans who tried to conduct their subversive fandoms within the parameters of the regime “strengthened the political authority’s practice and narrative.

As to why I think the Party may have chosen to prevent WorldCon authorities from rewarding certain stories (many involving social justice) and certain authors (outspoken about social justice), I’m reminded of how that government has apparently never allowed the release of the 2017 South Korean film A Taxi Driver. That film is about the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, a revolt against the authoritarian government of Chun Doo-hwan, which had recently taken power in a coup d’etat. Chun was a right-wing dictator backed by the United States. You would think that the Communist Party would like to use this to slander South Korea and the United States, but no. It was banned, likely because it shows the people daring to resist a tyrannical government.


If Dave McCarty made decisions that disproportionately targeted Chinese citizens and ethnic Chinese in the diaspora, this served the Communist Party’s goals. It is a convergence of the bigotry of supremacism. The People’s Republic knows that Western civil rights activism - and fiction - have inspired social movements elsewhere. Recall the famous Ursula K. Le Guin quote: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”


The Party knows this. That is why they have, for example, censored time travel fiction. That is because such fiction, like many other types in the greater SF/F sphere, is about how this world can be different. They are afraid of fiction like ours, which shows that the People’s Republic was not inevitable, that the laws of history did not require it, or its censorship. As George Orwell said: “Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered.”

This should be a wake-up call to SF/F fans the world over: we must commit to humanity, all humanity, everywhere. We must be willing to stand up for the rights of Uyghurs and Tibetans and Ukrainians and Palestinians and the marginalized peoples of the West equally, as they are all equally human. SF/F shows us that our world is not inevitable, and that bigotry is not inevitable. We must not appease those who espouse it.

If we want to commit to this, I have a somewhat out-there proposal: have a WorldCon in Kyiv, safety permitting, to have an SF/F version of the Second International Congress for the Defense of Culture, a writer’s convention held in Madrid in 1937 for writers who opposed fascism - held while that city was being shelled by fascists in a bitter civil war. I hope it would be held in a city at peace, in a free Ukraine, in a world that had learned the lessons of the abandonment of the Spanish Republic to fascism and had sought to keep Ukraine free. It would be a commitment by our genre to uphold freedom everywhere, for everyone, for Uyghurstan and Palestine and Tibet and Kashmir and every other place like them, even in allegedly ‘free’ countries.


We in the SF/F community must hold to the promise of our genre, and keep to heart the words of the great American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison: "So perish all compromises with tyranny!"


***

POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.