Friday, September 23, 2016

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2016 Edition

This week has seen the first inklings of the new TV season, as the US networks start trotting out shows in the hopes of success, legitimacy, or even the tiniest bit of attention.  And yet here I am, still talking about some of the shows of summer.  This is partly because, as we've all more or less accepted, network shows just aren't where it's at anymore, and there isn't that much to say about yet another raft of samey procedurals and underbaked high concepts.  So this post covers a British miniseries and a Netflix series, as well as a few network pilots.  Still, I do enjoy this time of year, and I keep hoping that one of these shows will surprise me, so stay tuned for further reports. 

(Not discussed in this post, because there wasn't much to say about them: Designated Survivor, which has an ironclad elevator pitch that I'm not sure it knows what to do with, and Notorious, which seems desperate to be a Shondaland show but actually feels more like a parody of one.  And coming from the other direction, I would have liked to write more about Donald Glover's new FX comedy Atlanta, but the truth is that I'm still not sure what I think about it--it's a really interesting and well made show, but not one I've fully grasped yet)
  • Victoria - ITV has been promoting the hell out of this sumptuous miniseries about the early years in the reign of the titular queen.  But while the subject matter--and the presence of former Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman, wearing an extremely distracting pair of blue contact lenses, in the title role--have an obvious appeal, the more one sees of Victoria, the less persuasive its argument is that there is actually anything here worth watching for.  Victoria takes some liberties with its history, mostly so that it can more easily fit it into the forms of a romantic melodrama--suggesting, for example, that the teenage Victoria was in love with her first PM, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), when in reality she seems to have viewed him as more of a father figure; or injecting tension over the question of whether Victoria will warm to her future husband Albert (Tom Hughes), when in reality she had known him since their early teens, and was very fond of him from the start.  But as tedious as these choices are, they pale beside the miniseries's real problem--that the more it shows us of Victoria, the less interesting she seems.  It finally becomes clear that while Victoria had tremendous symbolic significance, the actual events of her life were rather boring, with her main accomplishments being that she outlived the rest of her family, and then successfully set up a dynasty.

    Victoria tries to get some mileage out of the difficulties that its heroine experiences as a reigning queen--hardly anyone around her believes in her abilities, and her choices and freedoms are constantly being curtailed by people who pay lip service to her title but are clearly more swayed by her gender and youth.  But it constantly bumps up against the problem that the things Victoria wants to do are rarely admirable, or even very difficult--the first episode ends with her pushing through personal sorrow to perform the utterly ceremonial function of reviewing her troops.  And more often, when Victoria tells us that she's being stymied because of her gender, what shows up on screen is a petulant, spoiled child who is determined to get her own way, as in a scene in which her resentment of one of her mother's attendants leads her to subject the woman to what is essentially medical rape.  When, in a later episode, Victoria crows about the fact that she precipitated a constitutional crisis in order to gratify her desire to keep Melbourne in her entourage, it's hard not to wonder whether the miniseries is making a stealth argument for abolishing the monarchy.

    Victoria wants us to be on its heroine's side, even when not doing so might have made for a more interesting story.  The most recent episode revolves around the financial negotiations that precede Victoria's marriage to Albert, with the taciturn prince insisting that he be granted a sufficient allowance to be independent of his sovereign wife, and Victoria unable to understand why Albert isn't content to depend on her generosity--as so many wives in his position have had to be.  For a moment, there's the potential to say something interesting about how Victoria, for all her outward demureness, actually relishes her power, and is perfectly happy to prop up unjust, oppressive systems so long as she gets to be the one doing the oppressing.  But the episode is too committed to the epic love story of Victoria and Albert, and ends with Victoria giving up her power for the sake of marital bliss.  That's probably true to life, but in a show that has already proven itself willing to twist history to its needs, it's disappointing how those needs keep taking the story in the most boring, predictable directions.

  • The Get Down - Most of the attention paid to Netflix shows this summer was lavished on the mega-success Stranger Things, leaving Baz Luhrmann's historical-musical-teen-drama to languish in its shadow.  That's a shame, because while Stranger Things was impeccably made and a lot of fun, it was also somewhat hollowThe Get Down, in contrast, is a mess--of the six episodes in the "half-season" released this summer, only one really works as a piece of storytelling, and the rest are frequently shapeless, self-indulgent, and silly.  But The Get Down also has heart, passion, and a deeply-felt desire to tell its story that I haven't seen in almost any other show this year (with the possible exception of this spring's Underground).  When the show's disparate (and often seemingly contradictory) elements click together, it's like nothing I've ever seen.

    Set in the Bronx in the late 70s, The Get Down focuses on three young people: Zeke (Justice Smith), a soft-spoken high school student and burgeoning poet who is being urged towards college and respectability by his family, but who is drawn to the emerging hip hop scene, finding in it a means of expressing his rage and political views; Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola), the girl of Zeke's dreams, whose own dreams are of disco stardom; and Shaolin (Shameik Moore), a drug dealer and hustler who wants to turn over a new leaf by becoming a DJ.  These are, obviously, blatant stereotypes, but they're brought to vivid, unforgettable life by the young actors, who convey not only passion and determination, but a complex understanding of their situation.  Zeke, for example, is genuinely torn between respectability and the hip-hop life, seeing things to desire and strive for in both of the possibilities before him, and driven by genuine ambition in both directions.  Which is a much more nuanced handling of this type of story than you usually see.  Perhaps more importantly, it feels significant that these character types--familiar, for example, from Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom, whose earnest tone The Get Down frequently mirrors--are being played by black and brown people, that they are treated as people who get to dream, and to be exuberant in the pursuit of their dreams.

    It's that combination of exuberance and savvy that makes The Get Down fascinating, and that convinces me that it's worth keeping up with despite its flawed beginning.  Alongside its musical numbers and candy-colored tales of kids who just want to sing, the show paints a surprisingly detailed and complicated picture of the political situation in the Bronx during its era.  Jimmy Smits hams it up as a local politician who is trying to amass enough political power to transform the neighborhood, but some of his ideas, about the things that people of color deserve and have been taught to live without, would be revolutionary if they were stated on the news, much less in a show that is essentially a hip hop version of Glee.  And the insight the show offers into the workings of the white political establishment--for example a mayoral candidate who explains that he is hammering at non-violent crimes like graffiti tagging because it plays well to white, middle class voters--is sharp enough to cut.  Alongside shows like Jane the Virgin or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Get Down is a reminder that sometimes it takes a degraded, "trashy" genre--like the let's-put-on-a-show story--to give a voice to the kind of people that prestige TV tends to forget, and to talk about issues that it tends to ignore.  The Get Down isn't exactly better than something like Stranger Things, but in its choice to use its genre to actually say something, it is infinitely more vital and alive, and if the second half of its season lives up to the promise of its first, it'll truly be something to see.

  • The Good Place - It's often hard to judge a comedy based on only a few episodes, but this difficulty is compounded in the case of Mike Schur's new series.  Three episodes into The Good Place, I'm still not entirely sure what the show is about, and starting to suspect that the story it's trying to tell is actually more complicated and fantastical than it initially lets on.  Which is not to say that what The Good Place starts out as is not complicated and fantastical.  Waking up in a pleasant-looking waiting room, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is informed that she has died and gone to heaven (or rather, "the good place").  Eleanor's guide, Michael (Ted Danson), explains that he has constructed this particular corner of heaven to be perfectly suited to a few hundred souls who were all the best of the best, and carefully selected to mesh well with each other--including, in Eleanor's case, her soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper).  There's just one problem: Eleanor was, in life, a terrible, selfish, manipulative person, and the life of philanthropy and good works that Michael ascribes to her never happened.  Terrified of being sent to "the bad place", Eleanor convinces Chidi to keep her secret, a task complicated by the fact that every time she does something bad, the good place reacts by destabilizing and attacking its inhabitants.  It's left to Eleanor--with the help of Chidi, an ethics professor--to learn how to be good, for the first time in her (after)life.

    This is, obviously, a massively convoluted premise and a lot to set up in a couple of 22-minute episodes, especially since revelations about how the good place works, and how it has been malfunctioning, are still coming--at the end of the third episode, for example, we learn that Eleanor is not the only person to arrive at the good place incorrectly.  As a result, it's hard to judge The Good Place as a comedy.  The cast is obviously fantastic, and Bell in particular is great at playing both lovable and nasty, but at the moment The Good Place is more interesting than funny.  Perhaps the show's biggest problem is that, as a story about a person who is learning to be good, The Good Place is often unconvincing.  Eleanor's past as a terrible person, seen through flashbacks, is more cartoonish than horrifying, full of too-blatant flaws like littering or refusing to boycott a coffee shop whose owner sexually harassed employees.  I keep drawing comparisons between how the show draws her, and how a show like Community conveyed the mundane-yet-horrifying depths of Jeff Winger's narcissism, which maintained its grip on him even after he made a genuine effort to change.  The Good Place's idea of goodness feels equally shallow, and perhaps tinged with Hollywood's neoliberal conception of goodness as an individual, rather than communal, trait.  Almost everyone we've met in the good place was a philanthropist or a charity fundraiser or an aid worker--the sort of goodness that is reserved mostly for affluent people, and which is often held up as a reason for why we don't need government or welfare to help people who are in need.

    But of course, it seems very possible--even likely--that this is the point.  As more and more flaws reveal themselves in the fabric of the good place, it feels as if the show is deliberately pointing out the limited and limiting nature of its concept of goodness-for example through the character of Tahani (Jameela Jamil), a condescending blowhard who also raised billions for charity.  Schur's previous show, Parks and Recreation, built an elaborate (and often borderline-fantastical) world in its setting of Pawnee, Indiana, and I'm starting to suspect that The Good Place is attempting something even more ambitious, a whole cosmology which the characters have to figure out.  It still remains to be seen whether he and his writers can make a comedy out of a premise like that, but for the moment, The Good Place is one of the most intriguing new shows of the season.

  • This Is Us - The pilot for this it's-all-connected, multi-strand character drama has had some of the most effusive reviews of the fall.  Which leads me to wonder: were all of these reviewers high?  This Is Us's opening episode is one of the most turgid and regrettable hours I've ever spent in front of a TV--to paraphrase a very useful construction, it's a bad writer's idea of what good writing looks like.  Rooted firmly in the genre of family melodrama, This Is Us lacks the one quality that is essential to such stories' success--specificity of character and setting.  And because its writers lack the ability to make their characters and situations feel real and lived-in, they instead opt for absurd, over-the-top plot contrivances, which actually end up being more boring and uninvolving than another show's low-key naturalism--this is a pilot that struggles mightily, and eventually fails, to elicit an emotional reaction from a story about a dead baby.

    The first of This Is Us's interlinked storylines involves a young couple, Jack and Rebecca (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore), who are in the hospital, about to welcome triplets.  It's a rather pointless story whose significance only registers when the pilot delivers its twist ending, but in the meantime it's notable how little personality the show gives Rebecca, even as it emphasizes Jack's concern over the fact that her delivery experiences complications.  In a second storyline, an obese woman named Kate (Chrissy Metz) joins a weight loss group.  Though it's not exactly surprising that the only story network TV can think to give to a fat character revolves around their weight, the sheer hysteria of Kate's storyline is dismaying.  By the end of the pilot, we have learned virtually nothing about her except that she is fat, and that this makes her completely miserable--she seems to have no interests, no hobbies, no friends, no job, nothing going on outside of her obsession with her size.  The one thing we do learn about Kate is that she has a twin brother, Kevin (Justin Hartley), an actor who stars in a dumb sitcom that gets most of its laughs by having him take off his shirt.  Again, it's not surprising that a show this melodramatic would look down on comedy, but the terms in which This Is Us conveys the shallowness of Kevin's show defy belief--everyone working on it, except Kevin, seems to be a talentless hack who cares only about ratings and pleasing the network.  (This condescension is particularly aggravating when one compares This Is Us to something like Jane the Virgin, a comedy that achieves more genuine emotion in any random five minutes than this show manages in its entire pilot.)  When Kevin has an on-set meltdown after a (schlocky and overwrought) dramatic scene is cut, we're meant to think that he's rediscovering his artistic integrity, when really he's just being petty and unprofessional.

    Finally, the last plot strand concerns Randall (Sterling K. Brown), a successful and happy family man who tracks down his biological father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), in order to furiously berate him for leaving the infant Randall in a fire station.  While it's understandable that Randall would have complicated feelings towards his father, the fact is that leaving a baby in a fire station isn't hugely different from giving them up for adoption (especially since we learn that Randall was adopted on the very same day that he was abandoned, by a loving and affluent family).  So the depth of Randall's rage, and William's calm acceptance that what he did was unforgivable, feel unearned.  (Nevertheless, this is probably the most successful plotline in the pilot, largely because Brown, late of a transcendent, Emmy-winning turn on The People vs. O.J. Simpson, is the only actor in the cast who manages to imbue his character with anything resembling humanity.)  All of these stories are leading up to a twist that reveals how these characters are connected--though if you know that a twist is coming, it is laughably easy to guess what that connection is--but as soon as that revelation comes, we're left with a question: what is there in this show that's worth watching for?  This Is Us's pilot was written to service its ending, but that ending still leaves us with a bunch of boring characters caught up in unconvincing situations, and absolutely no reason to keep watching.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Strange Horizons Fund Drive

Strange Horizons, the erstwhile speculative fiction magazine, is currently running its annual fund drive.  I've had a close relationship with Strange Horizons that has spanned most of my writing career.  They were the first magazine to publish my reviews, thus bringing my work to a wider audience.  I served as the magazine's reviews editor between 2011 and 2014 (which means that my name appeared on the Hugo ballot when it was nominated in the Best Semiprozine category).  And I continue to write for them today, most recently in my two-part review of this year's Clarke shortlist.

But beyond my relationship with it as a writer, what makes Strange Horizons special and important to me is the material it's put before me as a reader.  A lot of the testimonials you're going to see around the internet in the next few weeks are going to talk about Strange Horizons's fiction department, which has and continues to give platforms to new writers, many of whom have gone on to great things.  That's worth recognizing and celebrating, but to me Strange Horizons will always be special as one of the finest, most interesting, most fearless sources for criticism and reviews.  There is, quite simply, no other online source of genre reviews that covers the breadth of material that Strange Horizons does, with the depth of engagement and the multiplicity of perspectives that it offers.  The editorial team that took over from me in 2015, under the leadership of Maureen Kincaid Speller, has excelled at finding new voices, such as Samira Nadkarni, Vajra Chandrasekera, and Keguro Macharia, to offer their vital points of view, while maintaining the presence of reviewers like Nina Allan and Erin Horáková, whose writing is essential to anyone interested in the state of our field.

A focus on Strange Horizons's non-fiction content feels particularly important to me at the moment, because in the run-up to the fund drive month the magazine has featured some truly exceptional writing, showcasing a variety of styles, approaches, and subject matter that all demonstrate how valuable it is as a source of genre criticism.  Great recent reads from Strange Horizons's non-fiction departments include, but are by no means limited to:
  • Aishwarya Subramanian's review of The Explorer's Guild, Volume One, a YA adventure novel co-written by, of all people, Kevin Costner.  It's a supremely unpromising review subject that most of us would dismiss as a cynical cash-in, but Aishwarya demonstrates how, in the hands of a good reviewer, even the most inauspicious topic can be fruitful ground for discussion.  Her review discusses the adventure novel genre and its pitfalls, as well as the difficulties of resurrecting it today, but it also treats its subject seriously, and finds things to praise about it.

  • Tim Phipps's review of Star Trek Beyond, which is really more a meditation on Star Trek fannishness in the age of remakes and reboots, and which will warm the hearts of any old-school Star Trek fan (and particularly fans who, like myself, love Deep Space Nine the best).

  • Katy Armstrong's review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  There's been a lot of virtual ink spilled about this project, but Katy's review is the first I've seen that both approaches the play as a fan (and especially a fan who was active in fandom, and is familiar with the voluminous body of fanfic written about the series), and is written from the perspective of someone who has actually seen the play, rather than just reading the script-book.  Though still critical of the story's problems, Katy is able to convey how some of them are ameliorated, or even cancelled out, by the theatrical medium, which is a perspective that discussions of this new entry in the Harry Potter canon have desperately needed.

  • Iori Kusano's review of the virtual reality game Job Simulator, which addresses the implications of a game that simulates low-paying, service-sector labor, which is played on a platform that most actual employees of the jobs it simulates couldn't afford.  At a time when we're still having to debate whether game criticism should address anything more than graphics and gameplay mechanics, this review quietly offers a vital alternative.

  • Adam Roberts's review of Apocalypse: An Epic Poem, a novel in verse about climate change by Frederick Turner.  Strange Horizons's editors challenged Adam to review the novel in its own style, and it should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his writing that he rose to the challenge.  But within the lines of his poem-review, Adam also takes his subject seriously, discussing the history of novels-in-verse and the challenges of the form, as well as the points in which Turner succeeds and fails.

  • From the articles department, Erin Horáková's masterful, fascinating essay "Boucher, Backbone, and Blake - The Legacy of Blakes 7".  Even if, like myself, you know Blakes 7 only as a buzzword for a certain kind of old-school SF fan, you'll find a great deal to chew over in Erin's article, which touches on politics, fandom, the way that television has been influenced by the show, and the ways in which it has changed that would make a show like it impossible today.  It's a brilliant piece of cultural commentary, and more importantly, one that it is almost impossible to imagine being published anywhere but Strange Horizons.  As much as venues for pop culture criticism have proliferated in recent years, most of them are focused on the blazingly current, and on discussions that can be consumed in bite sizes (hence the dominance of the TV episode recap/review).  I've spent the last few weeks trying to place a piece that is shorter than Erin's, and less historical in its subject, but still long and not topical.  It's been amazing to realize how many venues are excluded by those qualities.  As a demonstration of why Strange Horizons is necessary in our current genre landscape, Erin's essay is highly instructive.
When you've finished reading all these excellent pieces of non-fiction, I hope you'll consider donating to Strange Horizons, and helping it to continue being a source for such writing.  The main fund drive page is here, where you can donate via PayPal or Patreaon.  All donors are entered in a prize drawing, with many great prizes that are constantly being added to.  As funding goals are reached, the magazine is releasing special bonus content (Adam Roberts's review of Apocalypse was one such prize).  This year's fund drive target is $15,000, but stretch goals go as far as $22,500, and if the magazine reaches those goals, it has ambitious projects planned for the next year, including a special issue on Spanish SF, and new projects focusing on translated and interactive fiction.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The long opening segment of Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is carefully, almost studiously naturalistic.  In plain, but also irresistible and affecting language, he presents the life story of his heroine, Cora, starting first with the history of her grandmother, kidnapped from Africa and finally ending up, after much circumlocution (which is to say, being sold and re-sold), on a Georgia plantation, and moving on to detail the life of Cora's mother, who escaped when Cora was a child, and finally to Cora herself.  Whitehead's eye for the details of life on the plantation--and in particular, life in the insular, predatory community that arises among the slaves--is unflinching.  Many reviewers before me have noted the brutal quietness with which he reveals that "Not long after it became known that Cora's womanhood had come into flower, Edward, Pot, and two hands from the southern half dragged her behind the smokehouse.  If anyone heard or saw, they did not intervene.  The Hob women sewed her up."  But the entire segment is rife with moments like this, in which the sheer weight of what it means to live your entire life under the burden of being thought inhuman is presented without adornment, or even much signposting.  Taken on its own, this part of the book would still be a brilliant literary accomplishment.

But of course, if you've heard of The Underground Railroad, that's probably not what you've heard about it.  Leaving aside its selection for Oprah Winfrey's highly influential book club, what has made The Underground Railroad remarkable and notable is what happens at the end of this chapter.  Stunned out of a gloomy kind of complacency about her situation by a brutal beating, Cora accepts the invitation of another slave, Caesar, to escape with him.  Caesar has made contact with a local station agent for the Underground Railroad, and after a grueling, nail-biting escape--even the short distance between their plantation and the station is fraught with nearly impossible dangers for a pair of escaped slaves--what he and Cora find as their supposed path to freedom is a literalized metaphor.
The stairs led onto a small platform.  The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end.  It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating pattern.  The sheer industry that had made such a project possible.  Cora and Caesar noticed the rails.  Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden crossties.  The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting towards a miraculous terminus.
So dry and matter of fact is Whitehead's tone as he describes this impossible feat of, among other things, engineering that it actually takes some time for that impossibility to register.  This is hardly a new approach for Whitehead--his first novel, The Intuitionist, took place in a world in which elevator inspectors were a prestigious and tradition-bound group, closely guarding the secrets of their profession and suspicious when a new member, who is not only a black woman but who espouses the newfangled philosophy of "intuitive" elevator inspection, joins their ranks.  It sounds like a joke, but Whitehead not only presents it seriously but manages to make something soulful and even elegiac out of his premise--the racism and resistance that his heroine meets are no less hurtful because the profession she's trying to break into is ridiculous (in fact, one might argue that this is precisely the point).  Something similar is happening in The Underground Railroad.  Whitehead isn't trying to make slavery ridiculous, but by having Cora and Caesar's escape from it take the form of what is essentially a trip on the subway--they go underground in one spot and emerge in another--he unmoors slavery, and its latter-day permutations into prejudice and oppression, from a specific time and place.

As Cora is told by her first conductor, the Underground Railroad of the novel has no fixed route, no promised path to freedom.  Trains arrive on a schedule that is erratic, and their destinations are often unclear.  "The problem is that one destination may be more to your liking than another.  Stations are discovered, lines discontinued.  You won't know what waits above until you pull in."  Whitehead thus sets himself up for a sort of dark picaresque, with Cora and Caesar sampling life for escaped slaves in different states, trying to make their way to safety and happiness.  (The structure put me in mind of The Odyssey, and Whitehead namechecks Gulliver's Travels.  Though, and as one of this characters points out, both of these stories are tales about men who are ultimately trying to get home, whereas for Cora and Caesar home is a hell they must escape.)  The first of these chapters, titled "South Carolina", sets up its normalized strangeness right from the start, when Cora emerges from under ground: "She looked up at the skyscraper and reeled, wondering how far she had traveled."  Once again, Whitehead plays it completely straight, and it takes a long time for the reader to be certain that the South Carolina that Cora and Caesar have arrived in--where they are housed in dormitories, educated, and given jobs, as part of a government program to "advance" former slaves--is not just counterfactual, but a place out of time.  When that confirmation comes, however, it brings the entire novel into focus.
His patients believed they were being treated for blood ailments.  The tonics the hospital administered, however, were merely sugar water.  In fact, the niggers were participants in a study of the latent and tertiary stages of syphilis.

"They think you're helping them?" Sam asked the doctor.  He kept his voice neutral, even as his face got hot.

"It's important research," Bertram informed him.  "Discover how a disease spreads, the trajectory of the infection, and we approach a cure."
What Cora is traveling through, as she gets on and off the Underground Railroad, is not space, exactly, but history.  She experiences the different guises of American racism, the different faces it has worn and continues to wear, in a continuous physical space.  In South Carolina, Cora encounters what originally seems like kindness and liberal-mindedness, but which eventually reveals itself as self-serving paternalism.  The terms in which the authorities, who claim to be trying to help black people, actually end up restricting their choices and freedoms are taken not from the 19th century, however, but from the early 20th--forced sterilization, and proposed eugenics programs: "What if we performed adjustments to the niggers' breeding patterns and removed those of melancholic tendency?  Managed other attitudes, such as sexual aggression and violent natures? We could protect our women and daughters from their jungle urges, which Dr. Bertram understood to be a particular fear of southern white men."

This is not to say that The Underground Railroad's scheme is as straightforward as having Cora jump from one period to another.  Even within the South Carolina chapter there are elements that clearly come from different settings and time periods.  Later in the chapter, Cora is hired to appear in a display room at a recently opened museum of American history.  She plays roles in romanticized, sanitized recreations of a ship carrying slaves across the Atlantic, a slave auction, and a plantation.  Her predicament--glad for the easy work but aggravated by how it whitewashes the brutal, backbreaking labor she used to perform--echoes a modern complaint by reenactors in actual historical sites, as well as the broader discussion of how American history teaching tends to downplay the brutality of slavery and perpetuate the myth of happy, well-treated slaves.  A later chapter in which Cora, now in the hands of a slave catcher, makes a quasi-hallucinatory crossing of a desolate, burned-out Tennessee landscape lends itself less easily to historical reference, but is clearly designed to open a discussion of America's mistreatment and dispossession of Native Americans.

If there's a criticism to be made here--and to be clear, I'm not sure it rises to that level--it is that this device can have the effect of making The Underground Railroad feel programmatic.  At times it almost feels as if the novel is ticking talking points off a list--the introduction to the slave catcher Ridgeway, for example, includes a short history of the institution of slave patrols and their operation, whose language ("They stopped any niggers they saw and demanded their passes") seems designed to recall discussions I'd read recently about present-day police brutality, and how the history of policing in America has its roots in these slave patrols.  And though the fact that Whitehead has a character whom Cora meets muse that "Black hands built the White House, the seat of our nation's government" a mere month after Michelle Obama made the same observation in a speech to the Democratic convention is surely a coincidence, it also speaks to the book's need to be topical.  At points, The Underground Railroad feels like a fictionalization of the conversation that we've been having for several years, about the place of African Americans in American society, the legacy of slavery, and the way that racism continues to manifest itself, even in a society that claims to have overcome it.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course, especially given Whitehead's prodigious gifts as a writer, and the assuredness with which he manages his fantastic device.  But one effect that this approach has is that Cora seems to get lost in the shuffle.  This shouldn't happen--Cora is a wonderful creation, plucky but also deeply damaged, remarkable but also susceptible to the same pressures and traumas as anyone else.  One of the points Whitehead makes with her is to observe how the same courage and determination that make it possible for her to run, can also curdle into cruelty when subjected to enough mistreatment.  One of Cora's defining traumas is having been left behind by her mother when she escaped, and she is never able to forgive this betrayal.  She fantasizes about one day meeting her mother, "Begging in the gutter, a broken old woman bent into the sum of her mistakes.  Mabel looked up but did not recognize her daughter.  Cora kicked her beggar's cup, the few coins flew into the hubbub, and she continued on her afternoon errand".

The Underground Railroad is, in general, unflinching and unsentimental in depicting the psychic toll of participating, even unwillingly, in the system of slavery, whether it's Cora's myriad lingering traumas, over the things that were done to her and the things she's done, or the breakdown of even those slaves who seem inured to the hardships of slavery ("They joked and they picked fast when the bosses' eyes were on them and they acted big, but at night in the cabin after midnight they wept, they screamed from nightmares and wretched memories"), or the reluctance and terror of many of the white people who manage stations, most of whom come to terrible ends when they are inevitably discovered.  But though these points are typically well made, they also never feel like the point of the story, and this is particularly true of Cora.  By its very nature, Cora's journey can't have a destination.  If the point of The Underground Railroad is to take her (and us) through a guided tour of American racism, then the very fact that that racism is still at work--that books like The Underground Railroad are still necessary--means that she can't arrive in any sort of promised land.  Whitehead manages, with an elegance that is, by that point, unsurprising, to give the novel an ending that is satisfying without betraying his scheme, but the result is that Cora's journey loses much of its urgency.  She becomes, despite her vivid and deeply-felt humanity, more a viewpoint than a person.

What I think Whitehead is struggling with in The Underground Railroad is a problem that I've become more aware of, in recent years, in the context of fiction about the Holocaust.  At some point, you have to ask: what is the value of art about atrocity?  Can art exist merely for its own sake when it's discussing a real evil that blighted and claimed the lives of millions, or does it have to serve a purpose, be it educational or political?  Is it even right to impose a narrative--especially one that tends towards a happy ending--on an evil that by its very nature defies narrative, and which swallowed up the lives of so many?  Whitehead's choice--using the fantastic to detach his story from the conventions of narrative, and with it making the point that while slavery is over, it is also still with us--is not just brilliant, but inspiring.  But it also leaves The Underground Railroad feeling a little chilly.  It's a remarkable work, one that I am still, despite this review, struggling to describe and sum up.  But it's also one that I can't entirely love.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Recent Reading Roundup 41

It's been a little quiet on this blog over the summer, mainly because I've been busy with various projects for other venues (for example the Clarke shortlist review).  But also, because I've been busy reading.  A lot.  2016 is shaping up to be one of--if not the--most prolific reading years of my life.  Quality-wise, it's also been very rewarding, and though my other writing prevented me from giving some of these books the more in-depth look they deserved, this is still an impressive bunch of books, and worth a closer look.
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik - Novik's Nebula-winning, Hugo-nominated novel--her first standalone after a decade with the His Majesty's Dragon series--has echoes of Howl's Moving Castle and Seraphina, and stands up reasonably well alongside those antecedents.  In a thinly-glossed, cod-medieval Eastern Europe, a wizard known as the Dragon exacts a mysterious but unrelenting tribute from the residents of the villages that border the malevolent, magical Wood.  Every ten years, he selects a seventeen-year-old girl to live in his tower and serve him.  The girls always return, unharmed, claiming to be unmolested, and handsomely paid, but they also always leave soon after, cut off from their families and communities.  The villagers tolerate this custom because the Dragon protects them from the predations of the Wood, which encroaches further every year, contaminating food and water and occasionally stealing people, who return (if they do at all) altered and sinister.  Heroine Agnieszka is of an age to be chosen by the Dragon, but she, like all her neighbors, believes that it's her beautiful, brave, talented best friend Kasia who will be taken.  When the Dragon takes Agnieszka instead, he reveals that it's because she has magical power, which he is legally bound to train.  But Agnieszka's training soon gives way to the demands of the real world, as the cold war with the Wood heats up, and threatens to engulf the entire nation.

    What works best about Uprooted is the way that Novik combines her obvious inspirations in Eastern European folk tales (including liberal references to Baba Yaga) with a carefully worked out fantasy world.  The most exciting parts of the novel are when Agnieszka and the Dragon learn to combine their magical approaches (somewhat predictably--and a little annoyingly, to my tastes--his magic is scientific and methodical, whereas hers is intuitive and rooted in nature) and come up with tools with which they can fight the Wood's increasingly complicated attacks.  The Wood itself is a fascinating and terrifying opponent, both for its corrupting effect on people, animals, and places, and for the obvious intelligence driving its tactics.  A sequence in which Agnieszka and the Dragon are compelled by an adventurous prince to accompany him into the Wood in order to rescue his kidnapped mother is tense and hair-raising, and Novik does a good line in pulse-pounding action storytelling.  Also rewarding is the fact that the book does not abandon the relationship between Agnieszka and Kasia after their separation, and that the two girls remain each other's strongest supporters even as they both undergo profound changes and take on bewildering responsibilities.  Like Seraphina, Uprooted takes the attitude that the only thing to do with a heroine who turns out to have super-special, super-awesome powers is to pile her high with increasingly challenging responsibilities, constantly raising the stakes every time she manages to solve a seemingly impossible problem.  But it's nice that alongside that refreshing unwillingness to be in awe of its own heroine, Uprooted also gives her someone who is always in her corner, and that that someone is also a girl.

    If I have one reservation about Uprooted (aside from the way that the novel's breakneck plot loses focus a little as it approaches its climax), it is with the central romance.  On one level, there is nothing here to complain about--Uprooted is as much a romance novel as a fantasy novel, and it does a good job of establishing not just the emotional but the physical attraction between Agnieszka and the Dragon, so much that it will be a rare reader who finishes the novel not feeling desperate for these two crazy kids to make it work.  But at the same time, the Dragon is also the same person who has spent a century abducting and abusing--emotionally, if not physically or sexually--teenage girls, and the book doesn't do quite enough to bring him back from this.  It is, perhaps, to Novik's credit that she doesn't delve into the Dragon's tragic past and blighted love life to justify his arrogant, high-handed behavior--she recognizes that nothing that he's suffered justifies the suffering he's caused.  But at times that approach feels undeservedly forgiving, as if it's enough for Agnieszka to point out to the Dragon that he's caused a great deal of pain, and this will make it alright for her to end up with him, because he's agreed not to do it any more.  It's not quite enough to mar the book's ending--as I say, you do end up rooting for this romance--but I get the feeling that Novik was trying to buck some of the more poisonous conventions of the romance genre, and I don't think she's done quite enough to achieve that.

  • Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie - I've mentioned before that I've gotten in the habit of reading the first volume in a trilogy, enjoying it well enough, and then never getting around to reading the concluding volumes, because there are so many other, in some cases standalone, books to attend to that who has the time.  If it hadn't been for my desire to get a good grounding in this year's Hugo-nominated novels, I might have done the same with the final two volumes of Leckie's massively successful series, and though I enjoyed both books, I'm not sure that they're enough to get me to change my habits--while both elaborate on the ideas and the world introduced in Ancillary Justice, neither one adds enough to it to justify their existence on their own merits.

    My understanding is that a lot of readers were disappointed in Ancillary Sword, and one can see why given that it suffers from pretty classic middle book problems (another reason, in my experience, to avoid trilogies--if 33% of your experience is going to be stage-setting, you might as well stick with standalones).  But it also does a great deal that I ended up appreciating in its own right, as distinct from the series's overarching story.  The book, which sees former ship's AI turned individual turned ship's captain Breq dispatched to a system with strategic importance to the Imperial Radch, in order to hold it for the "right" version of the tyrant Anaander Mianaai, an individual distributed over many bodies who has experienced a schism within themselves, leans very heavily on the novel of manners aspect of the story, an important component of a lot of space opera that doesn't get nearly enough play in most discussions of the genre.  Most of the novel is concerned with internal politics on Breq's ship, diplomatic maneuvers with the officials she meets in the system, and negotiations with various interest groups among the local population.  It's all done with the same light touch and wry sense of humor that characterized Ancillary Justice, but besides being a fun, breezy read, it's nice to see a novel about the running of a gigantic space empire that recognizes that a lot--the vast and overwhelming majority, in fact--of the work that goes into keeping such an edifice going involves talking.

    One of the things that Ancillary Sword gets to highlight, now that Breq is in a position of authority, is how much of a role language plays in maintaining and reinforcing the imperial project.  By classifying certain people as uncivilized, illegal, or unapproved, the empire's officers ensure that they can never be anything else, because that very designation ensures that they will never have access to the tools that will allow them to climb the ladder of ranks that supposedly gives every citizen of the empire a fair shake.  Breq tries to act as a force of justice, to point out the rhetorical tricks by which the empire blinds even its diligent and conscientious officers to the injustice they're perpetuating.  But even she ends up functioning as a tool of oppression, for example when she uncovers an assassination plot, and hands the perpetrators over to justice even though she knows that the less privileged, and less guilty, of the two will get a harsher sentence.

    When the story moves on to Ancillary Mercy, however, these issues turn out to be, well, not exactly ancillary to Leckie's project, but a lot less important than I would have liked.  Mercy picks up from the relative doldrums of Sword and places Breq at the center of a military dispute between the different factions of Anaander Mianaai, with much of the population of the system at stake.  It's here that the series's polite, mannered tone starts to work against it--Breq's ability to find a way through the tangle of conflicting interests that threaten to destroy her, her ship, and her crew feels, by the end of the novel, a little magical.  This is a particular problem when it comes to the novel's main concern, the rights of AIs to self-determination.  When human characters point out to Breq that the ships and stations that house AIs are responsible for the lives of thousands of people, and that giving them total freedom could endanger those residents, her response is to insist that ships love their crew and would never hurt them.  Which may be true, in the series's world, but if so it reinforces the feeling that the Ancillary books can sometimes be a little too nice for their own good--that the underlying assumptions of their world make it difficult to say meaningful things about the problems of empire.  Ancillary Mercy is just as charming and engaging as the previous two volumes in the series, but in some ways this is precisely its problem--it can't quite earn the ending that Leckie has been aiming at for three books.

  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin - I wish I had a bit more time on my hands to write a proper, full-length review of this book, the recent and richly-deserved Hugo winner.  Then I might have some chance of doing justice to all the many remarkable things it does.  Near the top of the list would be the way that Jemisin balances so many tropes and genres--epic fantasy, Dying Earth SF, post-apocalypse, X-Men-style persecuted superheroes--and combines them into a whole that is not only coherent and effortlessly readable, but often quite poetic.  Set in a world called the Stillness that has already experienced several industrial flowerings and collapses, and which is currently riven by massive geological instability--which periodically leads to supervolcano eruptions and subsequent years-long winters due to ash in the atmosphere, the "fifth season" of the title--the book follows three heroines who possess a superpower that allows them to control the vibrations of the earth, to quell quakes and volcanoes--or to unleash them.  Damaya is a "feral," a child whose gift for "orogeny" appeared unexpectedly in her family, and who is surrendered to the Fulcrum, the organization that trains and controls orogenes, in part because her parents know that people like her are so feared and reviled that her life would be in danger if she stayed in their community.  Syenite is an adept at the Fulcrum, who is dispatched on a mission with Alabaster, one of the most skilled orogenes alive, with orders to conceive a child with him, thus furthering his bloodline.  Essun is an escapee from the Fulcrum who has lived hidden in a remote community for years.  As the book begins, her husband discovers her secret and murders one of their children, kidnapping the other.  Essun sets out after him, in hopes of retrieving her missing daughter, and of revenge.

    Through the three women's eyes, Jemisin weaves a portrait of a civilization defined by its awareness of its own impermanence.  With quakes and fifth seasons an inevitability, all of society is structured to survive catastrophe, and Jemisin is great at capturing the nuances of how that would affect even the most minute aspects of life, and the habits of thought of all of the Stillness's inhabitants.  Constant apocalypses mean that societies in the Stillness don't tend to climb very far up the technological ladder, but their approach to this is interestingly hard-headed--low technology is survivable technology, the kind that can withstand and carry a civilization through a fifth season, and characters in the book are full of disdain towards more advanced "deadcivs" whose inability to weather these stresses is proof, in their mind, that their approach was the wrong one.  As a result, much of the book's society feels typical of epic fantasy, but Jemisin works to demystify it, stressing things like bureaucracy, the structures of civic government, and all the tedious work that goes into making such a society function, which make the entire novel feel a lot more modern and of the moment than it otherwise might have.  (In that sense, it reminded me a great deal of Sofia Samatar's The Winged Histories, which in turn feels inspired by Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, a line of influence that might be worth investigating further.)

    The theme of necessity warping thought processes can also be observed in the reaction to orogenes, and more importantly, in how they are taught to see themselves.  The Stillness both needs and desperately fears orogens, and though both of these reactions are understandable--over the course of the novel, we witness orogenes, driven by anger and grief, causing destruction that claims the lives of millions of people--the mechanisms that it has created in order to control them are horrific.  Orogenes are taught that the Fulcrum is the only place where they can be safe and themselves, but these privileges come with a price--think a twisted (or perhaps more realistic) version of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters.  Within the Fulcrum, orogenes are subjected to psychological and physical abuse (and, if you count Syenite and Alabaster's forced breeding, sexual as well), designed to stamp out their independence and free will.  Their lives are circumscribed by Guardians, who form twisted bonds of mingled control and affection with their charges, the better to isolate them from the world and ensure that they never make decisions on their own.  Orogenes are taught to seek control above all things--any indication that they might be slipping in this respect is cause for punishment or even destruction--and at the same time, they have no control over their own lives.  One of the chief accomplishments of this novel is how it conveys the psychological effects of this conditioning--at three different points in life--and the way that it inevitably leads the orogenes to participate in their own oppression, not just because they fear the Guardians, but because they crave their approval, and believe that the only way to achieve something resembling freedom is to play along with the system.

    All three women end up pushing against the system that has confined and abused them, in different ways that nevertheless lead them, inevitably, to an exploration of different ways of ordering society which do not depend on the exploitation and oppression of orogenes, and to an investigation into the nature of orogeny and the reasons for the Stillness's instability.  It's that latter point--though its execution is typically excellent--that leaves me a little worried about future volumes in this projected trilogy.  Despite the momentous events it describes, and the hard work it puts into building its world, The Fifth Season is largely a character-based novel, an exploration of the ways in which abuse and oppression warp the soul, and of the corrosive effects that repeated grief and loss can have over even well-meaning people.  But it is also, very clearly, a novel of setup, whose purpose is to bring its heroines to a particular point so that the story proper can begin.  I'm a little less interested in the promised next phase of this story, already teased in the novel's closing chapters, in which Essun explores hidden cities, investigates her power over the mysterious remnants of ancient technology left in her world, and meets what appear to be aliens (it doesn't help that it's in these chapters that the book's ironclad control over its pace and structure goes a little wobbly; too many secondary characters just happen to show up at the same place and time, and too many new concepts are introduced at once, in a way that's clearly designed to set up the sequel, not service the current volume's story).  Still, The Fifth Season is so accomplished, so well done, and such a pleasure to read, that I would be a fool not to break my own habit, and commit right now to keeping up with this series.

  • The Vision, Vol. 1: Little Worse Than a Man by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta - The biggest deal in Marvel comics this year, at least for people like myself who aren't regular comics readers and know the company's universe mostly from the MCU, is Ta-Nehisi Coates's Black Panther.  I'm looking forward to the first trade collection of that story, but in the meantime, I wish a little more attention were being paid to King's new run of The Vision, which is absolutely a story that SF fans should be flocking to.  io9 highlighted it a few weeks ago, which is why I ended up picking it up, but I'd like to see more discussion of this story, in which the eponymous purple synthezoid makes himself a family, complete with wife and twin teenage children, and moves them to the suburbs.  The actual plot is hardly original--robot tries to be human, with disastrous results--but the execution is flawless, resulting in a story that is sad, creepy, and disturbing.  We're told from the outset that the Vision's experiment in normalcy will end in tragedy and death, but the terms in which that story is related, as the Visions keep making decisions that might make sense in the moment, but which quickly snowball into awfulness, are refreshingly undramatic.  The Vision's own clear-headed, rational way of seeing the world informs King's storytelling, even as he and his family keep making choices that are completely irrational in order to protect themselves and each other, and this gives the story a force it might not have had if it had taken the more obvious approach of melodramatic grimdark.  (Walta's art, which confines the story's increasingly deranged events into neat panels, helps to convey the sense of a normalcy that is stifling rather than relaxing.)  In the end, we're left to wonder: did the Vision's experiment fail because he and his family are too different from humans, or because they are too like us?

    I'm less enthusiastic about the story's final turn, which brings in the Avengers and a potentially world-destroying calamity, and heralds a more conventional direction for the next volume.  But taken on its own, Little Worse Than a Man is brilliantly bleak piece of SF storytelling, that finally does something interesting with a character whose movie incarnation I've found rather pointless.

  • Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson - Robinson's latest feels of a piece with his 2012 novel 2312, first in the sense that they seem to take place, more or less, in the same continuity (though Aurora is set several centuries later), and second because they're told in a similar combination of the personal and the technical, with passages from the point of view of human characters interspersed with long segments from the point of view of the AI of a generation ship, who narrates events on the ship with journalistic detachment, and a strong focus of the scientific and engineering challenges of keeping the ship and its inhabitants going over the centuries.  But despite their similar approaches, Aurora has a very different feel from 2312, precisely because of the difference in their settings.  2312 was a freewheeling grand tour of a colonized solar system.  It delighted in jumping from one location to another, showing off the outlandish ways in which humans had figured out how to live on nearly every rock in our system, and interspersed its narrative with news clippings and encyclopedia entries that showed off the richness and diversity of human experience in this setting.  Aurora, in contrast, is deliberately constricted.  Whether they realize it or not, its characters are trapped in a tiny, make-believe world that is warping them in a million tiny yet noticeable ways--from skewing their evolution, to constantly threatening to collapse their living environment, to depositing them on a dead world that may be even more dangerous than the centuries-long journey they've made to it.

    Aurora is a bleak novel, and it has been accused in some quarters of being tendentious--or arguing and in fact skewing its argument towards the conclusion that the exploration and colonization of deep space are a fool's errand.  Without regular contact with the planet on which they evolved and for which they are perfectly suited, the book's characters discover, their civilization falls prey to a host of poorly understood disorders that leave them physiologically and psychologically scarred.  More importantly, they end up feeling robbed and used, the pawns in a megalomaniacal project to colonize the galaxy that never took into account the human cost of such a project.  Aurora ends up treating the architects of generation ships (and the people in the present who, despite the failure of the story's mission, still insist that it is humanity's ordained fate to colonize the stars) as callous fools, who cavalierly dismiss the suffering, starvation, and death endured by the would-be colonists as an acceptable cost for a prize that might never be achieved.  It's not an easy read--the combination of a bleak, claustrophobic tone with characters who ultimately have very little control over their lives, and whose only triumph comes from admitting defeat and giving up on the mission they inherited, makes for a slow, halting reading experience.  But it's also one of Robinson's most soulful and thought-provoking novels, a work whose main concern is trying to get at the connection between humans and their environment--a connection which, Robinson argues, can't be replicated in an artificial world, or an alien one.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Review: The 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist, part 2

The second part of my review of this year's Clarke shortlist is now online at Strange Horizons, covering Arcadia by Iain Pears, Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson, and The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor.  You can find it here, and in case you haven't already read part 1, that's here.  The actual winner will be announced in London in a few hours, but as I write in the conclusion to the review, I tend to see that announcement as less of a triumph for any particular book, and more a data point that will help to clarify--at least a little--what the judges were aiming for with this year's bland and conventional shortlist.  The book that wins will tell us a great deal about how this year's judges saw the Clarke, and their task as its jury.  But I'm hopeful that next year the jury will make more interesting, more challenging choices.

Martin Petto has updated his collection of links to discussion of the shortlist, including this essay by Megan of the (new to me) blog From Couch to Moon.  It's very much worth reading, including some interesting reflections on both the Clarke and this year's nominated books.  To me, it also clarified many of my problems with this shortlist.  Megan and I largely agree about the ranking of the six nominated books, and our thoughts about the ones that, I suspect, we'd both happily knock off the shortlist are largely in line.  But when it comes to the two books that I think we'd both class as good--Europe at Midnight and The Book of Phoenix--our opinions diverge widely.  Megan sees Europe as much more self-contained and self-sustaining than I do (to me it feels like a pendant to the previous volume in this trilogy, Europe in Autumn, whereas Megan calls it superior to that book).  And though we both agree that The Book of Phoenix is the most likely winner of this year's Clarke, it's clear that we took very different things away from the book, and read it quite differently.

And that, not to keep repeating myself, is how the Clarke should work.  The books it highlights should be the ones that people disagree about, even if they're broadly in agreement about their quality and literary merits.  I want the Clarke shortlist to be full of books that I could write 3,000 words about, and then go and read someone else's 3,000 words and discover a whole host of ideas I'd never considered.  I hope I won't have to wait too long before getting a shortlist like that again.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Review: The 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist, part 1

The first part of my mega-review of this year's Clarke Award-nominated novels appears today at Strange Horizons.  This is the fourth time that I've reviewed the entire shortlist, a tradition begun by Adam Roberts at Infinity Plus and carried on by Strange Horizons with rotating reviewers.  I'm sad to say that this was by far the least fun I've had reviewing the Clarke shortlist, not so much because the nominated books are bad--though a few definitely are--but because there ended up being so much less to say about them than I'm used to.

After finishing my read-through of the nominated novels, I started reading a few of the books that were submitted for consideration, and the difference is striking.  It's not so much that the books left off the Clarke shortlist are masterpieces--on the contrary, I would have had serious reservations about most of them if I'd had to review them for this project.  But that's precisely the point.  I would have had so much more to say about, for example, Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora, a book I struggled with but found utterly fascinating, than just about any of the choices this year's Clarke judges made.  What makes the Clarke special, to me, is that not so much that it makes consistently good choices, as that it makes consistently interesting choices.  It failed at that task this year.

The first half of my review--which discusses Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Time, J.P. Smythe's Way Down Dark, and Becky Chambers's A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet--is here.  At his blog, Martin Petto has been collecting other reviews of the shortlisted novels, and thoughts on the shortlist as a whole (on the latter front, be sure to read Nina Allan's meditation on the shortlist and the Clarke as a whole).  The second half of my review will be published on Wednesday, and later that evening the Clarke winner will be announced.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The 2016 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on the Winners

A month ago, when I posted here to remind people that the Hugo voting deadline was coming up, it was with a bit of trepidation.  Last year, when puppies of various stripes decided to get their jollies by trying to tear down this award, we saw a huge influx of new voters who showed up to make it clear that this was unacceptable behavior.  That the Hugo belongs to the people who care about it, not people who try to use it to score outdated, bigoted political points, or further their fevered personal agenda.  This year, it was clear that a lot of those same voters weren't coming back.  They had made their point, and were, quite reasonably, moving on to the things that interested them.  It's a funny fact about people who spend their lives concentrating on the things they care about, not the things they'd like to destroy, but it's usually a lot harder to corral them into action against the latter.  Which is great, but also potentially worrying, because if the people who had nothing better to do with their lives than try to destroy the Hugos outnumbered the ones who do, we could have ended up with some depressing Hugo results.

I should have known better.  The one thing I keep learning, again and again, as I study this award is that, much as it frustrates me, much as it throws up shortlists that disappoint me, much as it often seems stuck in a middlebrow rut, the Hugo is always what it is.  It doesn't take thousands of new voters to keep the Hugo true to itself, because the people who vote for it every year will do that job themselves.  With something like half the voters we had last year, we still managed to send the same message: that we have no patience for astroturf; that we have no time for writing that embarrasses the paper and ink used to print it; and that this is an award that can be gamed, but it can't be stolen.  This year's Hugo voters had no trouble telling junk from serious nominees; they saw the difference between the nominees being used as shields by the puppies and the ones that truly represent their literary tastes and politics.  And even more importantly, in the best novel and best novella categories in particular, Hugo voters recognized some of the finest and most exciting work published in this genre in years.  That Vox Day's second swat on the muzzle came in the form of a Hugo award for N.K. Jemisin is extremely satisfying, but that's just icing on the cake of handing the Hugo to The Fifth Season, a genuinely brilliant, defining novel.

Now that we've established that the Hugo can take care of itself, what next?  The voting and nominating breakdowns published this morning paint an interesting picture.  The bump caused by 2015's influx of voters is very noticeable.  If you compare this year's nominating numbers to last year's, it's interesting to note the huge surge of nominating ballots required to get on the final ballot, even among non-puppy nominees.  In 2015, for example, Laura J. Mixon, the highest-ranked non-puppy nominee in the best fan writer category, got 129 votes.  This year, that wouldn't have been enough to get her on the ballot.  In fact, my 141 nominating ballots (50 more than last year) would have left me below the threshold, even if there had been no puppy nominees at all.

That in itself is unsurprising, but what's interesting is how that effect disappears when you move to the voting phase.  Pretty much across the board, the total number of valid ballots in each of this year's categories represents a 50% drop from last year.  In other words, and as I noted above, most of last year's protest voters exercised their right to nominate in this year's Hugos, but they didn't stick around for the voting phase (for which they would have had to pay extra).  This is equally true of the puppy voters.  In its analysis of this morning's stats, Chaos Horizons theorizes that there were approximately 450 puppy nominators for this year's awards, but that only about 160 of them stuck around for the voting phase.

What this means is that the puppy problem is, to a certain extent, self-correcting.  For all their bluster last years, it's clear that most of them weren't interested in undergoing a repeat performance, and moved on to other, easier trolling targets.  That's no reason to get complacent, obviously, but it's an important data point that we should pay attention to as we seek to reshape the Hugos in order to prevent another Puppygate.  To that end, two proposals were passed in today's WSFS business meeting.  The first was the second-year ratification of E Pluribus Hugo, the complicated vote-counting algorithm intended to counter the effects of slate voting.  In preparation for discussion of this proposal, the award's administrators ran anonymized nominating data from 2015, 2014, and this year's awards to see what effect EPH would have on the resulting ballots.  The results aren't exactly encouraging: EPH does some good in this year's ballot, but hardly any for last year's, where the problem was a great deal more pronounced.  It is, at best, a partial solution. 

(I'm less bothered than some by the fact that EPH also changes "organic" ballots.  For one thing, I think that was a highly predictable outcome, and it was perhaps naive to assume that such profound changes to how we count nominating ballots wouldn't have any undesired effects.  And for another, I don't see anything "unfair" about this sort of change.  If there's a system and everyone knows how it works, then the fact that it produces certain shortlists is perfectly fair.  To complain about that strikes me as not unlike the occasional outrage you get when someone realizes that a certain nominee got the most first-place votes before the lower tiers were redistributed, and starts screaming about unfairness because that nominee didn't end up winning.)

Another proposal, which passed on the first vote, and needs to be ratified next year, is Three Stage Voting.  This would add a longlist stage to the nominating procedure, allowing voters to weed out astroturf--or just plain bad--nominees.  I think this proposal has the virtue of being straightforward and transparent to the voters, but it also has the problem that any additional encumbrance to voters will naturally suppress participation in the award.  It will also make it harder for voters to make informed choices, since in the second voting phase they'll have less time in which to read more nominated works, and this will naturally benefit more popular work by more visible writers. 

As I wrote above, I'm no longer convinced that this kind of fiddling with the Hugos is even necessary anymore.  In general, it feels as if there's a movement towards limiting access to the Hugos, after more than a decade of moving in the other direction--one proposal raised before the business meeting was to eliminate nominating rights for members of the next Worldcon, and I've seen people suggest that members of the previous Worldcon should be stripped of nominating rights as well (at the moment, members of the current, previous, and next Worldcon can nominate for the current Worldcon's ballot, but only members of the current convention can vote on the winners).  I can certainly understand why this shift is happening, but I think it's important to remember that the Hugo's relevance and legitimacy rest, in part, on the breadth of participation in it.  We don't want to go back to the days, not at all distant, when the award was handed out based on the votes of fewer than a thousand people.  This year's nominees and winners are far from the ideal situation, but as always, it's worth remembering that there is no ideal with the Hugo.  At its best, it will always be a compromise award, one that often fails to recognize the boundaries of the genre, even when they're where the most interesting work is happening.  Instead of trying to legislate that fact away, we should be coming up with more constructive ways to deal with it--and, eventually, accept it.