2015 Hugo Novel Prognostications

2015 Hugo Novel Prognostications

It’s time to step away from the icky politics and get into what everyone really cares about: prophesying the Hugo winners. I’m going to stick with novels for two reasons. First, the novel category had enough attention to avoid complete Sad Puppy takeover, especially after a crucial withdrawal. Second, I don’t have time to read anything but novels anymore, so I have no idea what happened last year in short stories, dramatic presentations, or related stuff of any kind. I wish I could do more, but novels it is for now.

Full disclosure: I did not participate in the nominating process. I probably should have, but $40 is just enough that I can’t justify it to Mrs. Pep at this time. I may attend WorldCon as it is a short jaunt from here to Spokane, but that depends largely on the condition of the Pep family when all but me return from Japan on the day before the con starts.

Another disclaimer: my Hugo batting average is good for baseball, but bad for much else. Let’s review. In 2014, I supported Ancillary Justice and it won handily. Leckie’s book is a deserving winner, but I thought it a bit of a weak year for novels. Not sure it would have stood up to the 2013 slate, of which I quite vocally chose 2312. I feared greatly a Robert Jordan nostalgia party that year, but had no inkling that John Scalzi would run off with a Redshirts victory. That one soured me on fan voting for awhile, much as I like John Scalzi as the current Face of Science Fiction. In 2013, I vaguely assumed that Embassytown would walk out a winner, but Jo Walton won with Among Others. That was the first year that I paid much attention, which means I’m one for three right now. Anyone laying bets on my choices does so at his or her own risk.

Two books surprised me by their exclusion: Robert Bennett’s City of Stairs and William Gibson’s The Peripheral. I don’t know the numbers for everything, but if these two were edged off the ballot only by the Sad Puppies, I will be irate. Puppy objections to both are pretty obvious, what with the post-colonialism, dark-skinned protagonists, and dead gods of questionable morality in the first, and William Gibson’s very existence with the second. Stairs was my pick for the best book of the year however, and it seemed to generate a lot of buzz. This result may come down to Bennett not being part of The In Crowd in SF, but who knows. The Peripheral came out late and didn’t seem to light the community on fire; surprising both because of Gibson’s pedigree and the reaction in broader literary circles. Regardless, both were on my short list and the ballot is poorer without them.

On to the nominees. Opinions about each come first, then a bold prediction at the end.

Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie
To be honest, when I first saw that ballot I thought to myself, “Whoa. The Sad Puppies just handed Leckie her second straight Hugo.” I don’t think that anything on the original ballot would have challenged Ancillary Sword. She has the momentum from last year’s sweep, the buzz as a hot, new voice in SF, and reviews that seemed largely to say that her second book was even better than the first. I preferred Ancillary Justice, but that says more about my tastes than it does the quality of the book. The biggest obstacle to another Leckie triumph may be voter inclinations to highlight someone new this year.

A second Leckie victory would perhaps be the greatest of ironies, as she represents almost everything the Sad Puppies hate. Leckie writes on the cutting edge of SF, digs deep into questions of empire and colonialism, toys with gender constructs, and generally does all those “political” and deep thinking things that seem to enrage the Luddites. My initial guesses pegged her second behind City of Stairs for an award; the Puppy ballot quashed what I thought was her main competition.

The Dark Between the Stars – Kevin Anderson
I don’t think I’ve ever read an Anderson book, but his reputation among those I trust is not high. No idea where he stands politically, if he cares about the Hugo, or worries that he’s been tarred with that particular brush. I may someday read an Anderson book, but it’s a pretty low priority at this point. Again, maybe he’s awesome and I’m making a snap judgment, but I’ll need a glowing review from a friend or two before he moves up my reading list.

The Goblin Emperor – Katherine Addison
This was a favorite book from last year and I think it fully deserves the nod. I won’t be irked if it wins the Best Novel. I loved Goblin and have recommended it to several, though I thought it a bit slight when compared to some of the meatier offerings from the year.

Skin Game – Jim Butcher
I’ve never read a Dresden Files book either, though many people I trust say they’re great. Someday I’ll probably give one a shot. I have to think that Butcher was as surprised as anyone to be on the ballot this year. He’s not part of the core community that generally gets recognized for awards, which I suppose is the alleged point of the Sad Puppy slate. As with Anderson, I have no clue what Butcher thinks about all of this or if he even notices. I hope he’s not a racist jerk and, if asked, will disavow the group the nominated him.

The Three Body Problem – Liu Cixin
Three Body hitting the Hugo ballot is the best news of an otherwise dismal Hugo season. Even the Puppies got on board with this, though I suspect them of disingenuous spin after multiple public defections. To be honest, I’m not sure what they see in this based on both stated and unstated aims. Liu’s book is “traditional” in that it’s Hard SF with lots of science, but that’s about where the similarities end. Luddites aside, this was one of my favorite books of the year, even without considering the international elements that we are always trying to promote here. Even if Liu doesn’t win, I am hopeful that the nod and subsequent attention generate momentum for more translated SF.

And now, the prediction. I’m happy to say that all three of the non-Puppy nominations are on my Best of 2014 list; I will be content to see any of them win. However, like the Highlander, there can only be one. I think we can safely discount Anderson and Butcher due to anti-Puppy backlash, an anticipated low Puppy turnout at the con, and a lack of “Hugo-ness” about the authors. The last may be unjust, but it is definitely a Thing in the community. The Goblin Emperor is a good book, but it is fantasy and a bit lighter than the others. I don’t think it stands up, though it will leave everyone charmed. Ancillary Sword is another fabulous Leckie book, was on its way to glory, and would have roared its way to triumph until Marko Kloos made his brave decision to withdraw. That opened the door for our 2015 Hugo winner, The Three Body Problem. The buzz about the story, the community interest in international SF, a vague reluctance to give the award to the same person in consecutive years, and the overall quality of Liu’s writing (and Ken Liu’s translation) will push Three Body ahead as the first Chinese Hugo winning novel. Mark it down, you heard it here first. And if anyone out there loses money on their bets, well, er, please form a line over there and I will be by shortly to refund your losses. Any time now. Just wait patiently.

The 2015 Hugo Imbroglio

The 2015 Hugo Imbroglio

I am well aware that the world awaits the Two Dudes hot take on Hugo shenanigans, and it’s high time we used the word “imbroglio” here on the blog, so gather round while Uncle Pep tells another story of Valiant Brad and his struggle against The Glitter and Pan-Asian Cuisine Gang, also known in some circles as “Social Justice Warriors,” because apparently it’s a bad thing to be all for such tyrannies as justice. God bless America. This may constitute a politics trigger warning for any readers out there who dream of being spanked by Ayn Rand (“You’ve been a bad, naughty capitalist!”), so those folks should consider themselves warned.

Anyone not currently up on The Great Hugo Imbroglio of 2015 is welcome to read my last articulate and impassioned exposition on the matter, though it may not be worth the indigestion. Unfortunately for me, soon after I posted that self-assured attack on the Sad Puppies, the Hugo nominations were announced and my predictions looked pretty bad. While statistically unsurprising, the Sad Puppy domination of the nomination process was a massive disappointment. Parenthetically, the Hugos are announced at Norwescon, in that great bastion of conservative white privilege called Seattle, so I can only imagine the rage. Probably for the best that my wife and I nixed an expensive trip to the con and spent the day with the kids at Seattle’s SF Museum instead. (Parenthetical to the parenthetical, I took a leak next to none other than George RR Martin at said museum. Or at least, I’m about 99% sure it was him. I said nothing.)

Back on topic. The fallout from the nomination debacle has been impressive. Connie Willis publicly turned down the request to present at the Hugos in a heartfelt and very sad letter. Nominees have denied themselves a chance at Hugo glory and withdrawn their nominated works. Marko Kroos pulled his novel from the slate today, winning acclaim from many and disgust from others. (One commenter compared Kroos’ withdrawal to Germans watching Jews get gassed, but I’m going to assume that this is a minority view.) Beyond this, I’ll skip the big picture for the most part, since people with much more brainpower and/or writing skill than I have thoroughly deconstructed things. (Scalzi is a good place to start of course, or the aforementioned GRRM.) I have a few loosely related thoughts on the matter that may not organize themselves into a focused takedown or anything, but here we go.

I will say first that I am irate that the American Culture War has jumped the firebreak into SF. I would much prefer to enjoy my exploding spaceships in peace, but one has to fight these battles on every front or we will never conquer. And conquer we will. Anyone feeling too down about things should read The Emerging Democratic Majority, which takes on US politics, but is really about everything. SF is growing younger, more diverse, and more inclusive at an increasing rate. We can’t be passive about things, and there will be ugly moments, but it won’t be long before our numbers are overwhelming. People of all colors, genders, persuasions, and world views are joining the conversation; this is one brand of squeezable ketchup that isn’t going back in the bottle. The Glitter and Pan-Asian Cuisine Gang is the wave of the future. (It’s also healthier and more delicious. Teriyaki for everyone!) Valiant Brad fears that we are crushing Tradition under our sparkly boot heels, but I have every confidence that we can appreciate the heritage of SF while taking it to new, exciting places.

But what to do in the mean time with Valiant Brad’s allies? A thorny topic indeed. I don’t know Brad Torgerson personally, but I am far too familiar with the culture he lives in. After all, I grew up in the Mormon Corridor (I-15 from Cardston to Vegas, with a spur into Phoenix) and left many friends and family there when I finally ran screaming from Utah in 2002. Brad’s religion expressly forbids any sort of diversity-motivated hatred, and I have no doubt that Brad himself is a decent guy. Unfortunately, Mormons have a checkered history of racism, homophobia, and misogyny, and there is a deeply rooted strain of benevolent bigotry in Mormonism. (Full disclosure: I am Mormon myself, for those who are new to the party here, and I am allowed to say things like this. Anti-Mormon spittle flinging from anyone, no matter the political or religious affiliation, will be squashed like a loathsome cockroach.) I fear that Brad, no matter how well meaning, has a blind spot right where all the non-white, female, and/or LGBT people are, a blind spot endemic to his native culture that I am not immune to either. I don’t think he sees the full implications of what is going on here.

Worse, he refuses to repudiate the spiritual leader of Puppy-dom, the singularly distasteful Vox Day. (Speaking of loathsome cockroaches.) If the gentle reader is not acquainted with dear Vox, count your blessings. Anyone looking to be outraged is welcome to Google the man, just be ready for a shower afterwards. Possibly in hydrochloric acid. Larry Correia, the other power behind the Sad Puppies, strikes me as a most unpleasant and angry man, but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on more serious charges. Vox, however, is a racist and misogynist of the worst kind, and his Rabid Puppies Hugo attacks are about as subtle and useful as a catastrophically soiled diaper. Brad is on record as refusing to “shun” Vox, because I guess he’s reaching out in love to change the guy’s mind? Because Vox is actually a nice guy and just a little misunderstood?

It’s awfully hard for the rest of us to take demands to respect “good stories” seriously when they all seem beholden to someone who calls black people “savages” and periodically says positive things about rape. Is Valiant Brad really so sheltered that he misses this point? Is he just willing to forgive a little irrational hate here and there because someone believes in a similar god and economic system? This baffles me more than anything. I get the fear and anger. I understand gaming a system to either win a few prizes or take the institution down out of spite. I know too well jealousy at others’ success and the conviction that the whole thing is rigged. I am, believe it or not, guilty of some of these from time to time, though I have not yet succeeded in winning a vaguely phallic book award by convincing a load of other angry people to pony up forty bucks to vote for me.

But I just can’t fathom hitching my wagon to a destructive and hate-filled human being, just for… well, I’m not actually certain what they’re trying to accomplish. It it’s respect they want, they’d better jettison the evil dude in a hurry, or any shred of legitimacy that may be hanging on will evaporate. That fig leaf is wearing thin. In the end though, this will all blow over. There will be an asterisk or two next to the awards this year, and maybe next, and things will settle back down. After all, no less a figure of the patriarchy than Bill O’Reilly admitted that LGBT acceptance is winning the day because we have the argument for love on our side, and all the opposition can do is thump a Bible in anger. SF is no different, and I hope Valiant Brad catches on before it’s too late. I’ll even spring for the pho when he joins us.

Tilting at Rainbow Windmills

Tilting at Rainbow Windmills
or
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Sad Puppy Hugo Ballot

It’s that time of year again and I am thrilled – THRILLED – to see another Sad Puppy Crusade being launched. One year ago at this time, I went through predictable cycles of outrage, despair, and trepidation until the Nebulas were announced (sweep for the ladies) and then the amazing 2014 Hugos happened. For those not current on genre politics, the so-called Sad Puppy ballot is the brainchild of certain Baen Books writers (who else?) that tries to roll back the encroachments of women, brown people, and gay people into our once pure community. In this case, it is by gang nominating politically acceptable entries for the Hugo Award. Last year there was an impressive ruckus about the whole thing that concluded in a crushing Sad Puppy defeat at WorldCon and victory for people like Kameron Hurley. One imagines the results will be similar this year, though the 2014 host city, London, is a cosmopolitan, urbane, and cutting edge city and the 2015 host, Spokane, Washington, is … erm … none of those things.

This was originally going to be a scathing take down of an article linked to on The Fantasy Review Barn, especially the part where the author condemned the Nebula Award for leading readers down unsafe and apostate pathways. The more I think about it though, the more sympathetic I become. This year, Grand High Eternally Saddest Puppy Larry Correia appears to have anointed Brad Torgerson the 2015 Saddest Puppy. The torch has been passed for a season to brave Brad, who must lead the (suicidal?) charge to Take Back the Hugos. Let us all spare a thought for valiant Brad, who is faced with a most thankless task.

And this is where my snark drained a bit. See, Brad and I have a lot in common. We are both Mormons from Utah. We both love SF. We both left Zion for the first time as missionaries, as we spent two years proclaiming the joys of Utah to people who didn’t care. (That was my experience at least. I don’t know if he was a missionary, though I assume he was, and I have no idea where he might have gone.) Brad joined the Army Reserve and I taught JHS English, which is kind of the same thing. There are a few crucial differences, i.e. though born in Salt Lake, I was actually raised in Idaho, which has a much better state song. He is a famous author, and I am … not. Still, I think we would recognize facets of ourselves in each other. Thus I am confident that Brad is a genuinely nice guy, because most Utahns I know are genuinely nice people, who go out of there way to help others more than almost any other group. Most people I know from Utah also have political opinions that make me physically ill, so there is that small issue.

So I feel a touch of melancholy as Brad leads the Charge of the Old White Dude Light Brigade against the ever globalizing forces of the SFF community. After all, he is a representative of my people and my heritage, the very same that mourned Mitt Romney’s unfortunate encounter with a steamroller known as The Future during the 2014 Presidential Election. Heritage or no, is it wrong to be gleeful when I think of the final vote counts we are likely to see in Spokane? Part of me wants to cop Aragorn’s speech at the gates of Mordor: “There may come a day when the strength of humanity fails, when angry and fearful white males lurch forward and reclaim their overlordship of nerd communities and vaguely phallic awards statues, when all those creepy colored folks and women and transgendered types and other minorities, who now together might claim a majority, are relegated to the back benches and closets and kitchens and possibly once again forced to endure harassment, BUT TODAY IS NOT THAT DAY!” And then everyone cheers and rushes forward with, well maybe not swords, but maybe glitter and pan-Asian cuisine, and casts their votes for City of Stairs or The Peripheral or maybe even, heaven forbid, The Three Body Problem, and all of the sad puppies are forced back into wherever it is they usually hang out. Montana, possibly, or Georgia.

Which is not to say that Brad Torgerson is an orc. John Ringo might be, but I’m pretty sure Brad and I could hang out at a board game function, sip root beer, and swap stories of our kids. I wish we didn’t feel quite so differently about some of my favorite books and authors, but such is life. The Culture for me and Galt’s Gulch for the puppies.

Honestly though, where would you rather live?

Is SF the Hardest Genre to Write?

Is SF the Hardest Genre to Write?

Periodically, as I am out playing music, people ask what the hardest instrument is. “Oh, well, it’s all about the same,” is my usual answer. I say this partly because it’s true; past a certain level of competence, it’s all hard. There is a touch of defensive apology involved however, as those in the know widely agree that the sax, my chosen horn, is one of the easiest to figure out. (Among the hardest are violin, piano, and organ.) I wonder if writing is similar. Writing novels is hard; I understand this well. That said, are certain kinds of novels more difficult to write than others? Science fiction seems like it might be starting from a disadvantage. My claim is bolstered a bit by a Skiffy and Fanty podcast that features Two Dudes favorite Kim Stanley Robinson. He brings up a few points to consider and gives hints why SF might just be the hardest genre to write.

Let’s start with genre differences. Speaking in broad generalizations, and knowing that exceptions and blurred lines exist, I would offer the following as the central point of a genre. At the core, science fiction focuses on extrapolation above all else, spinning out an entire universe based on a small number of “What If?” questions. Fantasy largely depends on imagined geography, with maps, empires, and journeys frequently overshadowing what are often stock plots and characters. For most of the remaining genres, verisimilitude is the order of the day. Stories are set in one or another real, researchable place. (Magical realism bridges the gap somewhat, but my experience suggests that the realism generally eclipses the magic.)

If I want to write a mainstream story, I get to select some pre-existing location and bang away at the keyboard. Choosing something other than suburban America probably requires a glance at a few books, or maybe even a trip, but it’s all there for the taking. Fantasy is a bit more of a stretch, requiring me to create my world, the political divisions and cultures, a few select special locations, and probably some grab bag of real world cultures scrambled around to spice things up. For science fiction though, I need to peek into the future a bit, speculate as to how one or another development will alter said future, create the whole future society, churn out something between one and one thousand worlds, sort out whatever tech is being used, deal with questions of The Singularity/FTL/post-humanism/Earth’s environment/empire and colonialism/etc., and, if I’m feeling really nutty, do it all again with aliens who are probably nothing like us humans. Egad. I realize I’m being flippant about the writing process, but just looking at this list makes my brain hurt.

Digging deeper into this verisimilitude thing, what about issues of realism in writing? Non-SFF is, obviously, tied to the Real. It’s not too difficult to stay in these boundaries, since Real is pretty much agreed upon by everyone. There are boundaries in fantasy of course, a complete lack results simply in chaos, but we’re pretty forgiving. There is a trend towards well thought out magic systems, rational economies, and so on, but there are also wizards, lizardmen, demons, and the like. As long as things are internally consistent and more or less explainable, imagination is the limit. Science fiction, though, is a rather more picky animal. We’re not all dour, Mundane SF apparatchiks, but certain formalities must be followed. Crap can’t just happen, there has to be a reason; we demand our fig leaves! Even Star Wars tries to explain itself now. Hard SF is naturally the main offender here, but almost all SF stripped of its rationality is a strange beast.

As an example, I offer up dwarves. Dwarves in mainstream fiction are not a race, they are people who have a genetic reason for being very small. Dwarves in fantasy are, naturally, bearded mountain dwellers who wield axes and forge things. We care little why dwarves are like this, or what it means about them and their world, they simply are. They probably serve some purpose in the plot, but their existence lies mostly unexamined. In SF though, small bearded men (and women) would have a history, a reason or purpose for being that way, an environment that created and encouraged those traits, and probably their own way of traveling faster than light and/or some puzzle for little, bearded engineers to solve. At each step, the demands escalate.

The real killer, though, isn’t the science or world building. After all, that’s what attracts both readers and authors to SF in the first place. What puts SF over the top is our demands as contemporary readers. Long gone are the days when clunky dialogue, cardboard characters, questionable race and gender presentations, and stock plots are acceptable. We want more! There are still books out there about competent white men solving engineering problems, but they are generally scorned as relics of a faded era. Literary sensibilities have subtly invaded the genre and undermined many tenets of the past. I am just as guilty of the next reader, of course, seeking out books with engaging characters and a modern awareness in addition to exploding spaceships. I read Hard SF from the past and give it a pass as a product of its time, but expect more of people writing now. The sense of wonder remains a formal necessity, but it must now be accompanied by most of what we regularly lionize in mainstream literature.

I think we are in a golden age of science fiction, with the synergy between literary values and SF tradition producing an unending stream of future classics. This is fabulous as a reader, but must be death as a writer. Considering the requirements for scientific and futuristic literacy, world building creativity and rationality, and literary qualities of craft, character, and theme, I’m amazed that so many authors clear the bar. As a passable scribbler of non-fiction and overall dunce with fiction, I give today’s SF authors my highest regard.

Non-Fiction Roundup

Shattered Sword
Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully
The Ghost Map
Steven Johnson
Tubes
Andrew Blum

A steady trickle of non-fiction makes its way into my reading, despite the tidal wave of science fiction that threatens to overwhelm all. Some of these books are, while not science fiction, tangentially related to science fictional topics or inform one or another aspect of the genre. In many cases, I would consider them aids to world building or broader context for the stories we read. (Some are just about baseball. We all have to take breaks.) When enough of these sorts pile up, I will write an infrequent column introducing them, just in case someone else out there is curious.

Shattered Sword
This is a revisionist look at the Battle of Midway, one of the turning points of the Pacific half of World War II. Parshall and Tully write primarily from the Japanese point of view, making use of original research and previously untranslated accounts to correct what they see as inaccuracies in the historical record. I haven’t read much of the Midway canon, so I can’t say much about conflicts between the old guard and the young whippersnappers, but they felt right on the money to me. Sword is primarily of interest to me because of the focus on Japan; the authors are sympathetic to my adopted home, without absolving them of responsibility. (WWII blame in the Pacific is a much murkier issue than in Europe. Hitler was clearly in charge and evil, but in Japan, there was no central leader. Further, the Japanese had many valid grievances with the international system, even though they dealt with them in exactly the wrong way.)

As for science fictional relevance, WWII seems a model for numerous SF campaigns. For example, Tony Daniel’s tragically unfinished series that starts with Metaplanetary is pretty much the European Front moved to outer space. Gamers of a certain age will remember the Wing Commander series – its developer clearly stated that the Pacific War was his model. I am fairly certain that David Weber’s The Stars at War is also indebted to the same campaign. On the Japanese side, Nazi-like elements appear in Mobile Suit Gundam, while the Space Battleship Yamato series is a redemption tale where WWII goes differently. There are many more, but these are taken from my most recent Goodreads pages. For me, at least, knowing more about WWII informs the context for a lot of space opera.

As far as recommendations go, I wouldn’t hand this book to someone who had never read about WWII before. It is pretty clearly targeted towards military historians, though the authors make a few nods toward general readability. They don’t dumb anything down, but do candidly admit that twenty pages of military doctrine review is not spine tingling. More than this though, Midway doesn’t make nearly as much sense when stripped of historical context. The curious should probably start with an overview of the Pacific War before digging into individual battles. That said, I found the narrative engaging from start to finish and give this high marks all around. Anyone interested in WWII in general and the Japanese experience in particular should definitely check out Shattered Sword.

The Ghost Map
Steven Johnson’s book is subtitled “The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.” That’s pretty ambitious, especially for being just 299 pages (minus notes, index, etc.). The title refers to a map made of the 1854 Broad Street cholera epidemic, an outbreak that marked a major turning point in the battle to make Western big cities something other than complete death traps. And by turning point, I mean “the stunning realization that people really shouldn’t drink their own poop.” Good job, Anglo-Saxons. No wonder we ruled the world for awhile.

In the first half, Johnson traces the mindset changes that prompted a few people to look at cholera (and disease, and demographics) in a different way, one that allowed The Authorities to finally get a handle on one of the most mysterious and sinister killers of the era. We follow the paths of these investigators and get to see how wildly inaccurate but deeply embedded opinions get overthrown (cholera comes from tainted drinking water, not noxious smells), while another Victorian relic somehow carries on (the deserving poor and our justifications for letting them suffer). Prominent heroes include statistics, population mapping, public sewer construction, and the beginnings of discovering germs.

Once cholera is defeated, John turns his eye to the ways this enabled urbanism and crises that may threaten it in the same way now. This part is less interesting than the first, as it mostly wanders into speculation, though I suppose it would be the more applicable half for SF fans. The first though, shows the development of the scientific mindset and the changes a society undergoes when that happens. It also, in a way, is a portrait of London as it approaches a singularity. Not The Singularity, of course, but a singularity caused by the rapid changes inherent in the Industrial Revolution. Anyway, this is worth the read, especially for the first 100 pages or so.

Tubes
Tubes is Andrew Blum’s attempt to map out the physical internet: the cables, data centers, hubs, and buildings that answer the question of just where things come from when we pull them up on browsers. He builds a fascinating portrait of the new – fiber-optic cable, data – and the old – trans-oceanic cables, ancient phone centers converted to network hubs – that comprise the internet in the real world. This should be required reading for any prospective cyberpunk author and has probably already seeded numerous techno thriller plots. (Want to know which building terrorists could hit to wipe out the US internet? It’s in here.)

The book is less effective when Blum’s English degree gets the better of him. He’s obviously tormented by the desire to turn this into some sort of personal journey, because every once in awhile, FEELINGS crash the stage. Uncovering the sort of information that everyone probably wonders about should be enough excitement, but we still have to muse upon the human condition. Oh well. Get past this and Tubes is a geographical eye-opener.

Interview with Katharine Duckett

Interview with Katharine Duckett

As part of the ongoing, but soon to be over, Book of Apex Vol. 4 Blog Tour, we’re very happy to present a short interview with Katharine Duckett. If any readers haven’t yet read Ms. Duckett’s guest post from earlier in the month, please check it out here. More details, posts, interviews, giveaways and whatnot can be found at the above link. Now, on to the interview.

Please introduce yourself to your fans. What should we know about you, your writing, your favorite soccer team, etc.? Where can we find your work?

Hi, fans! (By which I pretty much just mean my fiancée.) I’m the publicity coordinator for Tor.com by day, and a writer, performer, and Central Asian food enthusiast by night. I grew up in Tennessee, spent part of high school in Izmir, Turkey, went to Hampshire College in Massachusetts, and spent a couple of years in Kazakhstan before winding up in New York City. You can find my work next in the May issue of Interzone: they’ll be publishing my novelette, “The Mortuaries,” which, I’m betting you can tell from the title, is just about as cheery as “Sexagesimal.” I’ll write something that doesn’t revolve around dead people and the futility of existence someday, I promise! Maybe. Possibly.

How has working at Tor.com changed the way you approach writing and the genre as a whole? Does being an insider alter your relationship with SFF or give you any special insights about success?

Well, I started out working at Small Beer Press as an intern in college, which gave me some insight into the world of publishing and the diversity of the SF/F genre. At Tor.com, my position involves keeping an eye on what’s new and interesting in the field, and keeps me tuned into what writers across science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction are producing. So I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily altered my relationship with writing or the genre, but it’s expanded my knowledge of what’s out there and what’s possible as a writer just breaking into the field.

You wrote about the sense of dislocation you felt after two years abroad with the Peace Corps. How else has this experience informed your writing? In what ways, if any, does the exposure to new lifestyles and world views influence your creative process?

I find that spending time in totally different contexts always helps me gain perspective on whatever I’m writing, and I’ve definitely always been prone to wanderlust. Writing’s a lot like travel, in the sense that you need to suspend your own judgments and turn off your own filter in order to engage with someone else’s mindset and experiences. I’ve benefitted immensely from traveling and living abroad, and it’s been central to my development as a writer. It’s helped me learn to experiment and branch out in my work, to take a step back and consider how a story looks in the light of all different sorts of perspectives, to stretch my skills and take on new challenges without remaining locked into my comfort zone.

*****

Thanks, Katharine, for taking time out of your busy schedule eating Central Asian food, publicizing Tor.com, and writing depressing stories about dead people, to talk with Two Dudes. I got a sneak peak at “The Mortuaries” and can assure everyone that it is every bit as mind-bending as “Sexagesimal.” Definitely worth picking up Interzone in May.

Trading Time

Trading Time: Memory as Currency in “Sexagesimal”

[Ed. note: As part of The Book of Apex Blog Tour we are very excited to present this guest post from author Katharine Duckett. She graciously agreed to unlock all of the secrets of her story “Sexagesimal,” explain the concepts behind her unique post-death economy of memories, reveal the mystical rituals of Kazakhstan that helped her become a world-famous writer, and share a word about sheep head soup. This is probably the smartest 1300 words that will ever be published at Two Dudes. Thank you, Katherine, and everyone else please enjoy!]

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You can see summer from here,” said Zoya. “On a clear day, anyway. And September’s a ten-minute walk.”

When I write stories, the opening line usually remains the same, from first draft to the last. Everything else gets reworked, thrown out, mixed up, and reconfigured, but the nugget of a concept contained in that first line endures.

“You can see summer from here” was the first line of “Sexagesimal” I wrote, long before I understood the world of the story. From there, I began experimenting with the idea of a place where time worked differently than in our reality, where seasons could co-exist and characters could wander from year to year. I wanted space for that scenario to unfold, for the idea to follow its own logic, while still feeling solid and plausible to readers. The Afterlife presented itself as a natural setting: it’s hard to argue with any certainty about the mechanics of what happens after death, and it allows room for all kinds of imaginative scenarios, like the many explored in David Eagleman’s excellent Sum, a collection of “forty tales from the afterlives.” I started sketching out the trajectories of a few different characters who were making their way through the Afterlife’s murky landscape, and realized that, without money, materials, or other obvious assets, their memories would be the most valuable resource they possessed. What would survival look like, in such a world? What sort of value would people assign to different experiences, and how would they barter for them?

The development of Teskia, the story’s main character, came from pieces of my own experience with memory and its loss. In the time before I began writing “Sexagesimal,” my great-aunt, and then my grandmother, were both diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which brought home to me the fragility of personal memories and narratives. The way they experienced the disease differed greatly: my great-aunt, who eventually died from its complications, seemed to lose great swaths of herself suddenly, fading quickly and succumbing fully to dementia. My grandmother, on the other hand, misplaces names, or times, or the functions of objects, but remains herself, at the core of things, cracking jokes and singing old Irish songs, retaining small, valuable bits of her life even as her perception clouds and warps. With Alzheimer’s, of course, you have no choice about which memories you surrender: but what, I imagined, if you did? What if, like Teskia, who also suffers from Alzheimer’s before she dies, you had experienced the leaking of your memories, the indiscriminate loss of portions of yourself, and then had the chance to curate those experiences, to regain them all and pick and choose what you kept? Who would you become, if you gave up your eighth year, or your wedding day, or your guiltiest secret?

I was doing a lot of thinking about the subjective nature of personal experience around the time I finished writing “Sexagesimal.” I’d just moved back to the United States after two years of living in Kazakhstan, teaching English with the Peace Corps in a remote village in the Kyzyl Kym desert. I carried around all kinds of particular memories I couldn’t transfer to anyone else: the memory of stargazing from the window of a train on a 30-hour trip across the steppe; of eating countless communal meals of beshbarmak, a national dish of noodles, onions, and sheep’s head; of dodging a group of frogs who had taken up residence in my family’s banya while trying not to scald myself with boiling water or fall through the gaps in the wood-slatted floor. My English had suffered from two years without a trip to the States (to the point where a new volunteer who arrived during my second year, thinking I was a native Russian co-teacher, told me, “Wow! You speak English really well!”), so the disjointed format of “Sexagesimal” worked well for me, creating the sense of dislocation and isolation I sought to express. As I readjusted to life in the States, those two years became less and less tangible, existing only, in some ways, in my head. I could recall what it felt like to live on the steppe, but I was not that person any longer: my context changed how I related to those experiences, and without anyone else around who shared them intimately and lived them daily, they fell into the realm of story.

We tell stories to share experiences, but I think all writers are aware of the limits of the form, of the fact that full immersion in someone else’s mind is impossible, though art strives to bridge that gap. I’m always curious to see how other writers approach the thorny problem of memory and experience, and am currently reading a novel that explores the idea of memory of currency, in deep, literal detail. Trading Rosemary by Octavia Cade presents a future world where memories can be cast as coins, traded, and collected. It’s a fascinating take on the same concept I started from in “Sexagesimal,” and I’ve been struck by the similarities and differences of Cade’s exploration of the theme. One feature our stories share is that characters retain some vague sense of the memory they’ve lost, even after it has passed into someone else’s hands. In my story, I described this sense as being like “a story you heard somewhere, once. Like something you read in a book, but you couldn’t remember which one, or when, or why you cared.” In the moment of reading, we can connect so intensely to a character’s experience that we lose ourselves, completely; but we always come back to our own realities, and that sense of communion becomes distant, simultaneously real and unreal.

So it is with love, like the love Teskia and Julio, her partner, experience in their lives and deaths. They share the same bond, in a sense, that an author and reader share: a sense of inherent trust, of assured divulgence of necessary facts and secrets. Teskia and Julio grow up together and share nearly every moment of their lives together, but they can never share exactly the same experiences, or fully know each other’s minds. The name of the story, “Sexagesimal,” means a system that uses sixty as its base, like our measurement of time, but I also sometimes thought of it as “sex/age/simul,” which seemed like a description of Teskia and Julio’s connection. They’d shared bodies, years, and simultaneous lives, but this closeness made them blind to the cracks forming between them. The most valuable memories turned out to be the ones they’d kept from one another: the ones Teskia struggles to work out as Julio lies helpless in the Afterlife.

A short story can only contain so much, and even a novel cannot encompass the full scope of any life. Writers must always pick and choose, deciding which experiences are the most important, which details make the cut. I’m interested in the conversation around assessing that value, as well as the pitfalls of trying to do so: after all, who can say what makes one memory more valuable than another, especially with regard to someone else’s experience? “Sexagesimal” represents an attempt to engage with those issues by turning memory into currency, while recognizing that perception and experience are not straightforward things, and that neither minutes nor stories can be traded with total clarity; though as writers, of course, we will always try to do just that.

Ender Wiggen and the Adolescent Mormon Nerd

Ender Wiggen and the Adolescent Mormon Nerd

I had no special plans to see Ender’s Game, let alone write about it, but things have conspired otherwise. I still won’t watch the movie any time soon, for a number of reasons wholly unrelated to anything but my short attention span and family time commitments, but the inspiration to write appeared rather out of the blue.

Before continuing with this post, I highly recommend reading this article from Grantland. For those who don’t know, Grantland is an ESPN spinoff run by noted Boston homer, pro sports addict, and all around funny man Bill Simmons. It is primarily an outlet for long form sports journalism and advanced statistical analysis, but randomly tosses up pieces about pop culture and American society. In this case, the author is a Kansas-raised, Muslim immigrant writing about the lessons in hope and tolerance he learned from an adolescent reading of Ender’s Game. Some day I hope Two Dudes publishes a post this amazing.

Now, I’m not going to address this article directly, but it opens up a discussion that I can bring a very different view to, one that understands in a different way why Card seems unable to stop saying incendiary and intolerant things in public.

Both of the Two Dudes were raised in the Mormon church. My silent partner has since repudiated most of his upbringing, but I maintain a complicated and sometimes adversarial relationship with my religion. (Long time readers may have already known or surmised this, but for those who haven’t, there it is.) Of course, Orson Scott Card is famously Mormon. In fact, he is the only Mormon I know of to win the Hugo or Nebula, and until Brandon Sanderson appeared, the only prominent SFF writing Mormon of whom I was aware. Needless to say, this was a big deal to me twenty five years ago. The thought that another Mormon was out there, involved in SCA, writing space operas, and winning awards was quite intoxicating, especially compared to the people I saw each week at church. (We Mormons are a well meaning, hard working bunch, but awfully bland.)

Ender’s Game itself was also a big deal twenty five years ago, but my experience is so typical as to be almost not worth mentioning. Indeed, how many thousands of geeks found outlets for repressed wish fulfillment in the tale of a young outcast who becomes a military genius? I imagine that a huge proportion of fandom under the age of forty or so had their lives changed in adolescence by Ender’s Game. In my case, I haven’t read it since the early 90s, fearing that the Suck Fairy has visited and somehow robbed the book of its power. (It may hold up, along with Speaker for the Dead, but my anxiety is real.)

To be honest, I have only read one Card book since 1994: Capitol. I found the ideas intriguing, but something about the book seemed so very fervent, enough that I remain wary of picking up another. What I have read in recent years is a column that Card wrote (writes?) weekly for The Mormon Times. The Mormon Times is an insert that came tucked in with The Church News, part of a gift subscription from my mom. I dutifully scanned these as they arrived, including Card’s missives. I honestly don’t know where Card stands in the current pantheon of SF writers, but in the late 80s and early 90s, he was producing bold, challenging, and humanitarian work. In this venue, I expected that he would turn his considerable powers of both prose and characterization to chart out interesting new perspectives in contemporary Mormonism, or perhaps calling into question our unreflected biases and assumptions in the same way his books dug at thorny moral conundrums. No such luck. I was disappointed each week to read a by the numbers, toe the party line style explanation of one vanilla topic or another. Card was, in The Mormon Times, immovably Mormon.

And this, dear readers, is the crux of his problem. Nothing Card says, from the homophobia to the Obama hating, the rabid anti-Muslim writings to the dystopian conspiracy theories, is more than two or three steps off the Mormon mainline. The church hierarchy remains apolitical, but the rank and file, even here in the pinko commie Northwest, flirts with the worst of the Tea Party excesses. And while there have been some steps forward, Mormons are largely defined to the outside world by the bitter, bigoted Proposition 8 battle in California. (For those not from here, Prop 8 was a 2008 initiative banning gay marriage. The church spent heavily and mobilized as many sympathetic members as possible to pass this law, something that, five years on, still alienates the LGBT community and sparks internecine Mormon warfare.)

Readers look at books like Ender’s Game (and even moreso Speaker for the Dead) , with its message of tolerance and understanding, and are justifiably baffled by Card’s vitriol. I suspect that many of these people would look at the less publicized Mormon charity work, public service, and exhortations to love and respect each other (that are both sincerely given and followed) and be unable to reconcile these with stern leaders who stand in front of the whole of the church and basically say, “God hates gays.” On LGBT issues, Card merely follows lockstep with the leadership of the religion he remains devoted to. If the politics get a little crazy, well, nobody from on high has shut down any of the other crazy political garbage spewing out of the Mormon heartland either.

I’m sure there’s much more to it all, but maybe this is a start to unpacking all of the baggage that Ender’s Game has brought with it. It doesn’t simplify my feelings towards the book and its author any, but I have no way of untangling them from bigger issues in my life. Every Sunday that I spend in church makes Orson Scott Card a bit easier to understand.

Why Do We Read Science Fiction?

Why Do We Read Science Fiction?

This episode of the Coode Street Podcast starts with some comments on American politics, then quickly segues into asking why we read science fiction. The point that Gary Wolfe uses to pivot these topics is in itself fascinating, and indeed is one answer to the title question, but the entire discussion sparked a mental thunderstorm here at Two Dudes. It forced me to take stock of my reading habits, the reasons underlying them, and the ways in which these habits ripple through my world view. The answers I arrive at suggest that SF fandom stretches far beyond an escapist enjoyment of exploding spaceships and weird aliens. It does, at least, for me. I don’t presume to speak for others.

There are two superficial reasons that I have often given for my taste in SF. First, I love Outer Space and always have. Even before I discovered Star Wars, I was looking up in the sky, then finding books on the Solar System at the library. This is a pretty obvious reason to read what I do. Second, I tend to shrug off questions about my books by explaining that I have enough worries already and just want to read for fun. This is generally directed to people who wonder why I don’t read Booker Prize-type stuff, if I’m going to spend so much time with critique and analysis anyway.

Until now, these answers have sufficed. But listening to the podcast, I started to unpack them a little more, particularly the second. After all, if I’m just looking for light reading, I could be digging into mysteries, comedies, thrillers, or any number of best sellers. Is an interest in Outer Space really the only thing separating me from a James Patterson addiction? Further, it’s not just that I read science fiction, but the sub genres wherein I spend my time: Hard SF, cyberpunk, New Space Opera. I don’t even read all that much fantasy, though the proportion has increased a bit recently (and the fantasy I read tends heavily towards science fictional tropes). What does this say about me?

In the podcast, Wolfe tries to explain to his Australian friend that the current political mayhem here is, among several other questions, a science fictional argument about the nature of the future. On one side, he explains, are people that think the past and present can be measured, ordered, and comprehended; thus the future can be predicted and influenced. On the other are those that feel that the future, in God’s hands, can only be revealed. Climate change is the most obvious front line in this battle, but something like the debt ceiling question is analogous: experts from economics, finance, and big business lining up to invoke a monetary cataclysm, while people who have no real idea what they’re talking about assure us that a national debt default is no big deal. Not everyone I know automatically takes the opinion of a Nobel Prize winner over that of a radio personality.

Why is this science fictional? The answer lies in the purpose of science fiction, which I would define as using the present to extrapolate an internally consistent future for storytelling purposes. (Note that I do not use the word “predict.” SF is about speculation, not prediction.) SF writers must, by necessity, tend towards that first group of people Wolfe describes, all the moreso those authors working in the more rigorous sub genres. I am sure that some fall more readily into the “revelation” camp, but I am guessing that they write in the more forgiving areas of tie-ins, Baen-style military SF, or neo-pulp. After all, why write about a seriously considered fictional future if one is not seriously considering our own future? (Last parenthetical before I move on: this is not to say that all SF authors are Democrats, merely that most SF authors are likely to reject the mindset that says intellect does not matter because the future will come as God/Allah/whoever wills it. This axis is applicable to more cultures than my own, regardless of political and sociological orientation, I merely draw on what I see around me to explain a point.)

We’re taking the scenic route here, but this mirrors the paths my brain trod to find an answer. I should admit right now that I am not good at science. I struggled through high school physics and chemistry, then completely melted my brain in calculus. My daughter’s 4th grade math occasionally stumps me. I am, in the end, a musician. On the other hand, I have a fierce loyalty to the Western empirical tradition and the dreaded Scientific Method. I am suspicious of natural healing, New Age anything, the supernatural, the anti-vaccination crowd, and, despite my own convoluted religious background, organized church. (Again, this cuts across US political lines. I am equally enraged by both the “Jesus rode dinosaurs” Creationists and the crazy hippies in my neighborhood that would choose acupuncture over the hospital, even if they were losing limbs in a horrible Roto-Rooter accident. “Keep them doctors away from me, Moonbeam. Just stick a couple of needles in my shoulder and pass me that crystal.”)

What does all of this have to do with my fiction bookshelf, 90% of which is Hard SF? At the risk of parroting a hoary chestnut, I confess to reading SF for the rush, the, dare I say it, sense of wonder. I enjoy other genres, especially spy novels and literature, and am generally happy when I step out for something new, but almost nothing else gives me the buzz that the best SF can. I couldn’t say if my love of SF comes from my scientific world view or vice versa, but I think them to be inseparable. The same part of me that rejects political fantasy also rebels at unconvincing plot development. (Hello, Hollywood!) Likewise, statistically sound economic policies tickle the same part of my brain that devours a four page FTL drive infodump. I have to think that many in SF fandom feel the same. There are certainly other ways to sense wonder, but for me, Alastair Reynolds is much more convincing than Avatar. I am finally understanding why.

So this is a long way to say something that may be painfully obvious to everyone else, but was a bit of a revelation to me. I have a better answer now if someone asks why I read what I do. Somehow, “Rigorous science fiction aligns with my empirical perspective of the world,” sounds better than, “I like it when spaceships blow up.” I suppose that it is my small contribution in the war against entropy, fought this time on the intellectual front.

SFF Review Gender Balance Part II

I hadn’t planned on following up the last post, but the comments (and links therein) got me to thinking more. In particular, this post on Dribble of Ink attracted some heated discussion and forced me to catalog the more detailed bits of my opinion. Let me make it clear that nothing I write here is an exhortation. Instead, this is the logical progression in my head from one position (apathy) to another (cautious activism) that works for me. It may not work for anyone else, and that’s just fine with me.

The most common response to musings on the gender balance seems to be, “I choose what I read based on what I like, not the gender (or anything else) of the author. It works for me, I’m happy with my reading choices and I’m not discriminating against anyone.” This is usually followed by some variation of the hoary “none of this should matter anyway, because we’re supposed to judge books (or movies, or science papers, or whatever) by the content, not by some form of affirmative action.” Both of these are valid points, but they depend on one being a certain kind of reader, and on an assumption of underlying equality. Again, I’m not blowing up anyone else’s reading experience here or calling a great many well-intentioned readers bad names. In fact, I happen to believe that the book-centered SFF community is a tolerant, gentle, and altogether inclusive bunch of people, even while Greater Geekdom is a fetid, slimy bog of Prehistoric social attitudes.

That said, my own position as a reader dictates certain things. Everything else that I will say is based on two givens. First, seeking a greater balance in reading choices is not the same thing as altering final opinions of a book based on some factor unrelated to the book. Just because I think I should read more books by women does not mean I feel like I should give books positive reviews because they were written by women. This seems like a no-brainer, but I see a lot of arguments that conflate the two. Second, while we are making considerable progress equality-wise, only the densest of us would proclaim the battle over when The Patriarchy is still clearly in control of everything, both in the genre and in the rest of the world. If any readers have a bone to pick with these two baselines, I recommend reading no further and leaving no comments. It won’t end well for any of us.

The crux of the matter, for me, is the kind of reader I have chosen to be. If I am reading purely for fun, then I feel no compulsion to break out of my comfort zone. There are plenty of other things in life that I consume more or less indiscriminately, because I have no investment in the Platonic Ideal of whatever that is. Clothes, for example, or ice hockey. I had been, until a few years ago, a casual consumer of science fiction, reading for escape and amusement; I would no more seek out authors to make a statement than I would pick up a romance novel. To this reader I say, “Have at it! Enjoy what you read! Do whatever works for you!”

Now however, I see myself as a student of science fiction. I profess to be engaged in science fictional dialogues across time and space, excavating symbolism from the meta-contextual substrate, illuminating the threads of cliché woven throughout the grand tapestry of genre, and other such pompous hoo-haw. Imagine how deflated I was to realize that mostly I’m just reading a bunch of words written by English speaking white dudes. I feel a bit like I am writing a pretentious food blog focused primarily on Pizza Hut and Long John Silver’s. Not to put down some of what I’m reading, of course, since those white dudes are cranking out amazing books, but there’s so much more I’m missing!

Dialing up the pretentiousness even more, this blog makes me, in some small and insignificant way, an advocate for SFF. Even if the only person whose view of the genre I am shaping is my mom, that’s still one person who might skip over worthy stuff because I didn’t go to the trouble to seek it out, or worse, decided to skip it because the author didn’t fit my comfort zone. I doubt that every blogger feels this way, nor should they, but I feel some responsibility to be on the vanguard. From the first, I have tried to do this with Japanese books, but those aren’t expanding my personal horizons. As a (painfully obscure and self-appointed) part of the genre institution, I’m just propping up the privileged class if I don’t search for and amplify the marginalized voices. Self-important? Perhaps. But if someone doesn’t make an effort, how many writers will never get a chance?

I’m not instituting any quotas, I won’t harangue other bloggers, and I’m not going to force myself to read stuff that I’m not interested in. (Hello there, urban fantasy and crappy supernatural pulp!) I am however going to think a bit more about the choices I make to read and review, and make an effort to try things that others might not. At the end of the year, I’ll take stock again and see if anything has changed. After all, as a working musician, I know exactly what happens to those voices that the mainstream ignores.