Apr 242015
 

hugoAs always, I have done my best to find the Hugo Nominated Short Stories and Novelettes that are available free online and post the links here, for the convenience of my book club.


Short Stories

On A Spiritual Plain”, Lou Antonelli (also in pdf)

The Parliament of Beasts and Birds”, John C. Wright

“A Single Samurai”, Steven Diamond – this doesn’t appear to be available free online. If this changes, I will update this page. It is also the only non-Puppy work in this category.

Totaled”, Kary English

Turncoat”, Steve Rzasa


Novelettes

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium”, Gray Rinehart

Championship B’tok”, Edward M. Lerner

The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator (audio version available at same link) – The only non-Puppy work in this category.

The Journeyman: In the Stone House”, Michael F. Flynn

The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale”, Rajnar Vajra

Apr 232015
 

city of stairsCity of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Synopsis: In a steampunk setting, an Agatha Heterodyne-esque government agent investigates a professor’s murder and finds herself wrapped up in political machinations, and the cultists of a long-dead god.

Book Review: The first chapter was boring and unnecessary, the rest of the book is great!

The thing that most stands out about this novel is that the characters POP! In lots of books I forget most of the charecters very quickly after putting them down, but this cast jumps off the page and stays distinct. It was as startling as the first time I played a cell-shaded game. The protagonist (Shara) is half Agatha Heterodyne, half Sherlock Holmes, and has all the drive and wits you’d expect from such a character. Her bodyguard/secretary (Sigrud) is the absolute epitome of the manly badass. He rarely talks, never shows emotion, delights in killing, and murders the hell out of anything that threatens the protagonist. The two major supporting characters are an incredibly charming gay gentleman that is almost the internet persona of George Takei, and a tough-as-nails military colonel who you can’t help but see chomping on a cigar and sneer all the time, even when she is not in any way doing those things on the page. And the villain… oh MAN do you hate him! It is utterly delightful!

City of Stairs also does an excellent job of using our cultural background to mold our expectations and uses that to drive our emotional response. The story takes place on “the Continent”, an analog to the British Empire just after its peak. Shara is a “Saypuri”, which is an obvious analog to India. They have just thrown off their British oppressors, so we are entirely on their side! We are for the underdogs, especially when they’ve just won their freedom from an oppressive British Empire (we can kinda relate to that…). Screw the colonialist pigs! We even get vivid descriptions of the atrocities committed during their subjugation. But… the Saypuri’s want to be secure, they don’t want the threat of being reconquered, so they’ve invaded the Continent and taken it over, and now they are the ruling class. They literally murder the Continent’s Gods, which required a genocide of all the people who have some of the God’s blood in them. This, of course, happened nearly a century ago, no one alive now is responsible. And it was necessary, because the Gods are weapons of mass destruction and cannot be allowed to exist in enemy hands. But… all of a sudden our love of and identification with the Saypuris doesn’t feel quite so good. And this wouldn’t have worked out nearly as well if Bennett hadn’t made the initial British/Indian connection so well up front.

On the down sides, Bennett makes things a bit too easy for our heroes. Shara doesn’t feel like she’s ever at the end of her rope and on the edge of losing. Sigrud is so bad-ass that when he went up against a multi-ton eldritch monstrosity single-handedly I never worried he might lose. The tension never got very high.

Nuance is also a bit lacking in the book. The themes of security vs compassion weren’t really explored in the way that you’d imagine a story that involves a choice between mass-murder and leaving Nukes in the hands of your enemy would… it’s barely touched on at all. The big theme (which I won’t mention due to spoilers) is literally stated by the characters, several times. That’s not very artful. Likewise, a lot of the foreshadowing is done too heavily, so that the reveals aren’t surprising because the author did too good of a job telegraphing them. And everyone that isn’t a main character feels rather flat. Much of the time it felt like the Continentals were caricatures of religious fanatics rather than a real society of people.

But… did I mention the story has Gods?! I absolutely love any story with real, honest-to-goodness created-the-world style of Gods. That’s a huge button for me, and gets major bonuses in my book. There’s tons of wry humor, and quite a bit of action. And on top of all that, at least once the protagonist goes into full-Sherlock Rationalist mode, where she lays out all options in her mind, dissects and evaluates them, then goes with the one she sees as most advantageous. I really wish that sort of thing had happened more. While the book has a few problems, it’s a fantastically fun read. If you enjoy adventure, smart characters, and a bit of ambiguity, you’ll love this. I certainly did. Recommended!

Book Club Review: This is a tough call for me. On the one hand, it’s a really fun book, and (almost) everyone really enjoyed it! Just talking about the cool parts, and the few flubs, was a good time in itself. And there was some level of conversational grit, what with the religious fanatics, realpolitik, and vibrant characters. But the really interesting stuff was mentioned once and then not developed. There was a lack of depth to the conversation. Which is OK too, sometimes it’s good just to read something fun and chat, but it’s not ideal for a book club.

I would say, if you’ve read some heavier stuff recently and need a break just to enjoy and relax, this is a good book, and in that case Recommended. But in a one-on-one comparison with good-for-book-club books… not recommended.

Puppy Note: I’m not sure what the Puppies would think of this book. All the characters of importance are women. The three men are the bodyguard (with very little agency), the gay friend, and the villain. The protagonist is brown-skinned, the book implies that colonialism is a bad thing that we shouldn’t be proud of it, and nearly every religious character is portrayed as a violent fanatic. If I was a Puppy trying to classify a book as SJW-propaganda, I would claim that this one ticked all the important boxes, and that if it received any recognition it would because it propagated the SJW-agenda rather than because it was a good book.

But… this book is fun. It doesn’t dwell on any of these issues. It has a lot of humor and action, fantastic characters, and it’s a fun read. I would think it’s something that the Puppies would love! Isn’t this what they say they’re trying to bring SF back to? So if it didn’t get awards/recognition, would they claim that this was proof that fun, non-pretentious stories are being snubbed by the ivory-tower elites?

I am intensely curious as to how Brad/Larry/Vox and their fans are going to interpret this novel, which seems to fit them perfectly in some ways but oppose them in others. I’m going to go out on a limb and make a prediction. Despite the substance of the book, I get the feeling that the tone is what matters to the Puppies most. And, to me, this book reads like something that appeals to liberal/left sensibilities. I don’t think the Puppies will find this book enjoyable.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Apr 222015
 

sad_puppies_3_patchAfter this I think I’m done with the Puppies for a while, aside from perhaps some Puppy Notes on my reviews. But I must say, I am puzzled by their choice of targets sometimes. They seem to hate Throne of the Crescent Moon, though I’m not sure why. It’s exactly what they want – mindless action, good guys who are good and bad guys who are bad, lack of nuance, no political message, etc. The entire thing is all surface. It should be right up their alley, but for some reason it’s boo’ed.

Anyway, two relevant links to close things up:

Heinlein On The Puppies
A quote from him about critics he dislikes – “He will permit any speculation at all — as long as it is about gadgets only and doesn’t touch people. He doesn’t care what mayhem you commit on physics, astronomy, or chemistry with your gadgets… but the people must be the same plain old wonderful jerks that live in his Home Town. Give him a good ole adventure story any time, with lots of Gee-Whiz in it and space ships blasting off and maybe the Good Guys (in white space ships) chasing the Bad Guys (in black space ships) but, brother, don’t you say anything about the Methodist Church, or the Flag, or incest, or homosexuality, or teleology, or theology, or the sacredness of marriage, or anything philosophical!  […] This of course rules out… a large fraction of my work — and all my future work, I think.”

On Brad and Larry trying to distance themselves from Vox Day
“Correia and Torgersen brought him onboard. Actively. Here’s a pro-sad-puppies podcast talking about that decision, back in March, before the shortlist came out. Here’s Brad Torgersen in particular way back in January defending Vox Day, describing him as a “gentleman.” […] The leadership of the campaign actively made the decision to bring in Vox Day and people like him. So it is impossible to argue Vox Day is not representative; they chose him as one.”

Apr 172015
 

220px-Eric_FlintEric Flint just wrote a long post where he expounds on what he believes is causing the divide between mass audiences and WorldCon voters. And, as has been pointed out by numerous people by now, it is not politics (as the Puppies initially claimed… and still do?)

It is, in fact, very long. However it is very insightful, and makes very good points, and has a really neat solution proposed at the end. In the interest of getting to the chase, I am snipping out the parts I personally thought were the most interesting and pasting them below (And even then it’s still kinda long). Please note that ALL OF THIS IS THE WORDS OF ERIC FLINT. I do not have the talent or insight to write this, and I do not want to claim any credit for his work. Please go check out his original post, or buy some of his books, or something. :)


Due to massive changes in the market for F&SF the structure of the major awards no longer bears any relationship to the real world in which professional authors live and work.

Three out of four awards are given for short fiction. Forty or fifty years ago, that made perfect sense. It was an accurate reflection of the reality of the field for working authors. Today, F&SF is overwhelmingly a novel market. Short fiction doesn’t generate more than 1% or 2% of all income for writers. And even measured in terms of readership, short fiction doesn’t account for more than 5% of the market.

To make the situation still worse, the official rules for both the Hugo and Nebula define a “novel” as any story more than 40,000 words long. Half a century ago, that was reasonable. The average length of an SF novel was between 40,000 and 60,000 words. But today that definition is simply laughable. Every professional author and editor in our field knows perfectly well that no major publisher, outside of the YA market, will accept a “novel” manuscript that’s less than 80,000 words long—and they usually want between 90-120,000 words.

Then, it gets worse. Because the market today isn’t simply a novel market. It’s become predominantly a market that wants long series, not stand-alone novels. And the existing award structure is very poorly designed to handle long series. About the only way it can do it is by—quite artificially, in most cases—cutting one book out of a series and pretending for the moment that it’s a “this year only” quasi-stand alone story.

That can be done with some series, which are designed by their authors to consist of stories that are only somewhat loosely connected. But other series are quite different. To name just one example, the current situation with David Weber’s long-running Honor Harrington series is that no fewer than three novels are running more or less simultaneously with each other, with the action of the various characters penetrating from one story to the other—and, just to put the icing on the cake, a number of the major characters were first developed in short fiction published in one or another of the anthologies that are part of the series, and some of them by authors other than Weber himself. Trying to separate any of these out as “best this or that of Year X” would be an exercise in futility.

And never mind that Weber is doing something well enough that the Honor Harrington series is one of the very few purely SF series that regularly makes the New York Times bestseller list. His narrative structure doesn’t match what the awards are comfortable with, so to hell with him. And to hell with what the mass audience thinks.

The end result is the ever-growing division you see today between those authors whom the mass audience perceives as the major authors in F&SF and those authors whom the comparatively tiny but socially prestigious award-voting and critical in-crowds consider major authors. It’s a division which is getting worse, not better, as time goes on.

This is by no means peculiar to F&SF. In just about every field of literary or artistic endeavor—hell, just plain hobbies, when you get down to it—you tend to get a division between the interests and concerns of the mass audience involved in that field and the much smaller inner circles of aficionados.

I think of it as the movie reviewer’s syndrome. I noticed many years ago that almost all movie reviewers will automatically deduct at least one point from their rating of a movie if it contains a car chase. Why? Well, it’s not hard to understand. Seeing three or four or five movies a week the way they do, they get sick and tired of car chases.

But the average movie-goer doesn’t watch new movies four times a week. For them, movies are a relatively occasional experience—and, what the hell, car chases are kinda fun.
What you get with literature, including any and all forms of genre fiction, is the following division:

What the mass audience wants, first and foremost is a good story. Period.

But, sooner or later, that stops being sufficient for the in-crowds. At first, they want more than just a good story. Which, in and of itself, is fair enough. The problem is that as time goes by “more than just a good story” often starts sliding into “I really don’t care how good the story is, it’s the other stuff that really matters.”

To put it another way, every successful author has to master two skills which, although related, are still quite distinct: they have to be good story-tellers; and they have to be good writers.

Of those two skills, being a terrific story-teller but a journeyman writer will win you a mass audience, and is likely to keep it. On the flip side, being a journeyman story-teller but a terrific wordsmith will win you critical plaudits but won’t usually get you much in the way of an audience.

I can tell you that under the existing category of “novel” there are at least four different types of stories each of which pose as many separate challenges and require as many varied sets of skills as the differences between writing a short story, a novelette and a novella.
Those are:

1) Short novels. Stories from about 40,000 to 80,000 words.

2) Full length stand-alone novels.

3) Mega-novels. These are stories which are actually a single “novel” in the sense that they are based on an integrated story arch, but which are so long that for practical and commercial reasons they have to be published in multiple volumes. Probably the classic instance in our field is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It is usually called a “trilogy,” but it is in fact a single novel.

An example from my own work would be the six-volume Belisarius “series,” which is really just one great big novel.

4) Series, properly speaking. These are stories which share a common setting and usually a common set of characters, but do not possess a single story arch.

Just to make things more complicated, there is really quite a big difference between two kinds of series: the traditional “beads on a string” series, which proceed as Volumes 1, 2, 3, etc., and the more complex kind of series where the stories branch off from each other, often run parallel to each other, and can’t be neatly assigned to any clear and definite chronological sequence.

I’ve worked in both kinds, and they really do require different skill sets, although of course there’s a lot of overlap. (My Trail of Glory series is a “beads on a string” type series. My 1632 series and Joe’s World series are of the more complex “branching bush” type.)

So what are we supposed to do? Scrap the existing best novel award for four or possibly even five different awards?

And if that seems excessive, contemplate this:

As long as we’re considering solving award problems by expanding the number of awards, let us not overlook the still more long-standing problem that comedy is always lumped in with dramatic story-telling even though everybody who knows anything about stories know perfectly well that:

—comedy is really, really hard to do well;

—and it never gets any critical respect.

That’s partly what explains the preposterous fact that Terry Pratchett got so few nominations in his entire career. And it’s also the reason that the Golden Globe movie awards, unlike the Oscars, make a distinction between comedic films and dramatic films.
I can see it already…

We’d have seven different literary awards instead of four, and then duplicate each of them for comedic treatment for a total of fourteen awards handed out every year.

Somehow, that strikes me as more than a little goofy.

But I personally think the best solution, if there is one at all, is to scrap the whole existing set-up. Of all the awards handed out for literary merit, the only ones that seems to maintain any sort of ongoing more-or-less objective relationship to the real world are those given out for often broadly-defined achievement. They’re not awards given out for “best XYZ of year ABC.” Instead, they are achievement awards handed out for a body of work, that may be anchored to something specific but takes other considerations into account, and perhaps most importantly is not tied to an annual cycle.

That allows such awards to adapt to changes in the market (or the equivalent in other fields), not to be forced into making snap judgments—and, perhaps most important of all, allows the voters to consider the ongoing and cumulative impact of an author’s work rather than artificially dividing it up between Works 1, 2, 3, etc., etc.

It is simply not the case that every author’s importance to the field can be gauged in terms of this or that specific story, matched up against all other stories in the year it came out. In the case of many authors, even though they may never have written any single work that anyone (including themselves) would consider “the best whatever” of Year ABC, they manage to produce a body of work over many years that, taken as a whole, often outshines—even dwarfs—the overall body of work of authors who might have won annual awards fairly regularly.

All that said, I think the likelihood that either the Hugo or the Nebula will be scrapped in favor of general achievement awards is probably indistinguishable from zero. These things tend to develop a tremendous institutional inertia. If such an award started with a very large and prestigious body of sponsors, it might have a chance of getting off the ground, I suppose. My problem is that, deep down inside, a little voice is whispering to me….

Oh, great. Just what the world needs. Another goddam award that nobody pays any attention to except the people who voted for it.

Apr 162015
 

hal duncan vellumIf I momentarily have the attention of anyone who loved If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love… may I also recommend Hal Duncan’s Vellum? It is my favorite book EVER, and the entire thing is a master stroke of experimenting with structure. And it has the same theme as Dinosaur does too. To briefly quote myself from previous posts:

In Vellum, something happened, but the enormity of the event can never be put into words. So instead the event is repeated and re-examined, over and over, from countless different angles. Every story is a separate story, not a continuing narrative, with separate characters. But every story is the same story, and the characters are always the same – in essence if not in flesh.

It isn’t written linearly, because its story isn’t a linear story. It is a mosaic which you can only see small pieces of at a time, and once you’ve read the whole thing you have all the pieces and you can hold them in your mind and mentally take several large steps backwards and finally see the actual picture.

Importantly, all the parts that make up the whole are themselves awesome. Like a mosaic, the various pieces may be different colors or shapes – there’s cyberpunk, there’s modern Lovecraftian horror (which is the best piece of modern Lovecraft I’ve read, but I am biased), there’s steampunk, there’s angels destroying each other in holy wars. But despite the differences, each piece is made of the same material as all the others, and the differences mainly serve to point this out.

And the overall picture, the theme that all the different pieces keep circling around and coming back to, is extremely relevant to me. It’s a simple theme, and if the sparking event of the novel could be put into words, it would be a simple two-word story: people die.

It’s hard to get people to read this. Most of the people I tried to get to read it didn’t get far, because they didn’t like it. But if you do give it a shot, and you like it, please let me know. It would be awesome to personally know someone else who’s also in love with Vellum.

Apr 152015
 

unstoppable t-rexI’ve had a few people call me out on my statement that  Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” is simply good writing regardless of if it appeals to one’s taste or not (previous post). They said I should put my money where my mouth is and say why it is good.

Before we begin, if you haven’t read it yet and you’re going to read the rest of this post, go read it first. It’s 12 stanzas, average of 80 words per stanza. At under 1000 words most markets would count it as Flash Fiction. If you want to get straight to my argument, jump to section C.

A. The Disclaimer

This is the part where I grumble and make excuses about why I’m not the right person for this job.

First, I’m not any sort of authority. I don’t have a degree (in anything, actually, I dropped out of college). I don’t have any training as a critic. I’m not a respected authority. Hell, I’ve barely even been published. All I am is some guy with a blog who posts his opinions and reads a bunch. And I don’t even read nearly as much as I used anymore! (I blame all the new projects I’ve undertaken)

And second, as I stated before, it wasn’t my favorite story. I mean, it’s good, but there were several I liked more, none of which got on the Hugo ballot! In fact, it wasn’t even my favorite Rachel Swirsky story of that year. I feel like someone who loved it with their full soul would be much better at making this case.

B. The Googling

For that reason, I looked to see if someone else had already done this. I would like to direct your attention to these three fine posts, which do their part to explain what makes this story good.

Anaea Lay: “The only other place I can think of off-hand that has a structure like this is a lullaby and I don’t think that’s an accident. It’s an extremely popular lullaby, and by subconsciously triggering associations with it, Swirsky is immediately lulling her readers, as it were, and invoking a sense of deep, unwavering love. …  the structure of the story as a series of If/then statements …  Her compassion for the families of the people who nearly killed her fiancé is so relentless that it interrupts the coping mechanism she’s using to deal with that same tragedy. Reader, Rachel Swirsky just stabbed you in the guts by breaking a pattern.  You have been shivved by a master.

Jody/Bookgazing: “Her word choice also makes him sound breakable and easy to damage; a person/dinosaur that requires the greatest of care. On reflection, this description sounds a warning bell for the story’s later revelations. … When it comes, the twist is the kind of quiet reveal that will knock you down and then flower into a hundred ‘ohs’ of understanding as you re-consider the entire story. Absolutely everything looks different after that twist … While the twist provides a real gut punch it was the simplicity of Swirsky’s story that drove it deep into my heart. I suppose it might be characterised as a slightly removed tone – the way someone tells the story of an alternate reality to comfort or to keep themselves from feeling what is happening around them. Perhaps the story teller notes so many sharp details to keep from absorbing the wider consequences of what is in front of her.”

Little Redhead Reviewer: “This is not a story, this is a kaleidoscope, with each touch, each incremental move of the barrel bringing something completely different into focus, taking you somewhere else, taking you one step closer to where the narrator is, at first, afraid to go.

C. My Own Sad Attempt At Explaining Myself

So what is it that makes this story artistically good, even if you don’t like it?

I. Structure.

This story is written to mimic the If/Then structure of the hugely popular “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” children’s books (which incidentally first came out while I was a child, so this story hit me right in the Target Demographic. But I assume by now everyone is acquainted with them, either as someone who’s had the books read to them, or as someone who read it to youngsters of their own). It’s a chain story, were each new section is a consequence of the previous one (If you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll want a glass of milk to drink with it. If you give him a glass of milk, he’ll want a mirror to avoid a milk mustache. If you give him a mirror, etc). It establishes this pattern immediately, so at the end of every page the child immediately thinks “I have to know what this crazy mouse will want as a consequence of the latest thing he got!”

First, Rachel taps into this same dynamic to keep us going from one stanza to the next. But more importantly, she evokes this childhood play structure that we’ve internalized (and as Anaea pointed out, it’s deeper than Mouse, it goes back to old timey lullabyes). And she exploits that by giving us a whimsical visual – a 5-foot, awkward T-Rex! She initially keeps the tone very much in the realm of whimsical, near-childish sing-song nonsense. He’d sing on Broadway! And all the while she’s slipping in these clues, these undertones that point to what’s coming, but we don’t notice because we’re thoroughly wrapped up in our childhoods, safe in our beds while our parents are reading us a safely child-friendly story.

So when she breaks that structure once, right in the middle, to reveal what we’re actually reading, it drops us right into cold reality. That stanza doesn’t start with an If. It is a straight-up sob, and we realize that the entire If/Then edifice is a fantasy the narrator’s using to avoid dealing with the horror of her life, and that fantasy has been momentarily pierced. The protective narrative is gone, reality is laid bare, the structure is broken, the narrator is broken, the world is broken, and everything is pain and pain and pain.

And then she returns to the If/Then structure. Begins to build that protective wall up again. Because reality is too shitty to face right now. The sing-song returns. But now that we know the truth, we see that she’s using her memories of childhood safety as a shield, and the shield doesn’t do a damn thing to make reality better. All it does is stab us repeatedly in the childhood, because Swirsky managed to evoke our childhoods so effectively and then link them to this horror. Which, you know – ಠ_ಠ But it’s damned effective writing.

II. Masterful Word Crafting

Notice that in under 1,000 words, while describing her lover almost entirely in dinosaur-related terms, and sticking with a lyrical, sing-song flow that is reminiscent of good children’s books, Swirsky managed to paint an extraordinary picture in our minds of her lover, and of their relationship. You don’t get to that point without a lot of practice and a great deal of skill.

Notice also that she slipped in all sorts of clues that created undertones that aren’t apparent at first, but that were priming us subconsciously for something bad coming up. Things that stand out like crazy in the second reading. Why does he sing unrequited love songs? Why can’t SHE marry him? The joke about “it’s best to marry someone who shares your genetic template” lets us breeze over something that should have stopped us. It’s unrequited, and she can’t marry him, because he’s basically dead. That was taken from them.

III. Theme

It’s a basic theme. It’s been an obsession of mankind since forever. Loving something is dangerous, it makes you vulnerable. If you love something, you can be hurt when that thing is hurt, or taken away, or murdered. Usually it’s better not to risk that. And when we do risk that, our greatest wish and fantasy is that this love be immune to the devastations of the world. That it be strong, with powerful jaws and flashing teeth that would rend any who dare harm it. The worst thing about the world is that the people we love die, and fuck all the gods for letting that be a reality. All we want is for our lover to be a dinosaur, so they/me/we won’t have to hurt.

Simply having a theme is not enough, which is why I put it at the end. Lots of stories have themes. Most of them fail to deliver them effectively, for many sundry reasons. But this particular story chose to deliver its theme through a structural laser-guided missile, and Swirsky did it right, with the help of mastery of the language.

Not all works of artistic merit have to have a strong theme, I guess? But it does help. And this one does.

D. The End

This is by no means an exhaustive list of what can make a work good. Nor are any of the three I mentioned *required* in any particular work in order to make it good. But they are ways that a story can be judged, and in all three respects this story succeeded amazingly. There are things you can dislike about it, but to say it wasn’t well-written is… wrong.

[EDIT: btw, may I recommend Vellum?]

Apr 142015
 

mona lisaEvery time I see a Puppy bring up Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” to use it as an example of “bad message fiction that we’re fighting against” I feel embarrassed for them. Like, I’m trying to cut you guys some slack, but you’re making it really hard on me. So let’s have a quick word about Dinosaur, the Mona Lisa, and Art.

The Mona Lisa is considered by the art world to be a masterpiece. I personally don’t see what the big deal is. To me it’s no better than anything else painted in the last four hundred years by anyone with a canvas and a few years of practice. But there’s a refrain among art teachers/critics/masters – “If you don’t like the Mona Lisa, that is a commentary on your taste in art, not on the quality of the Mona Lisa.” And I accept that. To demand that they respect my opinion would be akin to a five-year-old demanding that Pixie Stix be seriously considered in any gourmet culinary competition. The five-year-old has objectively bad taste, and their demands are laughable. Likewise, I have extremely unrefined taste in painted art. When just about everyone in the art world who spends tons of effort on art and knows their shit tells me I’m wrong, I simply accept that I’m wrong. The Mona Lisa is great, I’m not sure why and I don’t care for it, but whatever.

Dinosaur is likewise a masterpiece. I didn’t vote for it to win the Hugo last year because I’m not a fan of poetry, and because I don’t like being hurt in that way. I enjoyed Selkie Stories far more. However Dinosaur is undeniably a masterfully crafted work of art. I am in awe of the skill and talent it displays, and the effectiveness of its thrust. This is simply, objectively, a very good piece of work. To say otherwise is to admit that you haven’t developed the ability to appreciate it. It reflects on *your taste*, not on the work. And if you keep hollering over and over about how the art world should acknowledge that it is bad art, rather than saying “Oh, much like the Mona Lisa and Pixie Stix, I must simply not understand”, it makes you look like someone who is aggressively and intentionally uncultured.

I have no problem with people not caring about certain esoteric artistic things. I buy cheap wine. I don’t like the Mona Lisa. I dislike caviar. But I certainly don’t go around to the people who are into those things and keep demanding “How can you explain crap like the Mona Lisa being held in such high regard? Obviously you guys are just SJWs pushing an agenda who don’t know what the masses actually enjoy! I demand you represent our views instead! More Taylor Swift!”

So, seriously, stop embarrassing yourselves, and stop alienating those people who want to be on your side but actually understand what makes Dinosaur so great. Accept that just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it isn’t amazing.

Apr 102015
 

Annihilation_by_jeff_vandermeerAnnihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

Synopsis: An expedition of four unnamed women explores a strange “Area X” that is cut off from the rest of the world and rife with paranormal activity.

Book Review: This book is cross between Myst and Lost, with some Cabin in the Woods thrown in. So you’d think it would be great, right? But something about it just didn’t click for me. I’m still not sure exactly why. The writing is strong. The mood is perfect, you get the feeling of isolation and creepiness dripping off every page. And you can really see Area X in your mind as you’re reading, it’s very vivid. But for all that, I can’t quite figure out why I’m reading the story.

As far as I can tell, this is an exploration of the isolation of being an introvert, and of the barriers we put between ourselves to keep us emotionally safe. And it’s about the helplessness and futility of being a small human in a natural world that doesn’t care if humanity exists or not. And it’s about the quest for ego-annihilation (as the title implies) that seems to be the focus of popular Eastern religions. My favorite scene was one where the protagonist runs into a former-human (I can’t call it an actually person anymore) who has achieved this – perfect sublimation in divine work. The loss of the self in the ecstasy of service to the divine. And we realize that this is not a human, this is something that lacks what we would consider “conscious awareness,” it is an eternal whacked-out heroin high. It is a demonstration that what many protestant sects think of as Heaven is not a place that contains any minds we care to preserve, and I personally find it horrific.

But… that’s just one scene. And as amazing as it is, a single scene doesn’t make a novel. And as strong as the Myst-like mood of isolation and exploration is, a mood doesn’t make a novel either. Honestly, Myst is preferable, because there you get all sorts of cool puzzles along with the mood, and you get to uncover the complex backstory on your own. I kept trying to figure out what Jeff was trying to say, and I couldn’t find it. Maybe he isn’t sure himself?

I think it’s possible that his thesis is presented over the trilogy, and you have to read all three books together to understand it. But in that case, why the hell did he release what should be a single novel broken up in three books? They were all released within a few months, and they’re all fairly short, there’s nothing stopping him from doing so. There were a couple sections of Annihilation that were extremely inessential. The action scene with the giant snake served no purpose and bored me. It makes me feel like he’s trying to pull a fast one, getting three book sales out of a single novel by splitting it up and padding them out a bit. I may very well love the trilogy (I do intend to continue it), but I resent paying full price three times for what is a single book.

Perhaps most to the point though – this book didn’t have an emotional impact on me. Therefore it will likely be quickly forgotten. Myst did the isolated island mood so well I made an emotional connection to the story. Lost did the same thing with flashbacks, Echopraxia did it outstandingly with existential horror. Annihilation dabbled with all those things, but never made an emotional impact. Maybe I will love the trilogy when I finish it. But, for readers like myself, this book on its own is Not Recommended. BUT – see the next section.

Book Club Review: This is easily in the top 1% of books for book clubs. First – it is short. That makes it easy to read and encourages participation. Secondly, its lack of commitment to any explicit message – while simultaneously sounding like its putting forth something profound – means that absolutely everyone who read the book saw something different in it. It was like a reflection of what the reader desired the story to be about. There were even two directly conflicting views, where one reader saw it as a call to return to nature and stop imposing our isolating and destructive ways on the world, and another reader saw it as a warning about how nature doesn’t care for us and will swallow us up if we don’t defend ourselves against it. Every single reader had something to say, either important or personal or both, about what they’d read. We had a record turnout and no one simply kept quiet.

The unexplained nature of the paranormal aspects also meant that there was a lot of theorizing and guessing about the nature of Area X, the Southern Reach institute, and what exactly was going on. And most interestingly, the reactions to the book ran the full gamut from Loved It to Hated It, with a lot of people in the middle who loved some parts and hated others. This book WILL get you talking. For Book Club Reading – Strongly Recommended.

Puppy Note: Before the Sad Puppy shit storm, there was some talk that Annihilation (or the Southern Reach Trilogy) had a good shot at the Hugos. It made the Nebula nominations. I’m curious to see if it would have made it in the top 5 if not for the Sad Puppies. I don’t think this is a book that the Sad Puppies would like. It contains only one gunfight, and far too much angst and disillusionment for their taste. But I do think it should be pointed out that this was a book that – individually – I don’t find particularly compelling. It was only when I started discussing it with others that the whole hidden dimension of “revealing a different thing about each reader by what it said to them” was made manifest, which made my total enjoyment of the reading MUCH greater than it had been. Certainly greater than it is for most books. This sort of “gathering together and discussing books” is what WorldCon is about. It’s why we enjoy the con, and it’s why some books that aren’t a great rollercoaster ride when read solo can make it to the top of lists when a bunch of readers start talking about them. I think a Sad Puppy would be utterly baffled as to how Annihilation made it onto an award short-list. Yet it is pretty obvious to anyone who wants their books to contain stuff they can talk about with others. I wouldn’t vote for it to win, but I can totally see why it’s a contender.

And again, I urge everyone to get into some sort of book club if they can, they’re great fun!

Apr 072015
 

Stupid-EW-201x300The weirdest part of this whole thing is seeing how the other side sees us… and realizing I’d see us that way too if the media was all I had to go on.

Larry just posted a very justifiably angry post about how the media are portraying the Sad Puppies. I’ve been following them off and on for a while, and it’s no secret I disagree with them politically. But all that means is that our politics are different – it doesn’t make them evil monsters. Some of these media representations are horrible, calling the Sad Puppies misogynists and racists whose only motivation is to cast votes against women and people of color specifically because they are women and people of color.

But don’t focus on the Sad Puppies right now. Focus instead on us. The media is portraying us as people who, if anyone disagrees with our Holy Writ Of What Is Politically Acceptable, will immediately descend upon such dissenters with flashing blades and bared teeth, attacking them as sub-human Nazi monsters. Now yes, there are some among us like that – my favorite blogger writes about such liberal Stasi on occasion. They’re awful. But when an article says, in effect, everyone whose politics are different from your own is a sub-human monster, and that article claims to represent all liberals, they make all liberals look like those Stasi attackers.

The problem is that there are an extreme minority on both sides who are like this. Vox Day exists, and man, he is the worst. And the liberal Stasi exist as well. But they are both almost non-existent, and they both have very little power. Talking to my fellow WorldCon-goers here: when you think of WorldCon, do you think of pogroms against wrong-think? Or do you think about a bunch of people getting together, discussing their favorite SF works, getting drunk at night, and having a damn good time? Cuz that’s all anyone I know is doing. We’re debating literary merit for fun, admiring what we love, and we come from a very wide swath. One of my friends, and a man I greatly admire for both his taste and intelligence, is a quite right-of-center Libertarian. He votes Republican a lot. He’s an awesome guy, and I’d be pissed as hell if anyone tried to exclude him for any reason. And he hasn’t been excluded – he’s been going to WorldCons since before I could read, and helped get me into the WorldCon scene in the first place.

But in today’s media-saturated world, that kinda thing doesn’t grab eyeballs. You want to get someone’s attention? You want them to read or watch long enough to get to the ad, so that your shitty news outlet can actually make some money? Then you have to PISS PEOPLE OFF. And nothing pisses someone off as much as being called vile and evil and being attacked by an oppressive force that is actually vile and evil itself. So the best, most-popular articles, as determined by market forces, are those that focus exclusively on the absolute worst that either side has to offer, and then portray the ENTIRE side as being as bad as those few people.

So you get our entire side thinking the Sad Puppies are all Vox Day, and their entire side thinking all of us are Liberal Stasi. They act to defend themselves from Unjust Oppression (which is in fact what the Stasi are doing) by attacking us. If the media portrayals were true, this would be the right thing to do. And now we find our party being called terrible names, equating us with these evil Stasi, and we’re like “Who the fuck is attacking us? What for?” We turn to the media and we discover “Oh! According to the media, it’s those vile, racist, misogynist neaderthals!” So we attack them in the same way Vox Day should be attacked. Which, if the media portrayls were true, would be the right thing to do. But they’re not. On either side.

It’s Lets You And Him Fight on a giant scale where the only one who wins is the Media Dragons sucking up the ad revenue. And I dunno any way to stop it, except maybe all getting together in real life and meeting each other and not being asshats for long enough to get to know each other a bit.

Except Vox Day of course. Seriously, screw that guy.

Apr 062015
 

Man, every time I read Larry I admire him more. Seriously, if he would come to WorldCon I would be stoked, I’d love to meet him. He just wrote a long response to the Sad Puppies Victory.

My two big complaints about Sad Puppies are:

1. They replaced the conversation of a couple thousand people with the decree of three men (Correia, Torgersen, Vox Day) and they call it a triumph of democracy.

2. When they’re done driving away everyone who cares about WorldCon, they won’t take responsibility to keep it going. They will crow about their victory and leave ashes behind, like common vandals. I don’t think for two seconds they have the dedication to put in any actual work. And they call this “taking back” the Hugos.

It looks like Larry is aware of Point 1. He didn’t expect to sweep every non-Novel catagory (Yes, I’m lumping Sad and Rabid Puppies together here. Same base, even if it wasn’t Larry’s intention), and thought they’d get maybe 1 or 2 in each, which was why they suggested as many as they did. The full sweep was unexpected. Looks like they fell victim to being TOO successful. He claims that have no interest in becoming the Hugo Pope – “We don’t want to replace one kingmaker with another. We don’t want to replace one dominate clique with another.” It sounds like he’ll try to do something to remedy this. I am extremely curious as to what. Now that I’ve calmed down, I’m again excited to see what changes are coming.

I’m still wary about Point 2. It tentatively sounds like Larry may actually be doing the responsible thing and making sure he doesn’t destroy the con. “this isn’t just me and a couple of my friends having fun with this anymore. It is bigger than that. There are a bunch of us involved now. For next year, we’ll take a look at how this shakes out and proceed from there. Kate Paulk is in charge next year and will be organizing what we do.” That’s an encouraging sign. Does this mean the Other Side is going to start getting their shit together and respond in kind? To the ramparts!

Ahem. As everyone knows, there were problems with the Hugos. Many of us acknowledged this, and said it wasn’t that bad and it was being handled internally. His most relevant point is that he disagrees. “there wasn’t a green room at any con in the country where you couldn’t find authors complaining about the sorry state of things. But nobody did anything. […] But still nobody did anything, and it got worse and worse. […] So I did something.

Now, I’m in the camp of “It was a problem, but not a huge one.” But, to be honest, I can’t recall of anyone doing anything to fix it. Maybe something was happening? But not so that I noticed. It was mainly swept under the rug. Losing a slot or two per year to these forces didn’t feel like a big deal to me, certainly not something I would put a ton of personal effort into fixing, and I imagine most people felt the same way. Larry saw it as a bigger problem. And you know what? He did do something. And I respect the fuck out of that. It didn’t work out exactly how he’d like it to, but shit, when does anything? It’s not like there’s a playbook for this sort of thing, he’s flying by the seat of his pants, and that takes tons of guts. What the hell did any of us do? We all said in private “Man, Throne of the Crescent Moon was bad,” and some of us said it in public, but did a single person on our side publically raise the point that this should never have gotten a Hugo Nomination? Why *did* it take Larry and his crew to say that?

It sucks that we lose an entire year of Hugos to this Sad Puppies nonsense, but maybe it’ll help us be a bit more honest with ourselves in the future. Maybe we’ll feel freer to speak our minds without being worried about being called racist. That would be a good thing.

God though, I really hate Vox Day. /sigh