Thursday, April 16, 2015

Biases in the Hugo Awards

Somebody got me blowing hard again on Facebook, so contrary to what I (Aaron) said yesterday, I'm going to add another thought here.

It seems the Sad Puppies discussion really involves two distinct issues. One is whether bloc-voting for a slate to game the Hugo nominations process is okay. The other is about whether, prior to this year, there has been a disconnect between what gets nominated for Hugos and what is actually the best SF/F work being published.

I don't want to further belabor the first issue, since it's already been kicked around to death in the blogosphere and social media. Suffice to say, I think there is a glaring, obvious distinction between John Scalzi saying, "This is what I wrote last year that's eligible for a Hugo Award," or, "Here is a thread for people to recommend anything you read from last yeat that you think should be considered for a Hugo Award" and bloc voting for a slate. (If the Puppies honestly think those are not very different, then they should just agree to follow the recommendation thread approach next year, and a lot of the outrage about this all would dissipate pretty quickly.) The Sad Puppies / Rabid Puppies announced five nominees for Best Novel, five nominees for Best Novella, five nominees for Best Novelette, etc., knowing full well that if their group voted as a bloc, which they did, then those would be the final nominees and nobody else's nominating ballots would matter. I find that unethical on multiple levels, and just a completely shitty thing to do. Not everyone agrees.

On the second issue, I have to confess I have a hard time understanding the complaints about what is getting nominated for and winning the Hugos. (The mere fact that complaints exist does not tell me anything relevant. If you give out awards, there will inevitably be complaints, no matter how good your system is.)

One problem I have is that I hear and read very general complaints, and then when I look at the Hugo ballots over the last several years, I see that the complaints are simply mistaken as a factual matter. Conservatives are excluded from the Hugos? Mike Resnick has gotten more fiction nominations than anyone ever, and won a bunch of them, even though he's widely known as a staunch conservative. Hell, Brad Torgersen was the Sad Puppies' leader this year, and he was nominated for a Hugo just three years ago, and deservedly so. There is a bias against white men? White men continue to get their fair share of nominations, no problem. As recently as 2010, white men swept all five fiction awards. Fun, popular, adventure-style fiction doesn't get considered? The voters gave a Hugo to Harry Potter. George R.R. Martin is as popular as it gets in the genre right now, and he has won four Hugos and been nominated probably a dozen other times. The last three years before this year's debacle, the Best Novel category included Leviathan Wakes (deliberately old-fashioned space opera), Redshirts (which the Puppies hate, but it's just the kind of fun entertainment they like to talk about), and The Wheel of Time. The things people say can't get on the Hugo ballot anymore are in fact on the Hugo ballot every year.

The other difficulty I have in understanding the complaints about the Hugos is that the Hugo voters overall seem to have tastes very similar to mine, as I've already described. Over and over and over, the authors I come across doing really powerful, original, memorable work get rewarded by the Hugo voters. And a lot of them are new to the genre, certainly not established cool kids already favored by the voters.

BUT I must acknowledge that last point is tied to my own literary tastes. If a lot of people feel like there is great work being overlooked by the Hugo voters, that's something we should be discussing. ("Discussing" being the operative word, as opposed to just fucking up the whole damn system to try to piss everyone off.)

Part of that discussion has to be what we think the Hugo Awards are supposed to be recognizing. There are authors on the SP/RP slate who are good writers, doing consistently solid work that is commercially successful. And as far as I can tell, they have no particular interest in writing powerful, original fiction. They are content to write quickly, to write things that sell well because people enjoy them, and to get paid for doing that. I have no objection to that. But I personally don't think that's the kind of work that should be getting Hugo Awards. If most fans disagree, then I'm outvoted. I wasn't outvoted this year, just a small group of people who disagree rigged the election.

Another part of the discussion should be what kind of biases are we okay with in the Hugo balloting process? People are human beings; they cannot rid themselves of biases. It may be that the Hugo voters have a slight bias in favor of women or minority authors or in favor of stories with a particular message. But as discussed in the link above, the Hugo voters' biases don't seem to interfere with them consistenty recognizing great stories. Of course, that includes a lot of great work done in recent years by authors who happen to be women or people of color or liberal-minded — I'm giving dissatisfied folks the benefit of the doubt that they wouldn't wish deliberately to exclude those authors.

Probably a more significant factor is that the Hugos are (or were, before this year) decided by a popular vote. And the reason they call it a "popular" vote is it often turns on who is the most popular. But the fascinating thing with Hugo voters is, who is the most popular tends not to depend on a person's gender or race or looks or politics or social status. John Scalzi is popular mostly because he writes clever things on his blog. Seanan McGuire is popular in part because she's a good filksinger. Given that everybody in the world has biases, it strikes me that the Hugo voters' biases are incredibly cool. You get a slight leg up in the voting process if you can walk into a convention with a guitar and sing songs with science fictional lyrics? Maybe that makes some people mad; it makes me want to give all of fandom a big bear hug.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Rockets for Naughty Puppies?

A couple posts ago, I (Aaron) analogized the Sad Puppies / Rabid Puppies to a right-wing group seizing control of the March Madness selection committee and replacing Kentucky, Duke, etc. with Bob Jones U., Liberty U., and such. That right-wing group would pretend the resulting controversy was part of the liberal vs. conservative culture war, but really it would be a war between college basketball fans and the assholes who ruined March Madness.

So if you are a college basketball fan and somebody wrecked March Madness like that, what would you do? I'll tell you what you would NOT do. You wouldn't go to the games involving Bob Jones U. You wouldn't watch them on television. You wouldn't acknowledge the sham tournament as a legitimate championship. And if you had control over whether the winner of the sham tournament got an NCAA championship trophy, you would not give it to them.

This year's Hugo ballot is a sham. It is not a legitimate ballot, and I will not treat it as a legitimate ballot. I will vote "No Award" ahead of all the sham nominees. I am aware that some of those sham nominees are in fact good writers who were not directly involved in the Puppies' gamesmanship, and I feel bad for them, but that doesn't make their nominations legitimate. They are some of the many people hurt by the use of bloc-voted slates to turn the Hugos into a political campaign. (In hindsight, I suspect many wish they had declined the nominations, as a number of other proposed Puppies nominees actually did.) In my analogy, the players for Bob Jones U. didn't do anything wrong either, but that doesn't obligate me to pretend that they are legitimate competitors for the championship, when they never would have been in the tournament if the process had been conducted fairly and properly.

"But wait!" declare the Sad Puppies. "We didn't cheat. What we did was within the letter of the rules." Well, guess what? Voting "No Award" is also within the letter of the rules. What's more, unlike what the Puppies did, I think it's within the spirit of the rules. The "No Award" option is designed to thwart just this kind of unfair manipulation of the balloting process. The Puppies may disagree. They can say what I am doing is within the letter of the rules but against the spirit of the rules, but that would be the pot calling the kettle a pot.

I'm aware that a number of well-known SF/F authors, including John Scalzi and Mary Robinette Kowal, are urging voters to consider the merits of all the nominees rather than "No Awarding" the whole Puppies slate. (Take a moment to enjoy the irony of the Sad Puppies encouraging us to do as Scalzi and Kowal suggest, when one of the Puppies' complaints is that Hugo voting is dominated by "cool kids" like Scalzi and Kowal.) That is just what I did last year. Last year the Sad Puppies got several nominees on the ballot through bloc voting. But they didn't vote together on an entire slate so as to nullify everyone else's nominations. The Puppies insist that bloc voting has happened before, and they may be right. And so I read all the nominees last year and voted according to their merits. The only Sad Puppies nominee I ranked below "No Award" was "Opera Vita Aeterna" by Vox Day, because it was so appallingly bad. And we ended up with legitimate winners, even if I didn't agree with all the voters' choices.

This year is different. This year the Puppies voted for an entire slate, filling the ballot with the selections provided them by Brad Torgersen and Vox Day, almost entirely nullifying the nominations of the majority of the voters. That has never happened before, and the result is not a legitimate Hugo ballot.

In the categories where non-Puppies nominations slipped through, I encourage you to vote for those nominees if you like them. Any Hugos given out this year will be tainted, but those nominees at least can say they were nominated and voted on fairly. And I encourage you to rank all the Puppies nominations below "No Award," as I intend to do, with two caveats:

First, you may feel there's no reason to penalize a nominee that would have made the ballot without help from the Puppies. For example, Guardians of the Galaxy did not need any help to get on the ballot for Dramatic Presentation. I will consider voting for it. But I can't see anything in the fiction categories that I can feel confident would have made the ballot without being on the Puppies' slate. It's absurd to assume they all would have, even including all five John C. Wright stories.

Second, I encourage everyone to read the nominees, as I intend to. If I happen to find a Puppies nomination that knocks my socks off, I will be tempted to vote for it, because I do love great science fiction and fantasy. I'm not much expecting to find anything that knocks my socks off, however, because a theme of the Puppies' complaints about the Hugos is that the voters overlook old-fashioned, light-hearted work in favor of that stuff that knocks my socks off.

A lot of the debate on how to approach Hugo voting this year has focused on tactics, what approach to voting is most likely to convince the Puppies to start behaving. I'm not very interested in those arguments. As I see it, we got into this mess because a group of people got together and voted tactically to make a point. I am going to vote according to my conscience. I cannot in good conscience vote for the Puppies' sham nominees.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Literary Tastes

In the previous two posts, I (Aaron) tried to avoid comparing the Sad Puppies' literary tastes to the mainstream Hugo voters' tastes. Because to me, that's not what this is about. If I personally had gotten to select the Sad Puppies slate (instead of my horribly misguided friend Brad Torgersen), so that it was filled with stories I love, I would still hate the deliberate manipulation of the process, using bloc voting for a slate so that the wishes of maybe 200 voters completely trump the preferences of some 2,000 people.

But the truth is, literary tastes do come into the issue. For one thing, my literary tastes form part of the reason why the Hugos are so meaningful to me, and why the disruption of the Hugos is so offensive. Also, literary tastes play a big role in the Sad Puppies' complaints about the Hugo Awards. They are flat-out wrong, because they simply fail to appreciate the fact that most Hugo voters have different tastes than they do.

The Sad Puppies complain that the Hugo voters have moved away from fun, action-oriented fiction in favor of literary fiction with liberal messages, preferably written by women or minorities. George R.R. Martin thoroughly debunked that here: Where's the Beef? Martin walked through a number of recent Hugo ballots, showing how there was no shortage of action-adventure, no shortage of conservative writers (including both Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen, pre-Sad Puppies), and no shortage of white males. Larry Correia has done a very thorough response to George R.R. Martin's Puppygates posts, but he did not attempt to respond to Martin's specifics on this point; instead, he asserted in very general terms that Martin was like an Eskimo telling him how many different kinds of snow there are. The analogy is silly, as Martin demonstrated:
Come on. Really? Look at the LoneStarCon ballot, the last before the Sad Puppies really began to have an impact. John Scalzi and Lois McMaster Bujold. Indistinguishable from one another? Can't tell Brandon Sanderson from Saladin Ahmed? Jake Lake and Kim Stanley Robinson? Ken Liu and Pat Cadigan, identical snowflakes? How about the editors? Stanley Schmidt of ANALOG and Sheila Williams of ASIMOV's, do you imagine they had the same taste, published the same stories? In long form editor, you had Toni Weisskopf, a Puppy favorite, against Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who your Puppies love to hate, with Sheila Gilbert of DAW thrown in as well, plus Lou Anders and Liza Gorinsky. All just snow? I mean, if you say so... but I see a feast there, a table laid out with all sorts of different meats and fruits and cheeses. Diversity all over the place.
The Sad Puppies say the Hugo Awards used to be much better, with a lot more fun adventure fiction and a lot less literary and ideological work. Matthew David Surridge has analyzed that assertion in great detail and argues very convincingly that it isn't so. The Hugos always rewarded fiction addressing ideological concerns with literary flair.

Really, the most the Puppies can legitimately say is that there are authors they admire who haven't made the ballot in the past and that they don't care for some works that have made the ballot, e.g., John Scalzi's Redshirts and "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love," by Rachel Swirsky. From which evidence they conclude that certain groups have been bloc voting in Hugo nominees (which, you have to admit, would be a really shitty thing to do, huh?) and they roundly denounce the Hugos as out of step with most readers' preferences. (The irony of trying to make the Hugos more democratic by getting 200 people to vote in a slate chosen by 3 people so as completely to nullify the preferences of 2,000 people is lost on them.)

Incredibly, it seems not to have occurred to the Sad Puppies that the majority of Hugo voters simply may have slightly different tastes than they do.

Now, let me drop my blogosphere-mandated veneer of cynicism and say this directly and earnestly: overall, Hugo voters have incredibly good tastes.

When I first educated myself on science fiction and fantasy in the 1970s and 1980s, the Hugo Awards were by far my most reliable guide to the best work of the past. They led me to the classics like Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, "Flowers for Algernon," The Man in the High Castle, "The Star," "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" and so many more, and to great new work like Startide Rising, Ender's Game, Hyperion, Neuromancer, "Speech Sounds," "Sandkings," etc. etc. etc.

Sure, there are other awards, other places to go for recommendations, but the Hugos were always the most reliable, and I'll tell you why. There is a spectrum in what to appreciate in literature that runs from popular entertainment to more challenging, literary work. In my view, just following what sells the best pushes you too far to the former, while the mainstream critical press and juried awards and even the Nebulas run too far to the latter. However, because they're voted on by fans, but (call me an elitist if you want) a particularly knowledgeable, discerning segment of fans, the Hugos routinely hit the sweet spot in between.

And so, year after year, when I come across a brilliant novel or story that's fun to read but also thought-provoking, that stays in my mind long after I've read it, it's uncanny how often that story ends up on the Hugo shortlist the next year. Not every time, but more often than not, even if the author is not terribly well-known. I discover a superb new writer, Paolo Bacigalupi or Aliette de Bodard or Catherynne M. Valente or Daniel Abraham, and within a couple years he or she is popping up all over the Hugo ballot. I stumble across a wonderful story like "Movement" by Nancy Fulda or "Ray of Light" by Brad Torgersen or "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson or Eric James Stone's "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" or Rachel Swirsky's "Eros, Philia, Agape," and the next year there it is on the ballot (regardless of the author's politics). Even when it wasn't published as science fiction, like Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, my fellow fans find it with me.

Conversely, when I get to the nominees I hadn't previously read, some don't knock my socks off and occasionally there's a turkey, but many are simply brilliant. Without the Hugo Award shortlists, I would not have discovered "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" or "The Paper Menagerie" or "Hell Is the Absence of God" or The City and the City or "The Empire of Ice Cream" or "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" or a host of other amazing works that have changed and enriched my life.

I might have read something brilliant like those stories among the Hugo nominees this year. Instead three men decided to dictate that I read Kevin J. Anderson and Jim Butcher (good, successful writers who, as far as I can tell, are not particularly interested in writing the kind of work I'm talking about) and five stories by John C. Wright. None of the 18 (out of 20) fiction nominees stuffed onto the ballot by the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies would have made a legitimate Hugo ballot, because——according to the tastes of some 90% of the Hugo voters——there was better, more award-worthy work published last year. But the Puppies took that decision away from the majority of the voters, to score some asinine political point.

I am sure I agree with a lot of the Puppies' political views, and probably regularly vote with them in political elections (cuz those are, y'know, supposed to be about politics). But when it comes to the Hugo Awards, the Sad/Rabid Puppies are a small minority who believe they know better than all the rest of us voters what's good for us and feel justified in overriding our tastes and imposing their views on us without our consent. In other words, they're a bunch of damn liberals.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

IT'S MADNESS!

A friend of mine, who has been a successful politician and generally has a better grasp of political issues than I (Aaron) do but who is not an SF/F insider, asked me why I'm opposed to the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies, when they've gotten favorable coverage from conservative sites like Breitbart and The Federalist (which I would usually trust over the mainstream news media), which have characterized the Hugos as another battleground in the right vs. left culture war.

I think the reason the conservative press has been so wrong about this is these are people used to analyzing political issues, and the Hugo Awards are NOT a political contest, at least they weren't until this year. I offered this analogy:

For a lot of science fiction and fantasy fans, the Hugo Awards are a highlight of the year, like March Madness to a big college basketball fan. Imagine some right-wingers were upset because they believed the NCAA selection committee had disfavored conservative evangelical schools in the past. And they managed to get a group of their people on the selection committee. So all the fans eagerly awaiting the bracket announcement are shocked and outraged to see that the tournament doesn't include Kentucky or Duke or Wisconsin or 23 of the AP Top 25 teams. They've all been left out in favor of Bob Jones U., Liberty U., etc.

There would be a giant controversy, and the people who caused it would claim that it's all part of the liberal vs. conservative culture war. But it is not. It's a war between college basketball fans and the fucking assholes who wrecked March Madness.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Sad Puppies

This post is the opinion of Fantastic Reviewer Aaron Hughes. That's me. I posted this on Facebook last week and got hundreds of comments from folks who agreed and disagreed, mostly politely with a few moronic insults thrown in for variety. I have some follow-up thoughts I intend to post here soon, regarding "Literary Tastes" and "What to Do."

THE SAD PUPPIES
For decades, the Hugo Awards have been the most significant literary award there is. Most any year, I would put the Hugo-winning novel up for comparison against the Pulitzer or National Book Award winner without hesitation. I am proud to be part of the community that creates and recognizes the fiction that wins Hugo Awards.

Three years ago, I shared a room at Worldcon with a fellow new SF writer. He had written a wonderful novelette that year, which I enthusiastically nominated for a Hugo and was delighted when it made the ballot. I was proud and excited to get to spend time with a nominee for the award that has always been, to me, the most meaningful and important award of all.

Sadly, ironically, that roommate was Brad Torgersen, who this year has led a deeply contemptible campaign to game the Hugo Award nomination process, a campaign whose remarkable/regrettable success has perhaps permanently destroyed the awards that always meant so much to me.

His "Sad Puppies" group (in conjunction with the "Rabid Puppies" led by the deplorable Vox Day) agreed on a group of Hugo nominees, then voted AS A BLOCK to get them on the ballot. The critical feature of their campaign was the block voting. The way Hugo nominations work, 200 people nominating as a block can overwhelm the votes of 2000 people voting their individual preferences. That's just what the Sad Puppies did. The Hugo nominations were announced today, and the Sad Puppy selections comprise most of the ballot, including nearly every fiction nomination.

This was a deliberate attempt to game the system, rendered all the more appalling by how well it worked.

The Hugo Awards this year will be nearly meaningless. Any winners will be justifiably tainted by the misuse of the nominating process. And there may not be many winners, if the predictable flood of "No Award" ballots materializes. (The way the Puppies gamed the nominating process doesn't work on the final ballot.)

Even worse, the response in future years to try to address the gamesmanship, whether it's changing the rules or forming up competing slates for people to vote for in blocks, may well leave the Hugos permanently wrecked. What a terrible shame.

Let me forestall some likely straw-man responses:

First, I understand the Puppies were motivated in part by the desire to make a political statement, but I do not care about the Puppies' politics. I am to the right politically of 90% of the SF/F community. I'm more likely to agree with Brad or most of the Puppies on a political issue than, say, John Scalzi. I don't see that as a reason to wreck the Hugos, which should be about great writing, not politics. The Puppies say there already is politics in the Hugos. That's like saying some people are mean, so therefore I'm deliberately going to be as big a prick as possible to everyone I meet (which I suspect was actually Vox Day's logic). What the Puppies have done should be contemptible to anyone who cares about SF/F as a branch of literature, regardless of their politics.

Second, I don't especially care that the Puppies have different tastes in fiction than I do. If any of this year's nominees are as dreadful as Vox Day's nominated story last year, it will make me wonder if the people nominating actually read what they nominated. But if they did and they like it, that's fine. Just don't stuff it onto the ballot by gaming the nominating process. I've suspected that's happened before and I didn't like it, but it's never been done this effectively on such a destructive scale.

Third, I would never presume to say any of the Puppies are not true fans. If you like to read SF/F, then you're a fan, and no one has a right to declare otherwise. What's more, if they make up a majority of the Hugo voters, then something they like should end up winning. But I don't think they do. I think they are a minority that has squeezed all the stories preferred by the majority off the ballot by gaming the system. That sucks.

Finally, this is not personal to me. The only Sad Puppy organizer I know is Brad, who is a great guy, albeit deeply misguided in this instance. Several of the Puppies' nominees are nice people and good writers. I sent a note to Annie Bellet when her story came out congratulating her on writing such a good piece. I presume the Sad Puppies are a group of mostly decent people, who have collectively done a terribly unfortunate thing.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, First Round :: Osama by Lavie Tidhar vs. The Steam Mole by Dave Freer


Our third match-up in the first round of Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books is Osama by Lavie Tidhar going against The Steam Mole by Dave Freer. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Osama: Solaris, October 2012 (published in UK by PS Publishing in 2011), 302 pages, cover art by Pedro Marques. Osama takes place in an alternate universe (possibly based on an alternate history timeline), where Osama Bin Laden is not the terrorist we know, but the fictional hero of a series of pulp novels called Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante. Through 25 pages, the novel alternates between chapters from an Osama Bin Laden novel, which depicts fictional terrorist attacks that actually happened in our universe, and chapters from the point of view of a detective named Joe living in Laos. A mysterious woman gives Joe the assignment of finding the author of the Osama Bin Laden books. The author's name is Mike Longshott, but Joe assumes that's a pseudonym.

Lavie Tidhar is the leading Israeli author of science fiction and fantasy, although he now lives in London. Osama won the World Fantasy Award after its initial release in the UK.

The Steam Mole: Pyr, December 2012, 302 pages, cover art by Paul Young. The Steam Mole is the second in a YA steampunk series, after Cuttlefish, which competed in the Fall 2012 Battle of the Books. In a steampunk universe where the polar ice caps melted ahead of schedule, our young heroine Clara Calland has escaped with her mother to Australia, pursued by the British government, which seeks a scientific breakthrough her mother has made. They made their escape on the coal-powered submarine Cuttlefish, and Clara has fallen for one of its young crewmen, Tim Barnabas. The Cuttlefish is grounded for repairs in Australia, and when Clara's mother falls ill, she ends up at the mercy of some well-meaning but clueless natives, while Tim is stuck working on the huge tunneling machines called "steam moles."

Dave Freer is a South African writer living in Australia. He is best known for his fantasy in collaboration with Eric Flint and Mercedes Lackey, as well as his solo Dragon's Ring series.

The Battle: Through 25 pages, the strength of both these books is the setting. The battle comes down to a matter of degrees.

I like how The Steam Mole integrates a steampunk sensibility into a post-global warming world. There are some nice touches, like how reluctant Australians are to go into the sun during the day, but they'll gladly send aboriginals on errands. Most of the first 25 pages are spent summarizing the previous book, but the story starts to move in earnest as Clara realizes how seriously ill her mother is, and the reader realizes she was poisoned by agents of a London duke.

Meanwhile, through 25 pages, I love the initial set-up of Osama. The contrast between the pulpish chapters of Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante and the lush descriptions of Joe's home in Laos is terrific. There are fascinating hints in Joe's chapters that the reality he sees around him is fragile. I very much want to see him poke at the edges of his own universe and start to get an understanding of ours.

While I'd be happy to keep reading The Steam Mole, I absolutely do not want to put down Osama.

THE WINNER: Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Osama advances to the second round to take on either Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon or A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, First Round :: The Diviners by Libba Bray vs. Sharkways by A. J. Kirby


Our second match in the first round of Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books has The Diviners by Libba Bray doing battle with Sharkways by A. J. Kirby. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Diviners: Little Brown, September 2012, 578 pages, jacket illustration by I Love Dust. The Diviners is a young adult fantasy set in the roaring 1920's. In the prologue, a Ouija board brought out to liven up a party appears to set a malicious spirit free. The next two chapters are from the point of view of teenaged flapper Evie O'Neill, who lives in Ohio but is about to be sent off to New York, and Harlem numbers-runner Memphis Campbell. It seems Both Evie and Memphis have some supernatural abilities. Evie can divine people's secrets by handling an object of theirs, and Memphis is having dreams foreshadowing troubles ahead.

Libba Bray is a highly regarded YA author who often ventures into SF/F material, including in her Gemma Doyle trilogy, beginning with A Great and Terrible Beauty. The Diviners was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award and the Bram Stoker Award.

Sharkways: Damnation Books, September 2012, 126 pages, cover art by Dawné Dominique. The protagonist of Sharkways is real estate developer Bill Minto. The book opens with two chapters of Minto visiting a private hospital for migraines, in which we learn that Minto is overweight, obsessed with female body parts, paranoid, and has an alcoholic wife (who probably has an alcoholic husband). When the nurse takes a blood sample, he has a seizure, after which he hears the nurse and doctor have a bizarre conversation about whether he's been inside the sharkways. He then has an MRI, which proves inconclusive. The doctor tells him the migraines are probably caused by stress.

A.J. Kirby is the British author of six novels, either self-published or from small publishers, and dozens of short stories appearing in small press magazines, with emphasis on thrillers and horror.

The Battle: This is a classic example of what the first round of the Battle of the Books is all about. Give me a hook, something to trigger my interest and make me want to know more. An interesting character, an unusual setting, the beginnings of an intriguing storyline. Sentence by sentence, The Diviners and Sharkways are both decently written, with some nice turns of phrase, but only one of them meets my challenge.

I like the 1920's Manhattan setting of The Diviners, which promises to lend the book a distinctive energy. In contrast, the first two chapters of Sharkways are literally set in a white room.

I'm interested in the characters who have appeared in the opening of The Diviners, especially Evie O'Neill. She's not especially likable so far, seeming rather self-absorbed, but we can already tell her flamboyant personality is masking pain from her brother's death in the Great War and her cold treatment by her parents. I want to learn more about her and see how she develops when she arrives in New York. Meanwhile, the only character introduced through 25 pages of Sharkways is presented as a completely uninteresting slob.

Finally, the opening of The Diviners gives us to expect a story in which an evil spirit will come into contact with characters who are just starting to understand their psychic abilities. It's not a compelling storyline, but at least gives me something to look forward to. The opening 25 pages of Sharkways give us no hint of what kind of story to expect. Nothing of significance has happened except for the unexplained use of the word "Sharkways." The plot has simply not yet begun.

Perhaps Sharkways will yet turn into an enjoyable book, but Kirby's reluctance to get the story moving does not play well in the Battle of the Books format.

THE WINNER: The Diviners by Libba Bray

The Diviners advances to the second round to face Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, First Round :: Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye vs. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker


The first match-up in the first round of Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books features Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye going against The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone: Penguin Books, September 2012, 198 pages, cover photo by Simen Johan. In Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, alternating first-person narrators look back on tragic events that occurred some 40 years earlier in the sleepy German village of Hemmersmoor. Our first narrator Christian returns to Hemmersmoor after decades away and meets some very old friends, Alex and Martin and Linde. They attend the funeral of another old friend, Anke, where Linde proceeds to spit and piss on her grave. In disturbingly understated language, Martin then narrates the tale of when a new family to the village was wiped out on a flimsy suspicion they engaged in cannibalism. The opening 25 pages close with Christian describing how, at seven years old, he wanted to see an adults-only carnival attraction called "Rico's Journey Through Hell." The carnie Rico told him to capture his sister's soul in a glass vial, whereupon Christian returned home and strangled her.

Stefan Kiesbye is a German author now living in New Mexico. Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone was his first novel, preceded by his award-winning novella Next Door Lived a Girl. As far as I can tell, his other fiction books have only been published in German, under the titles Messer, Gabel, Schere, Licht and Fluchtpunkt Los Angeles.

The Age of Miracles: Random House hardcover, June 2012, 269 pages. The cover shown is for the later paperback edition. In the opening pages of The Age of Miracles, the news breaks that the earth's rotation is inexplicably slowing. Our first-person narrator Julia was a young girl when this happened. She recalls the bewilderment of her parents and friends, as well as their dread as they wonder whether civilization can survive.

The Age of Miracles is the first novel by Karen Thompson Walker, but I made it a seeded book in this bracket because it was a great commercial success and very well received. (A notable excpetion was the review by Christopher Priest, which concluded, "This is the kind of book, with its allegedly vast payments to the author, that will suck the oxygen out of bookselling for several months.")

The Battle: This battle features two first novels in which adults reminisce about awful things that happened to everyone they knew during their childhood. In The Age of Miracles, the awful things result from an external change: the slowing of the earth's rotation. In Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, the awful things are internal, done by the book's characters to each other.

Both books open well, beginning with strong opening lines. Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone opens:
Time is of no importance. I have returned to Hemmersmoor to live in the same house in which I grew up, the same cramped house in which my father and my sister Ingrid died when I was a schoolboy.
This strikes me as a simple but effective opening, which then gains resonance as we discover that the narrator's sister died because he killed her, and as Kiesbye later repeats the "time is of no importance" sentiment in a beautiful passage:
Time is of no importance. I was young and didn't know a thing about our time. There had never been a different one in Hemmersmoor. In our village time didn't progress courageously. In our village she limped a bit, got lost more than once, and always ended up at Frick's bar and in one of Jens Jensen's tall tales.
I like that very much. I also like the opening lines of The Age of Miracles:
We didn't notice right away. We couldn't feel it.

We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.
Although overall I like the writing in both books, in my opinion some flaws creep into both as the story progresses.

The opening pages of Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone consist of a prologue from Christian's first-person point of view, a chapter from Martin's first-person point of view, and a chapter again from Christian's first-person point of view. They all look backwards on the same time period, yet Christian's voice in the second chapter sounds very similar to Martin's voice in the first chapter, and markedly different from Christian's voice in the prologue. I find the inconsistency jarring.

My quibble with the writing in The Age of Miracles is a lack of restraint by the author. For example, after the news breaks of the days lengthening, the narrator says they all forgot about the soccer game scheduled that day, except for one girl:
I heard later that only Michaela showed up at the field, late as usual, her cleats in her hands, her long hair undone, her red curls flying in and out of her mouth as she ran sock-footed up the hill to the field——only to find not a single girl warming up, not one blue jersey rippling in the wind, not one French braid flapping, not a single parent or coach on the grass. No mothers in visors sipping iced tea, no fathers in flip-flops pacing the sideline. No ice chests or beach chairs or quarter-sliced oranges. The upper parking lot, she must have noticed then, was empty of cars. Only the nets remained, billowing silently in the goals, they the only proof that the sport of soccer had once been play on this site.
To my tastes, if it stopped at "on the grass," this would be a nice passage. Instead, the author strains too hard, beating a simple concept to death, and ending on an awkward note ("they the only proof").

Despite my nitpicks, overall the prose in both books is solid. The battle comes down to which author has convinced me after only 25 pages that his or her story is going someplace interesting.

Karen Thompson Walker does not have me convinced, for two reasons. First, she hasn't gotten me interested in any of the characters yet, all of whom so far strike me as nondescript suburbanites, lacking in personality. Second, she has constructed a science fictional scenario——What if the rotation of the earth suddenly slowed down?——but she has not given me the confidence in her analysis and research that I need to suspend disbelief. In the opening pages, she says nobody notices the day is lengthening for several days. Whaaaat? When I check my email box, it tells me the exact time of sunrise and sunset; the first time the sun missed its cue, everybody would know about it. Later, Walker says the slowing "altered gravity." If she means the earth's mass is actually changing, she should say so, because wow! I suspect she means instead that there is less outward centrifugal force to offset gravity, but the way she says it is so imprecise I've lost confidence in her to tell me accurately what would happen if the earth really were to start spinning more slowly.

Meanwhile, after 25 pages, Kiesbye has also not given me characters I like, but they certainly do have personality. When Linde pisses on the grave of her former best friend, it tells me something about her, and it makes me curious what happened in their past to cause that level of contempt. More importantly, when Martin describes murders he witnessed as a child and Christian describes a murder he committed as a child, in utterly matter-of-fact terms, the effect is simultaneously chilling and engrossing.

THE WINNER: Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone advances to the second round to take on either The Diviners by Libba Bray or Sharkways by A. J. Kirby.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight

Announcing Bracket Eight of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2012 Books!

We started the Battle of the Books at the Fantastic Reviews Blog as a fun way to try to keep up with the great volume of review copies we were receiving. (For more about why we started the Battle of the Books, click here. For all the rules, click here.)

The good news is we've done eight brackets of books so far, seven 2012 brackets and one 2014 bracket, discussing over 125 books. We've had a lot of fun and gotten some great feedback from the authors both here and at Twitter and other social media.

The bad news is we have definitely not kept up with all the review copies flowing in. But we're taking on the mountain of books we've accumulated.

In a valiant (please don't say hopeless) attempt to catch up, we're alternating between brackets of the new books we're receiving and brackets of the 2012 and 2013 books that we didn't already cover.

Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books will feature 16 contenders first published in 2012. Aaron selected four "seeded" books he is especially looking forward to (marked with asterisks), and we've placed one in each quarter of the bracket, then filled out the rest of the bracket randomly. Here are your matchups:

First Quarter of Bracket:


Stefan Kiesbye
Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone
(Penguin)
vs.
Karen Thompson Walker
The Age of Miracles***
(Random House)



Libba Bray
The Diviners
(Little, Brown)
vs.
A. J. Kirby
Sharkways
(Damnation)


Second Quarter of Bracket



Lavie Tidhar
Osama***
(Solaris)
vs.
Dave Freer
The Steam Mole
(Pyr)



Gary McMahon
Beyond Here Lies Nothing
(Solaris)
vs.
Mark Hodder
A Red Sun Also Rises
(Pyr)


Third Quarter of Bracket:



Andy Gavin
Untimed
(Mascherato)
vs.
Kristi Petersen Schoonover
Bad Apple
(Vagabondage)



David Beers
Dead Religion
(CreateSpace)
vs.
Jim C. Hines
Libriomancer***
(DAW)


Fourth Quarter of Bracket:


Linda Harley
Destiny's Flower
(Infinity)
vs.
Molly Tanzer
A Pretty Mouth***
(Lazy Fascist)



Joseph Spencer
Grim
(Damnation)
vs.
Lou Morgan
Blood and Feathers
(Solaris)

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Some notes on the field:

-- Classifying books before you read them is tricky, but this bracket seems to have turned out heavy on horror. We'd guess it features 7 horror novels or dark fantasies, 4 adult fantasies, 3 YA fantasies, and 2 science fiction novels.

-- 11 books are by men and 5 by women.

-- It looks like 11 of the books are stand-alones, 3 begin a new series, and 2 continue an existing series.

-- As far as publishers, 3 books came to us from Solaris, 2 from Pyr, 2 from Damnation and 1 each from Penguin; Random House; Little, Brown; DAW; Mascherato; Vagabondage; CreateSpace; Infinity; and Lazy Fascist.

Good luck to all our contenders! Let the new bracket of book battles begin!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Amy's Random Readings :: "Pernicious Romance" by Robert Reed

"Pernicious Romance" by Robert Reed is a story in the November 2014 issue of Clarkesworld magazine.  Using a random number generator, this is the short story, out of fifty-seven from the 2014 Locus Recommended Reading List, that a digital roll of the dice selected for me (Amy) to read and review.

"Pernicious Romance" is set in the present day somewhere in America. It tells of a strange occurrence at a college football game.  At halftime, there was a brilliant explosion of light from the 50-yard line.  No videos survived because it was accompanied by a damaging EMP event.  The blast directly killed about sixty people. Everyone else in the stadium, tens of thousands of people, were knocked unconscious.  Those in the high seats, farthest from the blast, woke up later that evening.   But others, people closer to the blast, woke up weeks, months, or even a year later.   All of those affected experienced an intensely real, loving relationship subjectively lasting a week up to fifty years when they were unconscious.  Maybe due to the bad effect this had on marriages, the condition became termed pernicious romance.

At first, the explosion was thought to be a terrorist attack, but no one claimed responsibility.  There were no suspects.   It was postulated that this may have been the test of a new weapon or technology.  But no explanation was offered.

This story features the case studies of five victims.  It tells how these people's lives were transformed by this unprecedented event and their unexpected experiences.

I found "Pernicious Romance" to be an interesting, well-written short story.   It feels profound despite its improbability.   Each case study made me realize that the event was weirder than I initially thought.  The story left me contemplating it afterward.

Robert Reed is a Hugo Award-winning American science fiction author.  I've read and enjoyed a number of his short fiction stories in magazines over the years.  According to Wikipedia, Reed has also written a dozen novels.

The first two short stories I've randomly read have been vastly different, but both good.  I wonder what I'll get to read next time I try this.