Thursday, July 02, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, Second Round :: Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye vs. The Diviners by Libba Bray

We begin the second round of Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books with Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye against The Diviners by Libba Bray. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone: Penguin Books, September 2012, 198 pages, cover photo by Simen Johan. Stefan Kiesbye is a German author now living in New Mexico. Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone defeated The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker to advance to the second round.

In the first 50 pages of Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, three different first-person narrators look back on tragic events from their childhood decades earlier, in the small German town of Hemmersmoor. In the opening 25 pages, Martin recalled how a new family to the village was killed after being accused (probably falsely) of cannibalism. Then Christian told us how at age seven he murdered his sister when a carnival worker instructed him to capture her soul in a glass vial. The next 25 pages consist of a long chapter narrated by Linde, daughter of the gardener for the town's wealthiest family. When that family took in a widow and her child, Linde's mother began harboring suspicions about her husband and the widow. The mother pulls strings for the widow to receive a pension that allows her to move out, with unintended consequences.

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. The Diviners soundly defeated Sharkways by A. J. Kirby to advance to the second round.

In the initial 25 pages of The Diviners, a malicious spirit was released into the world, and we were introduced to two young people with strange abilities, flapper Evie O'Neill from Ohio and Harlem numbers-runner Memphis Campbell. A single long chapter about Evie arriving in Manhattan comprises almost all of the next 25 pages. While in the big city, Evie will stay with her uncle, an expert on paranormal activities. She learns from him of a prophecy of a "coming storm," the only defense to which will be "diviners" who can foretell the future.

The Battle: This one surprised me. While I liked the first section of The Diviners, I came to this battle expecting Your House Is on Fire to advance, because it had such a creepy and memorably unusual opening. However, the Battle of the Books format demands that authors quickly build upon a strong opening. Reading through page 50, I find it's Libba Bray who has best met that challenge.

The second 25-page section of Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone is certainly not bad, but neither is it as tightly written or compelling as the opening section. Linde's first viewpoint chapter is perhaps too long, and it doesn't show the young Linde to have much personality (compared to the older Linde we've already seen piss on an old friend's grave). The chapter has a tragic ending, but it comes as the unintended consequence of a kind act, which doesn't match the punch of the previous chapters. Perhaps more importantly, Linde's chapter seems little connected to the prior chapters, giving the whole book an episodic feel through 50 pages.

Meanwhile, in the second 25-page section of The Diviners, Libba Bray hits all the right notes to build on a good opening. As with Your House Is on Fire, the chapter that makes up most of this section is longer than the previous chapters. But Bray effectively uses that space to let us better get to know her character Evie. Evie is a flawed young woman, much too concerned with what others think of her. But she is also fun-loving, despite her understandable insecurities, in a way that makes her easy to cheer for, for example in this scene when the first person she meets in Penn Station takes advantage of her friendliness:
Evie stood uncertainly for a few seconds. She stuck out her hand for a shake. With a smirk, Sam Lloyd drew her to him and kissed her hard on the mouth. She heard the shoe-shine men chuckling as she pulled away, red-faced and disoriented. Should she slap him? He deserved a slap. But was that what sophisticated Manhattan moderns did? Or did they shrug it off like an old joke they were too tired to laugh at?

"You can't blame a fella for kissing the prettiest girl in New York, can you, sister?" Sam's grin was anything but apologetic.

Evie brought up her knee quickly and decisively, and he dropped to the floor like a grain sack. "You can't blame a girl for her quick reflexes now, can you, pal?"
While this chapter focuses on development of Evie's character, Bray also manages to pepper in enough references to the larger conflict brewing around New York that the story still feels like it's moving ahead with a purpose.

YA urban fantasy isn't necessarily my first choice in sub-genres, but so far The Diviners is too much fun to put down.

THE WINNER: The Diviners by Libba Bray

The Diviners advances to the semifinals to take on either Osama by Lavie Tidhar or Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, First Round :: Grim by Joseph Spencer vs. Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan


Our eighth and last first round match in Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books features Grim by Joseph Spencer taking on Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Grim: Damnation Books, September 2012, 168 pages, cover art by Dawné Dominique. Grim is the first novel by former journalist Joseph Spencer, who has since followed up with a sequel, Wrage. Grim combines elements of a crime thriller and a horror novel with a graphic novel sensibility. The main characters are Heath Grim and Detective Adam White. As hinted by the first names, this is a play on the Batman story. Grim is a very wealthy young man who spends his spare time fighting crime, only the criminals he fights tend to end up decapitated, their blood spattered about to gruesome effect. It seems Grim blacks out during these times, surrendering himself to a beast inside him. In the opening 25 pages, Adam White investigates one of these killings, and Grim comes under suspicion when a neighbor he mentions to White turns out apparently not to exist. Meanwhile, a local crime lord plots against the vigilante doing in his men.

Blood and Feathers: Solaris, August 2012, 364 pages, cover art by Pye Parr. Blood and Feathers is British author Lou Morgan's first novel, followed by the sequel, Blood and Feathers: Rebellion. She has also written a YA novel, Sleepless. In the opening 25 pages of Blood and Feathers, a woman named Iris follows her son into the maw of a set of giant teeth that appeared on her lawn. Then a young woman named Alice meets two strange people, Gwyn and Mallory, who claim to be old friends of her late mother's. When hands emerge from the ceiling and snap her father's neck, Alice bolts, but Gwyn and Mallory quickly return her home. They insist they are friends and begin to tell Alice incredible things she never knew about her mother.

The Battle: Both of these books have attention-grabbing first scenes.

Grim lives up to its title with a very dark opening scene in which Heath Grim returns home late at night, dripping blood, with no memory of where he's been, feeling feverish:
Yet, the reflection staring back at him in the mirror emitted an eerie glow so chilling that goose pimples broke out on the back of his neck and arms. Exhaustion slowed his senses to a crawl, and his eyes blinked shut. His heart raced. Bile crept up his throat.

The fiend broke its silence. "There's no escaping yourself, my son." The words came out of Heath's mouth, but the voice which said them wasn't his own. It was deeper, angrier.
That is a strong initial sequence. Meanwhile, Lou Morgan draws us in with an absurd opening scene that she makes believable, in which a woman's lawn is suddenly filled with tooth-shaped boulders leading to a throat. A throat with stairs. Stairs her son has just gone down . . . That's also good stuff.

However, while Blood and Feathers effectively builds on its opening scene, Grim quickly starts to lose its way. There are two decent scenes of a mob boss planning revenge against whoever killed some of his men. But the rest of the opening 25 pages are from the points of view of Heath Grim and Adam White, and all of their scenes are disrupted by unwelcome sidekicks. White has a resentful cop named Sinks trailing him everywhere, denigrating any women around and spouting idiotic lines at White like, "Let me show you how us real cops who don't get our names in the papers every fucking day do the dirty work for glory hounds such as yourself." Similarly, Heath Grim is constantly bombarded by wisecracks and lame puns from a Voice in his head, which sounds like his dead friend Craig. These sidekicks are unnecessary and unfunny and pretty much wreck the scenes with Grim and White, our two main characters.

In contrast, Blood and Feathers builds intensity through the first 25 pages. First, Alice sees her father inexplicably murdered. Then when she runs away, one of the two men she just met is somehow ahead of her, waiting. The two men tell her that her mother was an angel, a story she of course cannot believe, except that they don't allow her any choice:
"We knew your mother, Alice. We knew her better than even your father did. And we know you. Now it's time for you to know us." He closed his eyes, and the edges of the room suddenly seemed sharper, brighter. Everything grew lighter, and there was a sound like the wind in the trees, faint at first, then louder and louder.

As Alice watched, Gwyn unfolded his wings, and every bulb in the house blew out as one.
I am not a great fan of urban fantasies involving angels, but this is so well presented, it makes me want to keep reading.

THE WINNER: Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan

Blood and Feathers advances to the second round to face A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, First Round :: Destiny's Flower by Linda Harley vs. A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer


We are nearly complete with the first round in Bracket Eight in the Battle of the 2012 Books. This match-up features Destiny's Flower by Linda Harley versus A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Destiny's Flower: Infinity Publishing (a self-publishing service, not to be confused with Infinity Plus in the UK), September 2012, 312 pages. Destiny's Flower is labeled a science fiction romance. In the opening 25 pages, our leading lady Lynn Davis is abducted while teaching a college course and spirited away to the interstellar spaceship Destiny (although she doesn't yet know she's on a spaceship), which promptly has to battle past a fleet of enemy ships to get away from Earth. The dashing Lord Kyle von Talion needs Davis for something, we don't know what, and when he declines to tell her, she tries to escape through a ventilation shaft, putting the crew of Destiny in a tizzy. Linda Harley is a new author, with a PhD in Applied Physiology.

A Pretty Mouth: Lazy Fascist Press, October 2012, 227 pages, cover art by Matthew Revert. A Pretty Mouth is a novella collected with four related stories, all of which place Lovecraftian creatures in a slightly odd context. The first 25 pages consist mainly of the story "A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the-Downs," set in Victorian or Edwardian times. When a Mr. Wooster loses a drunken wager, the price falls on his man Jeeves, who must confront a strange octopus-like creature. A Pretty Mouth is the first book by Molly Tanzer, whose latest effort is the Weird Western Vermilion.

The Battle: We've had some good luck in the Battle of the Books recently with self-published books that were written at a professional level. Untimed by Andy Gavin, for example, has already advanced to the second round of this bracket on the strength of a very entertaining opening section. Unfortunately, Destiny's Flower is not written to that standard. Linda Harley may yet develop into a fine writer, and if she does, she will look back on Destiny's Flower as an amateurish early effort. Comparing the first section of this book to A Pretty Mouth's strong opening illustrates what I mean.

Let's start with the descriptions in the two narratives. In the first few pages of Destiny's Flower, Lynn Davis is taken away from this planet and thrust into a bizarre universe of spaceships and quantum torpedoes. Except, it's not bizarre at all; rather, it's absurdly mundane. These people from another world sit on leather couches, eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, decorate their walls with paintings of women in straw hats in fields of lilies, and sleep on "a Victorian double bed covered with a white comforter embroidered with blue flowers." Davis's interstellar trip, which should be bewildering, is about as strange as staying at a Motel 6.

In contrast, Molly Tanzer's setting is closer to home, but she quickly brings it to life:
Dolor-on-the-Downs is, like so many seaside towns, a place of distinct seediness. There was one street of hotels acceptable for human habitation, and the rest of the place was a hotch-potch of inferior lodgings, taffy shops, ice cream parlors, boardwalks, performers busking on streetcorners, teashops where the very windows bore a light sheen of grease, and, of course, public houses. During the season, children with sticky faces and sunburns run hither and yon without heed for the eardrums of others, and the beaches are clogged with their adoring parents, also sunburned, but less-often sticky-faced.
As this passage suggests, Tanzer is having a ball applying the voice of P.G. Wodehouse to a tale of suspense. For example, when Wooster boasts about Jeeves to the mysterious Lord Calipash, Jeeves narrates his response like this:
'Really,' said the Lord Calipash, and though I am neither a whimsical man by nature, nor the heroine of a Gothic romance, I felt a chill as his eyes raked over me.
That is wonderful stuff. Through the opening pages, Destiny's Flower has yet to find that kind of a voice.

Which is the better story idea, a modern woman being abducted and thrust into interstellar politics, or a Lovecraftian monster encountered by Jeeves the butler? The latter strikes me as more original, but really it doesn't matter which is better. Story ideas are plentiful, but they don't get you anywhere until you develop the craft to tell the story effectively. The opening of Destiny's Flower has done little to pull me into the story. Meanwhile, Molly Tanzer's confident and witty writing style has me convinced she has a story to tell that I want to keep reading.

THE WINNER: A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer

A Pretty Mouth advances to the second round to take on either Grim by Joseph Spencer or Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

"Two Will Walk With You" by Grá Linnaea :: Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week

Our Story Recommendation of the Week feature has fallen by the wayside in favor of the Battle of the Books, but I'm determined to start posting story recommendations again. In light of the hot mess that is this year's Hugo Award ballot in the short fiction categories (more on that to come), I think it's important to call attention to how much wonderful short fiction is being published in our genre.

My first Story Recommendation of the Week of 2015 goes to "Two Will Walk With You" by Grá Linnaea, from the anthology XIII: Stories of Transformation edited by Mark Teppo.

"Two Will Walk With You" begins with 17-year-old Japanese girl Ayu desperately running from the keep where she has lived for seven years, learning Christian magic. She has killed a priest in self-defense, and she knows the punishment for her crime: a Socius, or Tomo, a demon companion that will never leave her alone.

Fleeing in a passing wagon, Ayu meets an old man named Hageatama who accepts her company, claiming to be "bored," even after he learns of her curse:
They trudged silently through the wet of the Azusakawachi swamplands toward the Maibara valley. The sun shone harshly, reflecting rainbows off the misty water. Canary grass grew close and sodden to the path they forged. Neither had spoken since the night before.

Midday Hageatama broke the silence. "You have a Tomo on you, girl."

Ayu said nothing. They walked further.

"The Socius." Hageatama butchered the Latin. "The Tomo. No one escapes." He poked his walking stick at her back.

Ayu spun and slapped the stick away. "I know!" Her voice cracked. "No one knows more than I do! The Socius is woven to my soul, it won't stop—"

Hageatama cut her off, his voice loud and gentle. "It can't stop. It is made from your soul. It doesn't have one of its own." He pointed a dirty nail at Ayu. "And you can't escape."

* * *

Ayu's fear was replaced with a surprising feeling. "I almost feel sorry for it."

Hageatama's head shot up. "The Tomo?"

She rubbed her chest. "It must be awful not to have a soul."
Between the curse of the Toro and Ayu's sexual preferences, it seems impossible that things could turn out well for her, and yet she and Hageatama refuse to abandon hope.

"Two Will Walk With You" exemplifies everything short fiction can offer: well crafted language, a memorable setting, a main character we quickly come to care about, an engaging story. And—dare I say it?—a message. A message that has nothing to do with politics, a message that is conveyed with subtlety, and yet it's what the story at its core is all about. "Two Will Walk With You" grapples with how we can live our lives in a way that is satisfying and meaningful, even when fate has stacked the deck against us. It's the kind of subject, relevant to all of us, that I expect a top-notch author to examine, even if there are no easy answers. Linnaea does that beautifully.

Grá Linnaea is a fellow Writers of the Future winner whose work has also appeared in Shimmer, Apex, IGMS, Daily Science Fiction, and other places.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, First Round :: Dead Religion by David Beers vs. Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines


Today's first-round contest in Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books features Dead Religion by David Beers going against Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Dead Religion: Self-published, September 2012, cover art by Renu Sharma. Dead Religion is the stand-alone first novel by David Beers, who has since gone on to publish serialized novels called The Devil's Dream and The Singularity. The opening 25 pages of Deal Religion jump between three different time periods. In the present day, FBI agent James Allison is sent to investigate a terrorist bombing in Mexico, believed to be the work of an American of Mexican descent, Alex Valdez. James is reluctant to leave his 15/16-year-old brother, for they have no surviving relatives. In an earlier period, Alex Valdez struggles with recurring nightmares, which he and his wife Brittany fear threaten his delicate mental health. In the earliest time period, Alex nearly commits suicide, believing that he cannot escape the evil presence that killed his parents. The narrative hints this presence may be some kind of remnant of the Aztec religion.

Libriomancer: DAW, August 2012, 305 pages, cover art by Gene Mollica. Jim C. Hines is a fellow Writers of the Future winner, who has published four novels in his "fairy tale princess" sequence, three novels and a collection in the Goblin Quest universe, a stand-alone mainstream novel, and a bunch of short fiction. He has also won a Fan Writer Hugo Award for his blogging. Libriomancer is the first volume in his latest series, Magic Ex Libris.

The first-person narrator of Libriomancer is Isaac Vainio. (His first name is likely a tribute to Isaac Asimov, the first of countless SF/F references and in-jokes soon to follow.) Isaac is a book-lover and huge science fiction and fantasy fan, and he is a libriomancer, a rare person who can conjure objects out of the books he has read. He works for a secret magical society called the Porters. Having fared poorly at field work, Isaac now occupies himself as a librarian in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, cataloguing books that may be of use to his fellow magic-doers. In the opening pages, his library is attacked by three vampires, whom he fights off with the help of his pet fire-spider Smudge, a dryad named Lena, and a disruptor-pistol he pulls out of the book Vulcan's Mirror. Lena then tells him that a large-scale battle has erupted between vampires and the Porters, but there are hints that the conflict goes well beyond vampires.

The Battle: Dead Religion is self-published and it shows. The book desperately needed a professional editing job—there are no page numbers, tenses vary erratically, and Alex's brother's age changes from 16 to 15 with significant results (he says he can drive himself to school, but two pages later he's become too young to drive).

Despite these problems, there is an intensity to the narrative that I admire. Also, I think Beers handles the shifts between different time periods quite effectively, and the hints about Aztec mythology are interesting.

The bad news for Dead Religion, however, is that it ran into Jim C. Hines at his most amusing. In the first five pages of Libriomancer, Isaac has to fend off a customer who takes a fire hydrant to his fire-spider by threatening to revoke her Internet privileges. Then we really get a taste of the humor at the heart of Libriomancer when Isaac spots a group of three suspicious-looking people approaching the library:
The trio stopped to study the address of the post office across the street. One reached into her pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. Her hand glittered like a disco ball in the afternoon sun as she scanned the buildings. She tugged her sleeve over her hand a second later, but that one glimpse was enough to identify them as Sanguinarius Meyerii, informally known as sparklers.
If you don't get the joke, Libriomancer is probably not for you; but if it made you laugh, you may be in Libriomancer's target audience. The book is written for people just like Isaac, people whose homes are overflowing with books, people who never tire of visualizing science fiction and fantasy scenarios, people who would love nothing better than the ability to bring something from their favorite books to life.

Is it pandering that Hines targets his book so shamelessly at core fantasy readers, making his hero a fellow fantasy-obsessed bookworm? Um, do I care? I'm having as much fun reading this as I suspect Hines had writing it.

THE WINNER: Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

Libriomancer advances to the second round to face Untimed by Andy Gavin.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, First Round :: Untimed by Andy Gavin vs. Bad Apple by Kristi Petersen Schoonover


We continue the first round of Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books. The bottom half of the draw begins with Untimed by Andy Gavin against Bad Apple by Kristi Petersen Schoonover. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Untimed: Mascherato, December 2012, 326 pages, cover art by Cliff Nielsen. Andy Gavin is a successful video game developer whose previous book, The Darkening Dream competed in the Winter 2012 Battle of the Books. Untimed is a young adult time travel story. The protagonist Charlie is a kid nobody seems to notice. Even his mother has to leave herself notes to remember her son's name. Charlie's father is seldom around, and the father's most recent visit was cut short when an odd detective came looking for him. Charlie later spots the detective and sees him unbutton his suit and wind himself. Charlie follows the clockwork man through a rift in the street and finds himself in the 18th Century. He bumps into a girl named Yvaine, who (for a shilling) explains that Charlie and Yvaine are among the small population of people who can travel through time. The bad news is that males can only travel to the past; it seems Charlie can't get home.

Bad Apple: Vagabondage, August 2012, 186 pages, cover art by Jonathan Willmann. Kristi Schoonover has published a good deal of short fiction in the mainstream and genre small press, some of which is collected in Skeletons in the Swimmin' Hole. Bad Apple, her first novel, tells the story of a young woman named Scree, who grows up on an apple orchard. As the book opens, Scree has not yet started first grade, yet she already masturbates with the help of her favorite teddy bear. One day she accidentally drops said Bear into a well. She calls her mother for help, but then panics at the thought that Bear will tell her mother what she's been doing, so she pushes mother down the well also. That leaves her with a father who is probably not her real father and a womanizing brother, who soon drops his first child in Scree's lap to care for.

The Battle: This is a battle between two independent books, so the first question is whether their respective authors can actually write at a professional level. Happily, the answer here is yes. Both Gavin and Schoonover make effective use of language to tell their young protagonists' stories. Untimed is written in a quick-paced, breezy style that works very well. The prose in Bad Apple is more dense, which is suitable to its much darker tone.

While I like the writing in Bad Apple, however, I'm finding it difficult to become absorbed in the story. Much of the opening 25 pages show us Scree's unhappy childhood after her mother's death. But I'm finding it awfully difficult to feel any sympathy for Scree's troubles, when those troubles are a direct result of Scree killing her own mother. Even if we assume that Scree was too young to understand fully what she was doing (and the narrative suggests otherwise—Scree is very precocious, as evidenced by her early experiments with masturbation), it's very difficult for the reader to feel an emotional connection with her.

In contrast, the opening 25 pages of Untimed do a wonderful job of pulling the reader in. In only a few pages, Gavin makes Charlie very sympathetic by showing his stoic acceptance of the fact that nobody around him can remember who he is. Then, in a YA twist that never gets old, Gavin shows that this is actually because Charlie is very special. Before 25 pages are up, Charlie has already encountered strange clockwork beings, fallen through a hole in time, met a potential love interest, and even caught a glimpse of Benjamin Franklin. We are off and running! I think nearly any young reader would be pulled in by this opening, and it works awfully well for some of us old readers too.

THE WINNER: Untimed by Andy Gavin

Untimed advances to the second round to take on either Dead Religion by David Beers or Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, First Round :: Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon vs. A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder


We return to the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books, after a brief interlude to argue about puppies. The fourth match in the first round of Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books features Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon versus A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Beyond Here Lies Nothing: Solaris, August 2012, 352 pages, cover art by Vincent Chong. Gary McMahon is the author of nine novels, a half-dozen collections and several chapbooks, mostly horror. Beyond Here Lies Nothing is billed as the third book in the Concrete Grove Trilogy, following The Concrete Grove and Silent Voices. But I've heard that each novel in the trilogy features different main characters and a story that stands alone. After 25 pages, I certainly don't feel like I've stepped into the middle of the story. The novel begins with a page from the diary of a child terrified of a bogeyman that goes "clikcety clikcety." Then we meet Marc Price, who has come to Concrete Grove for the funeral of a friend of his late uncle's, whom Marc had recently gotten to know while researching a news story or book. He accompanies the brother of the deceased to a nearby tavern, where he meets a provocative woman named Abby, who snaps at him rather rudely, yet seems determined to take him home with her.

A Red Sun Also Rises: Pyr, December 2012, 273 pages, cover art by Lee Moyer. Mark Hodder is best known as the author of the Burton & Swinburne alternate history series, the first volume of which won the Philip K. Dick Award. A Red Sun Also Rises is a stand-alone, unrelated to that series as far as I can tell. The protagonist of A Red Sun Also Rises is Aiden Fleischer, a 19th Century English priest. In the opening section of the book, Fleischer comes across as pedantic and judgmental despite being filled with self-doubt. He becomes infatuated with a new family's beautiful daughter, which potential impropriety the family promptly seizes on to blackmail him. Rather than confront the family, Fleisher flees to London, just as Jack the Ripper's killing spree begins. Through 25 pages, the alien creature on the cover of the book has made no appearance.

The Battle: Here is an interesting Battle. Both these books are nicely written, both feature obviously flawed main characters, and neither book has gotten to the main storyline in the first 25 pages——nothing science fictional or supernatural has yet occurred in either one. And yet, one book has pulled me into the story much more firmly. Let's see if I can articulate why.

First, while I have no particular complaints about the writing in A Red Sun Also Rises, neither has it especially caught my eye, while Beyond Here Lies Nothing has some very intriguing descriptions of its Concrete Grove setting:
As he drove, he was struck by the way things never changed around here. It was like a film set that had not been taken down when the production company moved on, and people had moved in to set up home inside the two-dimensional backdrop. There was a sense of impermanence, yet also the belief that everything would remain as it was now, as it had been since the estate was built.
Second, both authors include a prologue to let us know that fantastic events are coming, but McMahon's works better for me. A Red Sun Also Rises begins with Mark Hodder claiming the manuscript to follow was retrieved from a sunken sea vessel. I appreciate the nod to proto-science fiction novels, where the authors always felt compelled to insist, this really happened. But it didn't draw me in like the single page of a child's diary that opens Beyond Here Lies Nothing:
I think somebody hates us. he is in the house all the time but we cant see him. he makes noise when nobody else is here. he wants to hurt us. we hide under the bed when mummy and daddy are in the pub.
To me, that is chilling stuff.

Finally, while both books' protagonists are flawed, Hodder has yet to give his main character any likeable qualities at all (one hopes they're going to start to develop fairly soon), while McMahon's cynical loner protagonist is at least interesting. I want to know more about him, and about this odd place called Concrete Grove.

THE WINNER: Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon

Beyond Here Lies Nothing advances to the second round to face Osama by Lavie Tidhar.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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.