This week got a bit away from me: I'm still dealing with some back problems that are making it hard to sit, and I spent much of Friday minding a tiny monster as we visited her favorite thing in the whole world: bears.
This week's news has been the announcement of this year's Hugo nominees, and there's a lot to unpack this week. Here we go:
This week in SF/F
The Hugo Awards
This week's big news was out of DisCon III: this year's Hugo Award nominees. The annual award often highlights what SF fandom thinks is the best work of the prior year in science fiction and fantasy, this year's list is pretty excellent: Rebecca Roanhorse, N.K. Jemisin, Tamsyn Muir, Martha Wells, Susanna Clarke, and Mary Robinette Kowal got the top nods for Best novel, which is an excellent, excellent slate: it's hard to pick just one of these. (I'm a little bummed to see that Kim Stanley Robinson's Ministry for the Future, Micaiah Johnson's The Space Between Worlds, and Yudhanjaya Wijeratne's The Salvage Crew didn't make the list, but that's always the case with these sorts of awards. And of course, not getting nominated for an award certainly doesn't subtract their quality. I am happy to see that every one of the nominated novels were ones that I picked for my Best of 2020 list.
And there are a bunch of other excellent nominations for the other categories: Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark, Finna by Nino Cipri, and Riot Baby by Tochi Onybuchi were all ones I read and enjoyed. I've got some reading to do for the Novelette / Short Story categories, but I've heard good things. Best series is especially good, Dramatic Presentation long/short forms are fine (although Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga? Fandom really likes Eurovision, apparently.)
On the whole, this year's awards highlight a lot of the excellent work that's being done — incidentally by a very diverse field of authors and creators. That's been the source of some hand-wringing by Twitter racists who think that the lack of any white guys on the top category means the sky is falling. What it shows — and has been showing for a couple of years now — is that fandom is increasingly recognizing the excellent work that's being produced by the authors in the field, and that there are excellent writers from marginalized groups coming in and getting published — Nghi Vo, and Nino Cipri were debut-ish authors in their categories, and a bunch of the others have only started publishing in the last five or so years. That's a great thing — given the tenor and attitude of publishing and fandom over its history, I can imagine that many of them just wouldn't have been allowed in in any significant way: it's hard to imagine a The City We Became, Riot Baby or Ring Shout or Finna getting published in the 1960s, for example.
And increasingly, that's the story I've written over the years — the field is diversifying. Not as quickly as folks would like, there's more challenges and systemic problems within publishing and fandom, but I'm inherently positive: it's the latest step in a positive direction.
The big downside here is that DisCon III announced that while it would hold an in-person convention this year, it'll be moving it away from the Labor Day weekend to December. We'll have a long time to wait until we see what ends up winning.
If I have any complaint about the Hugos, it's with one category in particular: Best Related Work. Categories for awards are a tricky thing to add, and they've changed a bit over the years: we've seen categories for "Best Cover Artist", "Excellence in Fact Articles", Best Web Site", and a bunch of others, but they're typically fairly well defined.
Best Related Work was originally the "Best Non-Fiction Book", but which changed to "Best Related Book" and now to simply Work. That's not bad thing, but it feels very much like this particular category is a bit of a catch-all for anything genre-related that doesn't fit into the conventional categories. In the last decade or so, we've seen things like CoNZealand Fringe, blog posts, video essays, web platforms, podcasts, essays, and so forth. Those nominated pieces have all (although I think we can safely say that the "no awards" handed out in 2015/2016 bigoted/racist nominees were entirely justified) have helped advance our understanding of the genre in some significant ways, like Kameron Hurley's "We Have Always Fought': Challenging the 'Women, Cattle and Slaves' Narrative" and Jeannette Ng's John W. Campbell Award acceptance speech. They're entirely deserving of recognition from the body of Hugo voters.
The problem I have here isn't the works that are getting nominated — but the vagueness of the category. Fandom is incredibly pedantic: I'm not going to be able to stop myself when someone goes "well actually, Bob, that story's 25,0001 words, so it's technically a Novellette, not a novella." Best Related Work is incredibly vague. The exact definition is "a work related to the field of science fiction, fantasy, or fandom..."
"The type of works eligible include, but are not limited to, collections of art, works of literary criticism, books about the making of a film or TV series, biographies and so on, provided that they do not qualify for another category. Specifically, the Constitution says that any work in this category must be “either non-fiction or, if fictional, is noteworthy primarily for aspects other than the fictional text, and which is not eligible in any other category.”
Essentially, it's "Best Nonfiction" — an incredibly broad category. In my mind, that's like lumping all of the fictional categories into one award — novels through flash fiction, which doesn't really work all that well, does it?
I think format and medium matter in some significant ways: a podcast delivers information in an inherently different way than an acceptance speech does. A published nonfiction book about the history of the genre will tackle topics like race and politics in the scene differently than a podcast or seminar. Putting those various mediums alongside — and all of the different ways they convey information about the genre to readers and listeners — feels like the wrong approach, because it shortchanges the works that are on there, because they're difficult to compare and because their merits are so different.
I'll admit, I'm biased here: I've got a bookshelf full of genre-related nonfiction titles that I've used to support the research I've done for my writing here and elsewhere, and as a historian, I'm predisposed to the work that goes into researching, interviewing, and writing these books. I should know — I wrote a book that'll certainly be eligible for the category in a couple of years. I certainly want to see that book and others get the nod from Hugo voters.
There's plenty of potential solutions to get around this: split out a category for "Best Related Work, Longform / Shortform" — which would help honor both those long, in-depth works that require significant research and scholarship, and the shorter categories like blog posts, speeches, essays, etc. We've done that with the "Best Dramatic Presentation, Long/Short Form" categories, and we split apart editor for Long/Short form. Best Related Work should do the same.
Oh no. Someone said a bad word.
Of course, it wouldn't be the Hugo Awards without some drama over one of the entries. This year's subject is Natalie Luhrs's essay that came quickly after last year's extremely cringeworthy Hugo Awards: "George R.R. Martin can fuck off into the sun, or the 2020 Hugo Awards Ceremony (Rageblog edition)."
Hugo nominators opted to nominate the post for a Best Hugo for ... you guessed it, Best Related Work, and File 770's Mike Glyer and some commenters opted to take the disingenuous approach by declaring that the con violated its own code of conduct by broadcasting the title of the essay. DisCon III told Glyer that it doesn't comment on code of conduct issues.
Glyers' take here feels like a deliberately bad read of the con's code of conduct, and looks very much like an attempt to weaponize the rules to get the piece tossed off the ballot. It doesn't help that he's taken the attitude of I'm just asking questions not actively participating in this argument, which is a frequent tactic used by bad-faith actors on Twitter and elsewhere who are trying to stir up trouble. Even the blog post on File 770 is is aggressively confrontational with this take. It's a bad look.
Annalee Flower Horne, Luhrs's collaborator and co-creator of The Bias who writes code of conduct policies noted that the intention here matters: Luhrs isn't writing to get Martin kicked out of fandom, she's writing to bring attention to what he did. "Criticizing racist behavior in a tone you don't find congenial is not harassment."
This is one of the real values in the vibrant fan writing scene that has grown up with the SF/F world — and an extremely good example of why it's included in "Best Related Work" (again, I've got my desire to see that category expanded, but this is what we have to work with) — the ability to advance the scene and genre through commentary and criticism.
There's been plenty of handwringing in File 770's comments about how the 2021 Worldcon is no longer listed on Martin's upcoming appearances and how he never misses Worldcon (I literally hurt my eyes rolling them when I read this), and how important he is to the scene.
That's a bullshit argument, and precisely the reason for why a healthy nonfiction scene is so important: Martin isn't an unknown figure. He's written one of the most important fantasy epics in the canon, just signed a massive overall deal with HBO for more projects, owns a railroad and tried to build a castle in his backyard. He carries considerable influence within the genre and within the regular entertainment world. His praise of a book can be incredibly influential (it certainly didn't hurt sales for Leviathan Wakes); his name is regularly used to promote major television shows (Nightflyers); and when he goes out of his way to praise the work and words of racist, fascistic, and bigoted authors, that reverberates. When he fucks up, it has consequences, and needs to be called out.
This is the point of journalism and criticism: to call truth to power. It's our job to call these sorts of things out and to provide context. That's exactly what Luhrs set out to do with her post, and it worked.
This week's reading: as always, pretty much the same as last week, with some new additions. After finishing up Martha Wells' Network Effect, I moved quickly onto Fugitive Telemetry, the latest novella in the series, which is coming out later this month. I'm enjoying it thus far!
I've also picked up The Unbroken by C.L. Clark, which I missed in the March roundup. It's an intriguing military fantasy, dealing with some interesting issues in colonization and loyalty, and while I'm not terribly far into it, I'm enjoying it quite a bit.
I've also started reading Andy Weir's upcoming novel Project Hail Mary, about a guy who wakes up on a space mission missing his memory, and who has to piece together what he's supposed to be doing. I'm withholding judgement on this one until I'm a bit further into it.
- Amazon's serialization platform. Amazon announced a new platform for publishing serialized fiction earlier this week, and I decided to write a bit about its potential and some historical context for Transfer Orbit subscribers.
- Challenger Park. For years, I drove past this little memorial in Montpelier, Vermont, and a couple of years ago, noticed that it had a space shuttle on it. I decided to add an entry for it on Atlas Obscura, and dug up some interesting details about it.
- Digging into the Hollow Earth trope. Another recent Transfer Orbit post for subscribing members came shortly after HBO Max debuted Godzilla vs. Kong, which features an unexpected trope: the Hollow Earth, which has a long history within science fiction:
Verne — and others' — popularity in literary circles coincided with the golden age of arctic exploration as various nations worked to find more efficient ways to move trade around the globe, helped by new technologies. Symmes' pseudoscientific ideas came at the right time: capturing the fantastic possibilities of the few remaining unknown parts of the world — the poles — and helped provide some considerable inspiration for the proto-genre works.
Doyle wrote that part of the impetus behind The Lost World was that the world seemed to be shrinking, thanks to the efforts of European explorers: "there had been a time when the world was full of blank spaces, and in which a man of imagination might be able to give free scope to his fancy. But owing to the ill-directed energy of their guest and other gentlemen of similar tendencies [Doyle had attended a luncheon hosted by Robert Peary in 1910] these spaces were rapidly being filled up."
- Franchise fever. Variety has a good rundown of the state of streaming services and how their growth is being driven hard by the expansion of big properties like DC and Star Wars. CBS studios chief David Stapf noted: "With most IP, there’s a built-in fan base that already exists so you’re going to hopefully be bringing in new passionate subscribers. Having that known, big IP is incredibly helpful for new platforms. And, obviously, from a branding standpoint, it’s easier to market and publicize. But that said, I think every platform needs a combination of IP and originals.”
This calls to mind something I've seen and talked about when it comes to Apple TV+: it doesn't have any franchises yet (I'd imagine that Foundation could be turned into one, if the series is good), and because it can't rely on a built-in audience that something like Star Trek: Discovery or The Mandalorian brings, it's had to focus on quality. It's a lesson that all of the other streaming services should be internalizing, I think. And to some extent, some are, like Netflix.
Buried in there was an announcement I missed: apparently Paramount is going to reboot The Italian Job as a series. As a MINI driver, I'm pleased about this.
- Learn from the master. Broken Earth trilogy author N.K. Jemisin is now a MasterClass teacher — she'll be teaching a course about science fiction and fantasy writing, and I have to say, I'm a bit tempted to check it out.
- Unsettling Futures. I'd like to throw a recommendation out for another newsletter: Matthew Claxton's Unsettling Futures. He recently moved his publication from Substack to Revue, and he's been putting out some interesting posts about the nature of writing, some in-depth posts about genre stuff, and a bit more.
That's all for this week. As always, thank you for reading. Have a good rest of the weekend,