Nebulas and Substack problems

This week: the 2020 Nebula Awards, trouble with Substack, and more.

Nebulas and Substack problems

Happy Thursday!

Before I dig into this week’s happenings, I wanted to send out a reminder that nominations for the Hugo Awards are closing tomorrow night (at 11:59 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time (PDT; UTC – 7). Those of you who attended CoNZealand virtually last year, and those who signed up for membership prior to December 31st, 2020 can submit a nomination. If you haven’t picked up a membership yet, you can do that here. (At this point, you can’t nominate any works, but you can vote when the nominee list is released.)

I’m afraid that I don’t have any real thoughts on the short fiction categories (I tried to read more short fiction last year, but … didn’t) — other than a handful of stories that I happened to come across (more on that in a moment), but I do have some thoughts for novels: I rounded up my favorites for 2020 over on Polygon earlier this year.

Of those, here’s what I’d nominate: N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, and Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s The Salvage Crew will be on my shortlist. Finna by Nino Cipri, Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi, and Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark will be on my novella list. For dramatic presentations, there isn’t much in the way of films, but I’d throw a nom in for Onward and The Midnight Sky. Short versions is a bit easier: His Dark Materials, The Expanse, The Mandalorian, Tales from the Loop, and a couple of others.

When it come to some of the fan categories, I’m eligible for Best Fan Writer, and Transfer Orbit is for Best Fanzine. If you’re nominating, and have enjoyed reading my work (You can check out some greatest hits here, but feel free to peruse the archives), please consider adding me/it to the nominees list? Other good folks to consider would be (in no particular order) Aidan Moher, Jason Sanford, Paul Weimer, Sarah Gailey, and Charlie Jane Anders. These categories are frequently under-served, and I do think that it’s important to contribute to them: fan writers and their publications add greatly to the discourse and state of the field.

Thanks in advance!

This week in SF/F

The 2020 Nebula Awards!

I mentioned that the Hugo vote is coming to a close today, but science fiction’s other major award, the Nebulas, just released its ballot for this year’s awards. The Nebulas are organized and hosted by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a writers advocacy organization that does a lot of great work for the field, and over the last couple of years, has turned out some really strong lists of finalists.

This year’s work is a really diverse field, which is a testament to the stories that the field as a whole is turning out. It’s really a wealth of choices, which is a great thing.

What I’m most pleased with, however, is one nominee in particular, Aimee Picchi, one of my best friends, who lives here in Vermont.

I’ve known Aimee for years now, ever since I ran a series of science fiction / fantasy readings through a now-defunct site I ran called Geek Mountain State. She attended one of the readings, and was soon reading at them, and was/is part of a core group of folks from that scene that met (pre-pandemic) regularly to share our work.

She’s a terrific author who’s particularly adept at razor-sharp flash stories. One of my favorites from 2019 is “Search History for Elspeth Adair, Age 11”, and her recently nominated story, “Advanced Word Problems in Portal Math” is another favorite.

I can’t vote in the Nebulas because I’m not a member of SFWA, but there are a bunch of things on this list that I’ll be including on my Hugo list.


Sorry, this is going to be a bit long-winded. Skip down if you don’t care about inside baseball media stuff. Transfer Orbit isn’t going anywhere at the moment, but finding an alternative home for it is something I’m looking into.

If you pay attention to media, you’ve probably heard a bit about the controversy that Substack has found itself in, and it’s led to some soul searching when it comes to my presence here.

Some background first: Substack is the host for this newsletter and it helped spark this newsletter revolution by developing some slick tools and the ability to charge for your work. I jumped over from TinyLetter because of the interface, and I’ve really liked the platform. A lot of other people did, and as the media industry shed jobs, a lot of journalists came over to set up shop here.

That brings us to this week: Substack recently unveiled an initiative called Substack Pro, which subsidized a group of 30 or so writers by paying them an advance, which would get paid back through a newsletter that’s given the boost to self-sufficiency. In theory, that’s a good idea for both writers and Substack.

But — and there’s a but — in doing so, Substack crosses the line from being a platform that hosts user-generated content, to something that’s actually facilitating its publication. It’s an inherent editorial choice, one that comes with some particular problems. Author Jude Ellison Sady Doyle highlighted some of the issues that this poses: “In Queers We Trust. All Others pay Cash” in which he laid out some systemic issues that they’re seeing with the company, and how Substack Pro is troubling in that some of the authors who seem to be part of the program have engaged in some anti-Trans rhetoric.

Substack says that “we see these deals as business decisions, not editorial ones,” and that they’ve got no oversight to the stories that those subsidized authors are writing. Moreover, those deals aren’t public, unless an author wants to come forward, which doesn’t help with trust. The company followed up with another post, saying that their Pro writers fit into a wide range of categories, and that none of the folks that they’ve picked up “can reasonably [be] construed as anti-trans” — something that a bunch of folks pushed back on online.

All of this comes down to the fact that Substack is a fairly young platform, and all platforms that rely on user-generated content go through a moderation crisis. Substack didn’t set itself up well for this: back in December, it said that it would take a hands-off approach to moderation. It sounds reasonable, — and I agree with the sentiment for the most part — but it’s misguided.

Substack’s argument here is that it’s different because it’s an inherently opt-in platform, but that doesn’t feel like it’s an argument that really holds up. People who want writing that can be construed as harmful can still get it, and authors willing to provide it can make a home for themselves by bending guidelines and pushing boundaries should the owner of said home is permissive of that.

As Emily VanDerWerff noted on her feed, “in the case of many of the writers who have provoked the harshest criticism, the criticism isn’t about a contest of ideas. It’s about just how completely those writers treat everything from trans identities to harassment of women online as an intellectual parlor game, rather than as something that has real stakes and will impact real lives, simply because treating these issues as a parlor game garners more clicks.”

That’s the problem that I have with Substack’s stance here: I don’t think their rationale really works, because it’s so easily exploited by bad-faith actors, even if they’re sincere.

There’s been some recent examples of this in action: just last month, Baen caused a bit of a stir when it became apparent that its users were advocating for violence after the 2020 election and around the January 6th insurrection. It’s an example of where a hands-off approach can lead to and foster a toxic environment.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Vermont’s Front Porch Forum is a community platform with many of the same ideals, and they’ve said that they don’t generally use a heavy-handed moderation approach to their work. But, they will enforce their policies: a recent transphobic posting from a user made it onto the site in my local forum, and it was quickly removed it and the company apologized for the lapse. They’re setting the tone for what they want their platform to lead, even as they’re hosting multiple viewpoints. Casey Newton of Platformer devoted some time to newsletters in this week’s free issue, and noted that have a path out of this PR mess they’ve created, and suggested that they lean “all the way away from the culture war — and toward building products and services that generate more revenue, for more people, than anyone else does.”

This whole thing has caused a bit of a firestorm amongst folks within the SF/F community. I’ve seen a bunch of folks like Aidan Moher, Karin Lowachee, Annalee Newitz, and Maddie Stone depart the platform over this.

This brings me to Transfer Orbit.

This is a situation that’s frustrating to me: this newsletter helps supplement my income and lets me keep writing for you, and I don’t like this turn of events. But I don’t feel that I’m quite in a stable place to leave, given where TO and my own career freelancing is at the moment.

There’s a bit of a joke that’s emerged: shitty individuals getting bounced out of media get a Substack newsletter on their way out the door. I don’t like that, and I don’t like that the company’s stance on free speech, media, and the discourse of ideas online is edging so closely to edgelord shitty individuals who can’t take reasonable criticism without throwing a hissy fit on Twitter. It’s also reprehensible that Substack is tacitly supporting some of these writers.

Putting my head down and ignoring it doesn’t feel like the right thing to do, so I’m exploring the only options that I really have: seeing what other platforms I can take Transfer Orbit to. I sent out a message to paid subscribers with some thoughts about jumping (because that tier adds an extra bit of complication to this), and while I’m staying put for now because there’s no real comparable platform to easily jump to, it’s on my mind. I’ve got a decent audience and readership here, and it’s not something I can easily or rashly move around on a whim.

I’ve been looking at Revue, which is the most comparable, but it’s owned by Twitter, which I was trying to get away from. Facebook’s upcoming product is a no (unless they make a *really* compelling offer), Hey looks interesting, but doesn’t quite do what I need, and Patreon has its own bundle of issues. Ghost looks like a really compelling platform, but it’s expensive for me (I’d have to pay a grand up front for a year’s hosting, which I’m can’t do). That said, it looks neat.

So, for the time being, Transfer Orbit’s going to remain… in orbit, but moving to a new platform is something that I’m actively looking to do. I just need to find the right place.

So. Thank you for your patience and understanding — I’ve been heartened by the response that I’ve gotten from folks that I’ve chatted with already, and I hope that we’ll find a happy solution to this before too much longer.

Currently Reading

On the to-read list: pretty much the same as last week, although I went ahead and began reading 2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis.

On the list, which I’m still picking away at:

Also on the list:

Further Reading

  • Bookstores and Pandemics. The Washington Post’s Angela Haupt writes about how indie bookstores endured the pandemic, and how some didn’t make it.
  • Jemisin’s headed to TV. This is some seriously cool news from late last week: N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy is being adapted for television. It’s a developmental thing, so that means that it might not happen, but it’s definitely a series that would be really interesting to see as a TV series.
  • Justice and WandaVision. Emily VanDerWerff over on Vox has some good thoughts about WandaVision’s finale, and how there’s some inherent issues with storytelling and justice. Essentially, the entire season turns out to be an intriguing story about Wanda dealing with the incredible losses that she’s endured from the time she was introduced in Captain America: Winter Soldier and up to that point: she lost her family, her brother, her cybernetic boyfriend, homeland, and more. She takes a town hostage and traps them in her own little bubble of reality, before realizing what she’s done. But as VanDerWerff points out, the series basically takes the stance of, “well, can you blame her?”:
“I doubt anybody could understand what it means to have your magically created husband and children simply dissolve into thin air. But it also so privileges the emotions and drives of the show’s protagonist over those of any other characters that it feels as though WandaVision is writing off the very obvious horrors Wanda visited on this town.”

I thought WandaVision was fine, but while it opens up a lot of possibilities for where the Marvel universe can go forward, it’s also a lot like most of its other films: kind of empty?

  • Return of Daniel Jackson. Stargate SG-1 is one of my very favorite shows, and for a while now, there’s been talk of a fourth show. It’s been a while since we’ve seen anything from the franchise, and from the sounds of it, one of the franchise’s main characters, Daniel Jackson, will play some role in whatever they’re cooking up. I don’t know if that’s a cameo or something more substantial, but it’s exciting: Daniel’s the character that I’ve always identified with, and I’ve cosplayed as him more than once. This has gotten me rewatching SG-1 for the first time in a while, which is fun and sometimes cringeworthy.
  • Star Wars’s Fan Problem. Rewriting Ripley, a newish podcast about fandom, has a very long and detailed post about some of the persistent problems within the Star Wars fan community, and its ties to the alt-right. It’s in-depth and worth checking out, as it puts the backlash against the recent Star Wars franchise into a greater context, and why we’ve seen so many batshit rumors, misogynistic and xenophobic actions from these “fans”.

    This is something that I’ve written about before — I’ll plug my essay from last year, “Qanon for Nerds” — but this does what I’ve been trying to figure out how to do: actually analyze a lot of this hateful content and track it back to its source, and puts it into the larger context of how it fits into the larger media narrative that pushes back against journalism and progressive politics online in general.

    There’s a lot to unpack in this, and they’ve got another post dropping in a couple of days, which I’ll be very interested to read.

As always, thank you for reading. Let me know your thoughts, what you’ve been paging through, and what you’ve got on your TBR pile.