Voting, Popularity, and Awards

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It’s been a long week, made longer by world events.

Needless to say, I turned to my books to keep me company while I’ve been riding out the storm. Books don’t want to talk about the merits of Trump v. Clinton, at least, not in explicit terms.

Yet, a different kind of electoral strife hits the bookternet at the end of the year: awards season.

The past three or four years in particular have had a lot of upheaval in the bookish world. In particular, the Sad Puppies’ impact on science fiction fandom has been controversial. But, all of the upset, the fighting over popular opinion versus panel awards, the debates over cannon, and the push for more diversity in publishing have left us wanting more and talking more. To me this has always been the upside of these “culture wars.”

That being said, it’s easy to be disappointed.

I woke up this morning to a flurry of messages. The Goodreads Choice Award finalists have been announced. After the initial shock of “Wow. This is a lot of stuff I haven’t read” and the following “These are not the best in XYZ category,” I think it’s worth while to revisit the idea of awards and their merit.

The Goodreads Choice Awards get the same general complaint every year: the books are too populist and not representative of the really great works in their genres or categories.

I’m inclined to feel the same way. Because of the open-forum nature of the Goodreads Awards and the ways that the awards nominees are selected, they wind up being much more of a “what was the best airport read of the year?” kind of award.

There’s a time and place for this, but it falls into all of the weaknesses of the publishing industry. Underrepresentation; promoting lighter reads over those that make you think; difficulty in getting recognition for works that are truly fantastic, but don’t get the same marketing budget.

I don’t know that there’s a way around this unless Goodreads users really start using the write in.

Bright Point! Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution was a write-in and has made it to the final round!

On the Brightside, there are hundreds of other awards that strive to be inclusive and promote more obscure or substantive works. It’s why we have genre awards. So, bummer, but we can all take this for what it is: an algorithm meant to promote increased amazon purchasing.

I’ll wait for the Booktubesff Awards instead.

 

Some thoughts on Everfair by Nisi Shawl

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I won’t mince words; I wasn’t a fan of Everfair. I wanted to be, but wasn’t.

I got my copy in the mail and was so excited. I was ready to drop everything and start reading. I often have this feeling, but was spurred on by the promise of something truly spectacular and very rarely seen in western publishing. The idea of a well executed literary fantasy set in a steampunk version of Congo was like a big piece of cake staring me down. I may have actually squealed a bit.

I want to be very clear when talking about this, because for as much as I have my criticisms, Shawl is very clearly good at her craft. She’s eloquent and considered. Even having disliked the book, I came away with a positive impression of hers. I would chalk my struggles up to some of the construction elements rather than saying that her writing isn’t worth the read. You should pick it up and give her a try, at the very least, read some of her short work.

The story itself follows a group of missionaries and refugees living in a section of the Congo set aside to become a land called Everfair. One part safe have, one part socialist republic, the book follows a family from Britain that is trying to lead Everfair in their vision, occasionally with the help of the black population, and, more often, without the input or significant leadership of the black population. The family deals with death, abandonment, interracial marriage, and sexual orientation all the while.

My problems with the story were compounding.

The story format jumps between characters and timelines. So, you can go from following one character in 1810 to another totally different character in 1823 all in a matter of four or five pages. For me, this was confusing and left the story without a cohesive feel.

The plot was meandering and unfocused. Rather than having a clear end-point, it paused every few pages to talk about tangents or give unnecessary context. This was all without really adding to an overarching arc that would have given that cohesion the story desperately needed.

The characters were tough for me. They could have been very interesting, but not enough time ever seemed to be spent on them. We’d stop in on them every once in a while. But in the mean time, there were so many other characters to visit and so many other shifts in timelines and ages that keeping track was a challenge.

The story is clearly well researched and Shawl clearly spent a good deal of time thinking it through. Her writing is very atmospheric, but I didn’t find the style to be cohesive enough to compensate for the meandering plot. It was a promising story, but didn’t deliver for me. I’ll have to check in with Shawl’s next work instead.

 

Review | A Little Knowledge by Emma Newman

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Where to start?

First off, I’m about to get spoilery. So, if you don’t like to be spoiled. I suggest you watch my video about Split Worlds #1-3 and then go read them. They’re that lovely kind of bubble gum fun you only really get in certain sub-genres of SFF. I liked them. I suspect you will as well.

In the fourth book of the series, we pick up with Cathy and Will as Duke and Duchess. They’ve started their rise to power, and Cathy has decided to use it to liberate the women of the Nether, like you do. But, it’s not that easy and, of course, she’s upsetting a lot of people and making many many enemies. She still doesn’t know what Will’s been doing behind her back or that their Patron is threatening to kill her if Will doesn’t get a bun in that oven.

I have two major problems with this book. (1) The plot is suffering some middle-book syndrome and doesn’t seem to be coming together, and (2) it’s been so long since the first three were out that getting back into the world and writing feels disjointed. Since there were rights, publishing, and reprint issues, I can’t really blame anyone for (2), so I’ll busy myself with the more substantial issue.

We’ll talk about the storylines one at a time, shall we?

Max and the Gargoyle

So, Max is slowly putting together an Arbiter’s office from scratch and trying to figure out what’s going on in the Nether. Since dead wizards keep showing up and he can’t go to the existing Arbiters, he’s left leading a hodgepodge crew of mortals and trying to keep the sorcerers’ disappearances under wraps.

It’s one of those situations where I know that this plot is going to wind up going somewhere, but for now, it feels stalled. There are a few things that Max uncovers regarding the Nether that are used to save the day, but that point is tangential to Max himself and, frankly, is feels like a convenient way to solve a problem.

That being said, we get to find out about some of Max’s past, which I find really exciting. The mystery is starting to come together, if only through magic internet use and the Gargoyle’s persistence, but it feels like one step closer to Max and his Gargoyle becoming one entity again.

Sam

Sam’s now Lord Iron and set on trying to do some good. He’s up against a possibly losing battle (Max helps him figure out the underlying problems here), and of course, he’s sad about Cathy seeming to be happy with Will.

Let’s all say it: BUT I’M A NICE GUY!

Lord Iron is all set up to get serious, but that won’t be until next book, so we’re waiting.

Cathy and Will

Oh, Will and Cathy. That’s a hot mess, intentionally so.

Cathy is starting to try and influence the court. Will is trying to knock her up. Neither is a good communicator.

Let’s not forget Will’s creepy tendencies. Those are still around.

It’s coming to a head, though. Only so long you can drug your wife into loving you before that backfires.

Overall

It’s a middle book and it feels like one. The action is a little laggy, and what action there is takes up time that we’re using because of the needed set up. I’m ready for book 5. This one, while enjoyable, was a bit lackluster for me. Too much organizing pieces of the puzzle, not enough putting them together.

 

Why I’m trying this out

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If you follow me on YouTube, you know I decided to do a video every day this July (or at least, I’ve decided to try it). I wanted to provide some context because I think it explains a lot of things, especially why I’m doing this project and where I’ve been the last few months, other than lurking around the internet like a ghost.

I wish I could make this a video, but honestly I don’t know if I could handle it. I don’t really know if I’ll be posting this or if that post will stay up.

Three months ago, I lost my partner. He had a congenital heart defect and passed away. We’d been together for six years.

I’ve been, understandably, withdrawn since. The last three months have been pretty reserved.

I’ve joked for  a long time about having pre-hermit tendencies and, to be honest, resisting them has been hard. It’s been easy to withdraw and just spend my time quietly by myself cuddling kitten. I’ve been lucky on this front. I have a fantastic group of friends, both those near and far. My family and work have been supportive. My mother has been the goddess she’s always been. So, I haven’t totally withdrawn. But God knows, I don’t feel anything close to myself.

So, going into the next few months, I’m really trying to push myself.

I know I’m not going to feel great every day. It’s been hard to sit and enjoy reading. Part of me appreciates it as a relaxing quiet activity I can turn to instead of being social. Another part of me can’t concentrate, or doesn’t find the same enjoyment out of it right now. But, reading things I know I love is comforting.

I think doing a video everyday, in particular, is going to be very good for me. The structure and planning is a comfort, but it also encourages me to be creative and social. Those are two things I know I need right now. Moreover, they’re things I would typically not seek out. Hermit tendencies are running pretty high.

So, please be patient with me. I appreciate you. And, know that if I go off the radar, I’ll be back.

The Ladies Who Could Have Been…

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My shelves are filled with ladies. I’m a fan of Leia and Rey; I adore Xena and Gabrielle; Buffy and Charmed are my sick day go-tos. I have feminist SFF coming out of my ears. But I spend a lot of time wondering if it’s really THEM that I like. Something about the Strong Female Protagonist is always going to grab me, but sometimes it seems like the Chinese takeout of the speculative fiction world: tasty and fun, but not always satisfying.

What I really want in my female characters has never been strength for strength’s sake. I want them to be rivers that run deep even when they look shallow. When I think about my favorite ladies, they tend to fit that mold. It’s not hard to see the complexity in Buffy’s character as the seasons go along.

I think what may be odder are the female characters I like who aren’t in the typical mold. I like many characters set up to be side characters and many of the main SFPs I can’t stand. It’s an interesting thing I’ve been thinking about lately. Read the rest of this entry »

When people say… (or a Star Wars Ramble)

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Sometimes I feel sorry for Leia Organa. She got the short end of the stick. Don’t get me wrong. She’s got a good deal of privilege, but having Vader for a birth father and leading the rebel alliance wasn’t exactly a piece of cake.

But, in particular, I’ve thought for a long time that Leia doesn’t ever get to be a real person, no matter who’s talking to, at, or about her.

Take Note, Skywalker Boys (Force Awakens Spoilers)

People have been posting this picture left and right on my tumblr and twitter since December. Not going to lie, it’s been getting under my skin a little. I’m not going to talk about the tired Bikini Leia tropes, or about how her role is stunted after the first movie in a lot of ways. I’m going to focus on the alternate, newer trend in Leia love.

I’ll never dispute the badassery of Leia. The woman can take on The Man with the best of us. She’s gutsy and loyal. Her will is strong. As a kid, she was easily a favorite. But between the Leia as bad-ass sex icon and Leia as can-do-no-wrong purveyor of all things good, I can’t help but think we’re missing the point, all the points.

Preface to this: I’ve not read the extended Star Wars cannon. Though my wiki skills are on point, my first hand knowledge of the universe is limited to movies and the recent run of Star Wars comics. Since this is my place on the internet, I’m going to babble regardless. I promise to go get the newest Star Wars book this afternoon.

There seem to be a couple of fundamental errors in this statement, though, that have been under my skin.

We don’t know if Leia has the Force.

So, the Dark Side is a thing specific to the force, right? There are mundane helpers of the Dark Side and regular, every day employees of the Dark Side, but we all know the truth: if there is someone who can be actively tempted by the POWER OF THE DARK SIDE, they’ve got to be in touch with the Force.

But, I’ll give. I think her ability to sense Luke, her father, her son and husband are all pretty indicative of the force. We’ll save the no-training injustice talk for later.

Even if Leia does have the Force, are we really claiming she has never been tempted?!

Leia has lost a lot of stuff throughout her life.

Her family is dead.

Her planet is destroyed.

She’s had to wrestle for power in a system literally built to keep her from success.

Are we really so naïve as to claim that she’s never been tempted?

The true fact is, we don’t spend a lot of time with Leia. Her role in the story is to provide resources to the main male heroes and hopefully mentor Rey. Her story is not the focus nor has it ever been. She’s put through a lot and can be because we don’t have to follow her around. We don’t have to watch her cry the night Alderaan is destroyed. We don’t watch her rage at Vader or mourn the loss of the birth parents she’d never know. We don’t watch her struggle to come to grips with a leadership role she never asked for but can’t refuse.

Let’s not lie. All signs point to a Leia Organa who is just a bucket of rage and determination.

What we like to think as a fandom is that she can go throughout all of that without a speck of self-doubt or temptation. But, that’s certainly not the case.

And as we all know,

Luke is the obvious analog for Vader. He’s meant to be. Too young, too powerful, too uncontrolled.

But the same can easily be said for Leia. Ruler of a people without the guidance of others, fighting and mourning at the same time.

That her rage would never lead to a desire for destruction, to disproportionately wound those who have hurt her most? Let’s not be naïve. And if she does have the power, truly can be tempted by the Force, let’s not pretend that she hasn’t been. It’s easy to justify trying to change things from the inside. The whole point is that the Dark Side is a temptation to even the strongest among us. Temptation to give in to the pain, doubt, anger, is universal.

True fact: Leia isn’t strong because she’s never been tempted. She’s strong because she resists.

Review | Arkwright by Allen Steele

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There’s a lot to love about Allen Steele’s Arkwright. I’m a little in love with it myself.

The story follows Nathan Arkwright and his family. Arkwright is a fictional contemporary of Heinlein, Clarke, and the golden age authors in SF. He’s best known for his Galaxy Patrol stories, a pulpy SF series that would, in his universe, help inspire young readers to go into the sciences, become astronauts, and generally love fiction and reading. When Arkwright dies, estranged from his family, he leaves his estate to the newly established Arkwright Foundation. The Arkwright Foundation, led by his granddaughter, is committed to taking humanity into space and interstellar travel.

The book is broken up into three parts: Nathan Arkwright’s history, the development of the Arkwright Foundation and its mission execution, and the results of the interstellar travel.

As a result, I want to talk about the book in parts.

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Nathan Arkwright’s history is easily my favorite part of the book. It composes the first third and is an homage to the golden age of SF. It’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. If all you read is the first third of this book,  it will have been well worth your time.

Nathan Arkwright’s history recounts the Futurian movement in SF, a push to use SF as a means of talking about social and scientific change as opposed to simply a means of entertainment. The Futurian movement in SF caused an actual break in the SF world at a New York convention in 1937. Arkwright is caught up in the split, but doesn’t feel at home with either side of the movement. As a result, he observes the dynamic and interacts with the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, John W. Campbell, and Robert Heinlein. It’s basically the coolest alt history/fanfic ever.

Note: If you want to read more about the actual Futurian split in SF, you can read The Futurians by Damon Knight and it’s mentioned in Arthur C. Clarke’s autobiography.

Nat Arkwright and his friends are fun and likeable. They’re energetic and representative of the enthusiasm for SF and the industry that makes being a part of SF great. The tone matches the time and the characters undergo changes in their lives (WWII, family dynamics, friendships and relationships) and eventually go through the cycle of enthusiast, jaded, and renewed. There’s so much to love here.

The Arkwright Foundation comes about after Nat’s death and is led by his granddaughter Kate. A significant part of this section is about the generations that it takes to make interstellar travel actually possible. It’s not overly technical, but is probably a fair description of the time and efforts it would take to make a starship actually work. One of Nat’s descendants describes the family commitment as cult-like.

While I could appreciate this part, and many folks have compared it to a generation ship in so far as it takes multiple generations to make the mission happen. There’s definitely a point here.

While each of the characters are likeable and I can understand and appreciate the role this section plays, the story feels a bit like the kind of story you write as a kid. You know the one. There’s a mommy and a daddy who fall in love and have a baby. That baby grows up to fall in love and becomes a mommy/daddy and has a baby, so on and so forth into eternity. Each character has a role to play in the mission’s success, but it wasn’t as engaging as I’d like and felt a bit formulaic.

Once the ship lands, the story picks up again. The interstellar ship, the Galactique, successfully lands and begins to disseminate new plant and animal life to make their new home habitable. Because of the expense of sending actual adults, the mission collected zygotes to send into space and fertilize upon arrival. Those become the descendants of Nat Arkwright and his allies in space.

This section of the book really interested me. It poses the question: if we do send children into space to be born and grow and develop on their own, who do they become? And equally as interesting, are we still human if we change ourselves to adapt to a new world. Evolution and a nature v. nurture are all wrapped up in one here and I thought the results are fascinating. The characters and new social norms are captivating. The development of government and religion– or rather the exploration of what may come to pass– is so interesting. It’s the kind of question I actually spend a lot of time thinking about.

To make it better, the new humans have distinct features physically and linguistically. They walk on both all fours and bipedally. Their language is all computer abbreviations, min for minutes and secs for seconds without knowing the full word. It’s really an interesting line of thinking.

I really liked this novel, though I would say it’s U-shaped. Exciting and the beginning and end with a bit of a dull middle. Regardless, you can tell Steele spent a lot of time thinking about the way he uses SF and what there really is to love about it: the future and the changes the future brings.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for free in exchange for an honest review