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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Hugo Awards 2016: The Results
The Hugo Award winners were announced last night and I'm having a hard time caring all that much. I've played along with the Hugos for the past few years, but unfortunately, that roughly coincides with the rise of Sad/Rabid Puppy movements and by intention or not, the award and seemingly the entire field has become a politicized morass. Of course, this isn't new and this year fared significantly better than last year's disaster, so let's look closer. (Also of note: the full voting breakdown in case you wanted to figure out how instant-runoff voting works.)
  • The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin won the best novel Hugo. This was a bit of an upset since Naomi Novik's Uprooted seemingly enjoyed a broader fanbase and scored previous wins in the Nebulas and Locus Fantasy awards. On the other hand, The Fifth Season was the only novel not present on any Puppy list, so it's hard not to see this as a political win rather than a joyous celebration of a great story (especially when combined with Jemisin's history with Vox Day). Back on the first hand, though, while I wasn't a fan of the book, I can also recognize it as a well written work that makes for fine award material. I found it to be misery porn (which is emphatically not what I look for out of SF/F), but really well done misery porn. I will admit to being a little surprised at 480 votes putting Seveneves under No Award, which again seems like a political response to its inclusion on the Rabid slate. Then again, I've long since stopped being surprised when Stephenson's work rubs some people the wrong way, which has always been the case (and long before any Puppy controversy) in my anecdotal experience.
  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor takes the best novella award. Again, hard not to see it as a political choice, but it was a decent enough story, even if I found it to be lacking. It was the only finalist not to appear on the Rabid list, though it did get the nod in Sad Puppies. Also of note, No Award did not place in this category, which is fair - it was a strong category.
  • "Folding Beijing" by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu wins in best novelette. Yet again, this is the only finalist not to appear on the Rabid list, even if it was on the Sad Puppy list. No Award shows up in the rankings here, beating out the two Castalia House nominees.
  • "Cat Pictures Please" by Naomi Kritzer wins the short story award. I can't really argue with that since I voted for it, but once again, it was the only non-Rabid choice, even if it was a Sad Puppy choice. No Award places second. This was a dumpster of a category this year, so this isn't surprising at all.
  • The Martian takes home the Long Form Dramatic Presentation award, which was a nice nod to the type of SF that I really enjoy, and Andy Weir got himself a Campbell award for best new SF writer, which is also very cool. I look forward to his next book with great anticipation.
  • Once again, the Puppies are trounced. It's the same old story: Action, Reaction. The Sad Puppies seem to have faded from the ire of fandom, but the Rabids remain steadfast in their quest to destroy the Hugos. Or do they? There appears to be a dramatic drop-off from the nominating stage to the voting stage this year, so perhaps there is hope yet for the future of the award. Then again, their divisive tactics have polarized fandom into awarding the types of works I tend to dislike. As usual, my hope for the future is that we can all just calm the fuck down, read some good stories, and celebrate them with the awards. Yeah, politics are inherent in the process, but we shouldn't be able to look at a list and predict the winners without looking at the quality of the work at all, which you could have done with this years awards.
  • Last year, I noted that "The notion that voting on the current year gives you the ability to nominate next year is a brilliant one that might actually keep me participating." This year, they apparently voted to revoke that practice, which means I'm much less likely to participate next year (or whenever it takes effect - may not be next year). I'm guessing this was because of Rabid interference this year, but it also feels short-sighted. Also of note, they appear to be pushing the deadline for nominations up from January 31 to December 31, which probably spells doom for any SF/F story released in December. I'd have to look into both of these things more to really figure out how much I like them, but their intention seems to be to decrease participation, which doesn't feel like a great idea. I'm still on the fence about participating next year, but I guess we'll see how things go. The crappy thing about politicization of the awards from my perspective is that I feel like simple celebrations of great writing are being eschewed in favor of virtue signaling (on both sides of the divide). It's become a polarized field, which leaves me in the middle, not really caring about either side and wondering why I'm even participating. As H.P. notes:
    So which side "won"? Which side lost? The Rabid Puppies/alt-right/Vox Day and the SJWs both won. That is, the people who wanted to hijack the awards to make it just another venue for their political fight (see the longlist of Best Related Works nominees for a good idea of the relative importance placed on politics versus reading). People who actually love to read and would prefer to think about books first lost. It's probably been a foregone conclusion for many years now, but the Hugo Awards will continue to long decline into irrelevancy.
    Well said. Like H.P. I'm just going to go and read a book rather than dwell on it. I'll see you next year, when the Hugo whining begins in earnest.
And that's all for now. I've actually been reading some great SF of late (none of it is recent though) and we're about to shift gears into the most wondrous time of year, The 6 Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon, so stay tuned.
Posted by Mark on August 21, 2016 at 07:11 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Professor Abronsius's Robustly Random, Eccentrically Inquisitive, Garlic-Infused Mid-Summer Back-to-School Movie Quiz
Dennis Cozzalio of the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog has posted another of his famous movie quizes, and as always, I'm excited to participate. Previous installments answering questions from Professor Hubert Farnsworth, David Huxley, Professor Fate, Professor Russell Johnson, Dr. Smith, Professor Peabody, Professor Severus Snape, Professor Ed Avery, Dr. Anton Phibes, Sister Clodagh, Professor Arthur Chipping, Miss Jean Brodie, Professor Larry Gopnick, Professor Dewey Finn, Ms. Elizabeth Halsey, Professor Abraham Setrakian, and Mr. Dadier are also available. Let's get to it:

1) Name the last 10 movies you've seen, either theatrically or at home

Zoinks! Good thing I try to keep Letterboxd up to date (if we're not friends there, we should be). Let's take a gander:
  • The Silence of the Lambs - Not sure what prompts my periodic viewings of this movie, but I appreciate it more every time.
  • Everybody Wants Some!! - As pointless Linklater discussion-fests go, this is on the more enjoyable side for me and yet, it's still a pointless Linklater discussion-fest... It's like a genre unto itself, and one that I've never really bought into...
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Post Star Trek Beyond viewing (which says something about Beyond, see below), one of the most unusual of the films and better for that. I mean, it's basically a fish-out-of-water comedy (almost literally, heh) and The Enterprise isn't really even in it (sorta).
  • Marathon Man - Put on my Netflix queue when The Canon podcast covered it and lo, it finally showed up. Then I realized the disc was broken (yeah, I still get discs from Netflix, wanna fight about it?) and had to get a replacement. Finally watched it, and really enjoyed it. Maybe not top-tier, but quite unusual and entertaining.
  • Jason Bourne - Retreading the same ground over and over again was a strategy that worked surprisingly well for the first three movies, but it appears to have diminishing returns. This movie is fine but the formula has worn out its welcome. It's so mediocre that I bet critics will be putting it on the worst movie of the year list or somesuch.
  • Star Trek Beyond - This reboot series, after a stumble in their second installment, has turned in a strong rebound, maybe even better than the first in the reboot series. I still lament that the franchise has moved into more action-adventure territory than heady SF, but this one executes really well. Check it out.
  • Green Room - Dark and tense, as advertised. Great and unexpected performance from Patric Stewart, and yet more evidence that we're really going to be missing Anton Yelchin.
    Patrick Stewart is not a Nazi
    I'm not a Nazi!
    Writer/Director Jeremy Saulnier is getting stronger, and I'm really looking forward to what he tries next.
  • Star Trek - In preparation for Star Trek Beyond, I still find this reboot to be highly entertaining and fun. Once again, a little more Science in the Fiction would have been nice, but as action/adventure, it's great.
  • Ghostbusters - Just good enough that if you're so inclined, you can trumpet it from on high, but there's enough flaws that if you were predisposed to hate it, you'll find plenty to gripe about. The perfect stew of fomenting culture war. On its own, I laughed a fair amount and enjoyed myself, but it's not the original... but then, what could be?
  • 10 Cloverfield Lane - I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed this. Takes a standard premise and flips it around multiple times. Really solid stuff, great performances all around, and a well executed plot. I know the ending is a bit divisive, but I enjoyed it quite a bit...
Phew, that's a lot of movies.

2) Favorite movie feast

The first thing that came to mind was Denethor's feast whilst he sends his son out to die in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I mean, it's not a fun scene, but for some reason very memorable, including the food being served (which looks tasty, I guess, certainly a feast).
Denethor feasting
Upon further reflection, other candidates include: the scene in which Orson Welles interrupts his own movie to order more food in F for Fake, the titular meal in Soylent Green, the campfire scene in Blazing Saddles, and, of course, most scenes in Tampopo.

3) Dial M for Murder (1954) or Rear Window (1954)?

I love both of these movies, but Rear Window strikes me as the more well-rounded choice whereas Dial M for Murder feels like trash elevated to greatness solely by Hitchcock's force of will (nothing to sneeze at, for sure, but Rear window has it all). Rear Window works on many more levels, even if I'd watch either of these again in a heartbeat.

4) Favorite song or individual performance from a concert film

Honestly not a big fan of concert films. Does The Blues Brothers count? I kinda like that one, I guess.

Excluding another film from the same director, if you were programming a double feature what would you pair with:

5) Alex Cox's Straight to Hell (1986)?

I have never seen this, but now I want to. From the description, I'll go with The Wild Bunch. Looking at other answers, though, I see Reservoir Dogs and am now kicking myself.

6) Benjamin Christensen's Haxan: Witchcraft Throughout the Ages (1922)?

I've actually seen this one! I'll go with this year's exquisitely staged The Witch as the pairing (though maybe The Blair Witch Project would be more fitting, given its more explicit mock-documentary nature... but then, The Witch has so much verisimilitude that it approaches mock-documentary as well. Hrm.)

7) Federico Fellini's I vitteloni (1953)?

Another one I have not seen, but from the description alone, the answer has to be American Graffiti, right?

8) Vincente Minnelli's The Long, Long Trailer (1953)?

Not seen this one either, but judging from the description, let's say Bonnie and Clyde.

9) Sam Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)?

Again, I have not seen but from the description, let's say McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

10) George Englund's Zachariah (1971)?

Nope, not this one either (I'm the worst), but judging from the description, let's just say El Topo... though I should probably watch Zachariah first because it seems vaguely irresponsible to recommend El Topo without really confirming that it fits.

11) Favorite movie fairy tale

The Princess Bride seems an obvious choice here. I suppose nostalgia plays a role in how much I like this movie (I mean, I was basically the Fred Savage character - a kid sick and in bed, objecting to the same girl cooties moments, etc... - when I first saw this), but I've seen it recently and it still retains that almost timeless fairy tale feeling.

12) What is the sport that you think has most eluded filmmakers in terms of capturing either its essence or excitement?

Wrestling. No, not professional WWF/WWE stuff, the amateur stuff that'll be on the Olympics at 3 am on CNBC sometime late next week. Few movies have even attempted it, notably Vision Quest (oy) and Foxcatcher (a slog, not really about wrestling, per say). Of course, I'm not really holding my breath on this one either.

13) The Seventh Seal (1957) or Wild Strawberries (1957)?

The Seventh Seal I guess? I mean, not really a fan of either (or, sadly, Bergman in general - remember this when we get down to the blasphemy/contrarian question below)

14) Your favorite Criterion Collection release

First thought is Brazil, an epic three-disc study in commercial filmmaking. There are lots of better movies in the collection, but it's the extras here that put it over the top. Troubled productions are always more interesting than normal ones, even if the resulting film (and various cuts) never quite live up to the promise of the material.

15) In the tradition of the Batley Townswomen's Guild's staging of the Battle of Pearl Harbor and Camp on Blood Island, who would be the featured players (individual or tag-team) in your Classic Film Star Free-for-all Fight?

Hell, I don't know. Let's just name some people: John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Clint Eastwood, Dick Miller, Toshiro Mifune, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Michelle Yeoh, Raquel Welch, Tuesday Weld, Sigourney Weaver, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn, and Rosalind Russell.

16) Throne of Blood (1957) or The Lower Depths (1957)?

Well, I've actually seen Throne of Blood, so I guess that sez something, eh?

17) Your favorite movie snack

I'd say popcorn, but usually when I go to the movies I get soft-pretzel bites. They're usually terrible too, but good theaters (i.e. that time I went to Alamo Drafthouse) sometimes do homemade soft pretzels that are awesome, and I love them. But popcorn is the safe answer, as that's always actually available, and usually fresh popped.

18) Robert Altman's Quintet-- yes or no?

I have never seen it, but I think that if you look at my answers to all of these "yes or no?" questions over the years, I can safely say "yes" (since, you know, I've never said no in answer to one of these questions, ever.)

19) Name the documentarian whose work you find most valuable

Errol Morris works here. Opened my eyes to great documentary filmmaking with The Thin Blue Line, and has continually surprised me throughout his career, even with supposed trivialities like Tabloid.

20) The Conversation (1974) or The Godfather Part II (1974)?

The Godfather: Part II, though that's a pretty fabulous one-two punch for 1974. Still, something about the Godfather's epic sweep bowls me over in ways that The Conversation never has...

21) Favorite movie location you've visited in person

Can't say as though I actually seek out movie locations, but I do love the Philly Art Museum steps from Rocky, and it's even better at night (looking back through the city, all lit up, is nice).

22) If you could have directed a scene from any movie in the hope of improving it, what scene would it be, and what direction would you give the actor(s) in it? (question submitted by Patrick Robbins)

This is an impossible question, but I came up with an answer because this movie comes up again below: There's a scene in The Thing where Wilford Brimley has been locked up in the shed for a while, but kinda escaped into some underground tunnel and started... building a spaceship? Out of junk that was laying around? I would have reshot this scene such that the spaceship would not be completely visible and thus would be more ambiguous as to what it actually was (I would also revise the dialog to maintain the ambiguity). All you need to know is that he was up to something, not that it was actually a spaceship, because the spaceship is sad looking and stupid.

23) The Doors (1991) or JFK (1991)?

Hands down, JFK. It's just an inherently more interesting premise, and it's extremely well executed, even if it's almost certainly all hooey.

24) What is your greatest film blasphemy or strongest evidence of your status as a contrarian? (H/T Larry Aydlette)

There's several examples above (i.e. disliking Linklater's talky pieces, indifference to Bergman, not having seen the majority of movies explicitly referenced in this quiz, etc...), but I'll say as a general point of blasphemy/contrarianititvity, I don't like slow, plotless films. It's not that they can't be good or that I can't appreciate them at all, it's just that a film has to be really, really good in order for me to really get into it, and apparently my threshold for this sort of thing is much higher than most critics/film lovers. Go figure. I was much more willing to put up with this kind of indulgent wanking earlier in my life, but I'm getting to an even more impatient point in my life now, I guess. Maybe I'll rebound, but I'm not counting on it.

25) Favorite pre-1970 one-sheet

This question was sorta asked before on Ms. Halsey's quiz, only it didn't limit the timeframes. My answer then was the one-sheet for Vertigo:
Vertigo poster
Indeed, a classic, even if there are probably hundreds of others that I'd like just as much, like: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Anatomy of a Murder, and Metropolis.

26) Favorite post-1970 one-sheet

I mean, Jaws, right?
Jaws poster
But that's probably too obvious, so let's go with Halloween:
Halloween poster
Also of note: Alien, Star Wars, E.T., The Godfather, The Exorcist, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

27) WarGames (1983) or Blue Thunder (1983)?

WarGames is the more memorable and probably more prescient of the two, I think.

28) Your candidate for best remake ever made

Either John Carpenter's The Thing or David Cronenberg's The Fly. They're both so good that I find it impossible choose between them though.

29) Give us a good story, or your favorite memory, about attending a drive-in movie

Sadly, I do not have any memories of drive-in theaters and it's quite possible that I've never been to one. I suppose I was old enough, and it may have happened, but I don't think so. My parents weren't much into movie theaters in general and my movie-going heyday began in the late 80s, early 90s, at which point, drive-ins were mostly dead.

30) Favorite non-horror Hammer film

The Hound of the Baskervilles might skirt horror I guess, but it will have to do, and it's really about the subversion of horror, so I feel ok with that.

31) Favorite movie with the word/number "seven" in the title (question submitted by Patrick Robbins)

It feels so boring to say Se7en or even Seven Samurai, but then, here we are.

32) Is there a movie disagreement you can think of which would cause you to reconsider the status of a personal relationship?

Nope. I suppose such a thing is possible, but I can't imagine that being the only thing at work in that particular relationship (i.e. it would be the tip of an iceberg in a much deeper component of our relationship).

33) Erin Brockovich (2000) or Traffic (2000)?

Traffic is more stylistic and tackles a subject that is orders of magnitude more complicated without resorting to any trickery. Both are good movies though.

34) Your thoughts on the recent online petition demanding that Turner Classic Movies cease showing all movies made after 1960

I suppose I can see the thought process here, but they seem to maintain a pretty good mix right now (i.e. heavy on the pre-1960 stuff, but not exclusively so) and I'm generally not one for arbitrary rules like this. Not something I'd sign on to, but more power to you, I guess.
Posted by Mark on August 14, 2016 at 03:08 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Link Dump
The joys of vacation mean that I'm still taking it easy at the moment, so enjoy these links plundered from the depths of ye olde internets:
  • The Best Time I Pretended I Hadn’t Heard of Slavoj Žižek - Glorious meditation on trolling Marxists expanded into an all-purpose method for annoying the hell out of people who like a certain class of stuff (like Steampunk!).
    The other night, I pretended I didn't know who Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian Hegelian Marxist and cultural critic, was. I've done this before, but never to such triumphant effect. This Marxist bro I was talking to made a reference to Žižek that he obviously assumed I would get, and my heart sank. He was a nice guy, actually, but I saw the conversation stretching out in front of us, and I saw myself having to say things about Žižek and listen to him say things about Žižek, and I saw that I really did not want this to happen. "This is a bar," I wanted to say, the same way that my grandmother might have said "This is a church." A bar is not the appropriate venue for a loud, show-offy conversation about The Pervert's Guide to Ideology.
  • Rey is a Palpatine - J. Kenji López-Alt is probably most famous for Serious Eats, but this is a remarkably well thought out theory as to who Rey's parents are in the new Star Wars trilogy. Spoilers, I guess, but I like this theory much better than pretty much any other speculation I've heard...
  • Edgar Wright's 1000 Favorite Movies - You know I love lists, but this is pretty excessive. Still, I've seen a little over half of these (if my count is correct, and it's probably not because this is a list of 1000 freakin movies; these sites should easily allow a simple click and count functionality for lists like this.) I shudder at the thought of doing a top 100 of all time, this must have been excruciating, especially once people started chiming in with the "I can't believe you left out..." (especially when, as sometimes happens, the offending movie/director is actually on the list but the commenter didn't notice it because there are 1000 movies on the list.)
  • A teen stripper, an arson and the case of the telltale potato - Alright, fine, I'll read your stupid article (it turns out that the headline is more evocative than the actual story, but that's some clickbaity headline writing)
  • How 'Advantage Players' Game the Casinos - We've all heard these stories before, but I'm a sucker for mathematicians legally taking advantage of the Casinos.
  • Wolfie's Just Fine - A New Beginning - A pitch perfect homage to Friday the 13th, Part V: A New Beginning that gets all the little details just right. You know, for the 3 or 4 of us who actually like that movie. Also, the band's name itself is a great little reference.
  • Ask a Manager: my best employee quit on the spot because I wouldn't let her go to her college graduation - Dear lord, the person who wrote this letter is the worst. Great response by the column writer.
And that should do it for now...
Posted by Mark on August 07, 2016 at 09:23 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, July 31, 2016

2016 Hugo Awards: Semi-Final Ballot
Today is the voting deadline for the Hugo Awards, so here's the final ballot I submitted. I'm only really voting on the fiction categories right now, but I might take a gander at the artists or fan writer categories later if I get time. Overall, this is a significantly better year than last year, though the Short Story category continues to be a drag. Let's get to it:

Best Novel
  1. Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson [My Review]
  2. Uprooted, by Naomi Novik [My Review]
  3. Ancillary Mercy, by Anne Leckie [My Review]
  4. The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut's Windlass, by Jim Butcher [My Review]
  5. The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin [My Review]
This is a pretty solid ballot! I've noticed a few things about the way I tend to vote in this category, and one of them is that entries in a series tend to fall behind standalone entries. This year, that puts Seveneves and Uprooted far, far above the competition. Sometimes the first entry in a series can work, but both of this year's examples of that suffered under the weight of their respective long-term stories. In both cases, not much really happens in the first installment, and while there's a definite ending, neither was particularly satisfying. Ancillary Mercy, at least, provided some form of closure (though even that did not fully pay off the promise of the initial entry in the series). There have bee various proposals over the years for including some way to reward series as series, which makes sense, but is also fraught with challenges. The devil is in the details, and there are lots of details for that sort of thing.

Predicted Winner: Uprooted although The Fifth Season seems suspiciously popular...

Best Novella
  1. Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold
  2. Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson
  3. Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds
  4. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
  5. The Builders by Daniel Polansky
See My Reviews for more details. Again, a pretty solid list of finalists, no need to deploy No Award.

Predicted Winner: Penric's Demon

Best Novelette
  1. "Obits" by Stephen King
  2. "And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead" by Brooke Bolander
  3. "Folding Beijing" by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu
  4. "Flashpoint: Titan" by CHEAH Kai Wai
  5. "What Price Humanity?" by David VanDyke
See My Reviews for more info. A decent list, no need to deploy No Award.

Predicted Winner: "And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead" but who knows, this seems more up in the air. Also, I'm terrible at predicting these things. I don't

Best Short Story
  1. "Cat Pictures Please" by Naomi Kritzer
  2. "Asymmetrical Warfare" by S. R. Algernon
  3. "Seven Kill Tiger" by Charles Shao
  4. No Award
See My Reviews for more details. Sorry Chuck Tingle, I ultimately decided to leave you off the ballot because seriously? Oy. And it goes without saying that "If you were an award, my love" doesn't belong on here either. Otherwise, these are fine, but unremarkable.

Predicted Winner: Cat Pictures Please though No Award has a fair chance here because this ballot was rough.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
  1. The Martian
  2. Mad Max: Fury Road
  3. Ex Machina
  4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  5. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ran out of time before posting about this, but basically, the top three are great, the bottom two are cromulent but clearly on a lower level. I go back and forth on Martian vs Mad Max, but since Martian is more clearly SF and the sort of thing we don't see often, it goes first on my ballot.

So there you have it. I doubt I'l get to any other categories since the deadline is tonight, but this is what I'e entered in. A pretty decent slate of finalists this year, with one category being a real bummer (Short Stories). Looking forward to seeing who wins (assuming we actually have winners this year).
Posted by Mark on July 31, 2016 at 08:33 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, July 24, 2016

2016 Hugo Awards: Novellas
After last year's train wreck of a Novella ballot, I wasn't exactly looking forward to this year's finalists. But it seems my fears were misplaced, as this might be the most solid fiction category of the year. Novellas can be awkward and to be sure, a couple of these don't entirely pull it off, but even those manage better than the other categories.
  1. Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold - No surprise here, as I was one of the many who nominated this in the first place. I'm a huge fan of Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga and it's very much to her credit that I've followed her from my preferred SF genre to her fantasy worlds. This story takes place in her Chalion universe and tells the story of a young man who accidentally contracts a demon. This is both better and worse than you'd expect. Better, because in Chalion, demon possession can grant great powers. Worse, because with great power comes intrigue and scheming by those interested in your new powers. That's all background though, and the story itself is well plotted and the character relationships, particularly between Penric and his demon, and extremely well done. Easily and clearly tops this list. (Also of note: the sequel to this story is out!)
  2. Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson - What I know of Brandon Sanderson is that he tends to write epic (i.e. 1000+ page tomes), high fantasy stories, and that he's extremely prolific. So imagine my surprise when he's nominated in this pint-sized story category... for a work that is primarily SFnal in nature. Oh, sure, there are lots of fantasy tropes in here too, as this is a virtual reality story and our hero is the master of all he surveys. Almost literally, since he is a "liveborn" living in a simulation tailored directly to him. There are border states and other areas he can cross into to meet (and battle with) other liveborns, but he seems content to live out his little fantasy. Until he goes on a date with another liveborn and his rival engineers a monster attack. Well drawn and executed, with some interesting ideas that stick with you after reading (in particular, I'm curious about how this universe generates and maintains echo chambers - we don't see much outside of our hero's perspective, but we get enough to wonder). Would have topped my list in any of the past few years, but falls just shy of Bujold's story.
  3. Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds - Scurelya is in hot water. She's been captured by a sadistic enemy and even though the war is over, her tormentor doesn't acknowledge such things. After a harrowing escape, she passes out... and then wakes up on a prison ship that appears lost in time. This is a grim and gritty little SF tale. There are some interesting ideas floating around, in particular the predicament they find themselves in and how that happened, but Reynolds never really harnesses them together in a cohesive enough way. The concept of a slow bullet seems rather silly, honestly, especially given how easy it is to hack. Some of the relationships could be interesting, but feel perfunctory. Again, some of the ideas are decent, but they're too obscured by Reynolds' insistence on grim and gritty action. As a result, the story hangs together ok, but never really soars.
  4. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor - An interesting little space opera tale that doesn't quite land, this tells the story of Binti, an ethnic minority (Himba) traveling to a university planet. At first marginalized, she realizes that while her fellow classmates aren't Himba, they were still her people (because of their love of learning, etc...) Then the Meduse, a Metroid-like alien race, show up and turn everything upside down. It's the sort of story that kept me engaged while reading it, but whose flaws became immediately apparent in the end. The prose is a little ornate, but the real problems have to do with the Meduse. They're not particularly well established and even Binti's relationship with them feels rushed and unbelievable (especially given what the Meduse has done to her friends). Similarly, once she presents the university authorities with the Meduse's story, their response is even more ludicrous. Finally, there's a mysterious artifact that the story hinges on that is clumsily introduced and rather poorly explained. Again, an entertaining enough story, but one which falls apart upon reflection.
  5. The Builders by Daniel Polansky - As H.P. notes: "A mouse, a stoat, a possum, a salamander, a badger, a mole, and an owl walk into a bar..." A neat idea, but unfortunately, I can't say I was as taken with this story as H.P. The captain is a mouse who was betrayed during a civil war. He's bided his time and now seeks revenge. He puts his gang back together again and takes on his nemesis. A decent idea, but I found the execution rather lacking. In particular, the opening of the novella is awkwardly paced and clumsy. The stakes here aren't particularly well drawn either. We like the Captain and his band of fighters mostly just because they're the ones we know, not because they're inherently noble or something. In the end, it all feels a little pointless, even though it is fun to hang out with a salamander gunslinger or a possum sniper and whatnot. Not a terrible story or anything, I just didn't quite connect with it the way I did the others this year (and what's more is that I liked this much more than any of last year's nominees, which gives you an additional point of reference here).
All pretty good stuff, no need to deploy No Award. See also: Jonathan Edelstein's thoughts over at Haibane.info (I mostly agree with his assessments, with only minor differences in ranking). The top two are pretty well set, but the bottom three may shift around a little before I finally submit the ballot... which is due this week? Yikes, where does the time go? I've finished all of the fiction categories, and will probably only vote in a handful of others...
Posted by Mark on July 24, 2016 at 02:04 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, July 17, 2016

2016 Hugo Awards: Novelettes
Continuing the march through the Hugo finalists, we come to the awkward middle-ground between short stories and novellas that no one else uses but SF people: Novelettes. Fortunately, this is a pretty decent bunch of stories (especially compared to the lackluster short story ballot), even if none of them really stands out as truly exceptional. For me, they are all flawed in one way or another, making it pretty difficult to rank them. As such, this ranking will probably shift over time.
  1. "Obits" by Stephen King - A modern-day journalism student who naturally has difficulty landing a real job creates a snarky obituary column for a trashy internet tabloid. One day, frustrated, he writes an obituary for a living person. This being a Stephen King story, I think you can pretty much predict what's going to happen from there. Admittedly, this is a bit on the derivative and predictable side, but King's got the talent to pull it off with aplomb. He ably explores the idea at it's core, taking things further than I'd expect, even if the premise itself doesn't quite allow him much room. King has a tendency to write himself into corners, and you could argue that here, but I think he just barely skirted past that potentiality. It's comforting to be in the hands of a good storyteller, even if this is not his best work. Still, its flaws are not unique in this batch of novelettes, so it ends up in first place for me.
  2. "And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead" by Brooke Bolander - Rhye is a former military cyborg, now streetfighter and freelance security agent, whose boyfriend and hacker Rack is in hot water with some gangsters. It seems Rack's virtual security system is a little too good at it's job, and when the gangsters destroy his body, Rhye most go into virtual reality to finish off the mission and maybe save Rack's consciousness while she's at it. Cyberpunk comfort food, I guess. It doesn't really extend the genre at all, and its gratuitous cursing and violence feel a bit tacky. There's a decent enough story at the core here, and it's well executed, but it's even more derivative and predictable than Obits, even if it remains satisfying enough in the end. Still, I could see this falling in the ranking by the time I submit my ballot.
  3. "Folding Beijing" by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu - Beijing is separated into three spaces, and the city literally folds and unfolds, making each space active for a limited time. Lao Dao is basically a third-space trashman in need of a quick infusion of cash so that he can afford his daughter's tuition. He takes on a mission to illegally travel to first space to deliver a love letter. Along the way, he gets a glimpse into the economic and social forces dividing the spaces. It's an interesting prism with which to view class struggle and unlike the other stories, it's not predictable. The problem is that it doesn't particularly feel satisfying either. It's a very literary exploration, and as such, the speculative elements are mostly just window-dressing. The storytelling feels a bit flabby and uneven, with multiple loosely-related threads that are explored, but not particularly resolved. Of course, they don't need to be resolved, but this sort of approach makes it feel less speculative and more flat, which drops it down a peg on my ranking... and it could potentially fall even further, though I'm betting it will remain where it's at.
  4. "Flashpoint: Titan" by CHEAH Kai Wai - Commander Hoshi Tenzen of the Japanese Space Self Defense Force is on patrol near Titan as China launches a gambit to take over the system (is it China? No, yeah, it's definitely China.) The result is basically space battle porn, and it's well conceived and executed. This is the only real hard SF story of the bunch, and as such, the practical matters are the compelling force here (rather than, say, characterization), from the physics to the economics. Alas, not much else to say about it than that, though it does seem to be aging well in my head.
  5. "What Price Humanity?" by David VanDyke - Vango is a fighter pilot who finds himself in some sort of virtual reality system, reunited with various comrades, even including his long dead ex-girlfriend. As time goes on, they're given more and more advanced tasks, and their simulation gets more and more detailed. Once again, we've entered derivative and predictable territory here, and while the ending twist is easily guessed, it does leave you with some tricky moral questions. Not questions that are particularly well explored, mind you, but it does give this story enough of an edge for consideration. I liked this one a lot when I first read it, but it has been falling in my estimation since then...
All finalists ranked, no need to deploy No Award this time around, which seems to be my pattern with Novelettes. However, I'm having a lot of trouble ordering the list, such that almost all of the finalists could move around dramatically when I submit my final ballot...
Posted by Mark on July 17, 2016 at 11:59 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut's Windlass
Jim Butcher is most famous for chronicling the adventures of that other wizard named Harry in the long running Dresden Files series, but he has been known to branch out into other Fantasy realms from time to time. What was nominated for this year's Hugo Award is one of those departures, a steampunk adventure called The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut's Windlass. I've read four of Butcher's Dresden novels with mixed reactions, and that feeling generally holds here. Steampunk fans may enjoy this heartily, but I found myself struggling through it for some reason that I'm having trouble pinning down. I should really enjoy this novel, but something elusive is holding me back.

Humanity has retreated from a hostile, mist-covered earth into large floating spires ruled by aristocracy. They fly ships harnessing ethereal currents and use magic crystals to power everything. Spire Albion is currently embroiled in a cold war with Spire Aurora, a war that's about to escalate, even as an even greater threat to humanity begins to stir...

Captain Grimm commands a merchant ship (ne privateer) for Spire Albion, but when the ship is hobbled in combat, he must embark on a secret mission at the behest of his Spirearch, Lord Albion himself, in order to secure the necessary repairs. Along for the ride are Gwendolyn Lancaster, hailing from a prominent aristocratic house that is famous for growing those magic crystals in vats. Her cousin Benedict is a warriorborn, human beings hybridized with some feline features to make them more efficient warriors. Bridget Tagwynn is another aristocrat, but her house is not nearly as prominent as the Lancasters. Her talking cat Rowl follows her, acting all haughty and superior (as cats do). Then there are the etherialists, people who can harness ethereal powers for their own purposes, driving them partially mad in the process. Ferus is renowned and powerful, but comes off as an absent-minded, bumbling professor. He mentors Folly, a manic-pixie dream girl whose goofiness manifests as a tendency to address all communication to her crystals (rather than who she is trying to communicate with).

All of these characters are actually pretty well established and likeable, and their relationships work well. There are some mentor-mentee things going on, some romantic inclinations, unlikely friendships, and so on, and it's all effective and entertaining stuff. Grimm is a well-drawn leader and the glue that keeps the group together and focused. As you might tell from my description of Folly above, she initially comes off as a bit cliched, but as time goes on and we spend more time with her, she really comes into her own. There's a villain named Cavendish who is a worthy foe. There are big ship battles that are effective and maybe even realistic. Butcher takes full advantage of the three dimensions, and seems to leverage some of the principles of aerial combat (i.e. higher altitudes have a higher energy potential, a la John Boyd's E-M Theory, or maybe I'm giving too much credit here).

This should work for me, but for some reason, it doesn't. Maybe it's just the steampunk tropes that are giving me the hives. Every once in a while, Butcher will drop a term that is so very steampunk and my reaction was almost always a roll of the eyes. Verminociter? Telescoptic? Oy. But that's just superficial surface stuff, right? The deeper dislike is more difficult to pin down. One of the things I've never particularly enjoyed about Butcher's storytelling is his sense of pacing. He gets repetitive and overly-reliant on exposition, especially in the middle sections of this book. There's great action sequences at the beginning and end of the novel, but the middle section features entirely too much silkweaver (a sorta cross between giant spiders and centipedes). Butcher's brand of fantasy also seems to fall into the whole "escalating magical powers" trap that usually doesn't work for me. A corollary to this is the hero who can take on obscene amounts of punishment in battle and still come through alive and well in the end. This book isn't as bad as some of Butcher's others, but it's still there, and it is one of those things that just makes the book seem longer...

It often feels like we're just spinning our wheels. Eventually everything's set up for the climax, so he kinda gets there... only that isn't really the climax. The conflict between Spires Albion and Aurora has only just begun. There are hints at an even larger threat, an ancient enemy, but they're only hints. We don't really get far into either of these, and yet this book is over 750 pages long. Sometimes you can get away with that, but the airship battles, characters, and their relationships just weren't enough to overcome the bloated exposition and steampunk cliches. I'm not particularly opposed to finding out what happens next, but I can't see myself picking up the next book in the series either (without some sort of outside prompting).

In the larger context of the Hugo novel category, it's perhaps telling that my two favorites are standalone novels (Seveneves and Uprooted), while the two series-starters (this book and The Fifth Season) are clearly my least favorite. Ancillary Mercy kinda squeaks by because it's the end of it's particular story, even if I didn't particularly love it. I've finished off the novelettes and am working through the novellas now, so look for updates on those in the near future.
Posted by Mark on July 10, 2016 at 10:33 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, June 26, 2016

2016 Hugo Awards: Short Stories
Short Stories are tricky beasts. In its ideal form, the short story is a pure distillation of storytelling. No slack, no flab, no digressions, just story. This is hard to do, and lots of stories don't really work (for me, at least). As a result, reading a bunch of short stories together leads to an uneven experience. This goes double for Hugo shortlists, as there's not even a pretense that the stories are related (most collections are from a singular author or cover a theme), and when you add in our current culture wars, things get even more annoying. I've been mildly unimpressed with the last few years worth of Hugo Short Stories, and this year doesn't really change that. I'm not sure if that's just because there are so many short stories and so little agreement during the nominating phase or if it's because there really aren't enough great short stories out there. This year's ballot is mostly Rabid Puppies, with one non-Puppy work that made the ballot as a result of one original nominee bowing out in protest to the slate approach (a shame, since I loved that story). What's more, you can tell from the works themselves which belongs to which camp. There's a bifurcation of preferences that is very stark and obvious. Is that good? I don't know, let's dive in:
  1. "Cat Pictures Please" by Naomi Kritzer - Told from the perspective of an AI that was unintentionally created at Google to optimize their search algorithms. Bored, the AI decides to try helping out some humans... humans who are stubborn and uncooperative. In exchange, all the AI asks is for cat pictures. This is a fun little story, albeit a little derivative. I mean, the story itself references other stories (such as Bruce Sterling's "Maneki Neko") and that has the effect of making you want to read those rather than this one. Otherwise, it's reasonably well executed, with the occasional quibble to be had. The AI does seem surprisingly human in its thought process (dare I say: a Mary Sue), even as it pretends to be superior, but it works well enough. As it notes, most AI stories are about evil AIs that must be destroyed before they destroy humanity, and it is a little refreshing to read a story about a benevolent AI (albeit one with no boundaries on privacy).
  2. "Seven Kill Tiger" by Charles Shao - A tale of biological warfare and casual genocide, this story has some interesting ideas floating around. Not new ideas, to be sure, and the whole thing comes from a position of nationalism and xenophobia that is uncomfortable, but perhaps intentionally so. It's a little depressing (as I'm sure was intended), but perhaps too simple in its execution, which undercuts its effectiveness a little. Still, it's paced well and hits all its points quickly and effectively. These first two stories are imperfect, but on about the same level (as such, depending on my mood, the order might switch up when it comes to final voting).
  3. "Asymmetrical Warfare" by S. R. Algernon - Alien forces occupy earth and humans stubbornly fight back, as told from the perspective of the Alien commander. It's a little too short for its own good, but effectively shows a tragic misunderstanding at the heart of the conflict. That being said, there's not quite enough meat on this bone to make it truly effective, but then, who knows. We'll see how it marinates in my head when it comes voting time.
  4. Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle - A pretty blatant trolling nomination here, but it starts out surprisingly SFnal. But yeah, it's more gay erotica than SF and, um, how are we supposed to vote on this thing? For his part, Tingle seems to be taking the nomination in stride and with good humor, but whatever. I don't know, I'll just keep it here I think.
  5. No Award
  6. "If You Were an Award, My Love" by Juan Tabo and S. Harris - Look, I didn't particularly like "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" (a controversial nominee from a couple years ago) either, and if you want to whine about it on your blog, that's fine too. But best SF short story of the year? It's not a story at all. It's just a thinly veiled screed against non-Puppy Hugo voters and John Scalzi. Also? It's about a year too late. Hey, you guys, if I post my trenchant take-down of Murphy Brown next week, will you nominate that for a short story award next year? I get the "let's troll the awards" instinct that the Rabids have, I guess, but this is clearly not deserving of even being ranked on the final ballot. I don't hand out No Awards very often, but this is a pretty clear case.
Of note: the story that dropped out, The Commuter, would have probably been #1 on this ballot. So there you have it. I'm finishing up my final novel on the list and will move on to Novelettes and Novellas soon enough, so stay tuned.
Posted by Mark on June 26, 2016 at 12:49 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

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