A Bunch of White Guys, or The Hugo Awards

It isn’t a surprise to anyone that I am not the biggest fan of that literary ghetto of a genre, science fiction/fantasy. Despite publisher attempts to rescue books from that dreaded pit by re-labeling them speculative fiction, it remains a genre that has become a shorthand for basement-dwelling, mouth-breathing virgins.

The SFWA Magazine cover, Winter 2013

The SFWA Magazine cover, Winter 2013

Not that all readers of SFF are such – I know some lovely people who read it, and no doubt it produces outstanding literature, when it is careful about book jackets and avoiding the cliches that so haunt it as a genre. Some of my favourite books are technically SFF, but only because its such a broadly-defined genre. I didn’t start reading Pratchett for the dragons, but for his cop stories. But I still feel that this is a genre more haunted by outright racism and misogyny than it should be in 2015.

Then this year’s Hugo Awards nominations were released, and I feel like SFF took five steps back.

In summary: the internet’s bored white boys got annoyed that, gosh darn, women and people of colour were winning awards for SFF writing, and by their pointy white masks, this could not stand. So this group, called the Sad Puppies (I fucking kid you not) petitioned their followers to vote with their $40 dollar membership, and influenced the slate enough to make it nearly entirely white straight guys. They say that the Hugos were too leftist, that ‘serious works’ were shortchanging more popular ones.

Are these assholes serious? Apparently.

...are they serious about this design?

…are they serious about this design?

Now I normally wouldn’t care, because literary awards are bullshit and nearly always go to tedious books or tedious people. Just because the Hugo is the oldest, it doesn’t make it the most important or meaningful. And like io9 points out, now the Hugos are entirely political. But the reason I do care is because its a sign of a trend, and I don’t like that trend. I don’t like the trolls of the internet having enough power to hustle an old award into their agenda. Maybe the Booker prize is given to undeserving novels, but at least it doesn’t get awarded based on whose fans have $40 to spend on a vote. To quote the inimitable Chuck Wendig of Terrible Minds:

The easy answer is, “Buy a supporting membership and get voting,” but sometimes this is formed as criticism and it’s worth noting that plenty of folks (fans, authors, whoever) may not be comfortable to (or able to) spend forty bucks just to vote on a science-fiction award. Forty bucks is cheap to a lot of people. And expensive to a lot of others. There’s an argument to be made, too, that if SFF is to represent marginalized or under-served voices, then we may also want to recognize that those voices are often in possession of less filthy lucre than more privileged segments. And further, this argument somewhat explicitly turns the Hugo Awards into a capitalist pissing match rather than a popular vote — have your voice be heard and your vote counted is lovely to say as long as you don’t add to it, but it’ll cost you forty bucks, so write a fucking check.

No one should stand for this state of affairs, and I”m glad that authors are withdrawing their nominations. But you’d think that SFF would just grow up already as a genreits readers, its publishers, its authors. I feel like we’re dragging this damn genre as a whole kicking and screaming into the 1950s, never mind 2015. Given the inexplicable success of Game of Tits and Ender’s Game despite its hideous author’s homophobic and racist rants, the endemic sexism in this genre since its inception, and the ongoing racism, I wonder if this year’s Hugo furore wasn’t inevitable.

Still, there’s hope yet – this is just one year’s awards, and maybe 20 years ago no one would have blinked at a slate like this. The resultant Twitter firestorm, while as predictable as a sunset, is still a good sign that maybe that the status is not quo, and that many authors and readers are horrified by what’s happening in their genre. Look at the 50-author strong backlash against the SFWA magazine cover I put up a few paragraphs ago. Even I, someone who probably wouldn’t pick up SFF unless I was tricked into it, give a shit about this state of affairs. I look forward to seeing it swing back to an interesting, diverse pool of authors next year. Perhaps someone should run a parallel set of awards?

Goodbye, Sir Terry, and Thank You

The first Discworld novel I read was The Fifth Elephant, and it wasn’t the one that got me addicted to Pratchett. No, not at all.

The novel that made me go back and devour more was, oddly, Snuff. Released late in Pratchett’s career, it was my gateway to the Discworld and there was nothing for it but to go and find every single Sam Vimes novel. I adore Sam Vimes, the majesty of the law himself, and Death is splendid and there are a hundred characters that I’ll be reading to my kids one day. The witches. Moist. Lu-Tze. The Patrician. Susan. Ridcully. Nobby Nobbs. Rincewind, Angua, Carrot and oh god, if I keep listing them my heart will break.

I have had so many happy hours with these books. When I have been sick, I have turned to them. When I have been shoulder-deep in depression, when I felt like every nerve was frayed and exposed and I couldn’t bear any human contact. Every night with insomnia, every lazy Sunday to chase away the Monday blues. My copy of Night Watch, gifted to me by my very best friend, is about to fall apart at the spine. I read Pratchett out loud to my beloved physicist and we have discussed the intricacies of the Discworld for many happy hours.

For the gods’ sake, I have the Ankh-Morpork board game.

He was only 66, and though we know all beloved authors must die, it is still vastly unfair that a writer of such prodigious talent went so soon. At the least, he died loved and in company, and in the end, that is all we can really hope for, for all of us.

I am grateful that there are so many Discworld novels to read, and that we have them at all. That any book’s birth is a combination of luck, talent and timing, and to have so many is wealth indeed. It’s hard not to mourn the books that will now go unwritten, but at least we can turn to dozens and dozens of novels and be glad that those books live now.

Thank you, Sir Terry Pratchett. Back to stardust we all must go, but at least you spent your time here making so many people happy.

paul-kidby-fantasy-art-303451-1679x1300

Review of The Dying of the Light by Derek Landy

Skulduggery Pleasant is not a series for the weak-hearted. It is a dark, hilarious and 1600_1200_skul2addictive thrill of a series, and unlike most fantasy novels, none of the female characters ever have to take their clothes off just to be noticed. (Seriously, Fantasy, as a genre you need to stop it with the pointlessly naked ladies.)

In fact, it is a dual protagonist series, starring the eponymous wisecracking skeleton wrought from black magic and iron will, and a young girl named Valkyrie Cain who grows increasingly and impressively powerful. She owns her power and her gifts, never apologising for being strong and resourceful, and is given full reign throughout nine books to explore herself not only as a sorcerer, but as a woman shouldered with saving the world. Throughout the series, we see many clever, capable and funny women, some of immense power and strength. Some are good, and some are very, very bad, and it makes for a great change to see women on both sides of the moral fence rather than standing off to the side cheering on the manly men with the swords.

Basically, if the Harry Potter series was better written and Hermione was the lead, rather than second-fiddle to a deeply annoying and undeserving lead character, it might almost be as good as Skulduggery Pleasant. Might. Could have used more fine tailoring as well.

In the newest and final book The Dying of the Light, the big, bad villain the series has been building up to over a couple thousand pages is on the rampage, having stolen Valkyrie’s body and using it to plan the destruction of the world, as well as whichever planets are nearby. We see the extent of truly unfettered power (the scenes in which Darquesse explores her newfound power of rearranging things at the subatomic level are gratifyingly horrifying) and the novel constantly twists and turns to the point I honestly expected one of those “EVERYBODY DIES” endings. So many characters make it back in time for the last novel – Scapegrace the Zombie King, Doctor Nye, Tanith Low, The Dead Men, the Remnants and China Sorrows – that this feels like a good send-off for the series. I have loved it since I accidentally came across the first one two years ago and read the first four in one delirious weekend. I adore Skulduggery for his wit and his compassion and his refusal to let his past ruin him forever. I will miss Valkyrie and China and Scapegrace, but it is grand to see a series come to a graceful and timely close, rather than dragging on like static at the end of a forgotten vinyl.

I can’t say much more about The Dying of the Light without spoiling it, but overall, this book was worth the year-long wait. It is packed with action, just the right amount of pathos without being sentimental, and within the greater battle between good and evil, it takes time to ask smaller, quieter questions. It is far more than a young adult fantasy series (ugh I hate that term) – it is a detective novel, it is a thriller, and a horror. Skulduggery Pleasant is a weighty and refreshing contribution to a genre that is in desperate need of fresh air and great one-liners.

Skul-friends-skulduggery-pleasant-24228440-720-640

The Hobbit HFR 3D Review

the-hobbit-movie-e1343383853962

So, I was fortunate enough to get a preview ticket to see The Hobbit in very sexy HFR 3D. This luxurious new 3D format actually delivers what it promises: increased depth (which sometimes creates a weird soap opera feel) and no more blurriness. Thankfully, it is also much, much easier on the eyes. I was pleased that I didn’t have a headache after nearly three hours of 3D. For that alone, the new format is worth your time, especially for epic battle scenes.

The-HobbitNow, onto the movie itself. I read The Hobbit a long time ago, like most people, and haven’t reread it since for a number of reasons. Mostly because a) I very rarely reread books when there’s so much out there that should be read and b) I find fantasy the most boring genre in the world. So, the movie should ideally be a distillation of the best parts of the book to encourage people to explore the book further while making the movie a manageable, digestible experience.

Does the movie deliver? The action scenes are sublime in their direction and excitement. The post-production clearly cost a great number of millions. Gollum made an excellent appearance and his facial rendering now severely dates the Lord of the Rings trilogy in comparison. Martin Freeman, while a bit stilted initially, (basically Watson with no shoes on) still makes a great action hero. The dwarfs are fun, and of course Gandalf can save the movie by himself. The art direction is outstanding, the clothes are most beautiful. Taken on the value of those things, the movie is worth watching just for how it looks.

2012TheHobbit01PR200912

But you knew that I was going to find something, and I hear the nitpick train coming into the station. The Hobbit is a product of the 50s, and it is going to be inherently problematic. Like Game of Thrones, it too is about a bunch of white men running around having adventures. (Thankfully, less rapey, gratuitious sex.) There is ONE speaking role for a woman in three hours. She mostly glides around like a lost bride and doesn’t really inspire much awe or even interest. As you can imagine, everyone is pretty much lily-white. Men are brave and manly and smoke a lot. It could have been mistaken for a tobacco ad, at times. I don’t see how problematic it would have been to have the dwarves being of different skin colours. (But you only have to look at the backlash about Hunger Games having a few black actors to see where the problem comes in).

The-Hobbit-550x281So, that’s the BA part of me speaking up. Now for the writer part. Dear god, did this one average-sized book have to be split into three movies? There’s still too much walking. There are goddamn musical numbers, which should have been left in the book. They were as trite and folksy as they were in the 50s; they have no right being in a movie now. (Also, sometimes sound editing dropped the ball and the lyrics weren’t very clear.) They jar with the whole movie and should really have been left out. There’s a lot of scenes that could have been left out to make a more coherent, interesting whole. Peter Jackson, like James Cameron, is dragging the viewer into his special circle-jerk. Sure, I can imagine the hardcore fans appreciate the thousands of details in Orc costumes that are only on screen for a few minutes. But what about those of us who want a better version of the books? With less walking and tedious descriptions and complicated family trees that make reading the books like chewing concrete?

My opinion of The Lord of the Rings trilogy has always been an unpopular one, but I stand by it. And unfortunately, the problematic things about the books have made their way into the films, the one chance the books had to get better. The movies are interminably long, as are the books. More writing is not necessarily good writing. Just because I want cheesecake, it does not mean I want to eat one the size of a dustbin lid. The racism and elision of women could have been addressed. After all, the idea of some races being better or smarter qua race is at the very foundation of this. Hobbits are lazy, Elves are smart, Dwaves are drunken and strong, etc.

Sherlock 2 Specials

The best example of a canon evolving is Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes the character (as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1880s) was a racist, misogynist asshole, for all of his smartness. But the two most recent iterations of this phenomenon have changed Holmes for the better. BBC’s Sherlock has kept the asshole tendencies but at least he isn’t hardcore racist. I’m ambivalent on the sexism issue. Sherlock-Holmes-A-Game-of-Shadows-Poster-007Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes works with women and has lost the general dickishness of the character as developed in the 1960s and onwards. I don’t think this has harmed the character: if people can change and grow, why can’t characters?

The inherent problem with Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit is that it has one of the most puritanical fanbases (just like Jane Austen fans). They don’t like change, and they don’t like upgrades. Surely the core message can survive a little updating? Ultimately, the books are about being good, doing good and being brave regardless of size or strength. What difference does it really make if Sam had been a female hobbit? Or black? And if Tolkien couldn’t have done it then, surely Jackson could have done it now? If the characters are really defined by their personalities, there’s no reason race or gender could be an issue. Unfortunately, it is still edgy to to have a female lead. Or a gay one. Or a black one.

Alright, so segue aside, do you need to see the movie? If you can see it in HFR 3D (the Nu-Metro rep said that only four screens will have it nationally), then go see it just to enjoy the new tech and experience. If you’re a Hobbit/Lord of the Rings/fantasy fan, nothing I say here will dissuade you. The problems I have are not the ones everyone else will have. It is the holidays, and it isn’t the worst movie you will ever watch (because that movie is Sex and the City).

Read what others thought here:

Slashfilm.com – ‘Rousing, yet Repetitive’

Butter Scraped Over Too Much Bread: Robbie Collins

Variety.com – No kinder on small bladders or impressionable eyes

The Trilogy Will Test the Stamina of Non-Believers: The Guardian.co.uk 

Misty Mountain Out of a Molehill – The Daily Mail

Feels Twice As Long as Half a Movie Should – Film School Rejects

Review of The Long Earth by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett

The Long Earth – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Oh, Terry. Oh, Sir Pratchett. I have read so many of your books. Sam Vimes is my very favourite character in literature. I love him indecently. I love the Discworld, and all its charming, messed-up folks. I love the subtle social commentary, the use of hard science in elaborate ways. I love the wisdom and the genuine humanism, the flavour of the characters and their adventures and trials. Your humour in the Discworld series is the kind that makes me want to phone people and read lines to them, though I can’t always finish them for the laughter.

And then, Long Earth.

I know its a co-authored work (which has been done well before with Gaiman) and I know its not Discworld. And that’s fine, because an author should always be trying something new. And I admire that, and I admired the plot of Long Earth. It involves lots of delicious what-ifs and timey-wimey stuff. Yay for that. But what happened to Pratchett?

The absence of the beloved author was made glaring by the moments in the book that were pure Pratchett, the moments that shone amongst the general pabulum of the book itself. It took me two weeks to finish this, and I had to force myself through the first 100 pages. It was like a dear friend had invited me to a party, and I was really excited to go, but then I got there and the wine was cheap, the snacks dry and the company less than stellar. And for the first two hours of the party, I wanted to fall upon a knife. But eventually it got sort of better and it didn’t feel too wasteful.

As I write this, I’m wracking my brain to try remember the names of the characters. I have since given away my proof copy (and ain’t that a sign of the times, plentiful Pratchett proofs?) and now I’m trying to remember who starred in the damn thing. It shouldn’t be this hard. Look, I think that a non-Pratchett fan might enjoy it, or a Baxter fan. He is a big-name author in his own right, though he writes in a field I generally find tedious. The thing is, this should have been the proof that Pratchett is not slipping, that he is unaffected by the onset of his Alzheimer’s (proof that there really is no god) and that he can still produce the goods.

But then, I read Snuff, and the rest of the Sam Vimes books in reverse order. And the sad part is that there is a lot of recycling going on here. The end of Snuff, with the amazing race down the river and Vimes ending up in a cave? Pretty much lifted from Thud! with Sam Vimes going crazy in a cave after being tumbled about by an underground river. That was pretty saddening. Lady Sybil is still amazing though.

But you know, even at his worst, Pratchett is still better than 90% of authors out there. I guess this is me just expecting more. Long Earth had boring characters, the female ones especially so. There’s a lesbian cop, which I thought made for a refreshing change, but she really doesn’t do much. She has a bit of a moment at the end, but she was mostly unused and ignored. The same goes for the woman who is good at stepping. (At least there wasn’t a shoehorned romance.) There’s a general menace that is explained away weirdly in something that seems suspiciously stolen from Douglas Adams (who also didn’t know when to end the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.) The ending felt rushed and a bit wobbly as well.

This really isn’t one for the fans, because fans expect more and by this point, we kind of have the right to expect that. It is hard for our favourite author to write more than 30 superb novels, and then drop this on us. I don’t even know who to recommend it to. Maybe mid to hardcore sci-fi fans? Mind you, the science isn’t really that hard and there aren’t any fantasy elements barring some interesting animals.

I know that even at my best, I can’t match Pratchett’s worst. All I’m actually saying here is that it is getting a little embarrassing being a Pratchett fan now. I will still buy every book he writes, and I will still throw my panties if he ever comes to visit here, but I am allowed to be disappointed, I think.

But! Not everyone agrees with me, so check out The Guardian’s review, The Independent’s review and what the folks at SFX.co.uk have to say.