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?

The Steampunk Aesthetic and Ideal in Literature and Film: A Primer

How important is steampunk? Is it a literary genre? A film aesthetic? Or just a subculture that has co-opted bits and pieces of Victorian dress and mixed it with a wry twist of sci-fi?

A Young Adult Anthology

The term steampunk is not as old as the literature that inspired it. A term coined in the 1980s as a tounge-in-cheek reference to the rise of cyberpunk, it was originally a shorthand for the work of three authors in the 1980s:  KW Jeter, Tim Powers and James Blaylock. While these authors were the first to consciously use the term, the work that inspired theirs is late Victorian and the rise of steampunk as a cohesive genre began in the 1960s and 70s, solidifying in the 80s. A key example of 1980s steampunk is Elementary BASIC – Learning to Program Your Computer in BASIC with Sherlock Holmes by Henry Singer and Andrew Ledgar. This may have been the first fictional work to co-opt Charles Babbage‘s Analytical Engine in an adventure story: Victorian meshed with the 80s in an educational adventure book.

The first influences of steampunk literature can be found in the scientific romances of Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and HG Wells, the precursors to the now extensive and complicated genre of science fiction. These experimental writers introduced the concepts of an alternative history where steam power had triggered a golden, mechanical age (or sometimes a post-apocalyptic dystopia caused by these wondrous machines). Steam punk is, essentially, a mash of alternative history, futurist thinking and mechanical aesthetic. Some call it speculative fiction, others retro-futuristic, and maybe even straightforward imaginative fantasy. In movies, it is adopted as an aesthetic, mostly as a Rule of Cool, but sometimes as a tidy hand wave to support plots that require certain tech in an age unlikely to have it. It can, however, imbue a movie with the freedom to speculate and create a sandbox for the director to play in.

Steampunk Jewelry

While not as mainstream as many other literary genres (most people probably can’t name a steam punk author as quickly as an American crime writer) it has nonetheless influenced genres outside its own. Consider the area of punk clothing: metal meets lace and cogs meet corsets. There are websites dedicated to such clothing, (Blue Banana, Kate’s Clothing and famously Alchemy Gothic) though it is expensive and often its adherents become adept at making their own clothing.

But most people can recognise steam punk when they see it: movies such as The Prestige, The Golden Compass, Hellboy, Hugo, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events have a clear steampunk aesthetic. I would argue that Twelve Monkeys has an element of steampunk. The first movie to showcase it was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927, and Terry Gillam’s Brazil in 1985 continued building on the tradition. There’s a blend of steam punk and the wild West, made famous in the movie Wild Wild West, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. It has also been seen recently in Doctor Who season 7 in the episode “A Town Called Mercy”, though only in a relatively minor capacity.

Ultimately, my take on steampunk is that it is more of a tool and aesthetic more than a cohesive way of seeing the world. Steampunk means many things to many people: this article itself was germinated by an argument over whether the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies could be seen as steampunk. Considering that Arthur Conan Doyle himself wrote some of the seminal scientific romances (the Professor Challenger series), it isn’t too many steps removed to see that Ritchie may have referenced this in the Sherlock Holmes movies in very small aesthetic details. (I still don’t think it is nearly enough to be considered steampunk). But, steampunk can be whatever the author or reader want it to be: like science fiction, it is at heart a speculative genre, and that frees up the author to write in a splendid, challenging fashion. While the fashion can be a bit staid, it can still manifest in jewelery as beautiful as traction farthing pendants and the Nevermore Fob Watch. It is a remarkable genre, though often buried under disdain for the perceived geekiness of it.

Your reading list:

Steampunk – Ann VanderMeer, Jeff VanderMeer
Steampunk II 
Steampunk III
1,000 Steampunk Creations by Grymm and John
Steampunk Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos 
Steampunk! The Bestselling Anthology (Young Adult)
Steampunk Prime by Mike Ashley
The Art of Steampunk by Art Donovan
The Mammoth Book of Steampunk by Sean Wallace
Steampunk Poe by Megan Byrant
Corsets and Clockwork by Trisha Telep
Steampunk Holmes by PC Martin
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Steampunk Version by Zdenko Basic

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.