Hugo Blogging: “Best” Related Work

Best related work is another field in which all five nomination categories were taken by two overlapping slates: one, the “Sad Puppies”, who claim to exist in order to promote the kind of fiction I personally find tedious, but with a side-order of reactionary conservatism; and another, the “Rabid Puppies”, which had more effect, and which had that effect because its instigator, “Vox Day”, a neofascist rape apologist, got hate groups involved in his own petty revenge fantasy against the science fiction community that had wronged him by not seeing his genius.

For fairly obvious reasons, I am not going to give anything on those slates a ranking above No Award. Once again, however, I am grateful that my aesthetic instincts match my moral ones here — while these are (with one notable exception) much less incompetent than the fiction I’ve read so far, none of them are actually, you know, good.

Here’s how I’m ranking them.

Letters from Gardner by Lou Antonelli is half writing autobiography/how to break into SF manual, and half collection of short stories. Basically imagine The Early Asimov, but with Antonelli replacing Asimov and Gardner Dozois replacing John Campbell. Antonelli tells the story of how each of his stories was written, and how it was accepted or rejected.
The difference is, though, that Antonelli has had an undistinguished career, lasting roughly a decade, while Asimov was one of the greats of the genre (at least in sales and critical status). There is an intrinsic interest in Asimov’s juvenilia which there just isn’t for Antonelli. The stories were pedestrian, and there were no real insights, but this might be of interest to someone. It’s not *bad*, just also not *good*.

Why Science Is Never Settled by Tedd Roberts is, with the exception of one line that hints at climate-change denialism, a perfectly competent long blog post summary of the scientific method, the controversies around the current scientific culture, and so on. It’s baby-level stuff, and anyone who reads, say, Slate Star Codex (let alone any actual science) will laugh their heads off at the idea that stuff this basic merits any kind of award. But for what it is it’s a perfectly readable blog post. Sod all to do with SF though.

The Hot Equations by Ken Burnside is one of two pieces edited and published by “Vox Day” that have only got here because of his nasty little revenge fantasy. Of the two, this is clearly the better, having an actual point — it points out the scientific failings of much space opera and military SF, and tries to come up with more physically plausible ways of telling that sort of story. Unexceptionable, even though it’s in the same anthology as the execrable Turncoat story. Definitely not award-worthy, but it didn’t make me feel physically ill while I read it or anything, which for a work associated with “Day” is quite an achievement.

Transhuman and Subhuman by John C Wright is also edited and published by “Day”, and is more the kind of thing I’ve come to associate with him. This is a collection of critical essays about SF and fantasy, written from a conservative Catholic perspective, and pushing that point of view.
Mr Wright is clearly hugely influenced by G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, and goes out of his way to invite comparison to them. This is admirable as far as it goes — Lewis and (especially) Chesterton were true greats. However, what he has taken from them is not their wit, nor their largeness of spirit, nor their love of the world and its inhabitants. He doesn’t have Chesterton’s deftness of phrase or political insight, nor Lewis’ good humour, imagination, and willingness to include himself in his denouncements of sin.
Rather, what he has taken from them is their small-minded bigotries, their confusion of the conventions of the society they lived in with eternal spiritual verities, and their (at least Chesterton’s) willingness to twist logic to suit dogma rather than try to reconcile dogma with the world.
He’s a fundamentally dishonest disputant. Take for example this sentence:

The major objection honest atheists must level (and I was an honest atheist, back then, not merely a character assassin) is that religion is false; that even if true, it has no claim on our loyalty; that the reason of man, being reason, cannot be bound by dogma; and that the claims, true or false, are repellant to the dignity of free and rational beings.

No. The major objection of an honest atheist is, and is only, that they believe religion to be false. All that other stuff is irrelevant to an honest atheist, but is relevant if setting up a straw man.
Catholicism deserves better apologists than Mr Wright, even leaving aside his bigotry.

And finally, Wisdom From My Internet, by Michael Z. Williamson is simply a collection of the kind of “joke” your reactionary crank of a grandfather posts to Facebook. The first page has two rape jokes, and the whole is simply a collection of disconnected lines like “Hitler didn’t commit suicide over the gas bill” and “If we borrow money from China, will be we broke again an hour later?”
It’s not a book in any reasonable sense of the word, nor does it have anything to do with SF or fantasy. Its nomination (keeping off good, valuable, books) is a despicable act, and is both sets of Puppies trolling the awards. The other entrants, even the awful one from Wright, are at least attempting to say something. This had less thought put into it than my two paragraphs dismissing it had. I regret that I have but one No Award vote to place above it.

Hugo Blogging: “Best” Novelette

This is another category where the ballot is dominated by the overlapping slates that were block-voted in an attempt to promote reactionary (and in the case of at least one of the two slates, explicitly neo-fascist) political views, and as such I would be putting four of the five stories here below “No Award” anyway, as they did not make the ballot legitimately.

However, I shall actually be placing all five below No Award. One of the more depressing aspects of the Sad and Rabid Puppy slates is that the people who put them together are pushing both a political and an aesthetic viewpoint, and the aesthetic viewpoint is just as toxic as the political one. Even were all the stories to have made it on their own merits without block voting, and even had the politics of the authors matched my own, the stories on the Puppy slates are just *bad*.

Some of that badness is a lack of craft — badly-written sentences, with no sense of the potential of language for beauty, of the rhythms of speech, or of the subtle nuances involved in the choice of one word over another. I would actually have some sympathy for this if the ideas in the stories were worth reading — after all, I hardly have the most mellifluous prose style myself, and there are reasons other than beauty of language to read.

But the ideas are, uniformly (bearing in mind I’m only two categories through, so they might yet surprise me) awful.

In the “Best” Novelette category, I’m ranking No Award first, and second I will be ranking The Day the World Turned Upside Down by Thomas Olde Heuvel (translated by Lia Belt). This is the one non-Puppy nomination, and is the kind of poor literary fiction that makes one almost wonder if the Puppies have a point. The protagonist, a tedious narcissist with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever, is moping because his girlfriend left him. Then, for no adequately-explained reason, gravity goes into reverse, with people being flung up to ceilings or into space. The world has turned upside down, just as his girlfriend turned his emotional world upside down. Do you see?
It’s perfectly competently written, for its type (although don’t use it as a guide for the care and feeding of goldfish — but in a world where gravity can go into reverse, goldfish managing to survive in 7-Up is probably not the most unrealistic thing about the story), but it’s a story in which horrible things happen to a horrible person, and I find it very hard to care about those.

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium by Gray Rinehart immediately shows that actually, no, the Puppies don’t have a point after all. The plot can be accurately summarised in two sentences, without losing any of its essence: “On a world ruled by evil lizard aliens who have a taboo against intelligent beings going underground, a man who is dying because the lizards won’t let humans have medication decides to get buried to spite them. He gets buried, and this upsets them.”
As with much of the Sad/Rabid Puppy slate, there is a sense here that the author is trying to say something he thinks is profound, but that his assumed audience share so many of his political and religious prejudices that the meaning is completely opaque to those of us who are not conservative North American ex-military middle-aged white men in either the Mormon or Catholic churches, as almost all of the Puppy nominees seem to be.

The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale by Rajnar Vajra reads exactly like a story that could have been published in Astounding in 1945, except that John Campbell probably wouldn’t have approved of the use of the term “African-American”. That is the only sign in the story that the last seventy years have happened, though — and while I have a lot of time for stories that were actually from 1945, we don’t need any Campbell tribute acts.

The Journeyman: in the Stone House by Michael F Flynn I actually couldn’t finish. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world that reads like tenth-hand Robert E Howard, and every third word is a made-up one:

The kospathin leaned on the arm of his big chair and growled something in a back-throated language. The young woman spoke up in the shortgrass plavver.
“My father asks whether or no ye be spies for the kraal of Bowman.”
Teodorq answered in the sprock. “Sorry, babe. We don’t get ya.”

This is what people who don’t read SF think all SF is like. Pitiful. It’s also badly copy-edited, with lines like “They watched a while longer in science.”

And Championship B’tok by Edward Lerner — ah, do you see? The space-chess game is a metaphor for the political machinations. Not only is this leaden and horribly written, but it’s not actually a stand-alone work, but part two of a five-part serialised novel. Should never have even been nominated.

Hugo Blogging: “Best” Short Story

All the stories in this year’s Hugo nominations for the Best Short Story award are there because they were on one or both of two overlapping slates. Not only do I believe that slates are wrong in themselves in an award like this, as they distort the voting process, but the two slates themselves were put together for reasons I cannot agree with. The more prominent slate, the “Sad Puppies”, which had less effect, was put together by someone who is merely extremely unpleasant, to promote a point of view, both aesthetic and political, with which I strongly disagree. The other slate, the “Rabid Puppies”, which had more effect, was put together by a vile shitsmear whose expressed political and social views are so evil as to resist caricature, and who put it together with the aim of personal gain.

As a result, I do not believe a single story on the ballot is on there legitimately, and so I will be ranking No Award at the top of the list.

I would perhaps have some ethical qualms about this, were any of the nominated stories any good. However, happily, they range from merely not-very-good to outright abysmal. I shall rank the stories below No Award as follows:

Totaled by Kary English. This story is not in any way bad. It’s also, however, not in any way *good*, either. Were it in an anthology I read, I’d read through the story and forget it immediately, maybe remembering “the brain-in-a-jar one” if prodded enough. Perfectly competently put together, but with no new ideas, no interesting characters, and no real reason for existing. Certainly not Hugo-worthy.

A Single Samurai by Steve Diamond is included in The Baen Big Book of Monsters, which Baen, following their normal policy, have provided in its entirety. This utterly mediocre story is done no favours at all by its proximity to stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Bloch, and Henry Kuttner. A mixture of macho nonsense like “Pain is nothing. It is simply a feeling, like hunger, or worry. It can be tolerated and banished with proper discipline. There are demons that live off that pain, that thrive off their victims succumbing to it. So I feel no pain. I do not just ignore it, for that implies a recognition that it was there to begin with.” combined with the Japan-fetishism that seems endemic in US geek circles. I suppose of its type it’s not utterly terrible, but its type is stories about manly men being manly.

The Parliament of Beasts and Birds by John C Wright is one of several entries published by Castalia House, the vanity project run by “Vox Day”, the human shitstain mentioned above. Mr. Wright clearly *desperately* wants to be C.S. Lewis, and equally clearly is about as far from Lewis in talent and basic moral thought as one can get. This is meant to be a fable, so has no real characterisation, and is written competently enough, but in a cliched pseudo-Aesop style without any inventiveness to it. Any impact the story might have is dependent on accepting Mr Wright’s rather horrible version of fundamentalist Christianity as literally true. As I don’t accept it, the effect of the story is simply boredom.

On The Spiritual Plain by Lou Antonelli may be, on the pure sentence level, the single worst-written story by an apparent professional I’ve ever read. Every sentence is a simple declarative sentence, such as “Joe made a gesture of helplessness.”
Note that Mr Antonelli does not describe what gesture this may be. “A gesture of helplessness” is apparently enough. Not only that, but the story is appallingly copy-edited, with lines like “Was Joe McDonald the first human die [sic] on Ymilas?”, and with numerals used instead of numbers written as words.
The plot itself is the bog-standard “human priest unsure about his own faith goes to alien world where tenets of his faith are provable” nonsense that the Puppies like so much.

And Turncoat by Steve Rzasa is from an anthology edited and published by “Day”, and is a sequel to a novel “Day” co-wrote with Rzasa. It is full of literally unreadable things like “Targets, plural. To be precise, there are four of them, Hermes-class corvettes, two hundred meters, bristling with sensors and loaded with 400 torpedoes between them. The Ascendancy has
manufactured eight hundred ninety six of them over the last 103 years and 648 are still in service. There will be 644 presently.”

That kind of info-dumping continues throughout the whole thing. Just look at the lack of craft in there. The way it switches between numerals and numbers written as words, with no apparent reason for the change except laziness, is a particularly nice touch. As for the plot, well, it’s a bunch of anti-transhumanism from a reactionary Christian perspective dressed up as a story, with a “twist” that implies that people in a far-distant posthuman future will still hold the same opinions about historical figures who are only known or cared about in the USA that modern-day USians currently hold. Wretched.

On Writing Head Of State, Part 1

Sorry for my absence for a few days. This has been an incredibly busy and stressful few weeks — since the election I’ve had a severe illness in my family, spent a couple of evenings with a friend over from California, and had various other bits that needed doing.

One of those things, that’s occupied a big chunk of my spare time recently, is putting together the final edits for my novel Faction Paradox: Head of State, which will be out in the summer. So I thought I’d talk a little about it, without spoiling too much, because I think the process of writing it is of some interest.

It started, as a matter of fact, as a space opera. I was trying to come up with a Faction Paradox novel idea, because my friends Simon Bucher-Jones and Lawrence Burton, both of whom have written their own very good novels in the series, said I’d be good at it, and my original thought was to use a space opera idea I’d posted here, about first contact with a planet that was exactly like Earth in every way.

The idea was a good one, and I may well come back to it, but I hit a few snags. There were things I wanted to include, things that I had a hazy idea of, that just didn’t fit — I wanted to include a book that held some great significance, I wanted to talk about power, and I wanted to include a plot point hinted at in The Book of the War which I still think is one of the best ideas in the Faction Paradox series. And none of this really seemed to fit the space opera storyline.

Then, I had two other ideas. I can tell you precisely where I was — I was walking through Piccadilly train station, and I could show you the precise spot where I was when these ideas came to me, they were that vivid. The first idea was to have the Thousand and Second Night, as told by the decapitated head of Scheharazade. The second was a scene which comes right at the end of the book, so I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s set in 21st century America. But the thing is, I *knew* those two scenes, totally disconnected as they are, were part of the same book.

I also realised that the Thousand And Second Night could be the important book that I wanted to write about, so now all I had to do was connect the two images.

The first, obvious, thing was that Sir Richard Francis Burton, the Victorian explorer, was a translator of the Arabian Nights, and also appears as a character in The Book Of the War, so I decided to use him as a character, and model the version of the Nights in my book on his translation. Making the book the motivating factor behind a character in the last scene could tie the threads together.

But that’s still only five ideas (1002nd night, Richard Burton, ending, book, motivation). At a rough approximation, you can get about 1000 words out of an idea. So I needed seventy-something more ideas to write a novel. I’ll talk about how I pulled those together next time…

Linkblogging For 16/05/15

Posting will be intermittent here for a couple more weeks. I’ve been a little blocked for the last month or so (yes, I know, I wrote a ten thousand word ebook in three days last week — I expected to write that in one day, and would have done had I been at full writing ability). The election result has made that ten times worse.
I’m trying a new method of getting round writer’s block, which involves restricting the amount of time every day you write, so if it works there’ll be fewer posts at first but it should lead me to writing more in the longer term.
In the meantime, links (and I’ll try at least to post links every day):
I’m not the only one who’s been writing a lot on Mindless Ones at the moment — the posts on Mad Men are worth reading even if, like me, you don’t watch the show.
Millennium on the election and where we go next (NB there have been a LOT of posts from Lib Dems and fellow travellers on this, many very good, but most don’t need to be shared any further right now. There’s a real danger at the moment of searching for scapegoats — it seems that Nick Clegg has been nominated by many, and while I never had much time for him as a leader and think he bears a great deal of responsibility, I also think that spending the next five years pouring vitriol on 12.5% of our parliamentary party may not be the best way to rebuild — so I’m trying, as much as my naturally mouthy nature will let me, to be quiet).
Tom Ewing on Tintin and anti-semitism
Feminist Aspie says “Yes, you do mean me”
And Andrew Rilstone on Star Wars, Watsonism, and Doylism

California Dreaming: Do It Again

The Beach Boys were rather desperate for a hit.

By May 1968 it had been almost two years since Good Vibrations had gone to number one, and their singles since then had been at best moderate successes. Friends, the title track from their most recent album, hadn’t even reached the top forty.

So for the first time, they decided to take a look back at their past.

In August 1967, the band (with Brian Wilson, and without Bruce Johnston, who had temporarily left the band) had travelled to Hawaii to perform two sets for a planned live album, Lei’d in Hawaii. Those shows consisted of performances of many of the band’s biggest hits, but rearranged in the stripped-down style of their recent Smiley Smile album, with plenty of vocal harmonies but minimal instrumentation apart from Brian Wilson’s Baldwin organ.

The album was deemed unreleasable, even after extensive studio work, but one thing jumped out. For the first time in several years, the band had performed a version of their very first single, Surfin’, and during the track Brian Wilson had started singing the melody to Underwater by the Frogmen, a surf instrumental that had been released on the same label (Candix) and in the same year (1961) as Surfin’. This melody, sung in wordless “ba ba ba” falsetto by Brian Wilson, stuck in the band’s minds as an idea to return to.

A few months later, Mike Love, who had been generally unimpressed with the band’s turn away from what he considered more relatable lyrical themes, went surfing with an old friend, Bill Jackson, and came back inspired — the band were going to write their first new song about surfing in four years.

Love’s lyrics centred around the themes that had done so well for the band a few years previously — suntanned bodies, surfing, beaches, and a quick namecheck of the earlier song California Girls — but with a sense of nostalgia. Those things were in the past now, and we need to “get together and do it again”.

Wilson added a rudimentary three-chord structure and the Frogmen’s melody to the verses, and a much more interesting, and quite beautiful, 22-bar middle section, which goes from an elegaic mention of the lonely sea (the title of another old Beach Boys song) in the relative fourth, into a triumphal guitar solo and chanted “hey now!” over the same changes as the verses, before leading back into a final verse.

The whole song was written around the piano by Love and Wilson in a matter of minutes, and a basic track recorded by the band at Wilson’s house — the band were once again playing their own backing tracks, rather than using outside musicians, and were recording in Wilson’s home studio due to a combination of laziness and a wish for spontaneity on Wilson’s part. Brian and Carl Wilson co-produced the track, but it only really came alive quite late in the day. After additional drum and saxophone overdubs by session players, engineer Steve Desper got to work on the intro. He came up with an effect for the snare drum sound, using two tape delay units (which had originally been bought to thicken the band’s live vocal sound by artificially double-tracking, live), but having the delay be in the region of ten milliseconds. The result was to effectively quadruple-track the snare on the intro, creating a buzzing, powerful, sound quite unlike anything else that had ever been heard.

While Do It Again was talked about as a return to the old sound at the time, in truth it sounds quite different, and it may be the Beach Boys’ first rock, as opposed to pop, track. It’s thicker, and heavier, sounding than anything they’d done before, and indeed than much of what they were to do subsequently. But while it definitely sounds more 1968 than 1963, the return to the old subject of surfing, and the references to older songs, were enough to gain the band some much-needed TV exposure, and what would turn out to be their last US top twenty hit for eight years, reaching number twenty.

In the rest of the world, Do It Again did even better, becoming their second (and last) UK number one, and their first in Australia.

By returning to their past, the Beach Boys had bought themselves a little bit of a future. But the band were running out of time — their contract with Capitol was nearly up, and looked unlikely to be renewed, and Brian Wilson was becoming less and less interested in making new music. The trick had worked once, but going back to old themes and namechecking old songs was no way to move forward. A few months earlier the band had been annoyed at Capitol promoting them as a surfing group, seeing it as condemning them to irrelevance in a time when there were more important things on people’s minds than fun in the sun, but now their one hope of getting people to listen to them was to sing about surfing once again.

The 60s were nearly over, and with them it seemed was the Beach Boys’ relevance. Could they reinvent themselves for the 1970s?

Do It Again

Composer: Brian Wilson and Mike Love

Line-up: Mike Love (vocals), Brian Wilson (vocals, keyboards), Carl Wilson (vocals, guitars), Al Jardine (vocals, bass), Dennis Wilson (vocals, drums), Bruce Johnston (vocals, keyboards), John Guerin (drums), Ernie Small (saxophone), John E Lowe (woodwind).

(NB this is somewhat speculative. We know the identities of the session players who provided overdubs, and that the Beach Boys performed on the basic track themselves, but it’s not clear whether Carl Wilson or Al Jardine provided the bass — I’ve assigned this to Jardine as he played bass in the studio more often than not — and whether Johnston provided any instrumental parts).

Original release: Do It Again/Wake The World, The Beach Boys, Capitol 2239

Currently available on: 50 Big Ones, Universal CD

British Values

I am British. The things I value are mostly:
My wife
Beach Boys records
People not bothering me
Getting a double seat on the bus so I don’t have to sit next to anyone
Old episodes of Doctor Who with William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton in
Peter Cook
Peter Sellers
P. G. Wodehouse
George Orwell
Inventive swearing
and big books full of hard mathematics.

I look forward to these all being legislated for in Mr Cameron’s push for “British values”