Hugo Blogging: Best Related Work

I’m trying desperately to get all my reviews posted before the deadline for voting on July 31. As always, I won’t manage this — if nothing else, the reading this year is somewhat unbalanced, as almost all the novellas are long enough that I would really consider them novels, while the novels themselves are mostly just provided as excerpts in the Hugo Packet. But I can, at least, post what I can.

To start with, here’s my ranking for Best Related Work. I’m judging these mostly by the excerpts in the Hugo Packet rather than the full works, as many of them are not on subjects which are particularly interesting to me (which is not the same as saying they’re not good books — and with nonfiction works like these it is, I think, far easier to judge objective quality than it is to do so with fiction, where a good story on a topic or in a genre that isn’t interesting is one that it’s almost impossible to appreciate, at least for me) and so I haven’t bought the full works.

Which is not to say that these books won’t appeal to their target audiences. I’m only ranking one of them below “no award”, and I still believe that the people who that book is aimed at will get a lot out of it. It’s just that these reflect the full diversity of the SF field, and most of us are only interested in what we’re interested in.

Ranking these from best to worst:

No Time To Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin is, sadly, accurately titled — the book was published last year, and Le Guin died in January of this year. On paper, this should be a trifle — it’s a collection of her intermittently-posted blog posts from the last decade or so of her life, and while some of them (such as her thoughts on storytelling and her comparison of The Help with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) are both substantial and thought-provoking, many more are, in content, the kind of thing that nowadays makes for social media posts — thoughts on aging, descriptions of the process of adopting a new cat, and other discussions of the quotidian experiences that make up the life of an elderly writer.

However, this is, as one might expect from Le Guin, *astonishingly* well written. I’m not actually a massive fan of Le Guin’s work — I’ve read some of it, of course, and found it very impressive, but with the exception of her marvellous Philip K Dick pastiche The Lathe of Heaven (which is, honestly, the book that Dick would have written if he was consistently as good a writer as he could be in flashes) the work of hers I’ve read has been slightly outside my own tastes (I have very narrow tastes, which masquerade as broad ones, because the things I look for cut across normal categorisations of style and genre).

But even though she’s not an author who meant as much to me as she did to most SFF fans (and, to be clear, the only authors who have anything like a claim to be her equal in importance to the field during her career are Octavia Butler and Samuel R Delany) it’s impossible to deny that she was a writer’s writer, and this shows in all these little fragments. This is, put simply, one of the most *readable* things I’ve ever read, and it’s all the more remarkable given that (one presumes) she didn’t put the same effort into crafting her blog posts as her fiction and poetry. It’s impossible to read these posts, whether they be her talking about her cat, Pard, or about the conflict between fundamentalism and fantasy, without just being drawn along from one sentence to the next. It’s not the kind of writing that looks impressive — there are no flashy turns of phrase here that I could isolate and say “see? Look at this!” — but it’s the kind of writing that *is* impressive, and that can only be done by someone who has been one of the best at her craft for fifty years.

There’s little here that rises to the level of “important statement”, but that doesn’t really matter. This is a demonstration by example of how to be a writer and is, to my mind, far and away the best thing here.

Zoë Quinn’s Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, And How We Can Win The Fight Against Online Hate is a book whose importance will be obvious to some of my readers and completely opaque to others. For those who don’t know, Gamergate is a fascist hate movement — one that particularly targets women and LGBT+ people, and which is one of the streams that feeds into the broader “alt right”. They are hateful misogynist harassers who deserve nothing but absolute contempt from anyone who has a shred of decency in them.

And the grit around which this pearl of shit formed was “the Zoe post”, a venomous blog post about previously-little-known game developer Zoë Quinn, written by her harassing, stalking, ex-boyfriend. As Quinn says in the introduction to this book “Most relationships end in a breakup. Sometimes that breakup is so crazy that it becomes a horror story you tell your friends, family, and therapist. For the past three years, I’ve watched my breakup story told and retold by everyone from the writers on Law and Order: SVU to President Trump’s chief strategist. It has a Wikipedia page. It spawned in-jokes and internet slang and has dedicated community hubs. It has a cartoon mascot. My breakup required the intervention of the United Nations.”

Quinn’s ex alleged, among many other vicious statements of the kind that abusive exes make after a breakup, that Quinn had had sex with a games reviewer in order to get a good review of one of her games (that reviewer had not, in fact, reviewed her game). This became the basis of a call for “ethics in games journalism” which, in reality, meant far-right harassers attacking women, especially trans women, women of colour, and anyone vaguely left-leaning or liberal, first within the videogame community but then anywhere else as well. The Gamergate mob made up much of the “Sad Puppies” who tried to pervert the Hugo Awards into an award for white supremacist hate-screeds, they are now the “comicsgate” people who are harassing comic creators of colour, and they also make up a big chunk of Donald Trump’s online supporter base. They’re not the most important part of Trump’s base of course, but they are quite possibly the main reason his “message” has been so successful on the Internet.

The 105 pages of Quinn’s book available in the Hugo Packet are a mixture of autobiography and a history of the way that the fascist harassers have weaponised the Internet. Quinn talks about the disgusting harassment to which she has been subjected, and also very strongly and repeatedly makes the point that while she was the most prominent victim of this particular hate campaign, trans women of colour got the worst of it, as they do in all these situations, and she gives space in the book to some of the more marginalised victims.

Much of what Quinn has to say will be obvious to those of us who have spent a lot of the last few years seeing exactly how the white cis het male part of the geek subculture has been radicalised by Nazis, and will be utterly shocking and horrific to those who don’t know about this subculture. The book (at least in this section) doesn’t have any direct relevance to SFF, but it *does* have relevance to the Hugos themselves, as precisely the same currents that Quinn identifies were major factors in the Hugo awards in 2014, 2015, and 2016.

It’s hard to judge Quinn’s book, because a lot of this is telling me stuff I already know, but she writes engagingly enough. I suspect this would be a very important book for anyone who hadn’t already spent too much time thinking about these things, but it’s hard to tell for me.

Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E Butler is not the kind of thing I find particularly interesting or edifying, but it’s a very good example of its type. It’s a collection of *a lot* of personal essays by different people, each talking about what Butler’s work meant to them. The collection contains work by many of the most important names in SF writing and scholarship right now — Nisi Shawl, Gerry Canavan, Rachel Swirsky, Bogi Takács, Nnedi Okorafor, K. Tempest Bradford, and dozens more. Many of these describe their personal interactions with Butler, while others talk about what she meant to them as a writer — and in particular as the first black woman to make a living out of SF writing (and many of the writers in this book are black female SF writers). I don’t have the same depth of feeling for Butler as many of the people here (I couldn’t — one thing that keeps coming up is the way black women have felt reading a book by and about people like them, a feeling I’ve obviously never had when reading Butler’s work), but she was absolutely one of the most important writers in the genre of the last half century, and this book is an honest, and often very well-written, expression of that. That I’m personally no fan of the “dozens of short personal essays” format should not count against it.

Sleeping With Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy by Liz Bourke is a collection of Bourke’s columns, which have previously appeared on various sites, mostly Strange Horizons and tor.com. The Hugo Packet contains the first two parts of what appears to be a much longer work, but of course with this writing having previously appeared online it’s easy to find the rest of it. Each of the pieces included in the book is a short essay looking at a single work of science fiction or fantasy, often an unjustly-obscure work which Bourke wants to bring to the reader’s attention. In many ways it’s similar to Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great, which is a similar collection of previously-published essays, but Walton had a somewhat narrower focus than Bourke, as she was examining only what she likes about books while Bourke is very willing to talk about works she finds distasteful if there is something interesting to say about them.

(In another way, Bourke might be considered to have a narrower focus than Walton, in that she is only dealing with books written by women here, but that’s only a fair criticism if you consider fifty percent of the Earth’s population to be an insufficiently diverse group. Also, it’s painful to have to say this but given the current climate I must specify that Bourke is the kind of feminist who actually supports women’s rights, rather than the kind of self-described feminist whose principal hobby is hating trans women).

Bourke is a perceptive critic, but rather limited by the form — these pieces are far too short to go in depth into any of these books, and she’s clearly straining at the arbitrary word count boundaries. At times the essays feel like they desperately need just an extra few sentences to sum up their thesis, and just end rather than come to a conclusion, but this is the fault of the form rather than of Bourke.

I can’t rank this higher given the problems with the form, but I’d still definitely recommend anyone interested in SFF read Bourke’s criticism, because unless you have an absolutely encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre you will become aware of books that had never come to your attention, and Bourke does a great job of explaining exactly why they’re important and what it is that she finds interesting about them, as well as pinpointing any major flaws in them.

Iain M Banks by Paul Kincaid is represented in the packet by chapter two, a relatively short excerpt. However, the excerpt didn’t really make me want to read more — it was written in a dry style, with comparatively little insight or humour. Maybe the rest of the book is better. It did contain one piece of information which I hadn’t known and which tickled me — apparently Banks originally wanted his *non*-genre work to be put out as Iain M. Banks, but the M. was dropped in fear that it would make people think of Rosie M. Banks from the Jeeves stories.

There’s nothing wrong with this, I hasten to add. It’s just… dry. Like trying to eat four or five dry cream crackers in a row.

No Award

A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison by Nat Segaloff may well win. The reason it may well win is that Ellison died late last month, and was a much-loved figure in the SF community. He was a truly great writer and editor who did a great deal to advance the genre.

He was also, though, a miserable excuse for a human being, and this book is more interested in encouraging his self-mythologising than critiquing that. To take an example, from the foreword by David Gerrold (someone for whom I had more respect before reading this sentence) “And yes, Harlan has occasionally stumbled over other people’s boundaries — that’s part of his charm. (Or whatever you want to call it.) It’s usually an expression of Performance Harlan, not Authentic Harlan — but again, you’d have to know the man as a person to know the difference.”

To be clear, for those who don’t know what Gerrold is referring to there, Ellison’s “charming” “stumbling over boundaries” includes things like sexually assaulting Connie Willis in public, at an awards ceremony. It includes repeated occasions on which he started very Gamergate-like harassment campaigns against other people, over tiny or imagined slights. According to one story Ellison told of himself, which may or may not be true (he was a near-pathological liar even though he also fiercely defended his own integrity) but which is repeated as fact in this book (according to reviews I’ve read of the full book — this part was not included in the preview), he once attacked Adrian Samish, a TV producer, for changing a script he’d written without Ellison’s permission, and broke Samish’s pelvis. Whether that’s true or not, it’s the image Ellison wanted people to have of him, and it’s in character with many of the stories about him which have more evidence behind them.

Ellison wanted us to think he was the kind of person who would break someone’s pelvis over a creative disagreement, and wanted to be judged on that basis. He *was* the kind of person who would grope a colleague’s breast when supposedly presenting her with an award, in full view of an audience and on video, in the knowledge that he had too much power to suffer any consequences from it, and he should be judged on that basis.

These things are not charming. These things are not excusable. And to the extent that this book finds them charming or excusable (which is far too great an extent) the book does not deserve an award.

Much of the book is Ellison’s own words, talking about himself, and to that extent it’s almost an autohagiography. And while Ellison the writer is worth discussing, Ellison the man very much isn’t. On top of that, I have a general rule with non-fiction that if I spot an error that is obvious to me and which could be corrected with three seconds’ googling, then there will be at least a dozen more that I didn’t spot. In this case, in the excerpt provided there’s a mention of “writers Gene Wolfe, Peter David, Patrick Rothfuss, and Sophie Aldred” attending a science fiction convention. Aldred is, of course, an actor.

So, this comes under No Award. It’s a well enough written book, but it’s a well-written book that (at best) glosses over and (at worst) glorifies the worst kind of toxic masculinity. The SF field, more than most, is one that will excuse a particular kind of aggressive, toxic, behaviour as the price that must be paid for genius. This excuse is, however, horseshit. To take two examples from further up this post, there are no stories of Ursula Le Guin breaking someone’s pelvis, and Octavia Butler never sexually assaulted someone in public and had it laughed off as “just Octavia being Octavia”. I’m happy to call Ellison a truly great writer and editor, and to say that despite his personal behaviour I’m still glad we have his work (though I wonder who else we’d have work equally as good from, if we weren’t living in a society that prized people like Ellison over other, less white, less male voices — although one of Ellison’s undoubted good points was that he did act as a mentor for several people like that, including Butler from what I’ve read. No-one is all good or all bad).

But to the extent it’s impossible to separate the man from the work, the man’s behaviour is a reason to have less respect for the work rather than the work’s existence being a reason to approve of the man’s behaviour. And if Ellison was as honest and principled as he so often liked to claim, he would have admitted as much himself.

Right now, in 2018, the very last thing the world needs is any more glorification of entitled white men who “stumble over people’s boundaries”. And so I can’t in all conscience vote a book that does that over No Award.

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