Hugo Blogging: Best Short Story

So, the Hugo Packet isn’t out yet (and may, as always, not include everything), but happily all the nominees for Best Short Story are available free online, so I’ve been able to read through them all and rank them.

By “all”, here, I mean all five of the real nominees. I have no interest in reading a short story by a loghorreic tenth-rate C.S. Lewis tribute act but with added fascism, nominated as a result of eighty or so Nazi griefers who all paid money so they could say “checkmate, liberals!” after their nominations are once again ranked below “no award”. John C Wright is, according to some people whose opinions I trust, someone who was once upon a time a competent hack novelist. He is now an incompetent Nazi propagandist, and I’ll be ranking his “work”, unread, below No Award.

As for the real nominees, ranked best to worst…

Seasons of Glass and Iron, by Amal El–Mohtar, is quite lovely but may be triggering to some of my friends. The writing style early on, before the two protagonists meet, is the kind of thing that makes my eyes glaze over somewhat — a very stylised, description-heavy, type of prose with a lot of emphasis of sensory elements, especially the visual. For me, that’s deadening, for reasons I’ve written about before in a slightly different context. Note that I’m talking about *for me* here — I know a lot of fantasy people, in particular, really love that sort of thing.
I was just about to give up on the story and stick it below “no award” but above Wright, when I hit a few sentences that intrigued me, and showed me that the story, once I got into it, would be *about* something.
And it is. It uses fairytale motifs to tell what is at essence a simple story of two women falling in love and escaping from abusive men — one a father, another a husband — who they didn’t even realise were abusers until they talked to each other and could each see what was happening to the other.
It was uncomfortable reading even for me, and I suspect it would be much more so for anyone who had been in such a situation, but it’s *very* good. It’s the kind of thing that I could imagine Neil Gaiman reading and thinking “bugger, I wish I’d written that”.

The City Born Great, by N.K. Jemisin, is very much my sort of thing in many ways — but that almost means I don’t know how fairly I’m judging it. The story of a young black man (a sex worker who is either gay or bi) being initiated into a role as avatar of the city of New York. It reminded me *very* much of the story of Dane in The Invisibles — while both are put together from Hero’s Journey student/mentor cliches, both use them in very similar ways, and both have a very similar sense of place, though here that’s added to an almost psychogeographic theme.
I can name about twenty things I really like that do many of the same things as this, and I don’t know if that means I’m overrating this (because it’s aimed at my particular tastes) or underrating it (because I’ve seen it before). What Jemisin brings though is her own use of language. The narratorial voice (the story’s told in first person) is very strong — although I read the first few paragraphs as being in a woman’s voice, and had to mentally recalibrate when it got to the coffee-shop scene and I realised the protagonist was male. I’m not sure why that is, or whether it’s something in my own preconceptions or in the story.
I was particularly amused at one line, from the narrator to a Lovecraftian monster made of policemen: “don’t fucking bring your squamous eldritch bullshit here”. Reading this the day after reading Jemisin’s annoyance at the World Fantasy Awards continuing to use the image of Lovecraft on their nominee badges gave that line a little extra resonance.

That Game We Played During The War, by Carrie Vaughn, is a very nice character piece, about war, and how much you can know someone else, and negotiation, and depression, and telepathy, and chess. To go into details about the plot would be rather to miss the point, although it is based on an SFnal premise. This is one that has rather more resonance in an age where we have a US President who dumps his unfiltered id onto the Internet for everyone to see than it will have had when first published…

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies, by Brooke Bolander, is a nice little short-short about (in the plot sense) the Furies taking revenge on an arsehole who deserved it, and about (in the thematic sense) who we identify with and who we don’t in stories (both real and fictional) involving violence against women (or other marginalised groups). There’s a great use of voice here, and this is the one I found most enjoyable by a long way, but enjoyable isn’t the same as good — this *is* good, but the ones listed above are better.

A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers, by Alyssa Wong, is a story about blaming oneself for the death of a sibling, about suicide, and about transphobic violence and abusive parents — I mention this partly because they are the main themes of the story, but also because again I know people for whom those would be specific triggers.
The story is clearly very well written, but it’s not a story that does much for me personally — it seems, frankly, a bit writing-exercisey to me, relying on the emotional resonances of the heavy themes rather than on the content of the story itself. But I suspect that the themes may resonate more with people who are less privileged than I, and it’s not *badly* written.
I did, however, come close to sticking it under No Award purely because of the ableist use of the word “blind” to mean “ignorant”, twice. I wouldn’t normally be so harsh, but a story about the untimely death of a sibling made me think about my wife’s reactions (she lost her brother when he was far, far too young), and Holly is legally blind and gets very upset at this misuse of the word.
In the end I’m ranking it above “No Award”, but I’d expect less ableism from a story that’s largely about sensitivity towards trans people.

None of these stories are the kind of thing I seek out, especially — they’re mostly on the fantasy rather than the SF side of things, and they’re generally more about emotion rather than big ideas, while I’m a high-concept SF kind of person (Permutation City is one of my most-read books, to give you some idea) — so I’m not at all sure of my own qualifications for ranking them. The only ones I thought really *excellent* were the stories by El-Mohtar and Jemisin, but all of them were at least pretty good — and that’s still a far better hit rate than any other Hugo awards year since I started participating (I think that was 2010 — long before the Puppies, anyway).

All of these stories are engaged with the world — almost all address real issues, and do so intelligently. The fact that none of the authors are men, and that three are BAME, shouldn’t be noteworthy, but given the way the awards have been so dominated by cishet white men it’s very pleasing to see. I think El-Mohtar or Jemisin should win (and Jemisin almost certainly will, I think), but while some of these are a little lightweight or not to my taste, there’s nothing in the five real finalists (not counting the special extra participation-award finalist place added to be somewhere to put the Nazi) that I wouldn’t be happy to see win this.

Abigail Nussbaum has said (speaking of all the short fiction categories, not just Short Story):

There’s a lot to praise about this year’s ballot, including the continued shift towards a more diverse slate of nominees, but in the short fiction categories in particular, the Hugo has once again thrown up a fairly middle-of-the-road selection. Most of these stories aren’t bad, but quite a few of them are meh, and it would be nice to once again be able to have a proper discussion of that. Instead, we’re all still in bunker mode, still cheering the fact that publishable fiction was nominated for the genre’s most prestigious award, which increasingly seems like a low bar to clear.

I can’t entirely disagree with that when I’m in an ungenerous mood, and I do think that now the Nazi problem has been more or less solved (and if three-stage voting is ratified this year that should be the final nail in that particular coffin) we need to start having a more rigorous discussion about the merits and otherwise of short fiction nominees. I’m in a generous mood right now though, and all I can say is that a shortlist containing two excellent stories, two that I enjoyed but which were a bit lightweight, and one which wasn’t to my taste and I had problems with but which was still a good story, is a VAST improvement on the last few years. The bar needs to be raised, but this is fundamentally the kind of stuff we should be seeing.

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Back Tomorrow

I had an arthritis flare-up on Thursday which has made typing more than a sentence basically impossible. The flare-up is improving, but I want to wait until tomorrow before doing any more typing than I have to.

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Apologies for Lack of Posts

Pushed myself too hard this week with campaigning, and it made my arthritis flare up. Typing is hard. Post probably tomorrow, on Brian Wilson’s No Pier Pressure.

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PSA for GNU/Linux Users: “Arrival” DVD Will Not Work

The other day I ordered the DVD of the film Arrival, to watch it again before voting on the Hugos. Unfortunately, both my original copy and a replacement I got failed to be watchable — the DVD is badly authored and gives “Invalid IFO” errors in libdvdnav.
As no other DVDs are affected, I think this is a bug with the DVD authoring rather than with libdvdnav or libdvdcss2, but it’s one that I thought worth pointing out in case anyone else had the same problem.
(This is on Debian Stretch, with libdvdcss2 version 1.2.13-0 — I also tried with version 1.2.10-1, and it failed the same way).

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Hugo Blogging: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long-Form

Ah, remember those halcyon long-ago days of 2015, when the worst fascists could do by manipulating voting systems was to get themselves nominations for a minor literary award, rather than take over most of the Anglophone world? That was good, wasn’t it?

Anyway, one bit of encouraging news is that the battle against that particular set of fascists seems to have been won. The combination of burn-it-all-down rage from people like Phil Sandifer, electoral system hacking from people like Bruce Schneier, scrupulously moderate disapproval from people like George R.R. Martin, and the fascists’ own lack of attention span has meant that they’re now a spent force in the Hugo Awards. (And yes, I do think *all* those things played some important part — one can argue about how much each contributed, but all contributed something).

This year’s list of finalists is, by some way, the most impressive in a decade or so. Yes, a couple of fascist entries made the list, but with six finalists instead of five in every category they can be ranked below “no award” and the other five entries still treated as proper Hugo finalist lists. So we have real shortlists again.

And those proper lists are exactly the sort of thing we should be seeing. Tons of writers of colour, lots of women, at least one trans person — and every one of them there entirely on the merits of their writing. There are some who are not to my personal taste — and I may well even rank some below No Award, and be horribly critical of them when I review them — but with the exception of the fascist ringers (“Vox Day”, Castalia Blog, John C. Wright, Cirsova, The Rageaholic, Alex Garner, Mansik Yang, and J. Mulrooney if you were wondering) they are entirely respectable choices at worst, and astonishing pieces of work at best.

I’ll be posting reviews of almost everything (other than fascist ringers) nominated between now and the close of voting. I won’t be doing Dramatic Presentation Short Form because the category doesn’t interest me much, and won’t be doing Series because I believe the category shouldn’t exist, but will do the rest.

To start with (and in advance of the Hugo Packet coming out, assuming one does) here are my views on Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form, since I happen to have seen (almost) all of them already.

This is a *wonderful* selection of films — so much so that my rankings of the top three may well change several times between now and my final ballot. Any of my top three choices would be an excellent winner, and the other three would all be reasonable choices. But here are my rankings as of right now, from best to worst.

1) Arrival. I wrote a full review of this here, and I remain hugely impressed with the film. It’s probably not my favourite of the films nominated, but it’s the one that most does what I want from science fiction — it’s a real film of ideas, of a kind SF cinema only produces once a decade or so, and I desperately want there to be far more films like it. Some of the other films on the list do what they do better than this does, but what they do is the same thing many other films do. This, though, is doing something you’ll not see anywhere else. The most intelligent SF film I’ve seen in a long time.

2) Ghostbusters. I reviewed this at the time it came out, too, and the criticisms I made of it then stand, especially the criticism of Patty being essentially a Mammy character (a real problem with the film, and one that I very much hope a sequel will rectify). There are other problems with it as well — the edit of the theatrical release clearly chops out at least one subplot (apparently restored in the director’s cut, which I’ve not seen), and some of the story beats are predictable a mile off. But… I’ve watched this film at least seven times now, and enjoyed every viewing of it. And while it’s only a very enjoyable fun blockbuster to me, it’s a film that *really meant something* to a lot of women I know, who for the first time saw people like themselves in heroic roles — especially Holzmann, who is coded as both queer and autistic, and who touches many queer autistic women in a way I can’t possibly understand, but I can see. That matters.
Fundamentally, Arrival is for me, and Ghostbusters is for many of my best friends. I’ll probably rank Arrival first, but I’ll be happy if Ghostbusters wins.

3. Hidden Figures And speaking of representation… a film entirely about black women scientists, and another worthy winner. I’ve only seen this once, and very recently, so it hasn’t had as much time to solidify in my opinions, but this is probably the best film as a film of the bunch. It’s a Hollywoodisation of real events, so a lot of it is not exactly historically accurate (especially Kevin Costner’s white saviour character made up out of whole cloth, but also the events have been telescoped into a much shorter timeframe) but the women in this film did and do exist, did do the things they’re portrayed as doing, and deserve celebration. This film looks at the lives of black women employed to perform calculations as part of the space programme, and tells a very compelling story about their achievements. It, too, is flawed — in particular in portraying racism as a problem caused by bad white people and fixable at least in part by good white people, rather than as a systemic problem — but it’s a very, very, good film, and the things it values are things that are important. It isn’t as much to my personal taste as the two films above, but it’s absolutely a worthy winner as well.

I still don’t know for sure that that is the order I’ll be ranking them in, but I’ll be happy if any of them win.

4. Deadpool. I wasn’t as impressed by this as everyone else, but it’s amusing enough if you like the sort of childish humour you get in South Park or Rick & Morty, and while the principal character is a psychopath with no redeeming features other than charm, the film does at least acknowledge that that’s what he is. There’s some genuinely clever stuff in there, but it’s fundamentally a film I could have seen Kevin Smith making in the late 90s. I’d have loved it then, but I’m not a teenage boy any more. But teenage boys deserve stuff for them, too, and as stuff aimed at teenage boys goes it’s not bad.

5. Stranger Things. This is, on the other hand, aimed exactly at my demographic. It’s aimed at white men in their late thirties or early forties, who have nostalgic memories of the 80s, who as kids played Dungeons & Dragons, read Stephen King books (especially It and The Body), and watched The Goonies, Poltergeist, and ET.
And it does a great job of evoking the atmosphere of those things. But fundamentally, that’s all it’s doing — and it does it at a much greater length than the plot justifies (see this very good piece on “plotblocking” which talks about it).
It’s fine for what it is, and I know a lot of people liked it a lot more than I did. But it didn’t really work for me.

6. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story I only actually saw the first twenty minutes or so of this in the cinema, as the audio description wasn’t working for my wife so we left, and I haven’t yet bothered to watch the rest. What I saw was a perfectly adequate Star War, and it did all the Star Warsy stuff one would expect from a Star War, but I’m not a massive fan of Star Wars anyway (I don’t hate it or anything, it just doesn’t push my buttons).
I’m told by those who have seen the whole thing that it’s quite a good Star War, and I see no reason not to believe them, so I wouldn’t put it below No Award, but nor would I rank it above any of the others.

So that’s my first post on this year’s Hugo Awards. Some fine films. Go and watch them.

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Autism Pride

Today is World Autism Awareness Day, an annual day created by the UN for people with neurotypicality to talk on Twitter about how inspirational autistic kids are and how we must make sure that people like me and my friends are completely eradicated from humanity forever, and then to call autistic people rude for daring not to want to be eliminated.

For today, I was going to write (as my friend Emily had recently asked) about what it feels like to be autistic, but I discovered I’d actually written about that two years ago. And anyway, I’m too angry.

I’m angry at Jon Bartley, the co-leader of the Green Party supporting “Light it up blue”, a campaign run this day every year by the eliminationist group Autism Speaks — people who want to make sure that no-one with a neurology similar to mine will ever be born again, and who believe that if people like me are murdered by our parents, the parents deserve public sympathy because we’re so annoying.

(I am pretty annoying, but thankfully my own parents resisted the urge to murder me, because not all people with neurotypicality are completely lacking in empathy — the claim that that’s something autistic people lack is a pretty clear case of projection on the part of neurotypical pseudoscientists who themselves lack the empathy to be able to see those they have othered as fully human, but unlike them I don’t claim that that trait applies to everyone who doesn’t share my neurology).

I’m angry at William Shatner, for tweeting his own support for Autism Speaks, and then accusing autistic people who tried, politely, to point out that this wasn’t a very nice thing to do, of trolling him. Over and over again for much of the night.

But most of all, I’m annoyed at the rhetoric around today. And not just the “awareness” thing. Several other autistic people have been campaigning for “acceptance” to replace “awareness”. There’s a hashtag and everything. And as far as that goes, acceptance is better than awareness. I would rather be accepted for who I am than have people be aware of my existence as Shatner and Bartley are.

But really… “acceptance” just doesn’t cut it. “Acceptance” is what you have when something can’t be changed. The final supposed stage of grief. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”.

I want autism celebration. I want autism pride.

Quite simply — everything I actually like about myself stems directly from me being autistic. And while I like, or even love, a great many people with neurotypicality, an awful lot of my friends are somewhere on the spectrum, and the things I like about *them* tend to be rooted in their autism, too.

Their enthusiasm for their hobbies and their interest in telling you all sorts of fascinating things about areas of knowledge you previously wouldn’t even have believed existed. The honesty and disregard for harmful social rules. The ability to actually communicate stuff without relying on you knowing a whole load of culturally-specific shibboleths. The autistic sense of humour.

These are things to be celebrated. To be proud of. To be encouraged.

If I have any redeeming qualities as a person (and living in an ableist society for thirty-eight years has made it difficult for me to see that as anything other than a very big “if”), if I’ve made a positive contribution to the world, it’s because of my autism. It’s because I can see patterns that people with neurotypicality can’t. It’s because I have a better understanding of the way complex systems work than most people with neurotypicality do. It’s even, in some ways, precisely because I’m disabled — the coping strategies I invent for stuff have, in themselves, often allowed me to do things more inventively than people with neurotypicality would.

(An easy example would be my music — my dyspraxia (which is a comorbid thing with my autism, and which I consider functionally to be a symptom of it) prevents me from playing fast triplets, or from making certain chord shapes on the guitar. When playing keyboards, I can play fast triplet arpeggios but only going down the scale, not up. And so on. Working round these limitations has meant I’ve ended up doing things other musicians wouldn’t have.)

Asking for your awareness of my autism as a tragic, horrible, symptom would be to completely misread the effect being autistic has on me, and is functionally equivalent to the people who argued for legalising homosexuality in the sixties on the grounds that we shouldn’t punish those poor people for the horrible illness they were suffering.

But asking for *acceptance* of my autism doesn’t strike me as much better. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with them, mind. Some of my best friends are autistic. But you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one, now, would you?”

I don’t want acceptance. I want respect as a minimum, and ideally celebration. I want a world that doesn’t punish autistic people for being autistic, yes, as a basic start — I want autistic people to have the same life expectancy as people with neurotypicality, rather than dying on average sixteen years younger. I want suicide to no longer be the second-biggest killer of autistic people (with no learning disabilities). I want our incidence of stress-induced heart disease — the biggest killer — to be the same as it is in people with neurotypicality. These things will only change with massive efforts on the part of a society that is completely unwilling to do anything about them (but which is entirely fine with torturing autistic children in the name of modifying their behaviour to “help them” by making them fit in, and with trying to find a “cure” that will erase our individuality and replace us with people who can fit in better — and indeed which pats itself on the back for its efforts to do these things).

But that’s really just the very first step. It’s not something to aspire to — I’m not talking about utopia there, just about my life expectancy extending past the time my mortgage has been paid off. What we should be calling for is celebration and pride.

Everything I think, do, and am is because I’m autistic. So fuck awareness, fuck acceptance, and fuck lighting it up blue on April 2. I’ll be celebrating Autistic Pride Day on June 18th instead.

the autism pride flag -- a white infinity sign on a background of vertical red, green, and blue stripes

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Change of Plans Re: Patreon Comics Posts

OK, so the Patreon-only comics post thing hasn’t worked out like I hoped. Partly that’s on me missing some, partly because people haven’t suggested things other weeks, and so it sort of death-spiralled because people don’t want to suggest stuff if it might not happen.

But I *do* want to keep doing comics stuff, so a new way of doing this. I’ll do longer (say… 4000 words? Long enough to say something properly, anyway) posts, once a month, looking at a single trade. If people suggest one for me to do, I’ll choose (and buy) the most interesting looking one from whatever my local comic shop has in stock. If no-one suggests one, I’ll instead review something out of my collection.

I’m happy to take any suggestions from Patreon backers. I am *more likely* to find interesting things to say about stuff from within the Anglo-American mainstream traditions than about something with no connection to anything I know about, but I’ll try anything. I’m also more likely to buy something that costs a fiver than some massive Absolute Edition thing, so take that into account too.

I’ll probably be going to the shop on Monday afternoon. If no-one’s suggested anything they’d like to see me write about more, I’ll do a post on Final Crisis (as printed in the hardback, which I own) a few days later.

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