Nilsson Schmilsson

And here we get to the point which is either the pinnacle of Nilsson’s career as a singer/songwriter, or the point at which he starts to deteriorate noticeably. While Nilsson Schmilsson is undoubtedly Nilsson’s most commercially successful album — and given that it has both “Coconut” and “Without You” on it, it’s fair to say it’s the one that still to this day people most associate with Nilsson — it’s also the first album where Nilsson seems to be trying to do something commercial. The advertisements for the album, which say “Nilsson’s done a rock album”, say it all — this is Nilsson making music that can easily be categorised, and which can be categorised as the prevailing style of the times. And in doing so he seems to me to lose a little of what makes him Nilsson.

This is not to say that it’s a bad album — Nilsson Schmilsson is, by any reasonable standards, a great album. The question, rather, is whether it’s a great Nilsson album. Sonically, certainly, it has a lot more in common with the other work by the album’s producer, Richard Perry, than it does with anything else Nilsson did. This may be, in part, because Nilsson gave Perry a certain amount of creative freedom — Perry’s talked in interviews about having agreed to do the album only if he was in charge — but it’s also because Nilsson was apparently having difficulty as a songwriter for the first time, until relatively late in the recording process.

Perry was a very different type of producer than Nilsson himself or Rick Jarrard had been. Perry was a rising star of rock production, who specialised in music that straddled the border between hip rock and more middle-of-the-road work. Perry had worked with Captain Beefheart on the latter’s first album, but had produced something that sounded as much like the Monkees as it did Beefheart’s later work. On the other hand, he had also worked with Ella Fitzgerald, and with her he had recorded cover versions of songs by Nilsson, the Beatles, and other contemporary artists.

According to Perry’s accounts, Nilsson didn’t have proper fully-fledged songs when they started recording the album — and indeed they went round the London music publishers trying to find songs Nilsson could record in the event he had nothing. Even the day before recording started, the two men were visiting music publishers trying desperately to find material to perform, but there was little that sparked their interest. So it was decided that they had to work with what Nilsson had, even though this wasn’t much.

What Nilsson had, at least according to Perry, were musical fragments — verses and choruses, but with no lyrics or proper vocal melodies. In the absence of anything better to record, Perry imposed standard song structures on Nilsson’s fragments and recorded them as backing tracks, with Nilsson later writing music and lyrics for them. For other songs, Nilsson essentially composed them in the studio, playing piano with the session musicians and jamming in the hope of finding anything worth committing to tape.

This is not necessarily the case for all the songs on the album — some of them are known to have been demoed before Perry’s involvement, while some of the musicians involved have talked about how they would play while Nilsson was singing, which would not have been possible if there were no finished lyrics or melodies — but it certainly seems to have been the case that Nilsson was much less inspired as a writer on this album than he had been on previous records. Indeed, one sees the start of a downward spiral in Nilsson’s writing here, one which would not be arrested for a very long time. It was, however, the start of a descent from a very high peak, and so it’s only with hindsight that the flaws become apparent.

Because rather extraordinarily, the end result of this process was far more coherent than anyone had any right to expect. The musical ideas were, for the most part, strong enough that being corralled into a standard song structure allowed them to stand up as strong songs. There’s no dazzling structural or formal experimentation in these songs, but there are still several songs here which stand up against anything else Nilsson wrote. It’s an album that’s the result of craft rather than inspiration, but craft is nothing to be ashamed of. The fact that so many of these actually work as songs is, given the circumstances, a massive tribute to both Nilsson and Perry’s ability.

For this album, Perry pulled together the cream of British and American session musicians. The core musicians on the album — people like Klaus Voorman, Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, and Chris Spedding, were the people who played on records by Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, and the various solo Beatles, and there were guest appearances by Jimmy Webb, Gary Wright, and various other well-known musicians. Indeed, several of the musicians were namechecked in the radio ads for the album, a sign of how in demand this particular set of musicians were.

But the statement there about the musicians playing on this is, like the fact that one of the songs on the album is a Badfinger cover, a sign of what the underlying problem is with this album. It’s an album that’s trying, desperately, to be Beatlesque, in the particular version of the Beatles’ legacy that was current in the early seventies, which actually meant, in effect, being like an album by a solo Beatle. Sonically, this is exactly like the solo records that John Lennon and George Harrison were putting out at the time — and, indeed, Richard Perry was later employed as Ringo Starr’s producer, to make an album, Ringo, that also sounded remarkably like this. This is a record that desperately wants to be Imagine or All Things Must Pass (especially, in fact, Imagine, which in many ways is Lennon’s equivalent album to this — one that is slightly less imaginative than his previous work, and slightly overproduced, but still manages to hit the right balance to be both commercially and critically successful).

And that’s not, in itself, a bad thing — while the solo Beatles’ records were not quite as imaginative as their records as a group, they were still often very good, and Nilsson Schmilsson is a very good album — but it isn’t an album that could only have been made by Nilsson, in the way that, say, Harry or The Point! were.

It’s an album produced by someone who was able to take the rough edges off idiosyncratic musicians and make them palatable to a broader public, without losing *too* much of what made them unique, and that’s what’s done here. But that’s not the same as saying it doesn’t compromise at all, and given the trajectory of Nilsson’s later career it’s hard to listen to this without wondering what could have been if Nilsson had remained as uncompromising as he could be at his most difficult while he still had his youthful voice.

Gotta Get Up

Jimmy Webb has often pointed to this song as an example of Nilsson’s extreme sense of songwriting ethics — Nilsson apparently phoned Webb and asked if it was OK for him to use the line “up, up, and away” in the song, as it had been the title of a Webb song — although Webb hastened to point out that the title wasn’t Webb’s own invention, but came from the 1940s Superman radio show.

However, it might be that Nilsson was questioning Webb about this because he believed Webb might be extremely touchy on the subject — the first time they met, Nilsson grilled Webb over the fact that Webb had, in the liner notes for the Richard Harris album The Yard Went on Forever, put the letters “BN” (standing for “before Nilsson”) by one track. That track had a line of lyric which Webb believed sounded similar to a line from “Everybody’s Talkin'”, and Webb wanted to emphasise that he had come up with the line independently. Nilsson (who was partly annoyed because “Everybody’s Talkin'” wasn’t even a song he had written) may have believed that anyone who would do that might want a similar acknowledgement made of his own work.

(Nilsson and Webb became very close friends after this, however.)

It’s also possible that Nilsson took inspiration from Webb in another way — Webb’s song “Honey Come Back”, a 1970 hit for Glenn Campbell, had the last word or two of each line in the chorus be the start of the next line, so the lyrics went “each lonely day’s a little bit longer than the last time I held you seems like a hundred years ago back to his arms”, but would be parsed as “each lonely day’s a little bit longer than the last”/”the last time I held you seems like a hundred years ago”/”go back to his arms”. Nilsson’s “the sun comes up/up and away” is somewhat similar, and used to the same effect, though not to quite the same extent, and it’s entirely possible that Nilsson was paying tribute to his friend here.

Either way, this is one of the catchiest things on the album, and one of the ones which is closest to the style of Nilsson’s first few albums — although lines like “he’d come to town and he would pound her for a couple of days” are rather more blatant about their coarse humour than the earlier material had been.

This is actually, with its staccato piano style and repeated melodic phrases, very similar to a lot of the material on The Point!, and could almost be seen as a bridge between that record and this one. There are differences though. For the first time we hear Nilsson’s music orchestrated by someone other than Tipton, and the difference is immediately obvious in the use of horns — whereas Tipton’s horn use was closer to that of a brass band, and featured unusual combinations of instruments, here we have some fairly generic rock horn playing, although with some jazzisms. There is still, though, the presence of some unusual instruments, notably the accordion.

Indeed the arrangement is a big part of the track’s appeal. Unusually for Nilsson, the stereo spectrum is used in interesting ways, and while the song starts out with just two pianos, with a bass and guitar coming in with the vocals, there are layers and layers of instrumentation here, and it ends up being a far fuller production than the earlier records. (It is, if anything, a little too dense for my own tastes — there’s not enough air in the mix).

What we have here, then, is almost a statement of intent — we have a track here which announces that this is the Nilsson we all know and love, but now he was going to sound enough like everything else on the radio that he would get hits. This is the start of an album which means to sell a gazillion copies, and wants you to know it.

There’s an interesting early version of the song included on the CD version, which is far more in the style of Nilsson’s earlier records, with a much more stripped-down arrangement (by Tipton) and with Nilsson scat-singing “wah wah”s as he had on all his previous albums. He wouldn’t be scat singing at all from now on — it wasn’t a vocal style that fit with any of the Schmilsson trilogy of albums, and after that his voice was no longer capable of that sort of pyrotechnics.

Driving Along

While I don’t believe Perry’s description of the songwriting process is literally true for all the songs on this album, many of which seem far too crafted for the process described, it does seem like this rather aimless song might have been created that way. There’s no real sense of progression here — it seems very like several of the fragmentary songs on The Point! rather than the more crafted work on the album — and it seems like a few reasonable musical ideas welded together with a “will this do?” attitude.

But the thing is, the musicians on this album are so good, Nilsson was such a strong singer, and there was enough of a sense of pride in their craft from all involved, that this still sounds good. In particular, the middle section (“driving along at fifty-seven thousand miles an hour” ) could be straight off a McCartney album from this period (and the wordless vocals at the end of that section bear a strong resemblance to parts of “Eat at Home” from McCartney’s Ram album). The track is worth having on the album just for that section of the song, which is by far the strongest.

But that section does, however, add to Perry’s point somewhat — it sounds like there’s a disjointed edit there, as if the two sections of the song were spliced together (though very, very well done, and this might only be my ears). There’s a difference in the ambience of the vocal which suggests that section was recorded at a very different time.

Nilsson himself was never happy with the song, and felt it should not have been included on the album. It’s not entirely unreasonable to agree with him — this is one of the weaker songs on the album — but for myself I would definitely rather have it than not.

Early in the Morning
writers: Leo Hickman, Louis Jordan, Dallas Bartley

Louis Jordan was one of the early pioneers of R&B music, being one of the foremost performers in the jump music style which inspired most of the original R&B musicians. This song, written and recorded by Jordan and his bass player Dallas Bartley (and the otherwise obscure Hickman) in 1947, was a minor hit for him.

A very different song sonically from most of the album, this sounds like a solo demo — there’s only Nilsson’s vocal and a harmonium part, and no multitracking or other instruments. But it’s interesting for precisely that reason — this is a stripped-down reworking of the song, and the only example I can think of by any musician of the harmonium being used for this kind of blues/jazz style performance. This is very much in the style of Mose Allison (though Allison would always use the Hammond organ rather than the harmonium), and it’s interesting to see how good Nilsson was at this kind of vocal, which is not really in a tradition of which he was normally part. It’s a very different style to Jordan’s version, which combined early R&B and latin rhythms for something that was somewhere between proto-calypso and the New Orleans music of Professor Longhair.

Nilsson would increasingly show an interest in blues and R&B as the 70s progressed, but before this his musical influences had mostly been the Beatles and pre-war popular song. But despite that, he shows a real understanding of the genre here –particularly the eight-second section starting at 1:19 when he improvises around the word “beat” and departs from the normal riff to just repeat the same figure until he’s ready to continue with the song. This sort of playing with the structure and sticking in extra bars is common in solo blues performances, but tends not to be something that musicians from rock and pop backgrounds do when they’re playing this type of music.

The Moonbeam Song

This was the one song on the album that Richard Perry disliked — he has repeatedly said in interviews that he doesn’t get the appeal of it at all. That’s a shame, as it’s possibly the best song on the entire album.

That said, it is a bit derivative of some of Nilsson’s earlier work — this is very similar to “Think About Your Troubles” in its melody, and in its detached, meditative, view of the world. But that wasn’t Perry’s complaint — he simply didn’t think the lyrics made any sense, when they’re perfectly reasonable. They may not make perfect sense on a literal level, but as an evocation of a type of feeling, they’re absolutely perfect.

The track also contains some of Nilsson’s finest backing vocals, as he overdubs himself multiple times to create a Beach Boys style block harmony backing for much of the second half of the track.

It’s not a song that particularly requires much analysis, of course — it’s just a simple song about looking at the moon, and the rain, and a train — but that is to its benefit rather than anything else.

A rather more blues-influenced song than one would have expected from Nilsson, perhaps, this is another example of the influence of blues and R&B we talked about in the entry for “Early In The Mornin'”. Here, though, this is again married to the influence of the solo Beatles, as the song bears a very strong resemblance to John Lennon’s “It’s So Hard” (the B-side of the “Imagine” single, also included on the Imagine album), which had a similar bluesy feel and, like Nilsson’s song, used the words “going down” as a refrain as well as starting with a verse whose lines started “you gotta”. As Jim Gordon and Klaus Voorman played drums and bass on both tracks, it’s reasonable to assume that the resemblance was, if not entirely intentional, at least noted.

The comparison doesn’t, in truth, do Nilsson many favours — Lennon’s track is slyly witty, one of many songs in which he complains about the difficulties of life but manages to be self-aware enough that it becomes funny while still not losing any of its tension, and it plays a lot on double meanings of “hard” and “going down”. Nilsson’s track, on the other hand, is overlong, having only a minute or so of musical material but lasting more than three times that long, and he seems to have given up bothering to write any lyrics after the first verse. That first verse is rather good, and plays off Lennon’s song in rather interesting ways, but after that the lyrics just consist of “down to the bottom of a hole, down you got me going round you got me going down down down” and slight variations of that.

This is not, however, to say that the track is a bad one — Nilsson’s vocal is excellent, and the raw, bluesy, nature of the song’s riff doesn’t really require much in the way of lyrics — but it’s not one of Nilsson’s better songs, and it’s a definite example of filler.

Without You
writers: Pete Ham and Tom Evans

One of the ironies of Nilsson’s career is that the two songs most associated with him in the public mind, “Everybody’s Talkin'” and “Without You”, are two songs he didn’t write — and, in the case of “Without You”, it’s a song he didn’t even like very much.

“Without You” was originally recorded by Badfinger (themselves an act who wrote most of their own material but who were best known for a song by someone else — in their case “Come and Get It”, written by Paul McCartney), and was a rare example of collaboration between the two songwriters in the band, Pete Ham and Tom Evans. Ham had written a song called “If It’s Love”, which had the verse to what became “Without You” but had a different, inferior, chorus. Evans had also been writing a song, “I Can’t Live”, which had the chorus “I can’t live if living is without you”. They put Ham’s verse and Evans’ chorus together, and titled the result “Without You”.

The song was included on the band’s 1970 album No Dice, but was relatively unnoticed until Nilsson, at a party, heard it playing in the background without knowing what it was, and assumed it was a Beatles song he didn’t know (Badfinger were on the Beatles’ Apple label, and had a reputation as being a Beatles soundalike band — and indeed they played on several Beatles solo records). The next day, all he could remember about the song was that it had the word “you” in the chorus, but he asked the host of the party and eventually tracked down the song.

Initially, he was impressed, and he recorded a heartfelt-sounding demo of the song (available as a bonus track on many versions of the CD), in which he is almost screaming the lyrics while hitting piano chords, including a few wrong notes. It’s an impassioned performance — so much so that there was discussion about putting that out as the finished track — but Perry persuaded Nilsson to record a proper version for the album. This was probably the right decision — the demo version would certainly not have had the same commercial success that the finished version did — but at the same time it’s almost a shame, as the demo is truly powerful in its own right, and definitely worth seeking out.

However, by the time that Nilsson came to go into the studio and record it, his opinion of the song had changed dramatically. By that point, he’d decided that the lyrics were asinine, especially the line in the verse “well I guess that’s just the way the story goes”, which he used to mock mercilessly. Perry insisted on recording it, and on the song being on the album, over Nilsson’s objections.

Perry himself wasn’t absolutely happy with the song, but he argued — correctly, in my view, and in the view of most listeners — that the imperfections in the verse didn’t matter. All that was necessary for the song to work was the major line of the chorus — “I can’t live, if living is without you”. Everything else was just the framework to allow Nilsson to sing that line, and give it some kind of context.

And Nilsson does a wonderful job on the vocal. At this point in his career, he was at his all-time vocal peak. It’s a performance of incredible intensity — not as intense as on the piano demo, perhaps, and a less raw take on the song, but still a performance that conveys perfectly the suicidal despair of the song.

(And in retrospect, the song is suicidally desperate. Both its writers later killed themselves, in separate incidents several years apart, and it’s apparent listening to much of their work now that they were both suffering from very severe depression).

The production is tasteful, if a little bombastic towards the end, but really the only thing that matters here is getting Nilsson to that big chorus line, getting him back down again, and it does that exquisitely. Nilsson’s vocal is very, *very* highly nuanced, going from gentle, almost casual, soft singing on the verses to absolutely belting the chorus line with all his might. It’s a performance that one would never expect to come from someone who disliked the song he was singing, and it’s a testament to his professionalism that he could turn in something as astonishing as this while having such contempt for the material.

This is a track that is rightly considered a classic, even as it perhaps unfairly overshadows the larger body of work Nilsson created.


And here we have the song which is almost certainly the best known of Nilsson’s own composition-performances. He’d written songs which were bigger hits — most notably “One” — and he obviously had hit singles with other people’s material, but this is probably the only song Nilsson wrote that most people would recognise in his own recording.

The song itself is a very simple one, based on a single, repeating, one-chord figure on the guitar, over which Nilsson sings a shaggy dog story. The main hook of the song — the different voices Nilsson puts on for the characters in the song — was actually suggested by Richard Perry, and it was one of Perry’s strongest suggestions in the entire album, as it brought out a sense of humour in the song which is there in the demo, but at a much lower level. It turned the song from a trifle into a minor masterpiece and one of the most distinctive songs in Nilsson’s catalogue. Indeed, the voice of the doctor appears to be an imitation of Perry.

I may perhaps seem a little harsh at times in my assessment of Perry here, but it’s not that he did a bad job as a producer — he did an excellent job at making the record he wanted to make, which is not the record I would have wanted to make but is not a bad one. Songs like “Coconut” prove that he wasn’t unsympathetic towards Nilsson as an artist just because he had particular ideas of how to direct his talents.

The song is a silly novelty song, but it’s an engaging one, and of all the tracks on this album it’s undeniably the most fun, even if it’s not as clever or emotionally moving as some of the others. It’s perhaps surprising that this, rather than many of Nilsson’s more substantial works, is what he’s best known for as a singer-songwriter, but there are far worse ways to be remembered.

Let the Good Times Roll
writers: Shirley Goodman and Leonard Lee

Not the classic song that most people know under this title (that was recorded by Louis Jordan, who we discussed earlier under “Early in the Morning”), this was instead a 1956 hit for R&B duo “Shirley and Lee”, the song’s writers. (Shirley later became the lead singer of Shirley & Company, whose disco hit “Shame Shame Shame” was a big inspiration for Nilsson’s friend John Lennon when the latter co-wrote David Bowie’s “Fame”). The song had also been covered in 1965 by The Animals (on Animal Tracks in the UK and The Animals On Tour in the US).

On a BBC TV appearance, one of his rare live performances (albeit without an audience) Nilsson recorded a version of this that also included the Everly Brothers songs “Walk Right Back” and “Cathy’s Clown” sung over the same backing, but here he just performs the original song, his multi-tracked vocals stacked up one on top of the other.

The song itself is a simple one, alternating between eight-bar two-chord verse/choruses (“come on baby let the good times roll/Come on baby let them thrill your soul”) and a middle eight a fourth up which follows standard blues turnaround changes (“Feels so good, now that you’re home”). The power of the song lies not in the song itself but in the performance, and handily Nilsson is very much on form here, turning in a performance that shows that at this point he was utterly capable of anything he wanted vocally. It’s a minor track, as the blues-rock stuff on this album tends to be, but an enjoyable one.

Jump Into the Fire

This is about as close as Nilsson came to hard rock, and is also one of the weaker songs on the album — it’s essentially just a bass riff, with a vocal melody that barely counts as one, just fragments of lyric sung over the backing track. Oddly, it was chosen as a single, and in an edited version was a minor hit in many countries, presumably off the back of the success of “Without You”.

It’s stylistically completely unlike anything he’d done before or since, but it’s still characteristic of this album and the fragmentary writing style that shows up throughout it. It’s hard to believe this is by the same man who wrote “Good Old Desk”, but the similarities to works like “Down” are obvious. This is seven minutes of a riff — including forty-two seconds of a drum solo which is Jim Gordon just playing the same drum part he plays for the rest of the track, before the other instruments come in one at a time. In Gordon’s defence for what would otherwise be one of the most unimaginative drum solos ever, leakage in the track suggests that this “solo” was constructed retroactively — you can very faintly hear guitars playing in the background, and my suspicion is that the whole band just kept jamming for the whole thing and Perry constructed the drop-down and build-up dynamics during the mix.

Indeed, the other notable musical moment around that point is Herbie Flowers audibly detuning his bass after the solo, which Flowers later said he did as a joke, believing that the finished record would have faded before that point,

I suppose this is fine if you like this sort of thing, but it’s not to my personal taste at all, I’m afraid.

The song was later featured in the film Son of Dracula, in which Nilsson mimes to the track, thus giving us one of the very few pieces of Nilsson performance footage that exist, and was covered in 2015 by the Hollywood Vampires, a band led by Alice Cooper and Johnny Depp, and named after the drinking group to which both Cooper and Nilsson belonged. That album consists almost entirely of cover versions of records featuring dead friends of Cooper’s.

I’ll Never Leave You
This song is in many ways an outlier on the album. While everything else was recorded with Richard Perry in the UK, this track was recorded in Hollywood before the rest of the record, and is the last of Nilsson’s collaborations with George Tipton, although Tipton’s orchestration is rather more Hollywood-syrupy than one normally expects from his work (and Perry still produced). The song isn’t conventionally structured at all, but has a quite beautiful melody, one which is more than a little reminiscent of Irving Berlin.

The song starts with a simple piano-led verse, in 4/4 time (“Sometimes I go to sleep without you”) in a very similar style to several of Nilsson’s piano ballads, before a tiny instrumental interlude leading to the second verse. During this interlude an orchestra comes in, but one with unusual instruments — harp and banjo — prominent. After the second verse, the song shifts into waltz time, as we get a violin-and-piano-led run through of a melody which will dominate the second half. We then get massed Nilssons singing this waltz-time melody (which is three parts Irving Berlin to one part Kurt Weill) for a verse (“I’ll never leave you alone”), before wordless vocals and pizzicato strings repeat the little figure that had gone between the first two verses, but this time in waltz rather than common time.

Of all the tracks on the album, it’s probably the most unconventional, and it could only really have been placed at the end — it’s quite beautiful, but it’s hard to see how anything could sensibly follow that.

bonus tracks:

Si No Estás Tú

This is a version of “Without You”, which is mostly sung in Spanish until the choruses at the end, when it becomes the standard track for some reason.

How Can I Be Sure of You?

This is a demo of a song which would eventually be, in part, reused as “Good For God” on Duit On Mon Dei. The song is a little aimless, and the verse (the part that was later to be used in “Good For God”), which is very much in the style of Nilsson’s cover of “Let The Good Times Roll”, goes into a chorus (“How can I be sure of you/In a world that’s always changing?”) in 6/8 time rather than the 4/4 of the earlier verse, and in a different key.

Both verse and chorus are fairly simple, but they don’t fit together at all — and there’s a slight melodic resemblance in the chorus to “I’ll Never Leave You”. It feels (and this is based on absolutely no hard evidence) like the idea of “I’ll Never Leave You”‘s structure was important to him and he tried that structure a couple of times before getting the final song.


An odd track, which features layers of slightly detuned-sounding pianos (sounding *very* like some of the music Nilsson’s friend Van Dyke Parks had done on his Song Cycle album) playing a melody which has a strong resemblance to the 1920s standard “Carolina Moon”, over which Nilsson recites some incomprehensible cod-French and gives occasional dance directions.

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Hugo Blogging: Best Novelette

It’s been a while since I did the first posts in my series about the Hugo nominees this year, but after a month in which I’ve been scrabbling to finish an overdue book (the draft is now finished, and sent to the editor) as well as trying to deal with family dramas of various kinds, there’s now only the fact that I’m dying from the heat and my entire city is filled with the constant smell of smoke to stop me from writing new blog posts.

As I don’t have very much on writing-wise that needs to take priority, this month I’m planning to concentrate on reviews — I’m going to look at some stuff by my friends (Matt Rossi’s book Nameless, The Book of the Enemy, and Blake Jones’ new album, for example), and also to review a lot of stuff that’s not by anyone I know. To start with, I’m getting back to the Hugos. As I’ve said before, it’s unlikely that I’ll get through all the Hugo categories, but I’m going to try to get through as many as I can, so here are the novelettes.

For those who don’t know, novelette is a term that is now basically only used in science fiction fandom for awards purposes — it means, in this case, a short story between the lengths of 7500 and 17500 words (17500 and over becomes a novella, 40000 and over is a novel, in this classification system). It’s not really a sensible word to use, and definitely not a term anyone uses in normal life (it may have been in earlier decades, when novels in genre fiction were much, much, shorter than they tend to be these days). Its main purpose is so that the Hugos can have three awards for shorter fiction, along with the “Best Novel” (and now “Best Series”) awards for longer fiction — SF (fantasy not so much) has always been a field where a disproportionate amount of the important work in the genre has been done in short story form, and so it makes sense to have the multiple awards, even if the terms aren’t really very helpful.

I’ll be ranking these best to worst, as I did for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) and Best Short Story.

Winds Will Rove
by Sarah Pinsker is in the issue of Asimov’s in the packet. I first became aware of Pinsker from her rather wonderful novella “And Then There Were (N-One)”, which I’ll be talking about when we get to the Best Novella section, but I’m otherwise unaware of her work.

This, after reading that one, confirms me in my impression that I *really* need to read more of Pinsker’s work. The two stories are not anything alike in most ways, but both in their different ways speak to my interests very profoundly. In this case, what we have is a story about history, and the folk process, and the futility but also the necessity of trying to recreate lost art and history. It’s set on a generation ship, and told by a woman who was born there and who expects one day to die there, without ever seeing the Earth or the planet the ship is headed towards. On the ship, before she was born, someone let loose a computer virus which wiped all records of Earth culture and history, as well as cutting off communications with the home planet, and much of the culture for the decades since has either been about recreating it from the memories of those still alive who remember Earth, or about reacting against the whole idea of cultural preservation.

Our narrator is a history teacher and a folk musician, so you can tell what side of this debate she falls, but much of the story is also about the state of being in the middle of a longer journey — the narrator is a grandmother, dealing with her own very young grandchildren, but much of the story is about her own memories of her grandmother.

It’s about folk music, but also, tangentially, about remix culture and jazz, about the ways we repurpose and reinvent traditions to our own ends but also about the importance of recognising the traditions in their own contexts. It’s not especially plotty in the standard SF way — it’s more about the moments of epiphany and realisation, like literary fiction is meant to be — but it still exemplifies the best SFnal virtues. This is a story about ideas, and relies on its worldbuilding for much of its impact.

And all through it, we have the story of a folk song, about things that no-one on the ship can ever experience, being half-remembered and adapted first on Earth, then in space.

It’s also *extremely* well written, just on a pure wordsmithing level. Read this for example:

“I pictured a real farm, the way they looked in pictures, and let the song tell me how it felt to be in the place called Oklahoma. A sky as big as space, the color of chlorinated water. The sun a distant disk, bright and cold. A wood-paneled square building, with a round building beside it. A perfect carpet of green grass. Horses, large and sturdy, bleating at each other across the fields.”

This is the kind of thing that in other writers might be too purple — several of the other writers in the current crop of Hugo nominees would have written this in such a way as to make my eyes glaze over — but here it has that “transparency” that so many writers claim (wrongly, in my view) as a virtue. It’s extraordinarily clear writing, which manages to tell you a great deal about the character and her thoughts in an extremely small amount of time. It’s proper, good, writing, which doesn’t draw attention to its own cleverness, but which also *is* actually clever — it’s not just the kind of novelised film script one comes to expect from writers who pride themselves on clarity.

This story is, honestly, about as good as you could expect from a science fiction story, and I say this as someone who tends to prize plot over characterisation. No doubt the puppyfascist contingent will (if they bother reading it at all) sneer at it because it features LGBT+ characters, who just happen to mention the fact in passing (I’d have to double-check exactly what mentions there were, but I remember the narrator mentioning that she had been in a relationship with a woman, a couple of uses of singular “they” when describing individuals, and one character (with a gender-neutral name) referring to themself in relation to their child as “his other parent”. This is the kind of thing that for a portion of the SF audience is “turning a story into message fiction”, but for the rest of us is just an effort at realism (and, truth be told, for many people it’s an entirely necessary signal in the current political climate, both within SF and in the wider world, that the author isn’t going to suddenly call for their death out of nowhere).

(Indeed, almost every one of the stories here features LGBT+ characters, often characters who fall into more than one of those boxes, and many of the writers here also fit into one or more of those categories. I mention this not in a Terry Gilliam “you can’t even say you’re a straight white man now” way, but because I know that some of my friends will want to know that this is a selection of stories that does not erase them from existence. That should not be notable, but it is, at least within SF.)

But if there’s a message (and there definitely is) it’s a message about the way culture works, about the dangers of forgetting and the necessity of adapting old ideas to new situations rather than either forgetting them altogether or preserving them perfectly as a museum piece. One certainly *could* take a political message from that — and it would be a useful one at a time when one of the big cultural battles in Pinsker’s home country is over whether one should treat the constitution as a document to be interpreted in light of the current situation, or whether the intent of the country’s founders should be paramount, and when the big cultural argument within SF fandom is over the idea that there might be people for whom modern authors are a better introduction to the genre than the works of Heinlein.

But this is not a political story, except in so far as everything is political. It’s a story about music, and about memory, and the past and the future. And I love it.

Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time
by K.M. Szpara is likewise excellent — at least as far as I can tell, but there’s a big caveat there. It’s a story that is, in large part, about being a gay trans man, and as a cis het man without a great deal of experience of queer fiction I don’t know to what extent this is leaning into or going against tropes and cliches. In particular, I can’t have any idea if the sex scenes (relatively graphic for the kind of stuff that gets nominated for the Hugos, though not Chuck Tingle level graphic) are remotely good at depicting the experiences they’re meant to. I imagine though that they are, as Szpara appears himself to be a trans gay man, and the rest of it is well-written enough that I’d assume him to be competent in writing about his own experiences.

(This is, I hasten to point out, a failing of mine, not Szpara’s — that I haven’t read enough work by trans gay men to be able to judge this work is a fault in me as a reviewer, not in Szpara as a writer, and I’m pointing this stuff out to explain why less weight should be given to my opinion of this story as a result. I could be accurately assessing the quality of the work, or I could be like someone who’s never heard of Albert King or Robert Johnson thinking Eric Clapton invented the blues).

I should also point out for those with triggers that the story starts, right in the first paragraph, with a description of a vampire attack that is clearly intended to be read as a rape, that it features several later instances of the vampire attacker using mind control, and that the narrator goes through several traumatic experiences as a result of being turned into a vampire which induce dysphoria in him, and which are described well enough that they may well do so for other trans people. The narrator also faces transphobia from within the gay community, All these things are necessary for the story being told, but they may well not be something a lot of my friends are comfortable with reading.

While I can’t speak for the accuracy or otherwise of the trans stuff, though, what I can say is that Szpara does an excellent job in depicting the way that people with multiple marginalisations have to navigate bureaucracies. In the world Szpara sets up, vampirism (which seems to follow much the same sorts of biological and physical rules as in the Anne Rice books) is legal but heavily regulated, and in particular trans people are not allowed to become vampires because “we don’t have conclusive studies on how vampirification affects atypical bodies”. The following paragraph will ring a *lot* of bells with a *lot* of people I know:

I’ve seen the Federal Vampire Commission’s list of atypical bodies. It’s trans and intersex folks. Disabled and neuroatypical folks; the F.V.C. even provides a list of prohibited surgeries and medications. Never mind those who can’t afford the required physical exams and application fee. And heaven forbid you’re a woman of childbearing age who “might want to have kids someday; how can you be sure you won’t want to?

There’s a lot more going on in here than just the stuff about navigating bureaucracies and medical gatekeepers — there’s stuff about the mainstreaming of subcultures, for example, that I’m sure will ring a lot of bells with older LGBT+ people — but that’s the stuff that rang truest to me, and I found it spookily well done.

A Series of Steaks by Vina Jie-Min Prasad is… it’s hard not to damn this with faint praise really, especially compared to some of the other stories here. It’s a very good story, well told, with a few nice turns of phrase, about forgers in near-future China creating bootleg steaks using 3D printers. It’s a perfectly enjoyable story, but nowhere near as good as Prasad’s other Hugo-nominated story, the short story “Fandom for Robots”, which I absolutely loved rather than merely enjoyed. It’s just a bit insubstantial and lacking in thematic depth. It reads a little like some of Greg Egan’s more lightweight short fiction, but perhaps with a little more geek-awesome in the characterisation of one of the supporting characters. It’s actually more my kind of thing than the Szpara or Pinsker stories in some ways — but insofar as one can be objective about quality, it’s less good than those. I certainly won’t be upset if it wins (and on the basis of this and “Fandom for Robots” I will almost certainly be ranking Prasad first for the Campbell award) but it isn’t a story that feels like it matters in the same way.

The Secret Life of Bots
by Suzanne Palmer has a lot of the same qualities as “A Series of Steaks”. It’s a very nice old-school SF story of a type which could easily have been written in 1955 or so, in which an obsolete maintenance bot on a spaceship is reactivated in an emergency, and Saves The Day by Showing Initiative unlike all the more modern bots. There are a few nice details (rather than “loading subroutines” or whatever, the bots “recite mantras”, but also a few basic failures of craft like unclear antecedents, which it’s surprising the editor didn’t pick up on. I found it thoroughly enjoyable, but utterly unchallenging — this is something that could have appeared in Astounding under Campbell, and while that’s true of this in a *good* way (and it would have been the best story in its issue in all likelihood) I personally don’t read SF in order to remain completely unchallenged. Others do, though, and this certainly wouldn’t be an unjustifiable winner.

Children of Thorns, Children of Water
by Aliette de Bodard has two qualities I personally dislike. The first is that it isn’t really a standalone story at all — it’s set in a larger world in which two of de Bodard’s novels are also set, and it was originally intended as a preorder-exclusive extra story for one of those novels. Shorn of that context, there’s a ton of unexplained worldbuilding references (and see the next story for more of that) , which leave me not knowing if something’s going to be explained later, I’m supposed to figure it out from context, or I’m just supposed to go with it. With a truly standalone short story, you know that everything you need to follow the story is in there, with series works, unless the author takes *great* pains to ensure it’s spelled out, you don’t.

The second problem is that there is, for me, far too much description of physical environments. It’s all this kind of thing — “Room after room, deserted reception rooms with conversation chairs draped in mouldy coverings, closed pianos that looked as though they wouldn’t even play a note, and harps with strings as fragile as spun silk, rooms with moth-eaten four-poster beds, bathrooms with cracked tiles and yellowed tubs…”

I understand that this is something that’s appreciated by those who have visual imaginations, but for an aphantasic like myself it’s like wading through treacle. Obviously this is a matter of taste rather than a failure of craft, and I imagine that for anyone who enjoys that kind of descriptive writing it’s very interesting, but I can’t cope with it at all.

(Again, a problem with me, not with the writing — and de Bodard has written other stories which don’t have this effect on me).

For those reasons I can’t rank it higher than fifth, though it’s not at all bad given that.

And Extracurricular Activities by Yoon Ha Lee I gave up on about a quarter of the way through. It’s a mil-SF/space mercenary type space opera story, and I don’t like those at the best of times, but this one is also set in a larger universe (the one in Lee’s novels) and again does that thing that works set in established universes do of dropping references in such a way that you’re not sure if you’re meant to know what they are or just go with the flow. That kind of thing, if done well, *can* work well for immersion, but in this case twenty pages into the epub I was still unsure as to why I should care. Given that I’ve literally never enjoyed a story about Space Marines/Mercenaries/Spies In Spaaace! (at least in prose, I have slightly lower standards for the cinema), I decided I’d be wasting my time to go any further with it. I’m still, though, ranking it above No Award, because I know that this kind of thing is a big part of the genre, and while it’s not the part of the genre I’m interested in at all, it would be unreasonable of me to punish something that’s a perfectly well-executed example of its subgenre for not being a subgenre I enjoy. So I’ve ranked it sixth, but won’t be ranking No Award.

Overall, this may be the strongest set of novelette finalists I’ve seen since I started taking part in the Hugo voting a decade or so ago. There were four stories here I thoroughly enjoyed, all of them were at least superior examples of their subgenres, and there was no horrible Nazi shit in there (which, frankly, even before the Puppies was sometimes a bit of a problem). After last year, where my reaction was mostly “oh thank God at least it’s back to being proper stories again instead of Nazi propaganda” but I was largely unimpressed with the actual stories on offer, it’s a massive relief to be able to sit down and read these things with a genuine sense of enjoyment. We’re in the middle of a mini boom in science fiction and fantasy short fiction (at least at the short story and novelette length — the novella market is largely owned by a single publisher at this point, which is disappointing) and these nominees show it.

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On Pyramid Schemes

“Boom boom, guys! Liberalism is happy, healthy, and alive!”

That seems to be the message coming from the party leadership, which should tell you everything you need to know.

There is a problem with the Liberal Democrats, and it’s a problem which has got worse and worse, to the point that I don’t know if the party can be saved, though I hope to God that it can. And the problem is this — many people in the Lib Dems seem to have accidentally received the Labour Party constitution in their membership pack, rather than the Lib Dem constitution, and to be acting accordingly.

For those who don’t know, the Lib Dem constitution says “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”, and then goes on to explain how that will be done, with things like “Our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries; we are committed to fight poverty, oppression, hunger, ignorance, disease and aggression wherever they occur and to promote the free movement of ideas, people, goods and services. Setting aside national sovereignty when necessary, we will work with other countries towards an equitable and peaceful international order and a durable system of common security. Within the European Community we affirm the values of federalism and integration and work for unity based on these principles.”
That sort of thing.

The Labour Party constitution, on the other hand, says
“1. This organisation shall be known as ‘The Labour Party’ (hereinafter referred to as ‘the party’).
2. Its purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party”
It’s just a tautology. The purpose of its existence is so it can continue to exist, not to support a particular set of aims.

And the problem is, many — not all, but possibly most — activists in the Lib Dems, and a majority of our Parliamentarians, see our purpose the same way.

It comes down to a simple fact: systems behave according to the incentives they have. And in the Lib Dems it was decided, in the 1997 General Election, that our incentives would be based on targeting — winning seats, either in Parliament or in councils, rather than persuading people of liberal values and trying to get liberal policies implemented, by whatever means.

And to make it clear, that *was* a change in tactics. The Lib Dems and their predecessors in the Liberal Party (I’m less sure about the SDP as I’m not so aware of that party’s history) had always operated since at least the 1940s first and foremost as a party of radical ideas, and those radical ideas had been adopted, later, by other parties. The NHS, the welfare state, legalising abortion, legalising homosexuality — these were all Liberal ideas which were later made law, despite the lack of Parliamentary representation.

Which is not to say that representation in Parliament or on councils is a *bad* thing, of course — just that it’s not the *only* way of effecting political change, and it’s also only useful *as* a means of effecting political change.

But in 1997 came Rennardism, and the ruthless allocation of resources to individual constituencies where those resources would make the most electoral sense. As a single-election strategy, this was a good idea (though possibly not *as* responsible for the massive Lib Dem gains that year as it’s credited for — this was, after all, a year when people engaged in tactical voting on a massive scale in the hope of getting out what seemed then to be likely to be the most venal and corrupt Tory government of our lifetime (but which in retrospect looks like a near-utopian example of good governance compared to what we’re experiencing now). But targeting did, at least have some positive effect. Twenty-one years ago.

But, with the benefit of hindsight, that seems like the moment when most of the party machinery took a wrong turn, one which it has still not turned away from. From that point on, the party (at least the party HQ and most of its executive) became, not an organisation which exists to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity, but instead an organisation which exists to organise and maintain in Parliament a Liberal Democrat Party.

And so now we have disgraces like the party’s leader speaking in support of Gordon Brown in his calls for “tighter controls on immigration” (I did warn people about this before Vince Cable was made leader by acclamation). This goes directly against the parts of the party constitution I quoted above, but on the other hand it *does* appeal to exactly the kind of people who want a non-ideological (by which they mean conforming to the implicit ideologies that they have) “new centre party”. We have the party’s immigration policy working group being chaired by someone who spends his time on Twitter trolling Lib Dem Immigrants and mocking anyone who wants a motion that actually promotes free movement.

And we have, time and again, pushback from councilors and Parliamentarians about any attempt to get liberal policy passed, with complaints that it would make it harder for them to continue to get elected. The most awful example of that was in 2016, when we came up with a Brexit policy that, again, goes against everything in the party’s constitution, and which removed our ability to actually campaign against Brexit and distinguish ourselves from the other parties, because Norman Lamb and Greg Mulholland were worried about losing their seats (and Mulholland went on to lose his anyway).

This is *not*, I hasten to add, a problem with the membership. The membership vote for liberal policy when it’s put in front of them. As a result we still, amazingly, have policies that are far to the left of Labour (though you wouldn’t believe it from hearing our leadership speak). Rather it’s a problem with the party’s organisational structure, and the people who’ve taken control of it.

Because the party functions, not as a political party that exists to promote a type of society that it wants to see, but as a pyramid scheme. You deliver leaflets until you’ve recruited ten leaflet deliverers who’ll deliver leaflets with your face on them, at which point you become a councilor. When your ten leaflet-deliverers have each also recruited ten leaflet deliverers and get promoted to councilor, you become an MP. No liberalism required.

And the rhetoric of these people is also pyramid-scheme style mixtures of magical thinking, promises of future rewards, and healthy doses of guilt for not having achieved unreachable goals, mixed in with management-speak bullshytt.

So now, when the limits of that approach become painfully apparent, after the leadership got so good at steering right into the middle of the road that we ended up getting smashed by speeding lorries coming from both directions, the party is in a far, far worse state than the old Liberal Party was in the 1960s. We have the right values, but leaders who don’t believe in them. We have the right policy, but get told to shut up about it in case it scares racists. There are large areas of the country that have been left with no liberal activity, as activists have worked neighbouring wards or constituencies, meaning no future activists have come up, and that when people in those areas do join the party they have no local party to work with.

And most annoyingly, almost all the MPs we had who didn’t fit this description lost their seats in 2015, largely as a result of the actions of those who do.

While the Lib Dem party has some of the finest thinkers I know, some of the most principled progressive activists I’ve ever come across, a set of policies that would make the world a much better place, and even more than all of that a guiding philosophy which I happen to think is as close to absolutely right as one can get in politics, all of this is going to waste as the party prioritises “local champions” (who may happen to share the same values as UKIP, but they really *care* about potholes) on councils and nationally spends all its time worrying about placating five swing voters in Nottingham who won’t vote for us if we state a single principle.

Paradoxically, I think that Lib Dem electoral success can only come if, in the short term, we start to work towards goals that have no immediate electoral reward. For a start, we need to have a 650-seat/9456-ward strategy. There needs to be *some* Lib Dem activity in every single ward in the country. One notable thing that’s been seen in recent council by-elections is over and over again Lib Dems have taken seats where we didn’t even stand a candidate in previous elections. People will support Lib Dems when given the opportunity.

But it’s also important to realise that *not everyone will support us, and that is OK*. Over and again in discussions about Brexit, I have run into people saying “but we can’t be just a party for the forty-eight percent, we need to be for the other fifty-two percent as well!”

Well, currently, we’re a party for the eight percent, which is what we’re getting in the polls and have been consistently for several years now. Maybe try actually appealing to somebody, rather than think you can get everyone’s votes if you’re inoffensive enough.

But neither of these things will happen without a change in the party’s culture. We need more ideas, and more discussion of ideas. And by this I *don’t* mean big thick policy-wonk documents put out by think-tanks. And nor do I mean party policy which reads like it’s draft legislation. I mean discussion of radical liberal solutions to the problems in front of us. I mean changing the terms of the debate. Instead of pushing for “Soft Brexit”, push for the old Liberal goal of a united federal Europe. Instead of talking about “firm but fair” immigration policies, talk about the freedom to move where you like without arbitrary restrictions. Instead of tweaking universal credit, talk about bringing in basic income.

We need to get out there and make the case for liberalism, while also making the case for the party. If done properly, that will eventually yield electoral results — but even if it doesn’t, it may well lead to other parties taking on our policies and implementing them. Which for those of us who are more focused on ensuring no-one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance, and conformity than we are on furthering our own careers and maybe getting a knighthood should be the actual point.

Remember, UKIP *never* got a single MP by any means other than defections from another party, yet their entire policy platform has been taken on wholesale by the Tories and Labour, and our own policy on the EU and immigration is currently closer to theirs than to our own constitution. Why? Because they didn’t compromise, and they kept pushing a clear message, and got enough people to support them that they were a threat to the jobs of MPs under first past the post, even if they weren’t going to win those seats themselves. The fact that their policy platform is pure evil to the extent it’s coherent at all, which it mostly isn’t, didn’t matter. UKIP won.

There is no reason why if we picked a handful of solidly liberal principles, ones that were simple to explain, and *did not compromise on them*, we couldn’t do the same.

But for this to work, we will also have to fight the party machine, because the party machine is dedicated to self-preservation above liberal principle.

I’m not at all sure that the party *can* be saved at this point — the people with power in the party are so utterly determined that the way they have done things for the last twenty years is the only way things can ever be done that they will do everything they can now to oppose making the Liberal Democrats back into a party that actually matters. Most of them appear to be hoping against hope that the mythical New Centrist Party with Chuka and Woke Soubz will happen and they can all indulge in their eighties nostalgia and engage in Alliance cosplay, and various signs and portents within the party are leading me to think that some people in party HQ are setting up their own parallel organisations and parties-within-a-party, capturing as much of the party’s functionality as they can so that when and if this New Brand (for it will be a brand, not a party in any real sense) forms they can go off to be Proper Centrists Like Macron and not have to worry about that pesky liberalism stuff (and you can guarantee that any future New Centrist Party will keep the pyramid scheme elements but ditch the member-led policy-making, except maybe for the odd Twitter contest for a new way to give supermarkets tax breaks).

But if it’s possible to save the party, I think we should. The Lib Dems as they exist now are a horribly flawed vehicle for liberalism — and even if they suddenly became focused on the priorities I think they should have, they would still be very flawed, because that’s the nature of organisations that are made up of humans, especially organisations that are working within the ultra-flawed world of politics. But, flawed as it is, the party is the only one that really represents a significant strand of thought in British politics — a strand of thought that prioritises freedom over conformity, and which seeks to allow everyone to become the version of themselves they most want to be, and to free everyone from oppression. If the party dies, or if it stops having even a nominal connection to liberalism (in the sense in which the party has traditionally meant it, not as a synonym for centrism), we will have lost something unutterably precious.

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A Belated Autistic Pride Day Post

Last Monday was Autistic Pride Day. I couldn’t commemorate it then because I was shepherding a pair of neurotypicals around a crowded, sensory-overstimulating, city I don’t know. There was also an Autistic Pride Picnic in Manchester today, which I was unable to attend because having spent a week and a bit dealing with neurotypicals, I had some important hiding and not interacting with anyone at all that I urgently needed to attend to.

So, belatedly, here are a few thoughts on autism pride.

Pride seems a strange emotion to me, at least as far as one’s neurology goes. It seems a little like being proud that I’m bald or have blue eyes. It’s not really an achievement to be autistic, it’s just something you’re born with.

But then again, maybe it is an achievement to be proud of that I’ve survived this long as an autistic person. We don’t tend to have long lives — our life expectancy is fifty-four (and that’s for those lucky enough not to have comorbid conditions such as epilepsy). And the reason for this is mostly down to the fact that we have to fight every day for our lives. The biggest killer of autistic people is stress-related heart disease. The second biggest killer is suicide — and the suicide rates for people who get diagnosed as adults (or those who, like me, know we are autistic but didn’t get diagnosed as children because of changing diagnostic criteria, and who when we attempted to get formal diagnosis as adults get stuck on literally endless waiting lists because no-one in a position of power gives a shit about autistic people, only about the neurotypical parents of autistic children) are astronomical. Sixty-six percent of newly-diagnosed adults have considered suicide, and thirty-five percent have made serious plans or attempts to kill themselves. The only group of people I know of with similar statistics is trans people, who suffer a similar (possibly even worse) level of societal marginalisation. 

So yes, I can be proud that I’m alive, I suppose. 

I’m alive in the face of a society which is so set up to marginalise autistic people that when I had to take time off from work with work-related stress in my last job, the management’s response was to make me spend more days in the office rather than working from home, increasing my stress at the expense of my productivity. Apparently my old employers didn’t care if I did less work, so long as I was also more unhealthy.

I’m alive in the face of a society which is so skewed against autistic people that Autistica, the charity which produced those statistics about autistic suicide rates, has recently announced its involvement in clinical trials in partnership with Autism Speaks, a “charity” which wants to eliminate autistic people from existence altogether for the convenience of the neurotypical parents of autistic children.  

I’m alive in the face of the kind of pervasive ableism which sees my party’s own health spokesman call for abusive behavioural “therapies” for us, and which sees the Lib Dem Disability Association say on its website (despite numerous corrections from myself and other autistic Lib Dems) of autistic people “Their ability to develop friendships is generally limited as is their capacity to understand other people’s emotional expression,” and “Some people with autism, whilst being appearing to be stupid or thick, may actually have a skill, such as an artist, that they can excel in”.

I’m alive in the face of a culture which sees even people who are otherwise decent human beings share articles on the toxicity of nerd culture, and go on to blame that toxicity not on a culture that rewards entitled cis het white men who abuse their power, but on autistic people, most of whom have less than no ability to change culture in any meaningful way.

And I’m alive in the face of a culture which sees a group of people, many of whom have a variety of life-impairing illnesses such as autoimmune diseases, inflammatory illnesses, and many other things which occur comorbidly with autism in a huge number of cases, and says “we need to pour billions of dollars into medical research to find out why they’re a bit quiet and don’t want to talk with us, so we can kill anyone who behaves like that and replace them with someone more sociable! Fuck curing their epilepsy or arthritis or diabetes though.”

And even worse than all these, I’m alive in the face of a culture which at every turn, in a million little ways, prioritises the comfort of the majority over the needs of the autistic minority, in everything from the existence of job interviews to shops like Lush which make entire sections of cities a no-go zone for those with sensory issues, to the way people judge you for not making eye contact. A world which prioritises “teamwork” and punishes the “antisocial”, a world which runs entirely on ability to perform neurotypical social rituals, and where if you break down and scream “just leave me the fuck alone, you’re torturing me” after spending too long being forced into performing tose rituals against every instinct in your body, it’s you, not your torturers, who’s considered at fault, because they were only being normal and friendly.

(I never do break down and scream, because of this. I internalise it instead, and end up with cardiovascular disease, so I’ll die of stress “naturally” without causing too much discomfort to neurotypicals. Yay?)

So yeah, that’s something to be proud of, I suppose.

And so autism pride is necessary, in the same way that pride in membership of LGBT+ groups is necessary. We’re both groups that face significant threats to our very existence, and who need at times to say “fuck you, I won’t let you stop me from being myself”. Many of the pressures, indeed, are the same — masking for autistic people is essentially the same thing as being closeted is, while both groups have to deal with eugenicists wanting to eliminate us altogether.

(This is not to enter into oppression olympics — as an allocishet man I have no way of knowing to what extent the ableism I face compares to the various bigotries and oppressions faced by LGBT+ people — so it’s not a comparison of my experience, just a statement about the nature, not the level, of these shared difficulties).

And there’s a *huge* amount of stigma attached to autism. Being autistic is alternately used as a slur (for example the accusations that Theresa May is as cold and heartless as she is because she’s autistic, with no evidence for that other than a neurotypical inability to admit that they share a neurology with evil people) or dismissed altogether (“but isn’t everyone a little bit on the spectrum?”). Autism is simultaneously something that renders one lacking in the basic elements of humanity (see the claims that we are lacking in empathy, which are wrong on many, many levels) and something that doesn’t even really exist, so no accomodations need be made for autistic people’s differences.

So, I’ll say it, but only because it needs saying:
Autistic people are valid.
Autistic people are humans and deserve human rights.

Autistic people are capable of love, compassion, and empathy. 

Autistic people have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

Autistic people have a right to be proud.

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Bizzy Baksun

Just a brief explanation for my current lack of posting: my in-laws have been staying with me for a week, over from the US; I’ve got a book that’s quite a bit past deadline and a few other writing things I can’t talk about that had deadlines that either just happened or were just about to; and there are *major* health crises happening with two different relatives (the latter don’t currently need my active involvement, but I’m having to do emotional support stuff a lot). Tomorrow is something of a crisis point for all of this, and after that I’ll be able to get back to clearing stuff from the to-do list a bit.

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Odd Question for my RL Friends

I’m currently not very online because my in-laws are visiting. Proper posts resume Friday, but I’ve got an odd question for anyone I might have lent DVDs to — have I lent any of you the Doctor Who DVDs Robot, The Hand of Fear, Pyramids of Mars or Mark of the Rani? For some reason those four aren’t on my shelves with the rest of my (not-quite-complete) set of Doctor Who DVDs, but I know I own copies of them. If any of you have borrowed them, could you let me know? (And, in the case of Mark of the Rani, could you also let me know why on Earth I lent you that of all things?)

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Hugo Blogging: Best Short Story

As always, I’m going to try to write blog posts about all the shortlisted works for the Hugo Awards and Retro-Hugos this year. As always, I will almost certainly not manage that. In particular, unless I somehow get stranded on a desert island, with only the nominated books for entertainment, and with a time machine that allows me to get back in time for voting, I won’t even be attempting the Best Series nominees (a category I don’t believe should exist at all, frankly, for a variety of reasons). It is, of course, extraordinarily generous that, for example, all of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive books are included in the Hugo Packet, but I have a low tolerance for epic fantasy anyway, and faced with three 2500-ish page (according to Calibre, the ereader software I use) novels, one of which starts with a prelude, then “4500 years later”, and then a prologue before getting to the first chapter proper… well, I’d *like* to judge the category properly, but I’m afraid I have some important literally anything else in the world to be getting on with.

(No slight intended to Sanderson, who seems from the Writing Excuses podcast to be a very nice man. But my own view is that around two hundred and fifty pages is the optimum length for a novel, and I’m immune to the charms of epics generally, preferring books to be about ideas first and foremost rather than about character arcs or immersion in a world).

The short stories, on the other hand, are far more in my wheelhouse. I’ll be ranking these best to worst, mimicking my ranking on the eventual ballot. To avoid too much tension. I’ll say straight away that for the first time in a long time there is nothing here that should go below “No Award”. There’s work that’s not to my taste, but with all of it I can see why it would be to someone else’s. It’s all at least competently written, and it’s all actual science fiction or fantasy. None of it is outright propaganda for fascism, and none of it appears to have been gamed onto the ballot by Gamergate-wannabes.

These should not be exceptional criteria for an award, but after a couple of years where none of those were true (and last year where the quality was back up again thanks to the rule changes but there were still a handful of fascist shitsmears on the ballot), it’s a relief to be able to say those things.

It’s still not the case — and hadn’t been for a couple of years before the fascists tried their takeover bid — that this list contains only exemplary material, and there has always (since long before the Puppies) been a lot of work on the short fiction ballots that I’m unimpressd by. But partly that’s a fashion thing, I suspect — what impresses fandom at the moment is different from what impresses me, and the pendulum will undoubtedly swing again (and may already have done so had the fascists not tried to pull the pendulum off altogether). What we have here is a selection of well-reviewed, well-liked stories that are the consensus choice of fandom as the best stories published last year, and I’m not going to put “No Award” over anything that meets those criteria.

So, going from best to worst:

Fandom For Robots by Vina Jie-Min Prasad is an absolutely joyous little vignette about fandom, in which an obsolete robot from the 1950s (in a world in which robots exist but have made basically no difference to the culture) discovers online anime fandom and becomes a regular participant in fanfic groups — and in doing so helps build up appreciation for the obsolete aesthetics of 1950s robots generally.

I might not have liked this *quite* so much if I didn’t read it in the same week that Doctor Who on Twitch was causing much squeeing and injokes among tens of thousands of people, many of whom were discovering Hartnell-era Doctor Who for the first time — it’s not particularly strongly plotted and contains no revelatory ideas. But it’s celebratory, and funny, and it pings a *lot* of my buttons on all sorts of issues — the way online communities allow spaces for people who don’t fit in with conventional society, ways that accommodations can be made between authenticity-police style fans and the younger, more female, online fandoms around Tumblr and AO3, the way my personal favourite museum (the Media Museum in Bradford, now sadly the “Science and Media Museum”) is focusing less and less on the things that make it special, the idea that “outdated” aesthetics still have value, and the appreciation of nonstandard forms of physical beauty.

These are things that *really* resonate hard with me, and Prasad’s writing is clear and witty. It also includes copious exchanges from the message board conversations the robot takes part in, and I’m a sucker for found-document and epistolary stuff in my fiction. Basically, this is a story that seems designed to hit *all* of my buttons, so much so that I’m completely willing to forgive its comparatively slight plot. Just lovely. Far and away my favourite thing on the ballot.

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience TM by Rebecca Roanhorse is a really strong piece, written in second person, about portrayal of native experience for colonialist tourists, about cultural appropriation, the idea of “authenticity”, about colonialism more generally, and about betrayal. It only peripherally involves the SFnal aspects of the story — it could very easily be rewritten as a piece of straight contemporary fiction — but it would be a *very good* piece of straight contemporary fiction. It’s probably a better piece than the one I’m putting in first place, but I’m ranking it second partly because it’s less SFnal and partly because it has less to say to me personally. No doubt anyone who isn’t a white man who’s lived all his life in a country where he is the default would find this speaks more to them, and I certainly won’t be at all surprised or disappointed if it wins.

Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand by Fran Wilde is much more impressive than the previous work of Wilde’s I’d read, last year’s “The Jewel and Her Lapidary”. This is an atmospheric piece about freak shows, and eugenics, and medicalisation, told in the form of a tour guide taking you through an exhibition of curiosities. It’s genuinely creepy and disturbing, but like much of what gets nominated for the Hugos at present is a little too dependent on description and prose style for my tastes (one thing about being aphantasic is that it makes reading long descriptions of environments a little difficult and unrewarding). However, it makes good use of these things, and has some *really* disturbing passages — “Open the drawers of Items We’ve Let Touch Us Because Someone Just Like You Said It Would Make Us Well. The hooks and saws, the foul tastes and that stuff that made us gag and didn’t make us any better. You all wrote neat words down about each experiment anyway and that made you better.”

The Martian Obelisk by Linda Nagata I could very easily have put third, and possibly even second — while my top choice was an easy one, the other three bunch together very closely for me. The most conventional SF story of the bunch, this is something that I could easily see Galaxy having published in the 50s, both in writing style and in subject matter. An elderly woman living in a world beset by environmental disaster, where everyone is agreed that the world is going to end sooner rather than later, and that the best thing to do is to just let entropy win quietly, and to just accept that everything is going to disintegrate.

She’s working on building an obelisk on Mars, by remote-controlling from Earth a set of machinery left there by a previous failed colony attempt, as a final marker that yes, humanity did exist and were capable of art, when something happens to change everything.

It’s a very well written story, definitely worth reading, and probably the story that most fits my idea of what a science fiction story “should” be — but for that reason possibly a little too conservative, hence me ending up ranking it fourth. But all the top four stories are ones I genuinely like. The next two I don’t.

Carnival Nine by Caroline M. Yoachim does some very interesting things with its worldbuilding, but uses it, much like Roanhorse’s story, to tell a story which could have pretty much the exact same emotional effect without the worldbuilding. Which is not to say that the worldbuilding has no effect on the story as a whole — it’s intriguing, and leaves us asking a lot of questions, and it adds to the story — just that most of it works as a straight analogue (or nearly) for things in the real world, and stories which have one to one correspondences like that are less interesting to me.

(I’m really not expressing this very well. This is *not* a story where you could remove the SFnal elements and still have the same story, but it *is* a story where you could write a story set in the real world which had exactly the same emotional beats, beat-for-beat).

The story, about clockwork people who only have a certain number of spring turns a day, seems inspired by the “spoon theory of disability” — a clockwork woman who has a stronger spring than almost anyone, and who was abandoned by her mother (who didn’t want to waste turns on anyone but herself) and brought up by her father, has a clockwork child whose spring doesn’t work properly, and who she has to take care of. This leads to the breakup of her marriage, and so on, (although she later reconciles with her husband).

The reason I’m ranking it so low is… well, it’s a story that focuses on how hard it is to look after a disabled child, and on what looking after a disabled child does to the mother. The child is barely characterised, and the focus is all on the abled mother’s feelings and on her relationships with other characters.

Now, it doesn’t present the child as a burden in the metaphorical sense — she obviously loves the child — but it does in the literal sense, in that she has to carry the child everywhere because he’s too weak to walk.

Now, I don’t think it was the author’s intent by any means to reinforce harmful tropes about disability — in fact I suspect it was the opposite. Certainly the central conceit of the story suggests familiarity with disabled and chronic illness sufferers’ discourse around “spoons”. But whether it intends to or not, I think the story *does* reinforce ableist tropes, and so I can’t in good conscience rank it any higher than this, despite the imagination that’s gone into the worldbuilding and the emotional power of the story itself.

And finally Sun, Moon, Dust by Ursula Vernon is a short piece about a farmer who gets given a magic sword. It hits a lot of Vernon’s familiar themes — gardening, grumpy elderly women who have secret magical knowledge — but while I usually like her work, this does little for me. Like many of the stories this year, it works largely on description of a space and on subtle implications and things left unsaid, but when a story in that style doesn’t work for you, it can feel very bland even if (as this one is) it’s well written.

I have problems with all of these stories (even the one I’m ranking at the top), but at the same time there are four stories here I genuinely like, and two more which are certainly not bad. And while I think Vernon’s one is a little bit of a misfire, she’s a good enough author that I’m entirely willing to accept that the problem is with me, and that I’ve missed something that makes it exceptional.

It’s lovely to finally have a Hugo shortlist which, even if it doesn’t match my taste, is completely free of anything that’s actively awful or actively evil. It’s also good to see that the shortlist is made up of all female-named people (I word it that way because I know little about these authors, and one or more may be nonbinary or genderqueer, and I wouldn’t want to presume), and with a fair few non-Anglo names in there.

Because part of the reason not all of these stories feel like they’re for me is that the target audience for SF is no longer just fat white English-speaking men with glasses and beards who have a STEM background. Other people have stories they want to hear, or want to tell, and those stories are just as valid as the ones for me. And sometimes, as in “Fandom For Robots”, I’ll find out that those stories are also stories that are for me as well.

This is what the Puppies never understood, but what “Fandom For Robots” says really well. When someone different from you shares an interest, the community around that interest will change. But that only means you’re unwelcome if you’re unwelcoming. None of these stories were aimed at me, some of them worked for me anyway, others didn’t. But none of them made me feel excluded in any way, while the Puppies, writing stuff that was targeted with an almost laser focus at allocishet white men like me, made me feel horribly excluded.

Here’s to many, many, more years of stuff on the Hugo ballot that isn’t all my kind of thing.

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