Hugo Awards 2012: Best Short Story

The Best Short Story category is one of the original Hugo Award categories. Short stories are defined as stories of less than 7,500 words. Good short stories are hard to find, as there is not a lot of room to develop big ideas. But when a good short story clicks, it can take the reader on an intense, powerful journey.

Best Short Story Nominations (611 ballots cast [compared to 515 ballots cast in 2011])
(The titles in bold are the ones I nominated.)

72 “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu (12.27%)
68 “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu (11.13%)
43 “Movement” by Nancy Fulda (5.63%)
36 “The Homecoming” by Mike Resnick (5.63%)
36 “Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue” by John Scalzi (5.63%)
——————————————
25 “Her Husband’s Hands” by Adam-Troy Castro (4.09%)
24 “Unlimited Delta” by Robin Walton (3.93%)
23 “Tidal Forces” by Caitlin Kiernan (3.76%)
23 “The Bread We Eat in Dreams” by Catherynne M. Valente (3.76%)
22 “Younger Women” by Karen Joy Fowler (3.60%)
18 “After the Apocalypse” by Maureen McHugh (2.95%)
18 “Shipbirth” by Aliette de Bodard (2.95%)
17 “Mama, We Are Zhenya, Your Son” by Tom Crosshill (2.78%)
17 “Goodnight Moons” by Ellen Klages (2.78%)
17 “Tying Knots” by Ken Liu (2.78%)
17 “The Server and the Dragon” by Hannu Rajaniemi (2.78%)
16 “The Invasion of Venus” by Stephen Baxter (2.62%)
16 “The Drowner” by Paedar O’Guilin (2.62%)

Best Short Story Final Ballot Results (1615 ballots [compared to 1597 ballots cast in 2011])

My Ranking

Title

Round 1

Round 2

Round 3

Round 4

Round 5

2

“The Paper Menagerie” (WINNER)

454

454

515

569

789

4

“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees”

352

354

403

472

579

1

“The Homecoming”

310

311

359

439

6

“Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue”

266

266

281

3

“Movement”

185

187

5

No Award

48

No Award Tests:
• 1209 ballots rank “The Paper Menagerie” higher than No Award; 84 ballots rank No Award higher than “The Paper Menagerie”- PASS
• ((1615-48)/1922)*100 = 82% – PASS

The remaining places were then calculated to be:
2nd Place – “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees”
3rd Place – “The Homecoming”
4th Place – “Movement”
5th Place – “Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue”

Analysis

Only five short stories made the 5% cutoff. Does this mean the category of short story is stagnant (only four short stories made the cutoff last year)? Or does it mean that there are a large number of quality short stories that split the votes? I’m not sure what the answer is, but the category seems to be weaker than it used to. The Nebula Award winner was “The Paper Menagerie”.

Mini-Reviews

“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld, April 2011)

This year’s John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer went to Yu, very deserving based on this story. Yu uses the metaphor of a wasp colony enslaving a bee hive in a thought-provoking, original way to discuss colonialism and rebellion.

“The Homecoming” by Mike Resnick (Asimov’s, Apr.-May 2011)

This is a moving story of an estranged father and son who find reconciliation while caring for their wife/mother who is hospitalized with dementia. The SF twist is that the son has undergone radical surgical modification that the father disapproves of.

“Movement” by Nancy Fulda (Asimov’s, March 2011)

This is a beautifully written story about an autistic girl, the proposed treatment her parents are offered to cure her, and their mutual decision about it. One of the messages is that autistic people are not ill in a traditional sense, and that they do not necessarily need to be “cured” to have meaningful lives. It’s a story with food for thought from someone who obviously has had experience with an autistic person.

“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu (F&SF, Mar.-Apr. 2011)

This is an emotionally charged story of a young American-born Chinese man who mistreats his native Chinese mother, illustrating the struggle between language and culture that many first- and second-generation immigrants encounter. After she dies, he finds a letter from her hidden in a magical origami animal she made. From that he learns a heartbreaking, poignant lesson. Be prepared to shed a tear when reading this story.

“Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue” by John Scalzi (Tor.com)

It was only after I read this story that I learned it had been written as an April Fool’s joke. That clarified so much about why I disliked it. This is an incoherent story that apparently was supposed to be humorous, but fell far, far flat. Only the power of Scalzi’s popularity with fandom, and the overall weakness of the short story category, explains how fluff like this gets nominated.

Hugo Awards 2012: Best Novelette

The Best Novelette category is one of the oldest Hugo Award categories, being around since 1955. Novelettes are defined as stories of between 7,500 and 17,500 words. The novelette is good length for science fiction and fantasy stories. An author can explore a single idea without a lot of clutter.

Best Novelette Nominations (506 ballots cast [compared to 382 ballots cast in 2011])
(The titles in bold are the ones I nominated.)

61 “Six Months, Three Days” by Charlie Jane Anders (12.05%)
56 “The Copenhagen Interpretation” by Paul Cornell (11.07%)
43 “Fields of Gold” by Rachel Swirsky (8.50%)
37 “What We Found” by Geoff Ryman (6.81%)
37 “Ray of Light” by Brad R. Torgersen (7.31%)
—————————————————————————-
36 “A Long Walk Home” by Jay Lake (7.11%)
30 “White Lines on a Green Field” by Catherynne M. Valente (5.93%)
29 “Ghostweight” by Yoon Ha Lee (5.73%%)
23 “The Old Man and the Martian Sea” by Alastair Reynolds (4.55%)
21 “The Book of Phoenix (Excerpted From the Great Book)” by Nnedi Okorafor (4.15%)
21 “Laika`s Ghost” by Karl Schroeder (4.15%)
19 “Sauerkraut Station” by Ferrett Steinmetz (3.75%)
19 “A Small Price To Pay for Birdsong” by K.J. Parker (3.75%)
18 “The Choice” by Paul McAuley (3.56)
17 “Citizen-Astronaut” by David D. Levine (3.36%)
17 “The Summer People” by Kelly Link (3.36%)
17 “The Migratory Pattern of Dancers” by Katherine Sparrow (3.36%)

Best Novelette Final Ballot Results (1418 ballots [compared to 1469 ballots cast in 2011])

My Ranking

Title

Round 1

Round 2

Round 3

Round 4

Round 5

2

“Six Months, Three Days” (WINNER)

369

369

419

494

637

1

“Ray of Light”

340

343

363

410

521

3

“The Copenhagen Interpretation”

271

273

301

384

4

“What We Found”

230

231

256

5

“Fields of Gold”

149

151

No Award

59

No Award Tests:
• 976 ballots rank “Six Months, Three Days” higher than No Award; 120 ballots rank No Award higher than “Six Months, Three Days” – PASS
• ((1418-59)/1922 )*100 = 71% – PASS

The remaining places were then calculated to be:
2nd Place – “Ray of Light”
3rd Place – “The Copenhagen Interpretation”
4th Place – “What We Found”
5th Place – “Fields of Gold”

Analysis

Only eight novelettes made the 5% cutoff. It appears that there was strong support for a small number of candidates, with shallow support for a very large pool of contenders. The Nebula Award winner was “What We Found”.

Mini-Reviews

“The Copenhagen Interpretation” by Paul Cornell (Asimov’s, July 2011)

This is an alternate history, the third in a series about a spy named Jonathan Hamilton. It is self-contained, but there are definite hints that it would be more enjoyable if one were familiar with the earlier works. The conceit is that in this world quantum mechanical devices exist which perform tasks that seem almost magical. I enjoyed this story, but felt like I was reading an excerpt from a novel.

“Fields of Gold” by Rachel Swirsky (Eclipse Four)

This is a largely unmemorable story about the afterlife. New arrival Dennis meets various dead celebrities such as Cleopatra, Napoleon, Shakespeare, Jesus, and Alexander the Great, while lamenting his unfulfilled bucket list. As a character study this story is well done, but there is not much plot to hang it on.

“Ray of Light” by Brad R. Torgersen (Analog, December 2011)

This is a post-apocalyptic story where humanity is forced to live beneath the ocean to survive the complete glaciation of the surface after aliens block the sun. The plot focuses on a former astronaut searching for his runaway daughter and the serendipitous discovery they make in the process. Torgersen was the runner-up for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer this year, and I expect we will see much more from this promising writer.

“Six Months, Three Days” by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com)

What happens when a man who can see a single, locked-in future goes on a date with a woman who can see every possible future, branching out like infinite trees? They can’t both be right, or can they? This is a powerful meditation on the philosophical debate between predestination and free will. Some very nice dialog fuels this engaging character study about romantic relationships, showing that even knowing the future doesn’t necessarily help bridge the gender gap.

“What We Found” by Geoff Ryman (F&SF, Sept.-Oct. 2011)

In a near-future Nigeria, a boy grows up to be a scientist. The story’s science fictional element is tenuous at best, concentrating mostly on the Nigerian’s family life. I really would expect to find something like this in a literary magazine. It’s not a bad story, but it’s not terribly remarkable, either.

Hugo Awards 2012: Best Novella

The Best Novella category was added in 1968. Novellas are defined as stories of between 17,500 and 40,000 words. Many people consider the novella to be a perfect length—long enough to develop a detailed world and interesting characters, but short enough to avoid unnecessary padding. It’s a hard length to get published, though; often not long enough to publish on its own, but too long to easily fit into some magazines or anthologies.

Best Novella Nominations (473 ballots cast [compared to 407 ballots cast in 2011])
(The titles in bold are the ones I nominated.)

120 Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente (24.84%)
111 “The Man Who Bridged The Mist” by Kij Johnson (22.98%)
98 “Kiss Me Twice” by Mary Robinette Kowal (20.29%)
76 “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” by Ken Liu (15.73%)
47 “The Ice Owl” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (9.73%)
47 Countdown by Mira Grant (9.73%)
———————————————————————————-
39 “The Adakian Eagle” by Bradley Denton (8.07%)
38 “The Ants of Flanders” by Robert Reed (7.87%)
27 “With Unclean Hands” by Adam-Troy Castro (5.59%)
22 Gravity Dreams by Stephen Baxter (4.55%)
18 “Martian Chronicles” by Cory Doctorow (3.73%)
18 “The Rat Race” by Cherie Priest (3.73%)
17 “The Alchemist” by Paolo Bacigalupi (3.52%)
16 “Lord John and the Plague of Zombies” by Diana Gabaldon (3.31%)
15 “Angel of Europa” by Allen Steele (3.11%)

Best Novella Final Ballot Results (1493 ballots [compared to 1467 ballots cast in 2011])

My Ranking

Title

Round 1

Round 2

Round 3

Round 4

Round 5

Round 6

1

“The Man Who Bridged the Mist” (WINNER)

331

331

377

453

492

628

2

“Kiss Me Twice”

315

315

330

370

462

593

7

Countdown

252

252

264

300

372

5

Silently and Very Fast

249

249

255

283

4

“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary”

199

200

208

3

“The Ice Owl”

107

108

6

No Award

40

No Award Tests:
• 1037 ballots rank “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” higher than No Award; 82 ballots rank No Award higher than “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” – PASS
• ((1493-40)/1922 )*100 = 76% – PASS

The remaining places were then calculated to be:
2nd Place – “Kiss Me Twice”
3rd Place – Silently and Very Fast
4th Place – “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary”
5th Place – Countdown
6th Place – “The Ice Owl”

Analysis

Only eight novellas met the 5% cutoff. I think the reason was that there were a handful of strong contenders that dominated the best-of lists. Final voting was very close between the two frontrunners, both published in Asimov’s. Once again, we see that Mira Grant has a passionate following that nominates and votes for her without broad support from the mainstream voters. The Nebula Award went to “The Man Who Bridged the Mist”.

Mini-Reviews

Countdown by Mira Grant (Orbit)

This is a prequel to Grant’s zombie series (Feed, Deadline), recounting the details of how the zombie virus was created. For readers who are familiar with this world, there’s a lot of repetition from the novels. This novella mainly gives Grant an excuse to do a data dump of her detailed biological research. The characters and plot of the story are not very engaging.

“The Ice Owl” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (F&SF, Oct.-Nov. 2011)

In the universe of this story humans have invented light-speed transport and primitive instantaneous communication. Rebellious teenager Thorn befriends a mysterious teacher, Master Pregaldin, to fill in some of the gaps in her knowledge and experience left by being dragged from planet to planet by her somewhat immature mother. Meanwhile, an immanent political revolution on the planet threatens to expose Pregaldin’s secret and tear Thorn’s life apart. I found the situations and characters to be interesting, but felt that the ending was a bit out of tune with Thorn’s personality that had been established.

“Kiss Me Twice” by Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s, June 2011)

This is a police procedural that features two partners: human detective Scott Huang and his artificial intelligence partner, Metta, whose default persona is Mae West. When Metta’s chassis is stolen, Metta is restored from backup to a new chassis and the duo soon connects the crime to a larger conspiracy. I liked this novella a lot. The characters were well-rounded, with clear personalities. The mystery was satisfactorily resolved, although there was a bit of luck involved. The world was consistent and easily pictured. I could see this expanded into a novel; I definitely hope Kowal writes more about this future society.

“The Man Who Bridged the Mist” by Kij Johnson (Asimov’s, Oct.-Nov. 2011)

This story is a wonderful piece of world building, concerning an architect who is tasked with building a long bridge across a mysterious valley connecting two isolated villages. The mist that fills the valley has strange properties and is home to large, deadly creatures. One of the beauties of the novella is that Johnson’s descriptions of the mist and the creatures are from the viewpoint of the characters who are so familiar with them that no further descriptions are necessary, letting the readers’ imaginations fill in the gaps. In lesser hands this would have been disastrous, but Johnson deftly weaves the mysteries into her story, letting them take a back seat to the human relationships between the architect and the natives. I hope that there will be more stories set in this fascinating setting.

“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” by Ken Liu (Panverse 3)

This is an emotionally charged story of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria during World War II, a brutal time that is ignored in most history lessons, and actually denied by many contemporary government officials. Liu posits a unique time travel technique whereby past events can be witnessed once, and then they are irrevocably erased. The time travelers in the story pick this particular period to study because they don’t want the world to forget a horrible chapter of inhumanity. But by watching history, they obliterate the very memories they are trying to preserve. This presents a terrific dilemma, because now the only records of the atrocities are unverifiable accounts from biased observers. Liu’s writing is very powerful, and although there are some minor flaws in the documentary-style execution and logic of the story, he succeeds in his goal of using science fiction as a tool to bring neglected history to life.

Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld, WSFA)

Valente is a stylist who uses poetic imagery to evoke mood. It’s the kind of writing you either love or hate. I’m leaning towards the hate end of the spectrum. The story tells of the relationships between the evolving artificial intelligence called Elefsis and the generations of the human family that owns and operates it. This is very much a character study, told as a fairy tale wrapped with a science fictional covering. This is a metaphor for the chaos that is life and learning, and as such doesn’t provide tidy resolutions.

Hugo Awards 2012: Best Novel

Novels are defined as stories of 40,000 words or more. The titles in bold are the ones I nominated.

2012 Best Novel Nominations (958 ballots cast [compared to 833 ballots cast in 2011])

175 Among Others by Jo Walton (18.27%)
163 Embassytown by China Miéville (17.01%)
130 A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin (13.57%)
81 Deadline by Mira Grant (8.45%)
71 Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (7.41%)
——————————————————————–
70 The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi (7.30%)
69 Rule 34 by Charles Stross (7.20%)
66 Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (6.89%)
62 The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemison (6.47%)
61 Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge (6.37%)
60 Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (6.26%)
58 Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine (5.74%)
52 Deathless by Catherynne Valente (5.42%)
49 11/22/63 by Stephen King (5.11%)
49 The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss (5.11%)
48 Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi (5.01%)

Best Novel Final Ballot Results (1664 ballots [compared to 1813 ballots cast in 2011])

My Ranking

Title

Round 1

Round 2

Round 3

Round 4

Round 5

3

Among Others (WINNER)

421

424

493

585

769

2

Embassytown

324

324

392

492

608

6

Deadline

311

312

367

418

4

A Dance With Dragons

316

317

360

1

Leviathan Wakes

260

261

5

No Award

32

No Award Tests
• 1164 ballots rank Among Others higher than No Award, 107 ballots rank No Award higher than Among Others – PASS
• ((1664-32)/1922)*100 = 85% – PASS

The remaining places were then calculated to be:
2nd Place – Embassytown
3rd Place – Leviathan Wakes
4th Place – Deadline
5th Place – A Dance With Dragons

Analysis

The Best Novel category is very strong, with 16 books making the 5% cutoff (Hugo rules stipulate that nominees must have at least 5% of the nominating votes to help indicate widespread support). Two books came within 2 votes of making the final ballot. I tend to nominate well-reviewed books that are nevertheless underdogs—why waste nominations on sure things like A Dance With Dragons? Although the number of nominating ballots went up considerably from last year, the number of final ballots dropped significantly.

Among Others, by a widely respected author and blogger, won the Nebula Award and had appeared on a lot of best-of lists, so there was little surprise that it won. Embassytown garnered a lot of critical praise, but was not an easy read. Leviathan Wakes is the first in a new space opera series, written under a pen name by a duo of George R.R. Martin’s protégées. It managed to climb from fifth to third in the final results, which demonstrated weak support for Deadline, the second book of a series, and A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book of a series. Hugo voters wisely rejected these two books as being incomplete stories.

Mini-Reviews

Among Others by Jo Walton (Tor)

This coming-of-age story of a teenage girl reminded me in tone of To Kill a Mockingbird, except with fairies. The book is an episodic semi-autobiography of Walton’s struggles with an abusive mother, the death of her twin sister, and discovery of science fiction fandom. As a love letter to fandom, it’s not hard to understand the reciprocal love the book received. The prose is beautifully written and evocative, just don’t expect a highly plot-driven adventure. The fantasy elements, to me, were secondary, especially since the protagonist was the only one who could see the fairies. Was she an unreliable narrator? That’s left for the reader to decide.

A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin (Bantam Spectra)

The fifth chapter of Martin’s epic fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire, the first half of A Dance With Dragons recounts the adventures of the characters that Martin cut from A Feast for Crows seven years ago. Everyone eventually gets back in sync, just in time for another cliffhanger ending. Let’s hope that it won’t be seven years until Volume 6! When Martin finally finishes this story, I hope he wins every award imaginable, but in the meantime it’s hard to justify voting for a story that is far from complete.

Deadline by Mira Grant (Orbit)

This second volume of Grant’s zombie trilogy was underwhelming. It begins in the middle of the story and ends with not one, but two major cliffhangers. The writing is serviceable, but nothing special. The book is full of plot holes, too. For example, on a cross-country drive the protagonists stop at a service station for gas. Even though the station is closed tight, they have no trouble pumping their gas and going on their way. In another instance, they infiltrate a well-guarded government installation, making their escape only because it has the exact same floor plan as another facility on the other side of the country. Plus, the “surprise” ending is flashed in neon early in the book with the ham-handed revelation that cloning exists in this world. Grant (pen name of prolific podcaster and filker Seanan McGuire) obviously spent a lot of time researching how viruses could produce zombies, but she needed to think a little harder about a plausible plot and more realistic characters.

Embassytown by China Miéville (Macmillan / Del Rey)

Miéville is one of my favorite authors, with his boundless imagination and magnificent use of language. Embassytown’s central theme is how language shapes our perceptions. On a distant planet, aliens and humans try to find commonality, despite fundamental differences in communication styles. When some of the humans interfere with the aliens’ societal customs, conflict is inevitable (where is the Prime Directive when you need it!). Miéville is never one to shy away from an eloquent and rich vocabulary, often inventing words to suit his needs, but Embassytown goes even further in testing the reader’s tolerance for made-up language. This isn’t a quick and easy read, but the astute reader will undoubtedly reap much from this well-crafted parable.

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (Orbit)

Corey is the pen name of Daniel Abraham, a long-time collaborator of George R.R. Martin on the Wild Cards books and adaptor of Martin’s works for comics (as well as a respected solo author), and Ty Frank, one of Martin’s personal assistants. Leviathan Wakes is the first in a new space opera series. The story wraps up nicely, but there are definite plot threads that will lead to interesting complications in future volumes. The authors paint a detailed and action-packed universe, with protagonists that are well-developed. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and look forward to more in this series.

Chicon 7

Chicon 7, the 70th World Science Fiction Convention, was held in the Chicago Hyatt Regency from August 30 through September 3, 2012. The convention was the best attended Worldcon since L.A. Con IV in 2006, with almost 5000 warm bodies present.

Overall, I enjoyed Chicon 7 a lot, and didn’t have much to complain about regarding the Hugo winners (the nominees are a different story!). The number of nominations was generally higher than last year for Renovation, perhaps due to a rule change that allowed members of three years’ worth of Worldcons to nominate. However, the number of final ballots was generally lower, sometimes significantly, than last year. I don’t know if this was due to apathy about the quality of nominees, or whether Renovation did a better job of nagging members to vote.

Hyatt Regency – Chicago

The Hyatt Regency is a very large hotel with ample meeting space for a convention of this size. The problem is that the hotel is split into two towers with events in each tower. The way the escalators and elevators were laid out made for difficult navigating within and between the towers and their multiple, arbitrarily color-coded levels. There were a number of complaints from mobility-challenged fans about the inadequacy of handicap access. To confound attendees further, the con organizers somehow thought it was a good idea to include a nonexistent meeting room on the schedule. Apparently, this hoax room is a tradition with Chicago conventions, but the humor was lost on those not in on the joke.

2012 Hugo Trophy

Programming ran continuously from noon on Thursday to mid-afternoon on Monday. While there were plenty of panels worth seeing, and many time slots with multiple items of interest, there were very few “must see” panels. There were a handful of special events, such as the Masquerade and Hugo Award Ceremony, that were highlights. The opening night event at the Adler Planetarium was especially fun and interesting.

The Dealers’ Room was in a nice, large space. It took me a little over an hour to go through it the first time, and I dropped in a couple more times during the weekend. There were a few interesting vendors, but I didn’t end up buying anything. The Art Show was in a large ballroom and had plenty of space. There was the usual mix of professional and amateur 2-D and 3-D works ranging from the awful to the sublime.

George R.R. Martin, Mike Resnick, Joe Haldeman, Robert Silverberg

Panels were varied and well run, heavily weighted towards literature and space exploration, reflecting the strengths of the convention’s guests. There were a handful of panels related to TV and movies, as well as things like costuming and filking that I am not interested in.

Connie Willis, Robert Silverberg

Unlike many recent Worldcons, the only late night activities were filking and parties. Fun, late night programs such as “Just a Minute” and “Match Game” were absent. There were no anime or movie rooms operating at night, which I found strange. (The only film room showed mostly public domain cartoons, and only during the day, as far as I could tell.) There were no screenings of the Hugo nominated dramatic presentations. Apparently, attendance at convention film screenings is too low to justify the cost of renting films and paying technicians to show them. There was a film festival running during the convention which screened independent films; and while I am sure there were some hidden gems amongst the entries, my less-than-satisfying experiences with similar film festivals kept me from exploring this one.

From Dragon*Con: Toni Weisskopf, T.C. McCarthy, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

One of the innovations that the convention tried was to have a number of joint panels with Dragon*Con in Atlanta. I attended a couple of these panels, and for the most part they worked well. Video conferencing is often fraught with technical difficulties, but the technicians had it working smoothly. As long as these two large conventions share Labor Day weekend, it makes sense to do some cross-programming. I hope this will become a regular part of Worldcons to come.

David Brin and Tad Daley discuss the definition of democracy.

Nothing against younger writers, but the old-time raconteurs make the most entertaining and thought-provoking panelists. Examples were Connie Willis and Robert Silverberg riffing on each other, Guest-of-Honor Mike Resnick reminiscing about his career, gray-beards Gardner Dozois, Robert Silverberg, Mike Resnick, Joe Haldeman, and George R. R. Martin recounting the silly things they’ve done individually and together, and David Brin ranting on science and politics.

John Scalzi interviews Story Musgrave.

The highlight of the convention was seeing Guest of Honor Story Musgrave. A veteran of six Space Shuttle flights, including a Hubble Space Telescope repair mission, Musgrave is a real-life Buckaroo Banzai. Surgeon, engineer, pilot, farmer, and poet are just a few of Musgrave’s accomplishments. At 77 years old, he could easily pass for 50. Musgrave’s boundless humor, enthusiasm, and optimism fuel his curiosity and drive. At the same time, he is humble and down-to-earth, and was clearly moved and honored to be recognized by the science fiction community. I was inspired, educated, and entertained by this remarkable person.

An all-volunteer-run event of this scale and quality and complexity is simply amazing. The con committee did an excellent job working in the background to ensure our enjoyment, comfort, and safety. I had a wonderful time, as did the people I talked with. This was a superb convention.

Should SF Be More Optimistic?

A panel at Chicon 7 discussed whether science fiction has become too pessimistic. Dystopian dramas such as The Road, The Walking Dead, and I Am Legend seem to dominate today’s market. Is this a reflection of current societal woes, or a more widespread sense of doom towards the future by writers and producers? What part do readers and audiences play in contributing to the popularity of these darker stories?

My feeling is that modern science fiction is no more or less optimistic than it has ever been. Classics such as Metropolis, Dr. Strangelove, and Blade Runner have often painted cautionary pictures of the future, warning us of what might be, not what will be. I would argue that dystopian SF is generally more thought-provoking than utopian SF. The best literature relies on conflict to propel characters to change and grow. Utopian societies are often bland and uninteresting.

Things like Buck Rogers and Star Trek are loved by millions for their optimistic visions of technological innovation and political harmony, but even they have conflict to drive their stories. They are often criticized for their naïvety, too.

Taking a look at this year’s Hugo Award nominees, I see optimistic stories far outnumbering the dystopias. Among the novels, Deadline is really the only dystopia, and even it has an underlying optimism that says society will learn to deal with a zombie apocalypse with new medical testing and security technologies. Among the dramatic presentations, Game of Thrones could possibly be considered a pessimistic fantasy universe, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows certainly has some very dark moments before the forces of good spectacularly triumph over the forces of evil.

Last year saw pessimistic films such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Contagion, but they were more than countered by generally optimistic offerings such as Source Code, Captain America, X-Men: First Class, Super 8, Thor, Cowboys and Aliens, and Paul.

Science fiction TV has been dominated for several years by Doctor Who, the ultimate in optimism. Battlestar Galactica was certainly dark, but depicted the eventual triumph of humans. I think one reason Terra Nova failed was that audiences were not attracted to a world where running away from a dystopian society was encouraged rather than staying and working to improve it. Meanwhile, shows like Eureka, Alphas, and Warehouse 13 continue to offer lighthearted SF adventure.

To me, no matter how dark or depressing a science fiction story is, there is a fundamental optimism inherent in all science fiction. After all, science fiction (at least the majority that’s set in the future) imagines that there will be a future for mankind. You can’t get much more optimistic than that!

Do the Hugos Need a Young Adult Category?

The members attending the Chicon 7 business meeting voted down a proposal to add a Young Adult (YA) category to the Hugo awards. Perhaps the biggest objection was that the proposal didn’t adequately define what a YA book is. But like a lot of Hugo categories, it seems that the members’ votes determine what belongs in a category, whether it is really appropriate to be there or not. Another objection was that YA is a marketing artifact that could change in the future. This argument is silly, as there has been children’s literature forever, and it’s one of, if not the top, growing segments of the publishing industry. Another argument against a new YA category is that if a book is good enough, it can already be nominated in the Best Novel or Novella categories, as evidenced by the works of J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman. While true, this ignores the works by authors who write fabulous stuff but that doesn’t show up on Best Seller lists. About the only argument that I thought held any real weight was that adults who are not familiar with youth-oriented fiction might have a hard time choosing truly representative works. But this does not stop Hugo voters from voting for Best Editor (Long Form), Graphic Story, or other categories they’re not necessarily familiar with.

The underlying motive for adding a YA category is to put a spotlight on a subgenre that is somewhat neglected. As several members at the meeting pointed out, this kind of recognition would tend to pull in new readers and new convention attenders, and add to the overall positive public relations of the Hugos and Worldcons. The truth is that there is a wealth of great YA science fiction being published that deserves recognition.

It seems to me that there is a fairly simple solution. The Golden Duck awards already recognize science fiction in three age categories: picture book, middle-school book, and the Hal Clement Award for “Young Adult” book. The Golden Ducks are announced during a panel at Worldcon each year. My understanding is that a jury of educators and librarians select the nominees and winners. Why not just move the announcement of winners to the Hugo ceremony, and include the winners in the Hugo publicity and historical records? The heightened visibility and endorsement by the Worldcon membership would be beneficial to all involved. It would eliminate most, if not all, of the objections a separate YA Hugo category engenders.

With its three age group categories, the Golden Ducks address the problem of defining what a YA book is. And, if a book is good enough, it could win both a Golden Duck and a Hugo. As a juried award, it would avoid the problem of unsophisticated readers trying to guess what the best YA books are. It is conceivable that the Golden Ducks could be revamped to be similar to the John W. Campbell award for best new writer, i.e., a non-Hugo that is voted on by the Worldcon membership. I think that the Golden Ducks should remain a juried award to maintain its integrity.

Elevating the visibility and stature of the Golden Duck awards would produce a win-win result that I think should be given serious consideration. It would not need a change to the WSFS constitution. It would require the buy-in of the Hugo and Worldcon committees, but it’s hard to imagine them objecting too much. Yes, it would lengthen the Hugo ceremony, but not by much. Some might argue that this plan would open the doors to other awards to petition to be included in the Hugo ceremony. I don’t think this would be a serious problem.

The benefits of acknowledging great science fiction and fantasy aimed at children far outweigh the negatives.

Prometheus

Prometheus (2012)
Written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof; directed by Ridley Scott

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was originally going to give 3 stars to Prometheus for a film with outstanding cinematography and art direction (as with most films by Ridley Scott), but without sympathetic characters who had virtually no chemistry.

After much reflection, though, the horrible science and multiple loose ends forced me to downgrade my rating.

Spoilers ahead

Rather than rehash the many Internet discussions about the unanswered questions and plot holes, I recommend watching this snarky video from Red Letter Media:

I can forgive the unanswered questions about the motives and biology of the aliens in Prometheus. After all, they’re aliens! What I can’t forgive is the awful, awful protocols shown by the human scientists, technicians, and spaceship crew throughout the movie.

To begin with, a legitimate scientific expedition would have started by releasing weather and observation satellites to orbit the planetoid for weeks, perhaps months before Prometheus ever landed. This would determine the most likely places to hunt for aliens, rather than just luckily finding alien structures. Then, the small, remote-controlled probes would be sent into the alien installations to map them thoroughly and take air and soil samples. When pictures of the dead aliens came back, the scientist would spend many hours determining likely scenarios and procedures to avoid a similar fate before setting a foot inside.

The biggest mistake the movie makes, though, is something I haven’t seen discussed anywhere. People have written about the folly of the crew taking off their space suit helmets without checking for microbes or other contaminants. It’s not just the air quality that could cause illness or injury. What hasn’t been mentioned is the danger of the humans contaminating the alien environment. Good scientists are concerned to the point of paranoia about destroying a pristine environment and invalidating their results. This is why Mars rovers are sterilized before they leave Earth. Once an alien planet is contaminated, there’s no way to know what’s alien and what’s not. The crew of Prometheus would have to undergo rigorous decontamination procedures both when exiting the ship and on their return.

Another question that I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere is why would an expedition as well-financed and equipped as Prometheus not have more than one robot? Weyland would want to have as much redundancy as possible to maximize success. Moreover, the humans would need to be cross trained, just as astronauts are now, so that in case of injury or illness there would be someone to fill in the gaps. This goes for the scientists, flight crew, security, and every other function.

Wouldn’t Prometheus be crewed with the absolute best people in every role? People who knew what the mission was and who had trained together for months before leaving Earth. There is no excuse for second-best in a first-contact mission that’s exploring a dangerous alien world.

It’s one thing to have a haunted-house movie filled with naïve teenagers, but it’s quite another to see supposed top scientists do dumb things. With a little more thought, Prometheus could have addressed the plot holes I and others have noted, and as a result been a tighter film with more tension and surprises.

Flashpoint: The World of Flashpoint Featuring Batman

Flashpoint: The World of Flashpoint Featuring Batman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This volume contains four mini-series tie-ins to the Flashpoint event wherein Wonder Woman and Aquaman wage genocidal warfare across Europe in a skewed alternate universe.

The first sequence, Batman: Knight of Vengeance, by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, is one of the best Batman stories I’ve read, deserving 5 stars. In this alternate universe, Joe Chill killed young Bruce Wayne, leaving his parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne, grieving parents. Thomas turned his anger into becoming the Batman. By day, Thomas Wayne runs casinos with the help of his business partner Oswald Cobblepot (in the normal universe, AKA Penguin). By night he rids Gotham City of vile menaces like Hush, Scarecrow, Ivy, and Killer Croc with extreme prejudice. When Judge Harvey Dent’s children are kidnapped by the Joker, Batman must face his greatest nemesis in a way we’ve never seen. This Joker has an origin that is utterly terrifying and completely consistent with this alternate reality. The artwork by Risso beautifully captures the dark insanity of Thomas Wayne’s world.

The second sequence, Deadman and the Flying Graysons, by J. T. Krul and a battery of artists, depicts a circus traveling through war-ravaged Europe, trying to evade the insane conflict all around them. Trapeze artists Boston Brand (AKA Deadman) and the Flying Graysons, featuring young daredevil Dick Grayson (known as Robin in the normal universe), become involved with the Resistance in a deadly way. A mystical artifact must be protected from Wonder Woman’s Amazonian army, which ultimately leads to transformations by Brand and Grayson. Unfortunately, the story ends before we see the full ramifications of these transformations. I give this 3 stars.

The third sequence, Deathstroke and the Curse of the Ravager, by Jimmy Palmiotti and a slew of artists, tells the story of the pirate Deathstroke who takes advantage of the chaos of war to plunder the high seas for his own gain. When rival pirate Warlord kidnaps his daughter, Deathstroke must face insurmountable odds to try to rescue her. Along the way they cross paths with Aquaman and his ally Ocean Master with disastrous results. This is a fast-paced adventure that really doesn’t have much to do with the main Flashpoint storyline, but is interesting for its depictions of familiar DC characters in unusual circumstances. This deserves about 3-1/2 stars.

The fourth sequence, Secret Seven, by Peter Milligan and a variety of artists, delves into the magical world of Shade the Changing Man and his one-time allies Black Orchid, Amethyst, Abra Kadabra, Raven, Zatanna, and Mindwarp as Shade tries to bring them together to help Cyborg end the metahuman war while trying to evade Sagan Maximus’s attempts to neutralize him and Enchantress’s attempts to kill him. In the end, though, the story is mostly a confusing mess that has no real conclusion. This is the weakest sequence in this compilation, earning no more than 2 stars.

The problem with most of these sequences is that they were only three-issue mini-series. I get the impression that they were originally intended to be much longer, perhaps six issues each, because in almost every case the story ends abruptly and often with the protagonists experiencing turning points that cry out for resolution. Overall, this anthology is well worth checking out for the Batman story, but the remainder is very inconsistent in quality.

2012 Hugo Award Nominations

The World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) announced the nominees for the 2012 Hugo Awards and the nominee for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. The complete list may be found at the Chicon 7 website.

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Novel

There were only two novels nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula this year, Among Others by Jo Walton and Embassytown by China Miéville. George R. R. Martin is a huge fan favorite, and with his hit Game of Thrones TV series it was all but certain that A Dance With Dragons would be nominated. Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey was on a fair number of best-of lists, so it’s presence on the Hugo ballot is not a big surprise. The bigger surprise is Deadline by Mira Grant, which I don’t think was on too many best-of lists, but the author (real name Seanan McGuire) is very active in SF fandom and Deadline is a sequel to her book Feed that was nominated last year. Embassytown has been raking in most of the awards so far, but I wouldn’t count out Martin’s popularity to make him a dark horse favorite.

Graphic Story

With only 339 ballots, this category continues to be one of the least popular. Nevertheless, the nominees this year are markedly better than in years past. Perennial nominees Fables and Schlock Mercenary made the list again this year. The fannish Girl Genius was replaced by the fannish Digger by Ursula Vernon, which was begun in 2007 and completed in 2011. Coming in at over 700 pages, it will be interesting to see who has the stamina to wade through the whole thing. This is a comic that I had never heard of before, but I just read the first 20 pages and it looks intriguing, at least. My favorites, by far, are Locke & Key and The Unwritten. It’s unfortunate that terrific graphic stories such as Habibi by Craig Thompson, Chew by John Layman and Rob Guillory, Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, and The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman didn’t make the ballot.

Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)

Game of Thrones has to be the odds-on favorite, what with its pedigree and ability to tell a 10-hour, fully realized story. I wouldn’t count out Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 due to the immense popularity and sentimentality for this final installment of the Harry Potter series, but it seems a long shot, nevertheless. Hugo might also sneak in as the winner, but as good a film as it is, it really is not science fiction or fantasy, except in the broadest sense. Source Code was a fine follow-up to Duncan Jones’s Moon, but it is not nearly as good. Captain America: The First Avenger has no chance to win (and in my opinion, X-Men: First Class was the better superhero film last year). I’m a little surprised that Midnight in Paris wasn’t nominated, but I suspect it’s a bit too mainstream for the Hugo voters. I’m also a little surprised neither Puss in Boots nor Rango were nominated, but animated films seem to be less well regarded. The biggest surprise, by far, was the omission of Rise of the Planet of the Apes from the ballot.

Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

Doctor Who dominates the category, as usual. I give Neil Gaiman’s episode, “The Doctor’s Wife,” the edge due to Gaiman’s popularity among Hugo voters. I suppose Chris Garcia’s Hugo acceptance speech was dramatic, and although it was certainly moving, it really does not deserve to be nominated. My choice, which I admit is a long shot, is the Community episode “Remedial Chaos Theory,” which is a clever and hilarious meditation on parallel world theory. My biggest disappointment was that The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, the Academy Award winning short film, was not nominated.

Summary

Overall, it looks like most of the nominations are deserved. With a record number of nominations (1101), one can assume that most of the nominees have a goodly amount of support and that frivolous entries are minimal. I am looking forward to reading, listening to, and viewing as many of the nominees as possible.