Wednesday, July 29, 2015

From the archives - I, cowmuter

I found this badge as part of sorting out my files. 

Cows on trams demand rainforest-free food

Check out this quick video clip below and you'll get an idea of the stunt, which replicated a larger affair in London. All volunteer led with a little staff support. :)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Now That's What I Call Kinda Okay: reading the Hugo short fiction nominees

Links courtesy of Geeky Library

Best Novella
Best Novelette
Best Short Story

Reading through the short fiction categories for the Hugo Awards - I've learned a number of things. For starters, I've learned what a novelette even is (longer than a short story, shorter than a novella, in case you were wondering). 

But I've also discovered that reviewing the nominees piecemeal would just prolong damnation by faint praise. And people who've actually written stories and gotten them published don't deserve that. So what follows is more of a general reflection than a forensic look at each story.

Competency is not enough.

I've read more than a few people suggesting that the slate-dominated short fiction nominations are terrible. 

I beg to differ. 

It's worth reminding ourselves these are all published stories - they've crossed that crucial first hurdle. And I'd go further: if I was to play at being an editor for a moment I'd probably publish many of them too. This is because, by and large, the shortlist comprises competent work that would slot right in among the rest of the field.

And thanks in part to the Best Semiprozine Hugo category I've read a lot of short genre fiction recently, so I do have some perspective beyond this shortlist.

The key word here, however, is competent

In the main, we're dealing with solid exercises in various sub-genres - space opera looms large but not exclusively so - each with their own points of interest. But no story crosses the line from a tale that passes the time to a one you won't want to end.

And the Hugo's are not awards for the merely alright. What would be the point in that?  

So, it's a respectful nod to all the nominees, but nine categories in, these are the first where No Award gets my top vote. 

Best Novella - No Award
Honourable mention - The Plural of Helen of Troy, John C. Wright

Best Novelette - No Award
Honourable mention - Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium, Gray Rinehart

Best Short Story - No Award
Honourable mention - Totaled, Kary English

What's missing here?

Other reviewers will write about issues of character, tone or plotting that stop these stories leveling up. I think we also need to talk about the limits of looking back. 

Inevitably more than most genres science-fiction looks forward. Technologically yes, but also stylistically, intellectually, linguistically too. And one generation's inspiration can get mined out by its successors until all that remains are stock ideas and the risk of pastiche. Subtract the pathological futurism, and a similar point applies to fantasy and its struggles under the dead hand of Tolkien.

What much of this shortlist offered was a look back at the classic SF or fantasy yarn, and no more than that. I did not walk away these books awed or lost in thought. There were no new tricks on display, nor were any old ones performed with overwhelming flair.

You could say with Michael Chabon that all authors write fan fiction, and that we place too much emphasis on chasing originality. And there's nothing wrong per se with drawing on retro influences, as these nominees did.

For example, an author can: 

  • Lovingly revisit the postwar pulps (Rajnar Vajra's The Triple Sun - A Golden Age Tale).
  • Homage different strains of classic space opera (Edward M Lerner's Championship B'tok and Steve Rzasa's Turncoat).
  • Revisit planetary exploration and colonisation (Lou Antonelli's A Spiritual Plain and Gray Rinehart's Ashes to Ashes...).
  • Remodel CS Lewis' Christian fantasia in more forceful tones (at least two out of John C Wright's four nominations)

Whatever tropes float your boat. 

But if that's all you do then, like the recurring obsession of British bands for replicating the glory days of the sixties, it's unlikely to be truly memorable. The very best fiction should not be hermetic - it's is about moving beyond, perhaps even challenging your influences, not just playing with them.

Two things this critique isn't

This isn't necessarily an argument for being more 'literary' - although looking outside the genre is one way of expanding your writing toolkit and I don't feel particularly that there are boundaries in need of defending. 

In fact, I found the most mainstream story among the nominated short fiction, the Coupland-esque magic realism of Thomas Olde Heuvelt's The Day The World Turned Upside Down, inexplicably annoying. And it was the only non-slate nominee in these categories. 

Neither is it a case for writing which is progressive in a narrowly political sense. I don't apply a Dead Poets' Society test to books and I consider the suggestion that there are lots of contemporary genre authors churning out 'left-wing message fiction' something of a canard unless proven otherwise. 

Good writers play with ideas as themes - they don't pick them according to doctrine, nor do they take so didactic an approach as to jar the reader out of their reverie. 

For example, I found my enjoyment of John C Wright's four nominated short works of fiction depended on how much his conservative religious convictions overtly drove the story. The best - The Plural of Helen of Troy - was the one where his talent and experience was given most space.

Having read JCW's nominated non-fiction writing, it's safe to say there's a lot we disagree on. But my point here isn't about what an author believes, but how their convictions and their art interact.

Ideas, yes. Politics, if you will. But let the story breathe too.

A concluding note

In the final days before the ballot closed, I revisited File 770's Hugo round-ups from recent months in search of some passionate advocacy for the voting slates. I wanted to understand why someone out there might think these stories were awesome, as opposed to just alright. 

Proportionate to the polemic, I noticed there doesn't seem to have been as much cheer-leading for the nominations as might be supposed by an outsider. There's a lot more about what the proposers and their supporters don't want, which I suppose is always easier to write. 

What did I take from my background reading? Well, if I was being charitable, I would say that these stories needed to be seen less as candidates for the best stories of 2014, more as exemplars of a particular kinds of traditional speculative fiction the people behind the slates wanted to promote. 

If I was being less generous, I'd suggest the reason why we haven't heard great claims for the quality of the slates is that they are a proxy for the other parts of the Hugo conversation - the political antagonisms and personal rivalries - that have been raging away on the internet.

But whatever the motivation, if you turn up to a literary contest, you better bring the stories to back up your case. And - with all respect to the nominated authors - I'm not seeing it here. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Marvellous steampunk bookshop trimmings

The nook on the first floor of Addyman Books in Hay-on-Wye has gone all steampunk.

And check out these balustrades!

Monday, July 6, 2015

Hugo Awards: a quick canter through the visual arts pt 2

The visual arts categories in the Hugo's don't seem to have been in the literary and political crossfire quite as much as the rest of the shortlist, so here is the second part of a quick look before heading back to the books.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form 

For all intents and purposes, read the above as Best Film. Three of five on the shortlist were on the voting slates, but as the end result was five Hollywood blockbusters of comparable quality, it's hard to tell what difference this year's controversy actually made to this category.

And so we have:

  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier (at the top end of the okay-to-solid spectrum on which all the Avengers films seemingly rest) 
  • Edge Of Tomorrow (great premise, gets progressively more trad and less interesting the further it goes)
  • Guardians Of The Galaxy (great fun and a loving pastiche of space opera)
  • Interstellar (moments of greatness, let down by its overreaching third act)
  • The Lego Movie (sly, playful, comfortably the most meta film on the shortlist)

It's a finely-balanced choice between Guardians Of The Galaxy and The Lego Movie for me, and at the moment I'm currently leaning towards the latter. Whichever one I pick, both were on the voting slates, so there you go. No blanket rejection here. :)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

Or as we call it on Earth, Best TV Episode. I've only seen one of the nominees - which was one of last season's okay but not world-shattering Dr Who episodes, so I'll pass, thanks.

Best Graphic Story

Thanks again to Geeky Library for nominee round-up with images here.

This category was barely touched by the slates, with only one nominee - Carter Reid's Zombie Nation webcomic - out of the five arriving on the shortlist via that route. As with it's inclusion in the professional art category, the problem with Zombie Nation is again that it's not really in the same league as its fellow contenders, and it seems most sensible to regard its presence as a category error and move on.

So that leaves us with three and a half high quality graphic novels to consider, of which I'd be happy to see either Ms Marvel or Saga win, relaxed about a victory for the flawed but interesting Sex Criminals and philosophical if the okay-but-slight Rat Queens brought it home.

Rather than writing about them at length here right now, what I'm going to do with all of these potential reviews is 'bank them'. So, if I do need to recover from reading or writing about nominees that are not quite so enjoyable - and having started on the short fiction I now know they are out there - I can return and celebrate them in more depth.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Hugo Awards: a quick canter through the visual arts pt 1

By way of light relief after all those novel reviews, I powered through the visual arts categories in the Hugo's over the weekend. They don't seem to have been in the literary and political crossfire quite as much as the rest of the shortlist, so here is the first part of a quick look before heading back to the books.

Best Professional Artist

Big thanks to Geeky Library, who have kindly provided links to all the nominated artists and their portfolios here.

A confession: I am not the world's biggest fan of realistic figurative art in fantasy and SF. Too much of it tends towards the technically proficient but otherwise uninteresting. I prefer my genre art to have something of the surreal or the sublime about it. 

There's a longer piece buried in that statement taking in early twentieth century modern art and the awesomeness of paperback SF covers from the 60's and 70's, with a side order of the male gaze problem. But it would be long, intermittently grumpy, and probably besides the point for now.

At any rate, the artist nominated who best approximated my preferences on the shortlist (especially with her wonderful Beneath The Surface) was last year's winner Julie DillonThe other nominees - with one exception - were all the right side of competent but personally didn't do anything for me.

The exception - Carter Reid's Zombie Nation webcomic - presented an apples and oranges problem. Its art was acceptable for the format, but just wasn't on the same level as the other contenders in this category who, after all, do book and magazine illustrations for a living. So I'm going to chalk this one up to a category error by the voting slate campaigns and move on.

Speaking of the slates - it's worth noting in passing here that Julie Dillon was the only non-slate nominee in this category. As it happens, I also felt that she was the best. I have some thoughts on this, but not enough data, so I'll hold off on the pontification until I've gone back to the books.

Best Fan Artist

Again, examples of all artists' work at Geeky Library.

This category was something of an anomaly, as it was completely untouched by the voting slates. I liked best Spring Schoenhuth's steampunk and SF-nal jewelry. But an honourable mention goes to Ninni Aalto's rabbits.