Sunday, February 21, 2016

Science-fiction as mind bomb

I came across the term 'mind bomb'  in a documentary film last year on the early years of Greenpeace (How To Change The World - highly recommended as a slice of history and as a story in its own right) 

Coined by Greenpeace co-founder Robert Hunter, a mind bomb is an action which captures the public imagination and redefines something - how we view the world, what we think of as being possible or desirable. 

If we must - a mind bomb changes the paradigm.

And it strikes me that one of the things that keep drawing me back to science-fiction after these years is precisely its potential to be a mind bomb, in a way that a lot of other genres can't or won't. That's why when I think about the genre at its best, I do mean SF as a literature of ideas, a concept baked and built-in since Isaac Asimov, since HG Wells - heck, since Mary Shelley.

Of course, storytelling and language matter - and the great books of SF usually combine the two to dazzling effect. But it's possibly the only branch of fiction where you'll find a willingness to tolerate an, ah, idiosyncratic approach to prose stylings in an author (hello, HP Lovecraft, Olaf Stapledon) if the aforementioned author has something to say. 

To pick a more modern example, while I can't speak for the original, in translation Liu Cixin's writing is no stranger to the clunk. But what mindblowing clunk it is!

But then in counterpoint to this we also have the link between intellectual and linguistic ferment. We have the 60's and 70's New Wave to thank for the suggestion that any dislocation or derangement - physical, psycholgical or topographical - any alien experience, really - can be represented in the breakdown and remixing of language itself. 

So while it might forget on occasion, SF is as much a heir to the experimental literary movements of the twentieth century as it is to the pulp tradition.

Pretty high-faluting, huh? But none of this stops SF being fun. And if I were to express a little frustration at the way the subterranean literary debate beneath the Hugo controversy had been conducted, it would with the idea that you can't have both, or that one undermines the other.

Let me put it this way - it's possible to produce perfectly enjoyable work that is just a rearrangement of established SF tropes and conventions - see The Force Awakens. A lot of genre fiction is just that. But just a sprinkling of new ideas, a little bit of forward view - for me that's often what turns good into great.

I'll wrap things up with a list of SF works that are both amazing reads and that have changed the way I think and view the world. It's certainly not a definitive list, as it's been sourced from a brief look of my bookshelves, but hopefully it illustrates my point.

Isaac Asimov - Foundation
John Brunner - Stand On Zanzibar
Octavia Butler - The Parable Of The Sower
Liu Cixin - The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest
Thomas M Disch - Camp Concentration 
Cory Doctorow - Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom
Ken Mcleod - The Star Fraction (and the rest of the Fall Revolution series)
Walter M Miller - A Canticle For Liebowitz
Olaf Stapledon - First And Last Men
Neil Stephenson - Snow Crash
Bruce Sterling - Heavy Weather, Schismatrix
Charles Stross - Accelerando
James Tiptree Jr, Stories
Jeff Vandermeer - Annihilation

Please do feel free to add your mind-bombs in the comments section.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Science-fiction needs you! Join me as a Hugo Awards voter

Attention science-fiction and fantasy fans: your genre needs you!

Nominations for the Hugo Awards shortlist are now open until the end of March - open to those who registered by January 31 or voted last year.

My voting information arrived a week ago and I'm looking forward to getting my thoughts together in the coming month. But I'm also hoping you'll join me as a Hugo voter this year by becoming a Worldcon supporting member.

I wanted to offer you a few reasons why you should, like:

Fun! Voting! Power!
Free e-books (sort of)!
Supporting awesome things you like!
Improving the quality of the nominations!
Inoculating the Hugo Awards against block voting!
Enjoy talking about books you love! 

I'll get to all of this later on, along with how you register to and vote. But first, a little background.
What are these 'Hugo Awards' of which you speak?

The Hugo's are more or less the premier global award for science-fiction and fantasy. They span everything from novels and short stories through to films, TV, graphic novels, podcasts and fan writing. The awards are voted on by attendees of the annual Worldcon where the award ceremony takes place - that's Midamericon in Kansas City in August this year - plus non-attending supporting members

As a supporting member for the first time last year, the Hugo's introduced me to some excellent work. These included eventual Best Novel winner Liu Cixin's The Three Body Problem - the first SF book from China to be so honoured.

'Hard science, hot mess' - Me.  
'Great, but bloody depressing' - Dad. 

And to give you a further flavour, you can see all the winners and nominations from past Hugo years listed here.

Supporting membership and free books (sort of)

Unless you have the means and desire to get to Kansas City, to vote in the Hugo's you want to be a supporting member. In exchange for your upfront payment of £35, which helps to crowdfund Worldcon, you get the right to vote for the awards (and nominate for the shortlist, if you register swifly enough).  

You also - and this is the particularly good bit - receive electronic copies of as much of the shortlisted work as can be made available.

I've included a quick explanation of how the two-stage nominating and voting process works at the end of this post, for the psephologically inclined. But let's emphasise for now that participation in both stages is equally valuable.

So, while the Hugo's are not an outright democracy, supporting memberships mean that anyone around the world who can afford it can have a vote. Last year the electorate reached nearly 6,000 people. It would be great if that increased this time around, both for its own sake and for reasons which will become apparent as we go forward.

Prestige + participation = problems

The prestige of the Hugo Awards means that they have sometimes acted as a proxy battleground for debates and disputes in SF and fantasy. And like any more-or-less participatory process, the Hugo's are also vulnerable to attempts to manipulate the system.

Both issues arose last year, when two relatively small 'Sad Puppy' and 'Rabid Puppy' factions in fandom demonstrated that the Hugo shortlisting process could - all within the rules - be gamed by block voting for slates of nominations. The motivations of the slate organisers varied, and there was certainly a literary debate in there. But it's fair to say there was a lot of personal animosity and politics as well (some of it very problematic).

The whole story has been rehashed over so many times that it's starting to look like week-old leftovers. I don't propose to go over much old ground in this post. If you're new and curious, you could do a lot worse than read Amy Wallace in Wired - Sci-Fi’s Hugo Awards and the Battle for Pop Culture’s Soul to get the gist of it all.

What you really need to know, however, is that although the Puppies' block voting choices dominated a lot of the categories on the shortlist, they were disappointing in terms of quality. At best I found them okay, with some being considerably worse

For example, here's my take on the short-fiction nominees. 

In spite of this, the Hugo electorate (which had increased by the voting stage - and now included me) still managed to pick a fairly decent set of eventual winners, almost entirely from non-Puppy choices. Butgiven the weak shortlist and a high level of online drama accompanying the whole affair, it's hard to see this as anything other than the least worst outcome. 

Participation + positivity = progress

It's not clear at this early stage how much block voting there's going to be this year. But the key issue is that the bug in the nominations exploited in 2015 cannot be fixed until 2017 at earliest, because of due process. 

In such a situation, the wise hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

That means you can help the Hugos work as intended in 2016 by buying a supporting membership and becoming a voter. The larger the electorate, the smaller the influence of any faction, the fairer the outcome. 

So, nominate work you think should be shortlisted, read and vote for what you think should win.

And if you also talk online or with friends about what you've enjoyed reading (or watching, or listening to....), then you're contributing to a sorely-needed positive discourse around the Hugo Awards. I hope you'll join me to do that on this blog, but wherever you do it and whatever your opinions, let's help to keep the Hugo's a friendly conversation about the books and art we love. 

Decisions are notoriously made by those who turn up - maybe this year it's time we did that in numbers and had ourselves a good time in the process. :)


Informative appendix: how voting works

Voting is a two-stage process. The excellent Hugo Awards website goes into a lot more detail about this, but in general terms here's how it works.

Jan to March: shortlisting - voters nominate works they think should be on the shortlist till the end of March. The five most popular choices in each category then form the shortlist, which based on last year will probably be announced in April.

Nominators need to be members of the current Worldcon by a certain date - this year it's January 31 - or members of the previous or the next Worldcon.

From May - voting on the shortlist - voters read the nominated works and then rank them in order of preference. They can also place some or all works below 'No Award' if they feel some nominations are not worthy of a Hugo. Again, much more detail about how this actually works on the Awards website.

Unlike the nominations phase, voters actually have to be members of the current Worldcon.

August - numbers are crunched and winners announced

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Notes from the policy rabbit hole and other January news

Eagle-eyed readers will note that it's been three weeks since any blogging occured here. And after all my good intentions at the start of the year! However, it's not that I've not been writing. 
My big work projects at the moment at the Motor Neurone Disease Association are the upcoming Assembly elections in Wales and Northern Ireland. To that end, I've been part-writing, part-curating policy briefings for Assembly members, together with adapting an MP's pocket guide to serve for AM's and MLA's. Oh, and arranging for all the Welsh material to be translated into Welsh!

It's been good fun rediscovering my inner policy wonk - although also a good reminder of why I stopped doing pure policy roles 10 years ago. Writing reports - like undergraduate essays - tends to bring out the completer-finisher / mildly obsessive traits in me to a point that I find slighly uncomfortable. And that means recently my writing energies have been almost entirely diverted to this end.

Nevertheless, I am profoundly grateful for my apprenticeship with the Electoral Commission back in the mists of time for giving me the skills and toolkit to do it when needed. And happily, the reports are now with the designer, having been proof-read and audited to within an inch of their lives. 

You can read previews of both election campaigns here:

Every Breath Counts (Northern Ireland)
MND Won't Wait (Wales) 

And last - but my no means least - did I mention that I'd passed my driving test at the second attempt? :)

That's pretty awesome, actually.

My closing reflection is that sometimes we choose our field of action, sometimes it's chosen for us. January seems to have been one of the latter times. 

But I have got a truck load of stuff done, and that I can be quietly chuffed about.