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Doing the Hugos, Part 3d

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I was a bit busy last week, with four deadlines all landing on the last day of the month. So I didn’t get the chance to read, or write about, the next novella on the Hugo 2009 shortlist. Which is ‘The Tear’ by Ian McDonald. This was published in Galactic Empires, edited by Gardner Dozois and published by the Science Fiction Book Club.

I actually have a problem with stories from SFBC-published books being eligible for the Hugo Award. You have to be a member of the club to buy the book. It’s not freely available, it cannot be bought in your local Borders, Waterstone’s, Walden Books, or Internet retailer of choice. Hugo Awards should only be given to fiction which can be purchased or read by all.

Even more worrying, for a novella such as ‘The Tear’ to have been nominated, it suggests that SFBC members cast sufficient votes for it to appear on the shortlist. The intersection of Worldcon members and SFBC members must be therefore be disproportionately large. Or the number of nominations disproportionately small.

But that is all – for the moment – irrelevant. And, I suppose, somewhat ironic, given that ‘The Tear’ is best of the novellas I have so far read from the shortlist.

‘The Tear’ shares it setting with ‘Verthandi’s Ring’, McDonald’s story from 2007’s excellent The New Space Opera anthology. It is baroque space opera, full of big numbers, big vistas, and big ideas.

The water world of Tay has been visited by the 800 shatterships of the Anpreen Commonweal, post-humans who have taken the form of nano-motes. A human from Tay, Ptey, learns that the Anpreen are fleeing an enemy. And when that enemy appears on the outer edges of Tay’s planetary system, he leaves his world aboard one of the Anpreen shatterships. He returns alone millennia later to discover Tay has been incinerated. The story then takes an abrupt swerve as it explains the reason why the Anpreen were being hunted.

Looked at from a great height, ‘The Tear’ appears somewhat thin on plot. Ptey leaves, Ptey comes home again, Ptey works out why it all happened. It’s tempting to compare ‘The Tear’ to a painting by an Old Master, rich in colour and detail, but depicting only an old man sitting in a chair. Some have said there’s too much detail in it for a novella, that it would be better-suited to novel-length. I disagree: the story is the details…

Which in turn leads to ‘The Tear’s one major failing. McDonald has created so rich a background he can’t help but stop his plot every now and again and unload exposition on the reader. In that respect, ‘The Tear’ is even moreso heartland sf than it actually presents: it displays in full the unique vision of the genre, yet fails to overcome its greatest handicap.

In other words, ‘The Tear’ full of eyeball kicks. For instance, in the Anpreen shattership, Thirty Third Tranquil Abode, there is a waterfall: “Feet down to world-sea, head up to the roof, it was a true fall, a cylinder of falling water two hundred metres across and forty kilometres long.” This is not true of the other novellas I’ve read from the shortlist.

There’s also some lovely writing in it – “… the catboat ran fast and fresh on a sweet wind across the darkening water” on the very first page, for example. There is also writing which is somewhat over-ornamented, which only just manages to avoid falling flat on its face. But then that is McDonald’s skill as a writer: taking his prose to the edge of ostentation, and then pulling it back from the brink before it collapses into a jumbled heap of over-written prose.

‘The Tear’ is one of those stories which reminds you why you read science fiction. Not everything in it is convincing – not just the ideas on display, but also the dénouement – but it doesn’t matter. It is as big as the universe and full of fireworks-explosions of ideas, and that’s what good sf is.

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10 thoughts on “Doing the Hugos, Part 3d

  1. I actually have a problem with stories from SFBC-published books being eligible for the Hugo Award.By that reasoning, I would suggest that dramatic presentations telecast in the US shouldn’t be eligible because members in the UK, Australia, etc. can’t see them.Alternatively, works published only on a web site shouldn’t be eligible because some people don’t have computers and won’t use the internet.I’m going to quote another person (it was on a closed list so I don’t know if he wants attribution) whose opinion I respect (even if I don’t always agree with him, although I do in this case): “The rules don’t require that a work be available to 100% of the electorate and never have. They simply require that availability be big enough that a work counts as having been published.” If a work’s distribution is such that it gets enough nominations to appear on the Hugo Awards ballot, I would think that is prima facie evidence that the work’s distribution isn’t “limited” and that it has been “published” for eligibility purposes.

  2. And when the worldcon takes place in the UK or Australia, and a dramatic presentation that has only been broadcast in the US appears on the shortlist… then yes, it makes a mockery of the award.At the very least, nominated works should be notionally available to all those who might become Worldcon members. The fact that a SFBC-published novella is on this year’s shortlist suggests that the Hugos are dominated by a small group of US sf fans… which makes the awards increasingly less relevant.

  3. At the very least, nominated works should be notionally available to all those who might become Worldcon members.Surely you can see that the logical extension of this is that nothing can ever actually be eligible, because such a rule would technically require that every single work of SF/F in the world must be accessible to every single person in the world, which is an absurd requirement.The fact that a SFBC-published novella is on this year’s shortlist suggests that the Hugos are dominated by a small group of US sf fans… which makes the awards increasingly less relevant.Could this have something to do with non-US fans not bothering to vote? There were something around five thousand people eligible to nominate, and only about 10% of them bothered to exercise their franchise. (This is not unusual in recent years, of course.)Given how few WSFS members actually bother to nominate and vote, if non-US fans (who you seem to be suggesting vote purely on nationalistic grounds) chose to participate rather than ignoring their ballots like 90% of their fellow members, they would dominate the Awards.It is a common complaint to attack awards’ legitimacy when what you really mean is “My favorites didn’t get nominated/win.” This is not just true in SF awards, but in mundane elections as well.Remember that WSFS does make special allowance to give non-US works additional eligibility in most cases. This simply acknowledges the real, practical fact that most WSFS members who vote are Americans no matter where the Worldcon is held. Even when it’s in the UK, Americans dominate the voting because they vote, not because of some Nefarious Scheme To Rule the SF World. It’s not a plot; it’s a fact that Americans are the largest single group of English-speaking people in the world, and while the Hugo Awards are notionally open to anything in any language, in practice they track the demographics of English-speaking SF fandom.You want to see more non-US works nominated? Try (a) promoting non-US works (which generally get an extra year of eligibility if they get US publication most of the time) to US voters and, assuming you think that everyone votes nationalistically, (b) encouraging non-US members of Worldcon to use their voting rights.

  4. … such a rule would technically require that every single work of SF/F in the world must be accessible to every single person in the world, which is an absurd requirement.Hence my use of the word “notionally”….if non-US fans (who you seem to be suggesting vote purely on nationalistic grounds) chose to participate…No, I was suggesting they voted honestly – i.e., only voting for something they had seen.It is a common complaint to attack awards’ legitimacy when what you really mean is “My favorites didn’t get nominated/win.”And yet, as I pointed out in my post, I think McDonald’s ‘The Tear’ is the best of the novellas I’ve read from the shortlist so far.

  5. At the moment, the rules reflect the will of the Business Meeting, which consists of those members of the WSFS (Worldcon members) with sufficient motivation to participate in the rulemaking process. If that membership changes, it’s likely to change the rules as well.No, changing rules isn’t easy. Constitutions are not supposed to be easy to change. If they are, you get messes like that in California. (I’m a California citizen and I do vote and have voted in every election since I was first eligible.)And yet, as I pointed out in my post….Point taken. I over-reacted. I guess it’s because I see the “change the rules because my favorites didn’t win” approach so much that I tend to jump to it even when it’s not justified. Sorry.

  6. No apology necessary. Debate is good.

  7. Eligibility primarily requires nominations; it must be “published”, but that’s much easier than getting enough people to nominate you. If the requirement were to be publication in all markets worldwide in the same year, nothing would be eligible. That’s probably not the result you want either. I suspect non-US SF fans often get US TV shows somehow or another (friends in the US, bit torrent, or whatever) before those shows are officially shown overseas, not with Hugo voting primarily in mind but just out of interest. I know US fans do similar things when Dr. Who is coming out in the UK ahead of here.It’s historically very true, and currently still true, that the Hugo Award is somewhat US-centric. SF itself is somewhat US-centric, and SF fandom is very US-centric (as witness the disproportionate number of US fans attending Worldcons held overseas; sometimes a majority). I believe the short fiction is all available free online to Hugo voters anyway. That’s as close to universal availability as you’re going to get I think. Is the Hugo award becoming less relevant? Or is it only not going to the books you personally favor? (I have similar questions on this one.)

  8. Speaking of computers and the internet – if you google ‘ian mcdonald tear ebook’ – you will see that access to this isn’t just limited to those that can buy SFBC books. (of course you can get a few of these secondhand, too).dd-b points this out too, of course.

  9. @dd-b: If the requirement were to be publication in all markets worldwide in the same year, nothing would be eligible. That’s probably not the result you want either. And it’s certainly not what I suggested.I believe the short fiction is all available free online to Hugo voters anyway. That’s as close to universal availability as you’re going to get I think. John Scalzi now puts together a packet of all the nominated fiction for Worldcon members. This is something he himself does, not the Worldcon. I think it’s an excellent idea. But my comment was directed at the nomination process.Or is it only not going to the books you personally favor? It hasn’t done that for a long time. As several have said, the shortlists demonstrate that what I like and value in sf is generally not what those who vote for the Hugo like and value. The Resnick stories, for example.@Blue Tyson: All of the short stories and novelettes are freely available online. Four of the five novellas also were (‘The Political Prisoner’ has been taken down, for some reason). But not ‘The Tear’. Admittedly, everything is included in the abovementioned packet.

  10. The Tear is freely available, just not officially available, was my point.e.g. same as getting tv shows on bittorrent.The Political Prisoner is now in the same situation, as you mention. Lots of people will have already downloaded it of course.FSF is of course available via EBSCOHost etc., too, for those aware of those sort of databases via the library.So it is possible more people could get it like that, than have bought Galactic Empires. Not as convenient as an obvious, publicised version, of course, so that won't help.There are no officially for sale ebooks of River of Gods or Brasyl either, which is absolutely crazy.All of which certainly will hurt McDonald in awards situations.

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