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A good year for… something

30 Comments

Sometimes I feel like Bart Simpson when he keeps on reaching for the doughnut Lisa Simpson has electrified. Each year, I eagerly await the shortlists for the Arthur C Clarke and Hugo Awards; each year, I’m disappointed by the novels or short fiction chosen by one or both. I have already written about the Clarke (see here). I’d like The Testament of Jessie Lamb to win, but I expect Embassytown will. (Incidentally, it occurred to me reading Adam Roberts’ excellent report on the Clarke shortlist books here and here that his response to The Testament of Jessie Lamb mirrors mine to Embassytown; and vice versa. Sort of.)

Then there’s the Hugo Award shortlists…

The less said about the novel shortlist, the better. Oh, all right…

My thoughts on Leviathan Wakes are laid out quite clearly in my review on SFF Chronicles here. I am quite angry it has been shortlisted. I gave up on A Song of Ice and Fire several years ago after reading one of its humungous installments in which fuck-all happened. I gave up on epic fantasy as a genre a couple of years ago after getting sick to death of its shallowness, its use of rape as a trope, and its general lack of invention or innovation (though I will acknowledge there are some worth reading – RA McAvoy’s Lens of the World trilogy, Steph Swainston, KJ Parker, Carolyn Ives Gilman, A Princess of Roumania, for example). Deadline is the middle book of a trilogy about zombies. Zombies are passé, they have been done to, er, undeath. It’s time they were put to, um, rest. The world has moved on, it’s all krakens and sea monsters now. I think. Among Others I have heard mostly good things about, but I have not read it. And Embassytown, while I think it does not entirely succeed (see here), is probably the one book that does belong on this shortlist.

If I had bothered to pay for the privilege of voting, my choices would go: 1) Embassytown, 2) Among Others, 3) No Award

And the short fiction shortlist:

The Resnick is old-fashioned crap. As have been every one of his shortlisted stories in recent years. Clearly he has his fans; clearly they need to read a lot more widely. The Liu is what I think of as a “clarion-style story”. It is sentimental, uses a metaphor to illustrate its core emotional argument, and then beats that metaphor to death. I do not like such stories. The Scalzi is a jolly jape and does not belong within five thousand kilometres of a shortlist. Unless said shortlist was posted on April 1st. This one was not. Shortlisting Scalzi’s spoof does not prove that fandom has a sense of humour, it proves only that it thinks one of the best five stories written during the previous year was a stupid spoof knocked off in a weekend by a popular writer. That’s not only dumb, it’s a perversion of the whole concept of “best short story”. Nancy Fulda’s story is another “well-meaning parents try to use tech to cure autistic kid” story. There’s usually half a dozen of them published in any one year. Fulda’s is no better and no worse than most but, crucially, it brings nothing new to the trope. It’s also sentimental; I don’t like sentimental. The Yu is a piece of whimsy which threatens to mean more than it seems but never quite does so. It at least has some claim to a place on the shortlist.

My votes, had I paid to vote, would be: 1) E Lily Yu, 2) No Award.

I shall whinge about the novelettes and novellas in another post. I shall not bother with the other categories. I still don’t understand why fandom bothers with the dramatic presentation Hugos. The film and television industries have their own awards ceremony, and they spent a shitload more money on them than sf does. As for the remaining categories…

Did I say “bah humbug”? If I haven’t, take it as, er, read…

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30 thoughts on “A good year for… something

  1. You’ll probably be unsurprised to know that I’m here to disagree with you!

    I can only pass judgement on the Liu and the Fulda, as they’re the only ones I’ve read, but I really liked both those stories (and, trust me, I normally hate everything).

    Yes, one can say it’s been done before, but *everythiing* has been done before (this is a major source of frustration for me, everytime I think I’ve come up with something new I discover someone’s already done it).

    As for beating metaphors to death, I would prefer to say “Uses this metaphor to maximum efficiency”, myself.

    The movie categories are questionable, I agree, but they kindof keep written fandom connected to movie fandom a bit, I’d rather see that than see all the different aspects of SF drift apart.

    Colum

  2. However, I’m totally with you about Zombies. Talk about re-warming a trope into shambolic life year on year!

    Colum

  3. # It’s also sentimental; I
    # don’t like sentimental.

    A man who is tired of sentiment is tired of life!

    Colum

  4. Have read only a few of the works you’re discussing, Ian, but I’ll chip in anyway on one of the things mentioned here–I know what you mean by a Clarion story. There is definitely a distinctive prevailing approach from that group of writers – more about style and sensitivity than engagement and, well, fun – and I have to admit I quite like a lot of those stories, although if you read too many in one go it can get a little samey.

    Like Colum, I wouldn’t necessarily say they beat their metaphor *to death*, but they definitely do have a tendency to work their mule hard. And as for sentimental – it’s the same thing. Some stories suit, and in fact require, sentiment – and it has been so since the days of Bradbury – but I agree, not *every* story. There should be room of acerbic stories, vicious stories and down right grumpy old bastard stories too.

    These Clarion style writers are all good writers though. They just need to try a little more variety in their approach for my money.

    • Yes, as a rule the Clarion-style writers know how to put one word after another, one sentence after another. But structuring an entire story around a single metaphor makes every story they produce feel exactly the same. I’d prefer to see inside the character’s head instead of using some wishy-washy metaphor for the emotional journey the character is undergoing.

      Oh, and I don’t like Bradbury’s fiction. Never have.

      • Same narrative structure, same story with different symbols.

        • Yep, but that doesn’t – on an individual basis – make them bad stories. You just have to ration yourself on them.

          • Sure on an individual basis they might not necessaries be bad stories, but repeated use and success of the same narrative structure is boring. And not only is it boring, it is as much conservative and crap design as slavishly implementing the hero’s journey to tell a story about going to the bloody shops because that’s how you’ve been taught to tell a story. No, they might not be bad stories, but that thudding drum beat of metaphor and sentiment isn’t as big or clever as it once might have been.

            • 1/ Okay, we’re *really* not talking about some Clarion-endorsed cookie cutter exercise here, are we? On an individual basis these authors employ a range of styles and effects with a high level of skill. There’s not really “a thudding drum-beat of metaphor and sentiment”. Most of the writers we’re talking about here are subtle enough to avoid that. And we’re certainly not talking about the same story being told over and over. All we’re *really* talking about is a similarity of approach which, after a while, gets boring.

              The same way that if we read a bunch of well researched, factually correct, highly detailed space stories in a row, they might (for some of us) also get boring.

              2/ It doesn’t feel to me that these writers are slavishly implementing this method of telling stories willy nilly, regardless of the type of story they want to tell. It feels in fact like they are using exactly the right mode for the stories they want to tell – it’s just that the stories they want to tell are *these* types of story. As a writer *I* personally would get bored of telling the same kind of story all the time–I like variation–but many writers don’t feel that way. Many find their thing and work at perfecting it. And there’s really nothing wrong with that–at least when you are looking for that kind of story telling you know where to go!

              From a reader’s point of view though, the answer is always the same. If you don’t like it, if you feel you’ve read it all before, if that mode of writing doesn’t work for you there’s plenty of choice out there.

              At the moment those kinds of stories seem to be popular though. They appear regularly in certain magazines, and over the last few years have started to crop up on awards shortlists too. So, they’re in vogue, which makes them targets for complaint, I guess.

              Personally, like any other kind of story, I enjoy the really good ones, and stop reading the less good ones.

  5. a stupid spoof knocked off in a weekend

    Very generous.

  6. Whilst I can see Colum’s point on the media Hugos, I do feel that they are there to make fandom look as if it’s playing with the Big Boys. I would respect them more if the nominees would send someone along to the awards ceremonies; the fact that they generally don’t (with a very few honourable exceptions) says volumes about the relationship.

    • That’s part of my issue with them – that the nominees and winners couldn’t give a monkey’s. So why bother?

      • I kindof agree with this, it’s just that these days I see a lot of people doing SF in different media, who aren’t “joined up”. For instance a lot of electronic music is very SF influenced, but doesn’t seem to be connected to modern SF in any way. I feel the genre would be stronger if there were stronger connections between all its scattered aspects, but I’ve no evidence to show this would really be a good thing, I just feel it would.

        Colum

      • Not true. I recently happened to speak with Jane Eppenson, who won a Hugo Award for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and she said she was delighted to have won that award. She said, “There are lots of industry awards, but this is an award from smart people!” J. Michael Straczynski was so pleased by his Hugo Award win that he put the trophy in a later episode of Babylon 5. The Hugo Award is in fact more respected within the industry than we’ve been telling ourselves, and we do ourselves an injustice by continuing to repeat a tired old meme like this.

  7. # Oh, and I don’t like Bradbury’s
    # fiction. Never have.

    Now you are just being perverse!

    Colum

  8. # I wouldn’t necessarily say
    # they beat their metaphor *to death*,

    Is anyone else starting to picture seal pups whenever ‘metaphor’ is mentioned, or is it just me?

    Colum

  9. A Dance with Dragons is essentially one part of one very, very long book.

    Maybe it’s odd to shortlist a novel that’s not a self-contained unit, that doesn’t really have a beginning, middle and end … and within which not much actually happens.

    That said, the thing that really annoys me about a lot of science fiction is that the characters aren’t exciting and engaging. Or the worlds in sci-fi novels don’t feel expansive, failing to give the reader a sense of there always being more wonders to learn about.

    Sci-fi (at least much more of it, much more of the time) can/should learn from the best epic fantasy.

    • I think you’re confusing fantasy’s expansiveness with bloat. Sf has the entire universe to play in; fantasy has a series of identikit mediaeval towns and villages.

      As for characterisation, both sf and fantasy are poor at it. The best sf arguably does a much better job than the best epic fantasy, but the general standard across both genres is low.

      If you think sf needs to learn from epic fantasy, I suspect you’re reading the wrong sf. That’s a bit like saying prog rockers need to learns how to play their instruments from glam rockers :-)

      • Now you really are being perverse! The characterisation in the best of THE Fantasy is every bit as good as in the best of SF, but it’s purposed differently (towards more heightened acts of heroism, etc), and I think you just don’t like those sorts of stories or characters.

        >That’s a bit like saying prog rockers need to learns how to play their instruments from glam rockers.

        Actually, I believe many of them could. There’s more to musician ship than moving your fingers fast.

        • I’ve read most of the popular epic fantasies and all I’ve seen is characterisation by quirks – silly accents or pulling braids, etc. Sf characterisation is generally poor, but I’ve yet to read an epic fantasy whose characterisation beats the best of the sf I’ve read. Where’s the epic fantasy to match, for instance, Synthajoy?

          (Non-epic fantasy, otoh… Yes, some of that is superb – David Herter and John Crowley are two I admire greatly; there are no doubt many others.)

          As for prog rock… I value technical proficiency. I certainly value it more highly than catchy choruses. While there undoubtedly have been glam rockers who were superb musicians, technical proficiency is much more obvious in prog rock than it is glam.

          • What’s good characterisation? For me it has to do with whether I care about the characters (I’m not the only one who was moved when certain characters died in ASOIAF) and whether they entertain me (I’m not the only one who has chuckled with Tyrion).

            No, the characters aren’t ‘realistic’ but they’re compelling (to me) and real enough that world’s they inhabit seem real through their eyes. And very importantly, the worlds ARE SEEN THROUGH THE CHARACTERS’ eyes. I often read sci-fi and there’s loads of description that could be from the author’s POV, or anyone’s, and it’s very, very dry.

            Not that all fantasy is as good as GRRM or Guy G Kay anymore than all sci-fi is as good as Simmons’ Hyperion or Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. I hasten to agree that lots of fantasy is very bad indeed.

            • I agree with James here up to a point. Good characterisation doesn’t necessarily mean a believable, living breathing person. In a rollicking adventure story where everything is heightened and exaggerated, you sometimes want heightened and exaggerated characters. Not one dimensional shining heroes or black hatted villains, but certainly “larger than life” characters who are more prone to risk taking, wise cracking and laughing in the face of peril(!) than the reader is.

              Bottom line is: if that’s what kind of story it is, then making a compelling, breathing, but wholly exaggerated character to fit it is “good characterisation”.

              • See, I think this is making excuses for bad craft – just like that old canard “sf doesn’t need to be good writing because it’s all about the ideas”. Good writing is good writing. Though I agree that different types of stories demand different types of characterisation. But I don’t agree that such types should be used as excuses for not doing it well.

                • I’m not arguing for excusing bad craft. I’m arguing that “because it’s epic fantasy means it’s bad craft” is not necessarily a true statement.

          • >I value technical proficiency

            So do I, but: the most technically proficient musicians sacrifice ego for playing exactly what is required by the music and no more. This is how session musicians make their living.

            • But that’s no good to me – I want to that technical proficiency on display. It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you hide your skill no one will ever know. And people that appreciate displays of skill are not going to look to you to provide them

              • Yeah, but properly informed listeners will know. The muso’s muso, if you like. Not every musician likes to show off. Gratuitous displays of virtuosity should (IMHO) should be frowned upon. Remember Tony McAlpine???

                And anyway, when you get great musicians playing simply but with great sensitivity for what each other is doing, that’s when the magic happens – and it *does* happen in prog, but equally it happens in pop, etc.

                • “But I don’t agree that such types should be used as excuses for not doing it well.”

                  Thing is, GRRM does what he sets out to do and he does it very well indeed. Real life can be stressful or mundane, so why not set out to write characters who are to some degree “types” or extremes?

                  You go to a party, you don’t want to spend ages talking to “Mr. Average” or “Mrs Middle of the Personality Spectrum”. You have more fun with the odd sharp, witty guy, or the sardonic woman, or the muscly guy who’s everyone’s hero on the sports field.

                  I guess always we go back to what’s “good”, what’s “quality”. GRRM’s writing is superb and even when he writes “bloat” it’s so well executed, so well rooted in character POV, it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Aside from ADWD I’ve only read Embassytown (a bit of a slog), but my guess is there are many things GRRM does better than anyone else on the shortlist.

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