Listening to the Discworld

For the last few months, I’ve been listening to Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels on audiobook. I’d read a lot of the books when I was in school, and always meant to get back to it sometime. I guess Pratchett’s death finally prompted me to do it.

I started where I had left off almost 15 years ago, downloading Men at Arms, the 15th Discworld novel. I can hardly remember what happened in the earlier books now, but it was easy enough to pick it up here. Men at Arms was excellent; almost 10 books further down, it’s still one of the best I’ve listened to. The City Watch books seem to stand uniformly above the others – there’s something about coming back to these characters, the city of Ankh-Morpork, and the kind of stories Pratchett tells through them that appeals to me more than do the Witches, Rincewind, or Susan Sto Helit.

It’s interesting to hear the way Pratchett builds upon the Discworld, on its places and characters, book by book. Each one take up something new, expands upon ideas introduced in earlier books, and works to create this rich, living world with strong continuity which nevertheless manages to stay accessible at each step. Pratchett’s is an oeuvre of strong stand-alone novels that you could pick up individually at any point, but are all the more rewarding when you’ve read those that come before.

I hadn’t listened to audiobooks before, but it seemed the most convenient way to fit them into my schedule. Listening to the audio production of a book has been quite a different experience from reading them; it took me some time to get used to the narrator, Nigel Planer, because his voice was so far from what I would have given the books in my own mind. But I soon grew accustomed to him, and to the distinct and recognisable voices he gave to each of the many characters, to the point that when the narrator changed – on The Fifth Elephant, the book I’m currently listening to, which is read by Stephen Briggs – it all felt very wrong (I’ve spent the early chapters repeatedly thinking “that’s not what he/she’s supposed to sound like!”). Still, whoever’s reading them, it’s Terry Pratchett’s words, his wit, and most of all his characters that shine through.

If you’ve never visited the Discworld before, I can highly recommend it. Pratchett’s work is funny, finely crafted, and full of heart. (Many readers would recommend starting with the completely standalone Small Gods.) I only feel sorry that at the pace I’m getting through them, I’ll run out of his books all too soon.

Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar (Volume 1)

If you’re a fan of Mark Z. Danielewski’s work, you’ll know something of what to expect from The Familiar. His most famous book, House of Leaves, is known for its typographical trickery, its hidden messages, narratives within narratives, and copious footnotes. Nothing he writes is straightforward. If you liked House of Leaves, you might like The Familiar. But it definitely won’t be to everyone’s taste.

The Familiar Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May, to give the book its full title, is the story of a young girl, Xanther, who suffers from epilepsy, on her way with her father, Anwar, to pick up a dog. Instead, Xanther winds up bringing something else home. It’s also the story of an addict in Singapore, computer scientists on the run in Texas, a gang leader in LA, a Turkish cop, an Armenian cab driver, and a Mexican whose profession remains unclear at this point – all taking place over the same day, told chronologically. How these stories tie together remains unclear even at the end of the novel: Danielewski intends to tell this story over 27 volumes, a TV series in book form, and this 800-page tome is just the first episode.

Each of the nine main characters – along with some extra voices – has their own font, their own colour in the corner of the page, and their own grammatical, typographical, and linguistic quirks. The narratives are pretty much stream-of-consciousness, and are often deliberately difficult to read. Xanther’s parents Anwar and Astair, for example, both think in multiple nested parentheses, which can often cause you to lose the thread of a sentence. Jingjing’s chapters, set in Singapore, are written in Singlish, with dialogue sometimes in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Russian; full comprehension was beyond me, but I could get the right idea most of the time.

There’s hardly any plot to be found here. The meat of the book is Xanther, Anwar and Astair’s day, while Luther, the gang leader, has an entirely unconnected (at this point) story, and Jingjing goes through his own eventful day. The rest of the characters generally have only a couple of chapters each, things that give only enough to introduce who they are, and rarely explain what they do or want. If you’re after a fast-paced story, look elsewhere – this may be one of the slowest-moving books ever written.

I’ve ended this book with far more questions than answers. There are things going on here that aren’t explained in the least. What is The Familiar – the overall story – about? Well, at this point I can say it’s about a mysterious cat found by a young girl, and also possibly about artificial intelligence, and it may even all be taking place inside a simulated reality. At this point I can hardly say.

For all its deliberate obtuseness, its lack of answers, and its barely-there plot, I went into this thinking of it as “episode one” of a series, and I so wasn’t quite as disappointed as some reviewers seem to have been. For all its 800 pages it certainly does match the plot content of a one hour television show. While slow in places, I personally found it kind of fascinating, and my head is crammed full of thoughts and questions about where this is going.

I’ll be picking up Volume 2 in September. Whether I’ll stick it out the full 27 volumes – if Danielewski manages to hit that ambitious target – remains to be seen.

Some thoughts on the Sad Puppy Hugos

I wasn’t intending to write about the Hugo Award controversy directly on this blog, but I hit upon something this morning that led me into a brief twitter rant, and decided I had something to say after all.

Whatever is being said about the politics of the sides involved, whatever the accusations being thrown around; regardless of my own distaste for many of the nominees, and regardless of the well known fact that Vox Day, 2014 Sad Puppy nominee and creator of the Rabid Puppy slate, is a racist, sexist bigot, the one fact that remains important in this whole mess is that the Sad Puppy campaign stole the Hugo Awards nomination process.

This really became clear to me when I was once again reading defences of the Sad Puppy slate that talked about how they were open, they asked for suggestions, they created a list more diverse than their previous ones, that they wanted to create a slate based on meritocracy… It’s been in my mind the last couple of days that if they really were seeking more democracy and meritocracy in the Hugos, all they had to do was encourage their followers to nominate. This defender of the Sad Puppies was literally describing the purpose of the Hugo voting process itself. Instead, what the Puppies did was to hold their own nomination process, pick their own ballot, and encourage their followers to vote the slate as curated by themselves. Aware as they were of how few nominations it takes to get onto the ballot, they created a situation where the nomination process for the Hugo Awards was, at least in part, taken out of the hands of the WSFS and given to Brad Torgersen and Vox Day.

I should emphasise that nothing they did was against the rules. I can also believe that Torgersen and the others involved in the Sad Puppies did not anticipate just how skewed the final ballot would look; they did not actually list a full slate of 5 works in each category. What complicated things there is that Vox Day’s Rabid Puppies slate piggybacked on their own, filling in the gaps with works from Day’s own publishing house, and seemingly encouraging a large number of people from outside the usual Hugo voting fandom to take part in order to stick it to “SJWs” in fandom. It’s not clear to me whether there was any real connection between Torgersen and Day’s slates, or if Day simply copied their list.

The fact remains, however, that the Sad Puppies gamed the nomination process – they knew very well how few nominations it takes to reach the ballot. An organised campaign of voting has a huge advantage when all the other votes are uncoordinated.

And that brings me to a second point, which is that those involved in the Sad Puppies slate will often justify their campaign by claiming that this is something that already happens, that people have been campaigning (often they’ll bring up “backdoor deals”) for certain works to make the ballot, and that the more diverse Hugo Awards ballots of recent years is nothing to do with quality and all about these campaigns. It is true that the short fiction categories are notorious for being a broad field with low numbers of nominations and, in the Short Story category particularly, often struggling to place 5 works on the ballot because of the rule that nominees must receive at least 5% of the total nominations – in other words, it doesn’t take many votes to get in. But the very fact that it is so easy for a campaign like the Sad Puppies to flood these categories demonstrates that no such coordination on that scale is being done by other groups. The reason they were successful is precisely because other voters are uncoordinated, their votes spread out based on their own tastes. By succeeding on this scale, I’d argue they’ve proven their own arguments false.

What they’ve proven is that it is possible to steal the Hugo nomination process. They’ve also made it clear that they were the only ones trying to do so.

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

When the Emperor of the Elflands and three of his sons are killed in an airship explosion, his fourth son, Maia, is unexpectedly elevated to the throne. The half-Goblin child from an unwanted political marriage, Maia was raised in exile by his cousin, with no knowledge of the court or politics. Bewildered by the rules and restrictions of his new life, resented for his race, his ignorance, and for simply being different from his father, Maia has to quickly learn how to be an emperor – and who he can trust.

It seems fitting that The Goblin Emperor made it onto the Hugo Award ballot alongside Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword. The novels have a lot in common, both dealing largely with politics and conspiracy focused within a single setting: the imperial palace and court; the space station in orbit around a backwater planet. Both feature a protagonist placed suddenly into a position of authority, and facing the resentment of the established powers.

But where Ancillary Sword‘s Breq is confident, perhaps arrogant, often flaunting her disregard for the status quo, The Goblin Emperor‘s Maia is an anxious and uncertain leader. He’s the victim of abuse – his cousin, Setheris, has spent a decade beating and belittling him while they lived together in exile. Even untouchable as Emperor, his cousin’s presence still terrifies him. And now he has been thrust into an environment where all around him are accustomed to power being used to abuse and control; he faces intimidation from subordinates and from members of his family. In the Untheileneise Court, his kindness and unwillingness to intimidate are interpreted as weakness.

The Elflands are also a conservative, extremely patriarchal society. Women, particularly noblewomen, are treated as property, to be married off for political or financial gain. One of the first things Maia must is asked to deal with is the marriage of his sister Vedero, which his father Varenechibel was in the process of negotiating. His sister does not want to marry, and Maia strongly dislikes the man to whom she was to be betrothed; knowing how his own mother suffered because of her marriage, he is unwilling to see the same thing happen to Vedero, even as she herself insists that he needs her marriage as Emperor. This conflict, between the expectations that others have of him, the requirements of his role, and his own beliefs, forms a large part of the novel. If Maia has a major flaw, it is in his unwillingness to make anyone unhappy – in trying to please everyone, he weakens his own position and turns his enemies further against him. It is a major point of growth for Maia when he realises it is often impossible to please everyone, and finds the confidence to simply take the action that seems right.

The Goblin Emperor is not a novel of high action. Even the mystery of who was responsible for the death of the old Emperor is a sub plot that mainly occurs elsewhere. This is, instead, a story of a single individual learning how to exist in a role he was never intended for, and learning to overcome an abusive past and find his confidence; of how kindness and compassion, applied well, have the potential to be just as effective as tactics of fear and control. It is also a story of change, where Maia, with all his difference from the old Emperors, represents the need for progress against the opposition of those who hold the status quo. Maia’s greatest achievement as Emperor is not a victory over an enemy, but the construction of a bridge that will bring trade and prosperity to the poorer half of his Empire.

There’s a whole lot more to it than just what I’ve been able to put down here, of course. Katherine Addison has crafted a very successful character piece, with plenty of conflict and intrigue to keep things interesting. I think I would be very interested in a sequel that shows the ultimate outcomes of Maia’s leadership. If you need to be reassured that this year’s Hugo ballot is not a total bust, you only have to read Ancillary Sword and The Goblin Emperor.

A List of the Short Fiction I Read Before Nominating for the Hugos

Immediately after making my post about Hugo nominations on Friday, I realised what I was doing was dumb. If I read and enjoyed all these stories, why was I avoiding naming them? I should be pointing them out and telling people to read them. But as I read a lot more good stories than could fit on the ballot – and I’m still not sure I was able to pick the best 5 of each – here’s my list of all the eligible work I read, with the nominated stories highlighted. As far as I know everything on this list is freely available to read online, except for the Gregory and Sriduangkaew novellas.

Everything listed here is at least worth checking out, if you’re interested in good short fiction.

Novella

We Are All Completely Fine, Daryl Gregory (Tachyon Publications)
What There Was to See, Maria Dahvana Headley (Subterranean)
Scale-Bright, Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Immersion Press)

(I would usually hold off on nominating if I hadn’t read enough to feel like I was giving a category a fair chance, but for some reason this time I decided to just go ahead and nominate all three of the eligible novellas I read.)

Novellette

Prayers of Forges and Furnaces, Aliette de Bodard (Lightspeed Magazine)
The Litany of Earth, Ruthanna Emrys (Tor.com)
Nine Instances of Rain, Huw Evans (GigaNotoSaurus)
Between Sea and Shore, Vanessa Fogg (GigaNotoSaurus)
“A Short History of the Twentieth Century, or, When You Wish Upon a Star”, Kathleen Ann Goonan (Tor.com)
Stone Hunger, N K Jemisin (Clarkesworld)
The Rose Witch, James Patrick Kelly (Clarkesworld)
The Bonedrake’s Penance, Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
I Can See Right Through You, Kelly Link (McSweeney’s)
Reborn, Ken Liu (Tor.com)
Women in Sandstone, Alex Dally MacFarlane (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Among the Thorns, Veronica Schanoes (Tor.com)
Golden Daughter, Stone Wife, Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Sixty Years in the Women’s Province, Benjanun Sriduangkaew (GigaNotoSaurus)
The Colonel, Peter Watts (Tor.com)
The Devil in America, Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com)

Short Story

As Good As New, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com)
Covenant, Elizabeth Bear (Hieroglyph/Slate.com)
When Gods and Vampires Roamed Miami, Kendare Blake (Tor.com)
Daughter of Necessity, Marie Brennan (Tor.com)
The Breath of War, Aliette de Bodard (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
The Moon Over Red Trees – Aliette de Bodard (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Loving Armageddon, Amanda C. Davis (Crossed Genres)
The Color of Paradox, A M Dellamonica (Tor.com)
Anna Saves Them All, Seth Dickinson (Shimmer)
A Tank Only Fears Four Things, Seth Dickinson (Lightspeed Magazine)
Chopin’s Eyes, Lara Elena Donelly (Strange Horizons)
Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land, Ruthanna Emrys (Tor.com)
When it Ends, He Catches Her, Eugie Foster (Daily Science Fiction)
The Tallest Doll in New York City, Maria Dahvana Headley (Tor.com)
A Meaningful Exchange, Kat Howard (Lightspeed Magazine)
The Saint of the Sidewalks, Kat Howard (Clarkesworld)
Makeisha in Time, Rachael K Jones (Crossed Genres)
Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley), Rahul Kanakia (Clarkesworld)
If God is Watching, Mikki Kendall (The Revelator) *
Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead, Carmen Maria Machado (Lightspeed Magazine)
The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family, Usman T Malik (Qualia Nous/Medium.com)
Ten Days Grace, Foz Meadows (Apex Magazine)
Polynia, China Miéville (Tor UK)
Animal, Daniel Jose Older (Nightmare Magazine)
Anyway: Angie, Daniel José Older (Tor.com)
Undermarket Data, An Owomayela (Lightspeed Magazine)
The Hymn of Ordeal, No. 23, Rhiannon Rasmussen (Lightspeed Magazine)
Autodidact, Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Clarkesworld)
That Tear Problem, Natalia Theodoridou (Escape Pod)
Patterns of a Murmuration, in Billions of Data Points, JY Yang (Clarkesworld)
A Cup of Salt Tears, Isabel Yap (Tor.com)

*Unfortunately I forgot to note down this story after reading it, and was not reminded of it until the day after nominations closed, so it wasn’t considered while filling out my ballot.

No doubt there are good works I’ve completely missed, and no doubt there are people who will think I’m a fool for picking certain stories over others on my ballot. It’s all subjective, and it’s hard as hell to narrow down to 5 choices. All too late to change now. If you’ve not read these stories, check them out, and enjoy.

In Which I Ramble On About Hugo Nominations

The nominating period for the Hugo Awards ended on Tuesday. Last year I made a point of posting my initial and final nominating ballots, but this year I’ve been silent here, although I tweeted about the process plenty. It’s too late now to offer recommendations, and I doubt posting my ballot would be all that interesting now. Instead I thought I’d just talk about it generally.

The big difference between this and last year is that I was making nominations in the short fiction categories – novella, novelette, short story. I’ve never read a whole lot of short fiction, but this year I tried to save anything I saw recommended, and I read something like 50 stories in those categories. There were a whole lot more I didn’t get to.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t always have a lot of awareness of what venues have published the stories I’m reading. I save everything to the Pocket app, and read them in there. So Sunday, when I started on my ballot, involved a lot of googling the story titles and a little cut and pasting into Word to find out wordcount. As it turns out, a lot of good stories came from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a couple of which ended up on my ballot.

Picking 5 to go on a ballot is not easy. I had only read 3 novellas, it turned out, so there wasn’t much to do there. I’m mainly wondering if Benjanun Sriduangkaew will make the Novella cut, and what kind of drama will ensue. The rest of my reading was split evenly between short stories and novelettes. There’s a reason these categories have a hard time getting enough nominations on the ballot: there are way too many good stories for everyone to have read, and the choice of what to nominate is very subjective. My ballot changed several times in the last few days of nominations, including the addition of stories I only read on the last day. There are a few I wish I’d found time to read.

I don’t know if it’s possible to predict what will make it onto the short story or novelette ballot. I saw Aliette de Bodard’s The Breath of War mentioned in a few places (one of two Bodard stories on my ballot), and Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Devil in America seemed popular – but who knows what will have come to voters’ attention, and what will fall afoul of the 5% rule. Votes get spread very thin in short fiction. Kelly Link published a story last year, I Can See Right Through You, and that perhaps is the only thing I’d be willing to place a bet on.

Best Novel was a little unusual this time. I did something some people don’t like, and nominated two complete trilogies on my ballot (Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach and Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky). It’s within the rules, and precedent was set by Wheel of Time last year, but I’m still not sure if it was the right choice. Ancillary Sword got on there too, and I’m expecting it’ll make the final ballot. Like last year, I wasn’t entirely confident in my last picks, but everything I put on was good enough. Again, I failed to read everything I’d hoped to in time: I haven’t read Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, or Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem, both seemingly strong contenders.

Beyond the writing categories, my ballot wound up a little thin. Dramatic Presentation: Long Form is too predictable this year. Short Form I failed to really come up with anything for – Legend of Korra is getting buzz, but they haven’t even released season 3 on DVD over here yet, so I’m two seasons behind. I’m sure Doctor Who will be on the ballot as always (“Listen” will be the top pick, and maybe the Christmas special), Game of Thrones will have “The Mountain and the Viper”, and who knows, maybe Agents of SHIELD will make the cut. I couldn’t pick anything, so the only thing I nominated was an episode of Orphan Black.

Graphic Story is the only other category I made a full set of nominations for. Saga is all but guaranteed a spot on the ballot at this point; the rest will be interesting to see, as this was a very good year for comics. Ms Marvel is a title I’d be happy to see make it. Some posts elsewhere have me wondering if Sex Criminals will appear on the shortlist. I don’t know if any Doctor Who related comics were published that could steal a spot. Who fans are nothing if not committed to the cause, and they managed it last year.

Whatever the results, we’ll find out in a few weeks. All I know for certain is that there’ll be drama on social media come Easter weekend.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, by Genevieve Valentine

Inspired by Grimm fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club tells the story of twelve sisters in prohibition-era New York. Kept hidden away at home by their father – who worries that his inability to produce a male heir will affect his social standing – the girls find their outlet in sneaking out at night to go dancing. Life becomes more complicated for the girls, however, when their father becomes suspicious, and decides it’s time he started to marry them off.

Told from the perspective of the eldest sister, Jo, much of the novel is about the balance she tries to strike in keeping her sisters together and helping them cope with their closed in lives. Jo knows that they are better off together even if it means they have no true freedom, and keeping them together like this has resulted in her sisters seeing her as cold, and a proxy for their distant father (whom several of the girls have never met). Her sisters call her the General, and she doesn’t allow them to see how she sacrifices her own happiness to keep her family together.

Valentine does a good job in giving each of the twelve girls distinct personalities, so that I never got confused about who was who. The older girls get more attention – they were the first around, the first to go out to the clubs, and the first for whom their father tries to make matches – but all but perhaps the youngest are given enough to feel rounded, individuals stuck living closely with so many others.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a story about family, about the sacrifices one makes for those you love, and about keeping your strength and your independence when it would otherwise be taken from you. It’s also an entertaining look at the culture of the illegal dance halls, and how they managed to function despite prohibition.

It’s quite possibly my favourite of the 2014-published books I’ve read. I’d urge anyone to get a copy and read it. I’m only disappointed it isn’t SFF, so I can’t stick it on my Hugo ballot.