How I Voted on the Hugos

Here’s how my final ballot looks, with a few comments on my decision making.

Best Novel
1. Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie
2. The Goblin Emperor – Katherine Addison
3. The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin (trans. Ken Liu)

Personal taste making a lot of difference here. A lot of people have praised the Three-Body Problem highly, but it just didn’t quite do it for me.

Best Novella
1. No Award

Best Novelette
1. No Award
2. The Day the World Turned Upside Down – Thomas Olde Heuvelt

This was an odd one for me. I read Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s story, and while it wasn’t bad, I just couldn’t say it was as good as or better than the works I nominated for this category. If I had read it prior to nominating, I don’t think I would have considered it. So it goes under No Award.

Best Short Story
1. No Award

Best Related Work
1. No Award

Best Graphic Story
1. Sex Criminals vol. 1 – Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky
2. Ms. Marvel vol. 1 – G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona & Jake Wyatt
3. Rat Queens vol. 1 – Kurtis J. Weibe & Roc Upchurch
4. Saga vol. 3 – Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples
5. No Award

The best category on the ballot. This was a tough call, as all four of the above are great. I think my personal hype for Saga has died off a bit, so ultimately after a little thought I placed it below the other three. Ms. Marvel is one of the best titles coming out from the “big two” publishers right now, and Rat Queens is a lot of fun, but I had to give the edge to the excellent and hilarious Sex Criminals.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)
1. Guardians of the Galaxy
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
3. Edge of Tomorrow
4. Interstellar

Another category that was tough to call. Guardians got the top because it’s one of the only films I’ve enjoyed so much I went back to see it a second time. (Bring on next year, when I’ll be championing Mad Max: Fury Road all the way.)

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)
1. Orphan Black: “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried”
2. Game of Thrones: “The Mountain and the Viper”

This is more a nod to the show Orphan Black than the episode itself, which maybe contradicts my voting strategy in other places. I nominated the penultimate episode, and thought the finale was a bit dumb. Oh well.

Best Semiprozine
1. Beneath Ceaseless Skies
2. Lightspeed Magazine
3. Strange Horizons

I don’t understand why this category exists, when “Best Prozine” doesn’t. Anyway! Three fiction venues I’ve read a helluva lot of good stories from in the past year.

Best Fan Writer
1. No Award

Best Professional Editor (Long and Short Form), Best Professional Artist, Best Fan Artist, Best Fanzine, Best Fancast, John W. Campbell Award
I did not vote in these categories, generally due to not being familiar with the nominees.

Your Favourites Are Not Objective

Title is stating the obvious, right? You’d think.

First up, go read this post on Tor.com by Liz Bourke. It’s an old story: a couple of famous white male authors listed their favourite writers. Their lists were entirely white and male. Liz Bourke argues, quite rightly, that this was avoidable, and that people have a responsibility to think about who they’re including or excluding when they make such lists.

Cue the comments, which were flooded with (presumably) white, male readers making the oh-so-predictable response: why should the authors’ identities affect what is their favourite? It sounds reasonable, until you actually apply some thought to the issue.

If I asked you to name your ten favourite authors, could you do so easily, without hesitation? All ten? I couldn’t. Thing is, a lot of authors have very different things that make them good, that are hard to rank directly against one another. I dare say that after the first few names, most people would be stopping to consider whether to include author A at the expense of author B. I myself would probably name author A on one day, and then author B when asked the same question a week later – and both lists would be equally true. “Favourite” is a tricky thing to narrow down, and any list of favourites is going to be, on some level, a deliberately curated selection, not an absolute answer.

So, your list of ten favourites is not actually a list of favourites. But what does this have to do with the diversity of the list? Well, a lack of diversity in your list of favourites can mean a few things. The article above points out that, statistically speaking, a list is unlikely to be entirely white and male by chance alone. If the identity of an author did not factor in at all, lists like that would be far less common. So what are the reasons your favourites are all white men?

1) The books you read are all by white men. This is unlikely to happen by accident – 51% of the population is female – so a bias must exist somewhere. This could be systematic bias in publishing and marketing. It could be that you yourself have a bias – conscious or not – when choosing what to read. And of course it could be because these recommendation lists we’re talking about already disproportionately favour white male authors. (It’s actually all three.) In any case, this suggests you’re not choosing your “favourites” from a representative sample, and you should maybe start to think more about who you’re choosing to read.

2) You like the books you read by white men more. Say this the wrong way and it sounds bad, right? You’re not sexist or racist, it’s just that these books you like happen to be by white men! Think, however, about what this really implies. As I’ve said above, it’s unlikely to happen by chance. There are two explanations: either you’re saying that white men are just better at writing good books, or you’re not reading the right non-white and/or non-male authors. The answer, again, is to pay more attention and try to read more diversely.

3) You enjoy writers of all backgrounds, but you’re choosing to only include white men in your list of recommendations… for some reason. You like author B well enough, but you’re going to put author A on your list. Truth be told, there’s not much between the two, and a list with author B wouldn’t really be less representative of your tastes, but you want to be as close to your absolute top ten favourites as possible. Why should it matter if you then look at the list and realise that decision means your list has no women on it? It’s your favourites, right? Because of points 1 and 2, that’s why. When you could publish a list that included some diversity, without really compromising your tastes, but choose not to, you’re adding to the bias that leads to other people not reading those diverse voices, which continues the cycle of bias in recommendation and reading choices and keeps non-male and non-white writers underrepresented.

Point 3 is why Liz Bourke talks about people having a responsibility to include diversity. The fact that recommendations completely lacking in diversity are so common demonstrates that there’s a widespread bias that goes against the common sense that writers of different backgrounds should all be equally capable of writing good books. This bias is not something that will correct itself, spontaneously, but it something that can only be countered by being more conscious of what we read, and what we recommend others read.

It should be weird to look at the books you’ve been reading and realise they’re all by men. If you write down your favourites and, against all probability, they’re all white men, it should make you wonder what’s been missed out.

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.