July 16, 2016

Review: Rebel of the Sands

Rebel of the Sands Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book disappointed me. I thought it would be right up my alley, but that turned out not to be true.

It started out strong. It began as a sort of Western/Arabian Nights mashup, with the Western part predominating. There are guns, and weapons factories, and trains; there are also gods, and First Beings, and djinni--and halfbreed children sired by djinni--and other mystical energy creatures such as Buraqi, the equivalent of a horse that can be caged by iron. (The Buraqi were the best part of the book, and I wish the storyline had focused more on them in some fashion.) There is a displaced prince, a rebellion ("A new dawn. A new desert."), and a clash of science, magic and religion. There's a sixteen-year-old protagonist, Amani, a sort of Arabian Nights Calamity Jane who has taught herself to shoot and desperately wishes to escape her backwards, misogynistic town and society. She meets up with a secretive foreigner, Jin, who turns out to be the brother of the Rebel Prince, and gets involved in the rebellion. Many fights and shootouts and a few deaths later, along with some revelations about Amani's parentage, the rebellion wins its first battle and is on its way.

This may work for some people, but it did not work for me. The writing is okay and the characters adequate, although not terribly deep. What spoiled the book, as far as I am concerned, is the clumsy worldbuilding. The further along I got in the book, and the more it tended towards the Arabian Nights end of the spectrum, the less believable it became. By the later chapters, we're deep into the rebellion, and the half-Djinni children show their various powers (shape-shifting and illusion-casting, among others), and of course Amani is revealed to be a half-Djinni (or Demdji) whose power is to manipulate sand and make it do things, such as forming shapes that, for instance, grab her and keep her from going over a cliff...my suspension of disbelief shattered completely over that one. I realize this is supposed to be a fantasy, but the disparate parts simply do not blend.

Somewhere, there may be a Western/Arabian Nights combo that succeeds. It's not this book, unfortunately.

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July 11, 2016

Review: The Geek Feminist Revolution

The Geek Feminist Revolution The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been reading Kameron Hurley's blog since it was called Brutal Women, and I'm very gratified by her success. (Full disclosure: I am also one of her Patrons.) She's had a hell of a slog, dealing with a chronic illness, the ups and downs of the publishing business, and being attacked by asshats on the Internet, and it's nice to see one of the good people get ahead.

A great many of the essays in this book were originally published on her blog, but it's been long enough since I read them that I was able to look at them through fresh eyes. This book is divided into four sections: Level Up (dealing with the business of writing); Geek (something of a smorgasbord, tackling television and film reviews, archetypes in writing, male/female characters and protagonists, and dystopias); Let's Get Personal (how she has dealt with various challenges in her life); and Revolution (another smorgasbord, with treatises of Gamergate, Puppygate, and white privilege). This last section includes her Hugo Award-winning article, "We Have Always Fought: Challenging the 'Women, Cattle and Slaves' Narrative."

In these essays, Hurley has a blunt, in-your-face style that is no doubt a result of their having been blog posts: as she points out, you have to develop a thick skin to be a woman on the Internet. (Sample [from the introduction]: "Because telling someone to be quiet on the internet to avoid abuse and harassment is like telling women that the best way to avoid being raped is not to go outside, and there are many more of us who won't be silenced, because fuck that.") I think this style is very suited to the subjects she tackles. As she freely admits: "I want to change the world," and to do that, you have to get angry, fight, be persistent, and work harder. Kameron Hurley is good at all of those.

My favorite essays include: "What Marketing and Advertising Taught Me About the Value of Failure" (an interesting account of how she applies the lessons of her day job to fiction writing); "Wives, Warlords, and Refugees: The People Economy of Mad Max" (a deconstruction of Mad Max: Fury Road, my favorite movie of last year, from an angle I hadn't considered); "In Defense of Unlikable Women" (contrasting two movies, one with an unlikable male protagonist and one with an unlikable female one, and how the former movie was accepted while the latter was "controversial"); "Public Speaking While Fat" (an affecting account of how she came to accept her body and her existence as a fat woman); "The Horror Novel You'll Never Have to Live: Surviving Without Health Insurance" (a truly harrowing story of her experience as a Type 1 diabetic, and life before the Affordable Care Act); and "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: On Empathy and the Power of Privilege" (showing how those who get into kerfluffles on the Internet usually need to step back, think, show empathy, and realize it's not about them).

There are many thoughtful, engaging essays in this book. I'm grateful that Kameron Hurley has given them to the world.

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Hugo Voting 2016: The Big One

2015 Hugo Award Trophy

(This is last year's Hugo trophy. This year's design hasn't been posted yet.)

We've reached my final Hugo vote this year, Best Novel or what George R.R. Martin calls "the big one."  I'll link to my Goodreads reviews of all these books.

1) The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (full review here, with spoilers)

When I originally wrote my review in September 2015, I said, "This is one of the best books I've read this year." I'll revise that now; it is the best book I read in 2015, bar none. I really really hope Jemisin gets the rocket.

2) Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie (full review here, with spoilers for entire series)

In the third volume of the Imperial Radch trilogy, Ann Leckie brings it on home.

3) Uprooted, Naomi Novik (full review here, with spoilers)

I debated the placements for #2 and #3 for quite a while, and finally tossed a mental coin. This could change tomorrow, and back again the next day, these two books are so closely matched.

4) Seveneves, Neal Stephenson (full review here, with spoilers)

I understand why this book was nominated, and why it may even win (although the God of Infodumps forbid, I certainly hope not). But it has some pretty severe flaws.

5) No Award

6) The Aeronaut's Windlass, Jim Butcher (full review here, with spoilers)

This book disappointed me greatly, because Jim Butcher can write better books than this, dammit. The worldbuilding here is very good, but I need more than a fascinating world; I need characters that come to life, characters I can care about. That is what this book lacks, and a Worldbuilding Report doesn't cut it, not for a Hugo.

(Note: The eagle-eyed may have realized I omitted any voting for the [famously Not-A-Hugo] Campbell Award. I am still trying to get to that...I have until the end of the month [nervously looks at calendar]).

July 10, 2016

Hugo Voting 2016: Novellas

1994 Hugo Award Trophy | The Hugo Awards

(The 1994 trophy. One of the prettier ones.)

Yes, we're getting to the end, folks. This is the Novella category.

1) Binti

I didn't have this in the top spot at first, but upon a reread I realized I had to move it up. It's a Heinlein juvenile updated for the 21st century, with a Himba woman of Namib standing in for a white American guy. There's a fascinating alien race, and deep-seated cultural differences, and misunderstandings, and murder, and Binti's Himba culture bridging the gap and saving the day.

2) Penric's Demon

Different from the first novella as night from day, this is the story of an ordinary kid who gains a demon, and is thrust into a world he can scarcely imagine. Penric is a wonderful character.

3) Slow Bullets

This is...okay. Nothing special.

4) No Award

(Other nominees: "Perfect State," a Matrix rip-off about a "brain in a jar who has to procreate." Bah. Couldn't finish. Also couldn't finish "The Builders," a Magnificent Seven rip-off starring rats, mice and opossums.)

July 9, 2016

Hugo Voting 2016: Novelettes

1988 Hugo Award Trophy | The Hugo Awards

(This is the 1988 Hugo trophy. Looks rather Lovecraftian, doesn't it?)

We are now up to the Novelette category.

1) "And You Shall Know Her By the Trail of Dead"

I was so-so about this when I read it the first time, but a reread has left me a bit more favorably disposed. (Also in awe of the many ways the author uses the word "fuck.") This might feel a bit old-fashioned to some, as it's a dark, gritty cyberpunk universe, but Brooke Bolander does write a modern twist at the end, which I'm not going to spoil.

2) "Folding Beijing"

This story wasn't really for me, but it was original and inventive.

3) "Obits"

So-so Stephen King, about a hack writer who discovers he can pen an obituary for a living person...and said person kicks off as described. Only thing is, there is more than one person with a particular name, and the collateral damage starts piling up. (Although that really doesn't make sense, since the people are not only named, they're described. But we wouldn't have a story otherwise.)

4) No Award

5) "What Price Humanity?"

Bah. A war where soldiers' minds are replicated and sent out to what they think is virtual reality, but they're manning actual weapons and dying over and over again, and they don't even know it.

(Other nominees: "Flashpoint: Titan," which is meticulously described, lovingly detailed Castalia House weapons porn. I'm leaving it off the ballot altogether.)

July 8, 2016

Hugo Voting 2016: Movie Movie

2003 Hugo Award Trophy | The Hugo Awards

(The Hugo trophy from 2003. I also picked this because it looks a tiny bit like Tony Stark's ship.)

I just watched the last Long Form Dramatic Presentation on the ballot, Avengers: Age of Ultron. While I could look at Robert Downey Jr. all day, his overstuffed, heavily CGI'd film is not going to take my top spot, Joss Whedon and his snappy dialogue notwithstanding.

1) Mad Max: Fury Road

This is my favorite film from last year. (My second favorite is Predestination, which did not make the ballot, even after the Sasquan Business Meeting voted to give it an extra year of eligibility. This seems like a very odd omission to me, since it is a near note-by-note dramatization of Robert Heinlein's "All You Zombies." Aren't the Rabid Puppy slatemongers supposed to sacrifice SJWs at Heinlein's altar? Y'all missed the boat with this one, folks.)

I love this for all the obvious reasons: Furiosa, the Wives, the real-time, practical (non-computerized) stunts, Furiosa, Nux, the feminist text and subtext, and Furiosa. If the nominal "hero," Max, is left off that list...it's because he wasn't the hero, and he wasn't intended to be. He's the Witness. There was tremendous power to this story of a lone wolf who wanders into these people's lives, regains some lost faith in humanity, nudges them along a different, better path, and wanders away again.

2) Ex Machina

This movie is creepy as all get-out, and gets more mind-bending the longer you think about it. (It also has one of the more concentrated star-making turns I've seen in a film recently, given that both Oscar Isaac and Domnhall Gleason went on to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Alicia Vikander just won a Supporting Actress Oscar and will star in the reboot of Tomb Raider.) It's a quiet, subtle film, and the slowly mounting horror it generates is all the more effective because of that.

3) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Look, I expect this movie to take the category, and I can certainly understand why it would. I love Rey, Finn and Poe as much as anyone else (although the film certainly needs more Leia and less Whiny Kylo Brat). But as glad as we all were to see the story resume after thirty years, it simply doesn't have the depth of the top two.

4) The Martian

If there was a separate category for Competence Porn (With a Side of Potatoes), this movie would win going away. It certainly brought Mars to ruthless, beautiful red life. But it's also more of the same old White Guy Gets In Trouble and Bootstraps His Way Out of It Again. Now, if Jessica Chastain had been left behind instead...that would have been a movie.

5) Avengers: Age of Ultron

I don't know what Joss Whedon was thinking with this...was he trying to crossbreed the Avengers with the Terminator or something? And tossing in an idiotic, demeaning subplot about Natasha Romanoff thinking she's a "monster" because she can't have children? Whedon's vaunted feminism failed him badly on that one. I really liked Scarlet Witch, and of course Tony Stark got all the best lines, but those few moments interspersed with all the other overblown nonsense does not a winner make.

(Note: My ranking of Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form will be delayed, as I have to figure out how to find and watch the nominees. This will probably take a little doing, so I'm going to skip it for now.)

July 7, 2016

Hugo Voting 2016: Great Ghu, No! (Award, that is)

(From Loncon 1, 1957. I picked the ugliest Hugo I could find, because now we're wading into the swamps.)

Yes, folks. We've reached the two categories that made me cringe when they were announced--Best Short Story and Best Related Work.

Again, I'm not going to recap the entire history of Puppygate. Suffice to say that a white nationalist with a ten-year grudge, a vanity publishing house, a website, and several hundred mindless minions who will nominate and vote in lockstep with his slate, have hijacked the Hugos for the past two years. He changed tactics a bit this year, nominating stuff that most likely would have made the ballot anyway (including several things on my own ballot). However, he couldn't resist tossing in some particularly egregious shit (although, Cthulhu save us all, at least John C. Wright didn't appear on the ballot this time around), and this shows up most prominently in these two categories.

I'll run down each nominee in turn and then announce what I voted for.

Best Short Story

"Asymmetrical Warfare"

Synopsis: Intelligent spacefaring starfish conquer Earth, apparently don't realize mammals don't regenerate when hacked apart.

The only good thing about this story is that it's short. One page of pain is more than enough.

"Seven Kill Tiger"

Well, let's see. There are some lovely pull quotes from this story about forcible Chinese colonization and genocide, just the first few pages:

Africa would be a glorious place were it not for the Africans.

African men thought of themselves as lions, and they lived like kings of beasts, entirely content to lounge about living off the labor of one or more of his lionesses.

Africa was wasted on the Africans. China had spent 50 million Chinese lives to become a 20th-century power, how could she hesitate to spend 20 times that many more African lives to assume her rightful place as the one true 21st-century superpower? 

Gah. The writer of this one is competent, but the story is terrible.

"Space Raptor Butt Invasion"

This is from gay erotic satirist Dr. Chuck Tingle, whose other titles include President Domald Loch Ness Tromp Pounds America's Butt (hey, I think I'd almost pay for that), Oppressed in the Butt By My Inclusive Holiday Coffee Cups (and I bet Starbucks would too), and Pharma Bro Pounded in the Butt by T-Rex Comedian Bill Murky and a Clan of Triceratops Rappers Trying To Get Their Album Back (and Martin Shkreli keeps on a-smirkin'). The white nationalist etc etc rather overreached in putting this one on the ballot, as Dr Tingle promptly created a website blasting him (in Tingle's own inimitable MAKE LOVE REAL way) and directing attention towards authors and causes the white nationalist hates.

But as fun as Dr Tingle has made this, I can't bring myself to vote for him. The story itself is serviceable gay porn with a very thin dusting of science fiction. Not exactly something to inspire hordes (or raptor packs) of baby Tingle writers.

"If You Were An Award, My Love"

This one is just disgusting. It was "published" on the white nationalist's blog, and is a deliberate "fuck you" to the Hugos and Rachel Swirsky. Swirsky wrote a lovely little story called "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" which won a Nebula and came in third place at the Hugo Awards. "Dinosaur" has been a burr under the Puppies' saddle ever since, inspiring spittle-flecked froth far out of proportion to the actual slight, whether real or imagined. So lo and behold, this nasty takeoff of Swirsky's story found its way to the ballot, also dragging in the white nationalist's other obsession, John Scalzi, and indulging in some flagrant fat-shaming (in an update at the end) to boot.

If you want a great parody of the white nationalist, read this. It's a satisfying put-down, and a helluva lot better written.

"Cat Pictures Please"

This is the sole legitimate nominee in the category, and it only got there because one of the white nationalist's slate noms said "screw you" and withdrew. This poses a bit of a dilemma for me: I read the story way back when, and liked it well enough, but did not include it on my ballot. I can see why people nominated it (and I'm pretty sure it's going to win) but I personally felt there were better stories out there, stories denied their chance by the white nationalist and his mindless minions. (These stories included "Pocosin," by Ursula Vernon, one of my favorite short stories from last year.) Knowing this, I cannot in good conscience vote for it.

No Award

Best Related Work

(Ughh. This one's even worse.)

"The First Draft of My Appendix N Book"

This is Jeffro Johnson's excruciatingly long study of older SFF and how it relates to D&D gameplaying. This post and this post gives what I think is some relevant background. Jeffro Johnson's writing here is better than his other nomination, but I couldn't get into this at all.

"Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951-1986"

This eight-hundred-page doorstop is even more excruciating than Jeffro Johnson's. Gene Wolfe is certainly a worthy subject (although I'm not as enamored of his work as some) and I commend the author for tackling this. Having said that...good heavens. I'll just read the original works and enjoy them, thanks.

Now, unfortunately, we get to the shyte.

"SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police" (by the White Nationalist)

Nope nope nope. This can be summed up in one sentence: "This book is for #GamerGate." Although I see at least the white nationalist has learned to count (the book's original release had two Chapter 5s).

"Safe Space as Rape Room"

SF Kitten articulates my feelings about this monstrosity quite well. I'm not going to dignify its depraved existence by any further comment.

"The Story of Moira Greyland"

This is the one that makes me the most angry, because the white nationalist is exploiting this woman for his own vile ends. I agree with this review of the piece, and note that it's very unfortunate that Moira Greyland is projecting her parents' twisted philosophy onto all gay people, and condemning homosexuality and gay marriage as a result. Given what she went through, it's her right to feel that way, of course...but it's simply not true, and available evidence shows it.

In any event, this category is a complete wash this year.


Now, to wash the taste out of our mouths, here's a cute baby bunny picture.

Adorable Bunny Rabbits Posing

July 6, 2016

Hugo Voting 2016: See Me, Feel Me, Draw Me

Hugo Award Designs

(This image is from Nippon, Japan, 2007.)

Yes, folks, I decided to do one more category tonight, because tomorrow I'm diving into a couple of categories that are...less than pleasant.

I had no idea who to nominate for Best Professional Artist, so I'll admit it--I waffled. However, I was pleasantly surprised by this category, as two of the artists are really good. In fact, I saved several images from one artist for desktop backgrounds (is this kosher? I don't know).

1) Michael Karcz

His art is quite detailed and very striking.

2) Larry Rostant

This guy has done a bunch of book covers, including Linda Nagata's The Red trilogy, Kate Elliott's Black Wolves, and Mary Robinette Kowal's Of Noble Family.

3) No Award

4) Lars Braad Andersen

If you've absolutely got to publish a series of books about war, I guess this is your go-to artist.

(Other nominees: Larry Elmore and Abigail Larson. The former does standard fantasy stuff, including lots of dragons and busty, big-butted women wielding swords while wearing highly protective leather and/or chainmail bikinis, a cliche that is so last century. The latter's work, unfortunately, simply isn't up to snuff.)

Hugo Voting 2016: Editors, Schmeditors

Hugo Award 2013 logo

(This pic is taken from LoneStarCon [in San Antonio, Texas] in 2013, which is why the base is so ugly.)

To continue with my finalized ballot, let's look at the Editor categories.

Best Professional Editor (Short Form)

I've recently begun subscribing to Clarkesworld magazine, and I'm very glad I did--Neil Clarke almost always picks very good stories. Sheila Williams, at the grand old stalwart Asimov's Science Fiction, also turned in some gems last year, including Eugene Fisher's "The New Mother," which is the cover story of the issue included in the Hugo packet and which made my ballot. These two went round and round in my head for quite a while, but in the end Neil Clarke won out. (His entry in the Hugo packet showed what an impressive run of stories Clarkesworld had last year.)

1) Neil Clarke

2) Sheila Williams

3) John Joseph Adams

4) Ellen Datlow

5) No Award

6) Jerry Pournelle

(Other nominees: #3 and #4 were decided by a mental coin flip, as they're so closely matched. John Joseph Adams' Lightspeed magazine won Best Semiprozine last year, and Ellen Datlow, in addition to her work for Tor.com, always turns out high-quality anthologies. The category as a whole is excellent this year, with the exception of Jerry Pournelle, whose There Will Be War Vol. X spawned [or shat, perhaps] several stories on Theodore Beale's Rabid Puppy slate.)

Best Professional Editor (Long Form)

This one's a tough category to judge, because those of us who aren't industry insiders usually have no idea which editor worked on whose books. I had to do a lot of searching to find the names I submitted on my ballot, which consisted of the people who edited the books I most liked last year. One of those people was Sheila Gilbert, who apparently wants to make it easy for me to vote for her--in the Hugo packet, she included sample chapters of the books she edited. Liz Gorinsky and Jim Minz included lists of books they worked on, while Toni Weisskopf, unfortunately, gave me no information to work with..so I guess she doesn't want my vote, or something.

1) Sheila Gilbert

2) Liz Gorinsky

3) Jim Minz

4) No Award

(Other nominees: Vox Day, aka Theodore Beale, racist narcissist shitbag, self-styled "Supreme Dark Lord," Rabid Puppy ringleader, and lousy editor, as I learned to my sorrow last year. His name shall never disgrace my ballot.)

July 5, 2016

Hugo Voting 2016: Zines

2012 Hugo Awards | The Hugo Awards

(I don't know what year this was presented, but that is lovely.)

To continue with my Hugos 2016 roundup, I am next tackling Best Fanzine, Best Semiprozine, and Best Fan Writer.

Best Fanzine

I will start out by admitting my bias: I am a regular commenter at File 770. A marvelous little community has been built there as a result of last year's Hugo fiasco, and I hang out there a lot. The discussions are deep and wide-ranging: SFF books, television shows and movies of course (we're just starting up a Cult Movie Bracket, which is a friendly voteoff of what would be called "cult movies," such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show), interspersed with filk, puns and recipes! (Yes, you can join us. No, we don't bite...unless you make preposterous claims without providing evidence.)

Having said that, though, I am not voting File 770 at the top of this category, as much as I enjoy reading and commenting there. No, that honor will go to what I call one of the mostly unknown (at least, until now) treasures of fanzines: Lady Business.

Lady Business views science fiction and fantasy through an uncompromising feminist lens, and as a result digs deep into things most other fanzines won't touch. Their entry in the Hugo packet, with their critiques of Agent Carter, Mockingjay, Judi Dench's M in the James Bond series, and an extremely chart-heavy deconstruction of gender discrimination in SFF awards, is a perfect demonstration of why I believe they should win this category. File 770 is looser and goosier (and I say that with all affection); but the Lady, just as her name implies, is all Business.

1) Lady Business

2) File 770

3) Tangent Online

4) No Award

(Other nominees: Tangent Online is okay but not up to the standards of the top two. I refuse to vote for anything coming out of Castalia House--though I did read their lackluster entries--and Superversive SF is infected with Rabid Puppy-itis, so they are left off my ballot entirely.)

(And if you don't know what the Puppies are, believe me,  you're better off.)

Best Semiprozine

Again, to be upfront: I am a regular reader of Uncanny Magazine, backed their Year Two Kickstarter, and included them in my nominating ballot. But they published some marvelous stories last year, several of which made it to my longlist. Their nonfiction pieces are also excellent.

1) Uncanny Magazine

2) Strange Horizons

3) Beneath Ceaseless Skies

(I've also subscribed to this magazine.)

4) Daily Science Fiction

5) No Award

(The remaining nominee, Sci Phi Journal, is just meh. The stories included in their sample were not of very good quality.)

Best Fan Writer

After passing over File 770 in the Fanzine category, I am reversing myself here. Mike Glyer's exhaustive, even-handed writeups about the Hugos and Puppygate were indispensable reporting on the state of the SFF field last year.

1) Mike Glyer

2) No Award

(Other Nominees: I'm not much into video games, so while Shamus Young has penned a thorough discussion of the game Mass Effect, I simply could not get through it. Jeffro Johnson is a very dry, ponderous sort of writer, which makes potentially interesting subjects much less so. Douglas Ernst's writeups of various subjects, including Star Wars, are brief and superficial at best, as are Morgan Holmes' short articles. None are Hugo-worthy, in my opinion.)