June 26, 2015

All for Love, and Love for All

I'm still making my way through the Hugo stuff, but I had to pause and reflect on the amazing decision handed down by the Supreme Court today.

This is it. No waffling, no sidestepping, no lawyerly weasel words. The Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment apply, and marriage equality is the law of the land.

The final paragraph of Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion is a thing of beauty.

I also found this quote from Thomas Jefferson to be very interesting.

This parallels what Anthony Kennedy pointed out in his opinion (and I can hear the echo of the Notorious RBG's tart rejoinder during oral arguments, when she said, "There was a change in the institution of marriage to make it egalitarian when it wasn’t egalitarian. And same-sex unions wouldn’t — wouldn’t fit into what marriage was once."). The entire opinion is here; in particular, read pp. 6-7 and 20-21 (and then the whole thing, as it's quite good). The institution of marriage has changed over the years, as our entire society has changed; indeed, no nation can remain the same for two hundred years and survive. The beauty of our Constitution--and in particular, the 14th and 19th Amendments--is that it not only allows for such changes, it demands them. 

This is the right opinion, written by the right judge at the right time.

"Oh what a lovely day," indeed. 

June 22, 2015

Review: "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," by Sherman Alexie

 My rating: 2 of 5 stars

 I decided to give this book a try mainly because I'm slogging through a lot of bad-to-mediocre work in reviewing the nominees for the 2015 Hugo awards, and I needed something that was completely different.

This certainly fit the bill. Sherman Alexie is a Native American writer of considerable acclaim who falls on the "literary" side of the spectrum. A couple of these stories have a whiff of magical realism about them, and one in particular, "Distances," is a sort of whacked-out post-apocalyptic tale. Nevertheless, Alexie is definitely not a science-fiction or fantasy writer, at least not in this collection. He is, however, a sharp observer and incisive portrayer of the desperation, alcoholism, betrayal, defeat, and despair that dominate the lives of his characters. (The author admits in the introduction that the book is "thinly disguised memoir." I got that impression from several of the stories--they just had the feel of "this stuff actually happened in real life." Which is quite the feat, now that I think about it.)

The twenty-four stories here revolve among several recurring characters at different points in their lives. They're not stories in the sense I'm used to, that is, a Protagonist with a Goal navigating Obstacles (other than the Native American goal of survival, I suppose, and its Obstacle the entire white supremacist American society). Most of them are character sketches and vignettes. The only one that has something resembling a plot is, not coincidentally, my favorite of the bunch, "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor." In this story, which is admittedly rather bleak, Jimmy One-Horse discovers he has terminal cancer and drives his wife away with his unrelenting black humor about the whole thing. There is a series of flashbacks illuminating his relationship with his wife Norma, and at the end, she returns to see him through his upcoming death. (Laid out like that, this story doesn't seem to have very much of a "plot" either, but it totally works.)

Sherman Alexie is a lovely, understated writer, with metaphors that can sucker-punch you to the floor in a few words. Some of these stories were written when he was quite young--I would have appreciated brief introductions to each story, explaining them in the context of his life. If you're wondering why I only gave this two stars: the book wasn't bad,  and I admired the writing. In the end, it just wasn't for me.

June 21, 2015

The Hugo Project: Best Fan Writer

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I can before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

This review is going to be short because I am really, really getting tired of certain, ah, canid "nominees."

Also, I will not vote for anyone for Best Fan Writer who bleats about "glittery hoo hahs."

That is all.

My rankings for this category:

1. Laura J. Mixon
2. No Award
3. Jeffro Johnson

June 20, 2015

The Hugo Project: "Skin Game"

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many nominees on the 2015 Hugo ballot as I can before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

Skin Game, by Jim Butcher, #15 in the Harry Dresden urban fantasy series, is the only Hugo nominee I read prior to the ballot's being announced. My 5-star review is here. Full disclosure: I own the entire series, the last two in hardback (thank goodness for Hasting's 75% off clearance sales). I stand by everything I said in that review: Jim Butcher is a master at plotting, even though I'm beginning to think he should get on with his apocalypse already. The books are great fun reads, and this particular title is an excellent Harry Dresden book.

Having said that, the question now becomes: How does it compare to books outside its urban-fantasy bubble, and what, if anything, makes it a contender for Best SFF Novel of the Year?

Just to dip my toe into this year's Hugo controversy a teeny-tiny bit for context: Some of the current kerfluffle is the objection by certain, ah, canids, to books that supposedly place Message over Story. (Also that the book covers don't adequately represent what's inside, which is just weird--I mean, what are the back covers, with their little mini-summaries, for? Just to hold the pages together?) Over the past few months, literally millions of words have been written about this, by people far wiser than I. Many have pointed out that messages (along with weird covers) have always been part and parcel of the books produced in this field, and the gentle (or sometimes not-so-gentle) suggestion has been made that it's the nature of the messages that certain, ah, canids are objecting to. If the message is to their taste, they approve; if not, they snarl and spit unpronounceable, cheesy acronyms at the perceived offenders.

To this issue, I can only relate how I feel, which is thus:

If your Story doesn't have a Message, your Story isn't worth shit.

I always thought that was the explicit role of art and literature, to shine a light on the process of being human. The SFF field is uniquely positioned to accomplish this task; the mirror that is a society and/or a race of beings invented out of whole cloth reflects the human experience even more brightly. Or it should, if the author is doing his/her job.

That, my friends, is the Ultimate Message Fiction: if I stare into the abyss (or the alien's sight and/or other sensory appendages) and the abyss stares back...then what does that make me?

This isn't to say the Story of how I got to the abyss isn't important. For example, I am right now reading, in addition to the Hugo stuff, a book of short stories by Native American writer Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. These stories are beautifully written and are a harrowing depiction of modern Native American experience: the desperation, the alcoholism, the black humor, the sickening sense of betrayal, the despair of a conquered, all but annihilated people...it's all there. At the same time, as amazing as these stories are, they are tough to get through--not only because of the subject matter, but because almost nothing happens. These are not so much stories as they are character sketches and vignettes. There is no overarching goal, no struggle--other than the struggle for survival, which given said subject matter and the fact that Alexie is generally described as a "literary" writer, is certainly worthy, but it's not what I would define as an exciting story.

(Although I recently heard that Sherman Alexie has also written a George Armstrong Custer zombie story. That description alone makes me want to search for it.)

So I know you have to have a Protagonist with a Goal navigating Obstacles, at a minimum, for a Hugo-worthy story. But if you have said Protagonist striving for his/her goal with no thought, no reflection, and no "what does this all mean?" when s/he finally stares into the abyss...well, then, you get crap like John Norman's Gor.

Yes, I have read a few Gor books. A long time ago, before I became aware of their ugly misogynistic aspects. Here's the thing, though: until all this Hugo stuff came up, and everybody started talking about the early days of the field, and the type of stuff published Way Back When, I had actually forgotten I had read them...because they were all Story with no Message. (Putting aside that whole women-are-only-good-for-fucking-and-childbearing thing, because I didn't pay any attention to it at the time.) In short, they were a mile wide and an inch deep.

Now that I've grown up a bit, I do not like that kind of story. (I also do not like a story of "manly men doing manly things," as a certain, ah, canine once put it. After a while that sort of cookie-cutter stuff gets boring as hell.) Yes, I want my Protagonist to navigate Obstacles and reach his/her Goal...but I also want a Declaration of what it means to get there, and a Reflection on just how looking into that abyss informs the Protagonist about the human experience.

In short, I want my Story, but I also want my story to have an effing Message. Sure, I want to have fun, but I also want to think. And the best books, the ones that resonate in my mind long after I reach "the end," are, to me, the only books worthy of a Hugo award.

My favorite example of this is the book so harangued by certain, ah, canids: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie.

That book swept nearly every award it was nominated for last year, and deservedly so, in my mind. There are so many layers to this book, so many wonderful Messages: an artificial intelligence (at one time an actual starship) forced into a single human brain, an exploration of gender, the deconstruction of the horror and cruelty of an interstellar empire, a ruthless, fascinating society built on expansion and conquering...all wrapped up in a rip-rollicking Space Opera that leaves the reader breathless.

As far as I'm concerned, Ancillary Justice and Peter Watts' Blindsight are the two best SF books I've read in years. Both of them left me thinking after I closed the back cover. (And why in hell didn't Blindsight win the Best Novel Hugo? Watts wuz robbed, I tell you.) Needless to say, this year I'm going to vote for Ancillary Sword (unless Kevin J. Anderson's The Dark Between the Stars sucker-punches me to the floor; but given the reviews I've read by others, I have my doubts). It's a slower, tighter, more focused story, and I actually liked it better than its predecessor.

Skin Game simply does not reach those lofty heights. Sure, it's a fun read...but it's also a forgettable one. As I said, I appreciate it because it's a master class in plotting, but that's as far as it goes, and it will not get my vote.

June 14, 2015

The Hugo Project: "Best Related Work"

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I can, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

I've decided to take the last nominees from Best Related Work in a lump, mainly because there's some more stuff coming up from Castalia House, and I want to hold my nose and get through it as quickly as possible.

"Why Science is Never Settled," Tedd Roberts

I've never heard of Tedd Roberts (apparently a pseudonym) but in this piece he comes across as a competent scientist and peer reviewer. Unfortunately, that's all I can say about the piece itself: competent. The subject is mildly interesting, but his treatment thereof is at best mediocre. Not Hugo-worthy.

"The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF," Ken Burnside

This has a lot of physics in it, which the author explains fairly well, but suffers from the same affliction as The Three-Body Problem: dry, stilted prose.  This is better than "Why Science is Never Settled," as the ideas seem to be well thought out and would apply more to SF writers, but it's still nothing outstanding.

"Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth," John C. Wright

Oh dear dog, heeeeeeerrrrrree's Johnny again. If nothing else, Mr. Wright's nominations in this packet prove to me that I shall never spend one thin dime of my money on any of his work in the real world, and really, as much as I appreciate the free works in the Hugo packet, in the case of Mr. Wright, they were still far too expensive. The prospect of plowing through all 329 pages of this hot mess is too daunting even for me; therefore I will touch on a few random essays.

The Hobbit; or, The Desolation of Tolkien

This made me fall over and thrash on the floor, because...gasp! choke! spit! it was almost....nearly....possibly....good. If Mr. Wright would confine his so-called "writing" to movie and/or book reviews, he might actually be readable. His natural bent towards purplelicious prose (or, as Eric Flint so memorably put it, "This is an example of what I think of as the Saudi School of Prose. No noun may go out in public unless she is veiled by grandiloquence and accompanied by an adjective.") combined with the unleashing of his Inner Snark (and really, she should get out of the Vatican more often), produced something that actually held my attention all the way through.

Referring to Tauriel:

Then the Stupidity Hammer lashes out again, this time as a blow to the groin of every man in the audience, because, SURPRISE! The young and eternally lovely elf-maiden, instead of doing elf-maidenly things like dancing in the moonlight on the surface of enchanted lakes or singing magical songs to beguile the watchful terrors of Thangorodim, turns out to be Xena the Warrior Elf Princess. Yes, she is the roughest, toughest, most kick-ass Spartan Marine Navy SEAL Special Forces Ninja Battlebabe in the entire warrior-harem of the elf-lord's politically correct gender-neutral and gender-accomodating fashion-model army. She makes as much sense as a platoon of bathing beauty Cataphracts or the dread and dreaded Playboy Bunny Brute Squad.

Heaven forbid Mr. Wright see Mad Max: Fury Road. He will simultaneously blow up the Internet and win a Pulitzer Prize.

Okay, what's next?

(Keeps advancing pages in e-reader...stumbles across some more book reviews that make me take back the point made above; for instance, in reviewing Philip Pullman, Wright is as painfully long and Saudi-infested as Eric Flint stated)

Is there any more there there?



(Stares with open mouth at Saving Science Fiction From Strong Female Characters and Restless Heart of Darkness; Great Cthulhu, what utter dreck)

(End of ebook)

Apparently not. Unfortunately, one snarkalicious movie review does not a Hugo Award make. (As an aside, Theodore Beale edited this mess? What was his role as editor, to pat Little Johnny on the head and tell him, "You're the Bestest Science Fiction Writer Evahhhhhhh!" If so, he did Mr. Wright no favors.)

So, to sum up the category of Best Related Works:

Mr. Noah Award in a runaway. In fact, Noah is the equivalent of the magnificent Secretariat thundering down the stretch in the Belmont Stakes, straight and true and overpowering, leaving his competitors in the dust.

June 13, 2015

The Hugo Project: "The Goblin Emperor"

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I can before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

This book surprised the heck out of me. I checked it out from the library rather skeptical as to whether or not I would like it. "Court intrigue," as I've heard it described, is not really my thing. However, once I started reading the very first chapter, where this hapless eighteen-year-old kid is woken out of a sound sleep with the news that his estranged father and brothers have died in an airship crash, and he is now Emperor...

...well, the author sucked me right in, and we're off to the races.

I adore this book. As well as "court intrigue," I've heard it described as "mannerpunk" and "competence porn," and as much as I would like to get away from the urge to punkify/pornify everything, all three descriptions have their merits. This book succeeds because the characterization is just fantastic: we spend the entire book in a tight third-person focus on that eighteen-year-old kid, Maia Drazhar, and his struggles to succeed in this shark-infested pool he has been suddenly thrown into. He was never raised to be Emperor; indeed, his father banished Maia after his mother's death ten years before, and has paid not a whit of attention to him since. Plus Maia's guardian is an abusive SOB who later gets his comeuppance, yessss, Preciousssss. (Although not in the way you would think, as Maia is not a violent or vengeful person.)

I've heard people complaining that nothing happens in this book, and I can only shake my head and wonder what they were actually reading. I guess it's because most of the action here is interior and based on characterization, rather than exterior and based on plot. What I mean by this is that Maia doesn't become a bloodthirsty Emperor waging wars, participating in swordfights, and proclaiming "Off with their heads!"; he works to understand the ugly backstabbing court he has been thrown into, and in the process both grows as a person (becoming assertive and confrontational where necessary, instead of the overwhelmed, passive kid he started out being) and learns how to manipulate the culture of the court to his benefit. This is a theme throughout the entire book, and it is a delight to follow.

Neither Maia or any of the characters are human. Maia is half goblin/half elf, and the other characters are either-or. I'd have to read the book again to be certain, but I don't think there is a human to be found. The characters have various nonhuman eye/skin colors--Maia himself is slate-grey, with light grey eyes, and his grandfather is "goblin-black," with "lurid orange" eyes. Also, everybody has movable ears, rather like a German Shepherd, as far as I can tell. Reading the messages given off by the ears is an important element of body language. Which is all fine, of course--what I'm saying is that there isn't quite enough backstory and detail given re: the culture of the elves and goblins to really differentiate them from, say, the court of Henry VIII. But this is a minor nitpick and does not distract from the wonderful story.

Without such terrific characterization, this book simply would not work, and I commend the author. I'm aware that it won't be for everyone, but I urge you to give it a try. You may be as pleasantly surprised as I was. As a matter of fact, this book came damned close to knocking Ancillary Sword out of the top spot. I finally decided to place it second, because the Radchaai culture and the character of Breq is, in the end, the more thought-provoking of the two, at least for me. But I would be happy if either of these books was awarded Best Novel.

June 7, 2015

Review: "Mad Max: Fury Road"

Yes, I know I'm late to this party. But what a helluva ride.

Actually, I enjoyed going into the movie having read all the spoilers. I knew what was going to happen, whose story is being told (hint: it's not Max's, as the poster above clearly illustrates. This was also signaled by the onscreen credits: Tom Hardy's and Charlize Theron's names appear together, but her name is higher than his. I guess this is part of why certain Mens' Rights Activists went apeshit), which specific points of awesomeness to look out for (re: the Vuvalini--I wish George Miller had gone all the way and called them the Vulvalini), and also what small character-building moments were to be found. There were quite a few of them for such a slam-bang action picture, particularly in the quiet middle section. I guess for the screenwriter-literate (which I'm not) that would be the second act. It was certainly a needed breather in between the parts that were cranked up to (h/t Spinal Tap) one hundred and eleven.

Seriously, this is the best freaking movie I have seen in years. I'll get it when it comes out on Blu-Ray, of course, but this really is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen. This is due in no small part to the stellar editing of Margaret Sixel. (Here's a fascinating article about this. I don't expect either Margaret Sixel or Charlize Theron to be nominated for Oscars, but they effing well deserve to be.) With so many action movies, you can't keep up with what the hell is going on. I had no problems with this one.

Imperator Furiosa is, of course, a character for the ages, right up there with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. There have been many many articles analyzing the film's feminist underpinnings, so I'm not going to go into detail when other people have said it so much better. I would like to make note of my personal "Fuck Yeah!" moment though:

The Vulva Vuvalini. Furiosa's original tribe, the one she was taken from as a child, and the half-remembered "Green Place" she is trying to get back to with the Wives.

This is a tribe of older women. Older women onscreen Doing Stuff and Being Heroes, not being shunted off to the side because they're not fuckable any more. Older women with gray hair and beautiful wrinkled faces, faces that spoke of decades successfully surviving in this horrifying new world, fighting and shooting and riding, and ultimately many of them giving their lives to see Max, Furiosa, and the Wives to safety.

I don't know if y'all have any idea how rare that is, how unexpected, and how lovely. Of course I knew about it from reading all the spoilers, but it still made me cry when they rode their motorcycles down the sand dunes to meet Furiosa. And the Keeper of the Seeds--I want an entire movie about her, dammit.

I liked the earlier movies (of course this was before Mel Gibson went nuts), with Thunderdome being my favorite of the three. Because of Tina Turner, naturally. Aunty Entity would be quite proud of Furiosa, I think. I also think that in many ways, none of which will be recognized come Academy Award time, this is George Miller's masterpiece.

June 6, 2015

37 Years

Like so many other people, I never thought this would happen again in my lifetime.

This is Secretariat's 1973 Belmont Stakes. For my money, this is still the greatest race ever run, won by (arguably) the best racehorse to look through a bridle. Certainly, Big Red is still my favorite. I've watched it countless times, and it still makes me cry.

Four years later, in 1977, Seattle Slew came along. He was the first horse to win the Triple Crown while undefeated.

The very next year, Affirmed won the Triple Crown over a scrappy Alydar, with the Belmont turned into a virtual match race that Affirmed won only by a head.

And then, after a decade in which winning the Triple Crown seemed so easy, the champions dried up. Thirteen horses went to New York with a shot, including three in the past four years. None of them succeeded. Many people said it would never be done again.

37 years. Until today.

American Pharoah, the horse with the (unintentionally) misspelled name and the short tail (his stablemate bit it off when the horse was only a year old, I believe), got the job done. And I'm crying all over again.

Also experiencing a very small stab of irritation, because I'm in the midst of writing a story where a filly (actually a unicorn--don't ask) wins the Triple Crown, and now I have to change it.

We should all have such problems. :`)

June 4, 2015

The Hugo Project: "Letters From Gardner," by Lou Antonelli

(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I can before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)

This Related Works nominee, an excerpt from a longer book, was downloaded from the Hugo packet. I hadn't been terribly impressed by Mr. Antonelli's short story, but this is quite a bit better. As he says, it's a combination memoir/how-to/history, with the focus (at least on the chapters included in the excerpt) of his relationship with Gardner Duzois and how Antonelli used Mr. Duzois's personalized critiques of his rejected stories to improve his writing.

(Gardner Duzois comes across as a wonderfully knowledgeable, thoughtful editor, with very good insights both into the story process and Mr. Antonelli's stories in particular.)

Having said all that, "Letters From Gardner" is just...okay. It's certainly not actively bad like most of the other Impacted Canine stuff I've read. I actually preferred some of the stories in this excerpt (particularly "Body By Fisher") to the Antonelli story nominated this year. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite knock my socks off, which is the criteria I've been using. I'll have to finish the category to have a fuller picture, though.