Hugo Ballet Reviews: Related Works
This time I’m reviewing the Best Related Work nominees. These are awarded to a work related to the field of science fiction, fantasy, or fandom, appearing for the first time during the previous calendar year or which has been substantially modified during the previous calendar year.
This is a sort of catch-all category, that frequently includes things like biographies of writers, artists, editors or others important to the field, or books about the making of a particular movie or TV series. It usually does not include anthologies, even though there is no Best Anthology category. Non-fiction collections (such as a collection of essays about a sci fi/fantasy related topic, or collections of literary criticism, et cetera) are eligible.
And we have some very interesting nominees in this category…
I think I’m going to get the awful stuff out of the way, first:
Wisdom from My Internet, Michael Z. Williamson — Um, I don’t know where to begin. First, it looks like somebody dumped a bunch of text into Wordpad (not even Word, just Wordpad) and made a PDF out of it. It is not professionally laid out, it doesn’t have a cover, it doesn’t have page numbers… the “e-book” looks like something thrown together by a 10-year-old from the 1980s. A 10-year-old in 2015 would know not to use the version of Times New Roman that shipped with Windows XP as the only font. I know some people will say it’s not fair to judge by appearances, except with “book” has been put forward as a professional product worthy of science fiction’s highest award, and it looks like crap.
The look is entirely appropriate once you start to read the content. It appears to be a collection of tweets. Possibly aphorisms pulled from Reddit forums. But it’s just very short bits of text that attempt to be funny. They attempt, but they seldom succeed. They are mostly very tired old jokes. Jokes that were old groaners when my great-grandparents were children (which would be the late 1800s, if you don’t know how old I am). Example: ‘”My senator slaps me on the back when we shake hands. I guess he considers us friends.” “Nah, he’s just figuring out where to stick the knife.”‘
So this “book” hits several of my pet peeves about modern publishing: seriously unprofessional design, no logical order or context to the sentences, and it’s merely a collection of material that is available on the internet. For those sins alone, this should be consigned to a garbage heap. But on top of all of that, it has nothing to do with science fiction and fantasy. It is supposed to be related to the fields of science fiction, fantasy, or fandom. And the closest it comes to that is that, yes, like any other broadly defined social group, fandom includes a certain number of not-very-bright people who would find the sayings in this thing amusing. But that doesn’t make it related.
This thing doesn’t belong on a Hugo Ballot, obviously. I could rant some more about how bad it is, but I’ve already expended more words on it than it deserves.
“Why Science is Never Settled”, by Tedd Roberts — This was originally published as a long essay in two parts on the Baen Books website. The stated intent is to dispel myths about science and scientists, and help explain why science changes over time. Unfortunately, it dispels some common myths by replacing them with other myths. Roberts is a working scientist and presumably has the background to know better, but he presents a definition of the scientific method that is extremely narrow and misleading.
A couple of his examples of past “scientific blunders” were not scientific theories that had been put forward by anyone claiming to follow a scientific method, but were wildly held beliefs the existed outside the realm of science. They could have been used as examples of how people, even great thinkers such as Aristotle, can be blinded by their own assumptions, but they are instead presented as if they were rigorous scientific theories put forward by people following his definition of the scientific method, and therefore prove that science sometimes gets it wrong.
And he gets some of his science wrong. He presents hypotheses of one or two fringe scientists at various points in history as if those were the consensus at the time. The true purpose (if the title didn’t give it away) becomes clear as several of the asides about the anti-vaccination movement and the climate change “controversy” add up: the essay isn’t really trying to explain science, the essay is trying to provide legitimacy to some very unscientific policies.
Some of his explanation points in the direction of useful answers, but fail to actually deliver. For instance, the section about the publish-or-perish dilemma could have actually offered a conclusion of what the impact of this glut of information is, instead he notes that accidents happen, and moves on to the next point.
So it’s a flawed essay at best. I can’t quite see how it is considered to be related to the fields of sci fi/fantasy. Roberts, the author, has had books published by Baen, a publisher best known for publishing sci fi, but all of Roberts’ books are non-fiction. At no point does the essay reference science fiction. He doesn’t talk about how science fiction authors misunderstand science, nor about the importance of understanding it better. It’s just a mediocre essay with more of a political than scientific goal. It’s a stretch to put it in this category at all, and it clearly is not an example of excellence of any sort.
Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth, John C. Wright — I tried, I really did. One of my friends who is also voting on the Hugos told me that she has felt no obligation to read works all the way to the end if they didn’t catch her interest. She said she gave them all at least two or three pages, but if they didn’t grab her by then, she just went on to the next one. I have been trying to avoid reading anyone else’s reviews of any of the works before I had read them myself, because I wanted to give them a fair reading. So I was not aware that a rather large number of other folks out there are doing the same thing my friend is: start reading it, but if it’s not good enough to keep their attention on it’s own, they drop it to the bottom of the ballot.
This category was the first one I looked at after having that talk with my friend, and so by the time I got to the bottom of the third page of the first essay, I skipped to the next one. And that’s how I went through most of the book.
If you’ve read my other posts on the Hugos, you know that I don’t much care for Wright’s writing style. A lot of his sentences are little more than word salad. Even when his sentences make sense, they’re convoluted and longer than the concept they convey warrants. His style is a great example of something that Eric Flint has called the Saudi School of Prose: No noun may go out in public unless she is veiled by grandiloquence and accompanied by an adjective. So it’s difficult for me to wade through his material.
There are three essays worth mentioning out of the collection:
“The Hobbit, or the Desolation of Tolkein” rises slightly above Wright’s usual level of writing, containing many sentences that are not so convoluted that one gets lost. Ironically, I think it does because he is so angry at the quality of the second movie in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit adaptation that he forgot to add in his usual adjectives and superfluous adverbial phrases. He deserves a pat on the back for coining the word “nerdrageous” (a portmanteau of nerd and outrageous), but we have to take back a point for his total lack of self-awareness about just how shallow a lot of his nerd outrage is in this essay. He also gets a point for correctly explaining why the scene in the novel where Gandalf convinces Beorn to offer hospitality to the twelve dwarves and one hobbit accompanying him through sheer charm and story telling is superior to the ham-fisted way the movie dealt with it. But then he loses a point for the digression he takes midway through the essay to inform us that because he is married to a woman he has been forced to go see romantic movies, and has even reluctantly liked some of them. Followed later by an angry tirade about why no sensible culture would let women be warriors. I could keep going. I did make it all the way to the end of this one, but while it had some nice rants about the mishmash that Jackson made of Tolkein’s book, the essay as a whole went on way longer than necessary to make that point.
In “The Big Three of Science Fiction” Wright does a nice job of summing up the literary careers of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and A.E. von Vogt and arguing why van Vogt ought to be considered the third great golden age author, rather than Clark or Bradbury (who are more frequently mentioned). I muddled through this one, though I think I was propelled more by my own interest in the works of all five authors in particular, and the history of science fiction in general. I don’t agree with all of it, but I was able to get all the way through it. Unfortunately, his next two essays, “The Fourth of the Big Three” which basically lambasts Clark for not sharing Wright’s Christian world view, and “Childhood’s End and Agnosticism” in which he essentially says that he really, really hates Clark (in case you didn’t understand in the previous essay) for not sharing his religious/philosophical views.
“Saving Science Fiction From Strong Female Characters” is special. First of all, he is not being at all ironic. He expends 58 pages explaining why female characters ought to be feminine and how making them not be feminine is destroying storytelling in general and sci fi in particular. With lots of digressions that I think are supposed to convince you that society has not actually oppressed women, it has simply recognized that they are complementary to men, and therefore not suited for the same kinds of duties that men are. Mr. Wright is free to believe this bigoted claptrap, of course. But I’m also free to call him a bigot for doing so.
Unlike the previous two nominees, this book actually is related to science fiction and fantasy. He hits a range of topics related to works of sci fi/fantasy, authors of sci fi/fantasy, and some of his own thoughts on what makes a good or a bad story in these genres. He speaks intelligently about at least a couple of those topics, though never eloquently or elegantly. If I knew nothing about the Puppies bloc-voting scheme and had found this in the packet, I would have understood why some people nominated it. But in an ordinary year it would have to be the worst item that made it onto a ballot in this category.
Letters from Gardner, by Lou Antonelli — Again, I tried, but I wound up skipping through a lot of this. The book is an autobiographical collection of some of the early fiction of Lou Antonelli, with excerpts of letters he received during the early years of his career from Gardner Dozois, who was the editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine for about 20 years. This sort of anthology/autobiography has been done before. I wrote about how The Early Asimov was an important influence on my own development as a science fiction fan. On my bookshelf next to my old paperback two volumes of The Early Asimov also sit copies of The Early Del Ray by Lester Del Ray and The Early Pohl by Frederick Pohl. So I don’t object to this kind of work.
For me the problem is, my first thought when I saw the title on the Hugo Ballot announcement was, “Who?” I now know that he is, in fact, a professionally published science fiction writer. But his first sci fi story was published in 2003, a mere 11 years before this book was published. Asimov, for example, had been professionally publishing for 32 years and won several literary awards (including one Hugo and one Nebula) before he published his autobiographical collection (he won many more awards after). Pohl’s professional sci fi career had been going on for more than 40 years, and Del Rey’s for 37 years, when they published their autobiographical collections. So it seems a bit premature. I realize that Mr Antonelli didn’t make his first professional sci fi sale until late in life, so it could be argued he has less time to wait for his career to ripen enough to justify an autobiography, but…
That meta issue aside for the moment, I had trouble getting into this because the early short stories he includes are just not that good. I gave a rather vicious review of his short story “On A Spiritual Plain” that the Sad Puppies wheedled onto the ballot in that category, and unfortunately, his earlier stories are even worse.
He is a science fiction author. This book contains science fiction stories, commentary on the writer’s process and the publishing process, and excerpts of letters from one of the great editors of the field, so at least this does qualify for the category. But the quality of the fiction isn’t very good, commentary not terribly enlightening, and the subject matter not quite worthy of being memorialized.
Finally, we come to “The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF”, by Ken Burnside — an essay which does a fairly good job of explaining the often overlooked physics of space battles, high-tech ground warfare, and so on. It is a helpful guide for any would-be sci fi writer contemplating including such things in their stories. It was engagingly written, and I had no trouble reading it all the way to the end. I’ve read other works that cover most of this information equally well (several sections of The Writer’s Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe by George Ochoa and Jeffrey Osier, for example), but this puts it into a convenient package.
Certainly it stands head and shoulders above all the other nominees in this category this year. I’m not convinced it was truly the best related work published in 2014, but it is certainly the best that made it onto the ballot. If anything in this category makes it above No award on my ballot, this will be it.