Tag Archives: SFWA

Kerfluffle Watch, SFWA Edition: Final Thoughts So I Can Get Back to Writing About Writing

A couple weeks ago, the SFWA released its summer bulletin, Issue 202, which contained some fairly heated responses to reader responses to this winter’s Issues 200 and 201. This is the end of a really long post I wrote on Saturday that I had to break into three parts. You can read the first two parts here and here.

Now, what I had originally planned to post today was based on my readings of the three bulletin pieces at the heart of the Kerfluffle and my readings of a pretty good cross-section of responses on both sides of the issue that were posted throughout the interwebs. It’s also colored by my reactions to several other kerfluffles that have been swirling around the ether and the intertubes. It still exists after the cut below in its original form (making this an obscenely long post, taken as a single thing). But yesterday evening I spent rawther a long time (several hours) reading the SFWA forum threads covering the issue and the discussions which have been going on at least since January when Issue 200 landed in folks’ mailboxes. That, friends, was verrry illuminating. So before you read what I was going to say, here’s where I landed at one in the morning last night, after reading the conversations that have been taking place out of public view.

You can’t read the forums if you aren’t an SFWA member, which is troubling in this case for the very important reason that a lot of would-be members are watching to see the organization’s response to the Kerfluffle to help them decide whether SFWA is something they want to participate with. A lot of current members are doing the same. But a lot of us (myself included) don’t visit the forums as often as we might. And while there’s a rousing dialogue going on online, very little of that has contained concrete information about what the SFWA itself is doing to respond. There has been an official apology and statement from outgoing president John Scalzi; vice president Rachel Swirsky has also apologized publicly and been appointed to a task force to evaluate the Bulletin and how to improve it based on this episode as well as ongoing grumblings about its usefulness and the readership’s expectations for it. Both of which are great, but it would be easy to think those are a couple drops in a bucket compared to the massive response of everyone else who’s spoken up on one side or the other.

If you are making the decision about whether to renew your membership, please, please login to the forums and read the threads about the Bulletin. And if I might suggest, while the early threads about the individual issues make for more, shall we say, entertaining reading, you should probably start with the thread titled “Moving Forward.” This is the one you need, and if you start with the other ones, you might never get there. Moving Forward is the thread in which you’ll find several instances of direct evidence that not only the leadership of the organization but the leadership of the magazine itself understands the magnitude of the situation and is responding accordingly. Although I suspect some of these things will be announced publicly very soon, a brief Google search suggests they haven’t been announced yet. But they’re there if you’re a member and can login.

More importantly, though, there is a rousing discussion between folks who are eager to contribute to solving the problems with the Bulletin–both the very real problems of these last few issues and the less immediately troubling but no less important questions of how the Bulletin can stay relevant to its readership and provide real benefits. One relatively new member, Carrie Cuinn, who wrote this about her response to the Kerfluffle back in April (this was the issue with the Barbie litany), contacted editor Jean Rabe and volunteered her skills and time to help at the Bulletin. Jean Rabe brought her aboard despite the fact that Carrie openly wanted to work toward changing the Bulletin. Carrie has not only been volunteering at the Bulletin ever since, but has been active on the forums not merely calling for change but offering concrete solutions and helping to extend the discussion by encouraging others to join in.

She isn’t alone on the threads, either. There are many, many voices who, after venting their reactions, followed up not with continued vitriol but with suggestions and counter-suggestions. This, despite the fact that one of the sad things that happens in all of the forum threads in question is, unfortunately, a predictable bit of what I’m going to call “this is our sandbox” posturing, mostly from two or three specific voices. One of those voices felt (and perhaps continues to feel) that Affiliate and Associate members don’t have the right to “make demands” of the organization. They may make suggestions and requests, this person said (I won’t quote the individual directly or by name; that would be inappropriate since the forums are not public-facing), but use of the word “must” (as in, the Bulletin must change) is inappropriate from anyone who isn’t an Active member.

The membership requirements are here if you’re curious, but to summarize, the difference between Associate and Active member is only the number of prose fiction sales that person has made to qualifying markets at certain pay rates, and Affiliate members are professionals who work in SF/F but not necessarily as writers; they are editors, agents, reviewers, academics, etc. A single sale of a prose novel to a qualifying market allows one to join as Active, and those who work in short fiction need three qualifying sales to join as Active or one to join as Associate, and of course they can change their membership later.

There are differences in the levels of participation allowed members at different levels, so maybe there are some theoretical grounds for The Individual’s suggestion that Associate and Affiliate members should not feel entitled to have the organization pivot to suit them. The problem is that everyone who believes in the work it does for authors wants SFWA to grow, which means it’s in all of our interests that people join at whatever level they can and upgrade their memberships when they can, which emphatically will not happen if all levels of membership can’t be involved in shaping the organization, at least by taking equal part in discussions about its future. If people feel that Associate members aren’t “real” members, then why should they bother plunking down their hard-earned dues money to join as Associates? Certainly they’ll have no reason to volunteer, or to participate in discussions like these. I’ve been an Active member for like five years; my first sale was a novel, so I was Active from minute one. But ask me how often I’ve volunteered. Ask me how often I visit the forums except to make sure there’s a PDF of my books available around Nebula/Norton season. Now take someone who works full-time as an SF/F editor and has several SF/F sales of their own but they’re verse fiction, not prose and therefore they can’t join as Active, and let’s further pretend that this person actually maintains a pretty decent level of involvement. My concerns–when I suddenly discover I have them–are more important than our fictional ‘sub-Active’ member? Riiight. Also not irrelevant: members at all levels are demanding change. Lots of members. And the concerns of non-members saying, “I don’t know if I ever want SFWA to speak for me if this is what it’s going to say” aren’t irrelevant, either. So. That’s what I think about that.

One of those sandbox voices also felt (and perhaps continues to feel) that the problem with younger and newer voices making all of these demands is that the SFWA and the Bulletin are what they are because of the recognized names and long years of contributions of the organization, and that they have earned their platforms and the right to a certain level of respect. Now, I think everyone deserves respect, and deserves to be heard. Basic human respect, though; not veneration and an ongoing platform. And most everyone in the discussion on the forum sees the platform issue as one linked to the Bulletin’s place as one of the mouthpieces of the organization. Someone said something I really liked–that just because someone’s put in a long career and made contributions doesn’t mean they get a megaphone and the right to speak for everybody.

But here’s the neat thing–although several times I literally slapped myself in the forehead while reading the forum discussions, they were, by and large, almost entirely civil and rational and involving people who were provably eager to solve problems, not just to gripe about them. Yes, there were the sandbox guys, who at the end of my reading still seemed to think that what was being asked for by those who were asking for change was a full-scale coup d’etat under the flag of Never Offend Anyone Again. And there were a couple times where both sides got a little strident. But between the superhuman moderators and some occasional “let’s make sure I’m hearing you right” reality checks from parties eager to keep the conversation going, things never escalated so far that the conversation couldn’t be made civil again. (Although I confess to being curious about how many comments the mods actually had to mallet; none of them were closed for comments at any point, but all four threads that I read did eventually wind up having ground rules set and all of them eventually went into active moderation).

And active in all the conversations were Rachel Swirsky (who as you will remember is heading the Bulletin task force) and incoming president Steven Gould. At one point, someone asked Rachel what the timeframe was on a related issue that had been raised as needing eyes on it, and Rachel’s response was (again, paraphrasing) that she had planned to tackle it in about two weeks, but was she hearing that it needed to be given a higher priority? Several questions were raised from people about things they’d been trying to get answers on for some time, and scrolling down other people came back with answers. It was not just a place to vent. It was (and is) a place to work. The Moving Forward thread is still active, and anyone who wants to be involved in the discussions should get over there asap. There’s also a thread for those willing to volunteer.

So what I took from the forums were two things: 1) sadly, my suspicions that there was a certain sandbox mentality going on were confirmed, although it’s hard to know how prevalent it actually is because only a few sandboxers joined the conversation; HOWEVER more importantly 2) the Kerfluffle had resulted in inclusive, solution-focused conversations and brainstorming  involving members at all levels and on both “sides” of the issue, and those things were already resulting in active steps being taken to improve the Bulletin both in terms of professionalism and inclusion and its value to the SFWA constituency. Oh, three things: I also learned that the Bulletin is and has been (although evidently almost nobody knew it) open to submissions from both members and non-members alike. Bonus: it pays pro rates. So another tremendously useful way to get involved in making changes to the Bulletin is to submit to the Bulletin. 

SFWA members who haven’t visited lately–this is a really good time to go to the forums and catch yourself up. I was extremely heartened by the discussions taking place. Those who are not members and who are still deciding, you may have to wait and see what the next couple of Bulletin issues show in terms of results. It isn’t clear what state the next issue was in prior to all of this blowing up, so it’s hard to say whether we’re going to see visible results with Issue 203, but I feel pretty good about the likelihood that Issue 204 is going to do a better job for everyone. And the Kerfluffle–well, it would have been better for it never to have happened, but certainly it’s gotten people involved who haven’t been involved before, and it looks like it’s going to result in some things that perhaps really needed to be examined being done differently. Those are both really good things.

And now, if your eyes aren’t crossing yet and you have more time to kill, you’re welcome to read what I was going to post up until last night.

Here it is: Continue reading

Kerfluffle Watch, SFWA Edition: Thanks, Jim Hines!

I spent Saturday writing a blog post that became three, because I was that peeved by a series of kerfluffles lately, culminating in a dustup at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America over several pieces spanning three issues of the SFWA Bulletin. This is post number two.

In very brief, in Issue 200 a dialogue between Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg raised some hackles, as did the cover, which featured a metal bikini-clad warrior woman crouching over the corpse of some cold-climate beast. In Issue 201, another contributor, CJ Henderson, opened his mouth and inserted his foot by saying that, like Barbie, women should maintain a “quiet dignity.” And in Issue 202 Resnick and Malzberg responded to the complaints the SFWA received about both the cover of and their contribution to Issue 200 by saying the complainers were idiots, if not outright attempting to censor and suppress them.

But there was another response in Issue 202 to the reader responses to 200. It was by Jim C. Hines, and it came in response specifically to the cover and the outcry it prompted. Echoing a blog project he did some time ago in which he himself posed as closely as he could to the contorted positions in which cover chicks find themselves, Hines argues that the problem is not primarily the fact of the skimpy clothes and the sexuality—it’s the specific ways in which those things are drawn, and the fact that men on covers are not required (or at least, not required nearly as often) to break their backs in the name of sexy poses. In his blog post he very generously speculates that the idea behind these covers is probably to portray strong, sexy women–not just pinups in costume. But in the course of sexing the poses up, the artists have put these women in nearly impossible postures—certainly postures from which they could not possibly fight or in fact, function without pain.

In his Bulletin column, he points out: “Our barbarian swordswoman is more than able to take down monsters with three times her mass, but she doesn’t have the slightest idea how to dress herself. As both armor and protection from the snowy environments, her wardrobe puts her clearly in the “too dumb to live” category of characters.” Therefore, if you want to draw a sex-kitten/warrior woman, you’d better be able to justify your choices. Preferably, dress her in something she can actually fight in, and pose her as a fighter, not a pinup. And (adds Kate) if you don’t think you can accomplish both with the same picture, you’re not trying hard enough. That’s all. Full stop. You’re an artist. Try harder.

Interestingly, Hines’ article, which directly follows Resnick and Malzberg’s, includes on its first page the following statement: “I’ve been talking about sexism in cover art online and at conventions for more than a year now, and I believe it’s an important conversation to have. I certainly understand that not everyone agrees with me, and I’m not about to try to force everyone to take part in that conversation, but I wonder sometimes when people seem so eager to shut it down. Whether it’s dismissing concerns about the objectification and sexualization of women as knee-jerk overreaction from people looking for reasons to be offended, or proclaiming that the PC Police are coming to paint burkas over all the old Conan the Barbarian covers.”

I said it in yesterday’s post, and I’ll say it again: the conversation is important. The conversation has merit. And in the interest of keeping the conversation going (and in response to something I mentioned in yesterday’s rant, the fact that the Resnick and Malzberg took issue with their detractors’ purported “anonymity”), Hines is also keeping a roundup of the (not at all anonymous) responses to the Kerfluffle. You can find it here.

And here’s another thing to discuss once we get that conversation going: there’s a problem with the way that some people use femininity and female sexuality, and the way they defend their uses (some would say abuses) of it. A sexy woman on the cover of a magazine doesn’t immediately have to equal sexism. But when that woman is fairly obviously sexy just for the sake of the sexy, well, then there might be a problem. But when women (and sometimes men) complain about hypersexualized female images, they are often countered with something like this: she’s not hypersexualized, she’s strong and powerful and in charge of her own sexuality, and by the way, why are you ashamed of the female body/female sexuality?

About a year and a half ago DC Comics went through something like this when they rebooted Catwoman and Starfire and a Kerfluffle resulted, in which many (mostly but not all female) readers objected to what they saw as a massive and misogynistic oversexualization of characters they cared about and many (mostly but not all male) readers countered that people were reading “misogynistic oversexualization” where they should have been reading “strong, sexually empowered, and badass” and demanded to know why those angry readers were offended by beautiful women who weren’t ashamed of their sexuality.

My response was what I hoped would be a helpful tutorial on how to write better female characters, in which I argued that, if only for financial reasons (namely, increasing market share by not pissing off female readers who would otherwise spend their money on your product), DC writers ought to consider just writing better women. Because really, that’s all the angry folks were demanding: female characters who were written so that their entire personalities were not based upon their sexuality. (Now, to be clear, I wish people would write better women and not assume or claim that sexuality is a sufficient stand-in for personality and strength because it’s the right thing to do, much like I wish we could all have equal rights and pay and generally be treated with respect because it’s the right thing to do, but on matters like this I admit I default to being cynical.)

I guess the parallel for artists (and designers and publishers, if they’re listening) is: you can have your sexiness, just please make it make sense. Otherwise nobody’s fooled and people get pissed off because it starts looking like you’re pandering to men and objectifying women. And writers/editors/artists/designers/etcetera: you can do that, if you feel that strongly about it. You can continue to pander and objectify. Of course you can. You’re allowed, to put this on the kindergarten level of discourse. Nobody’s going to come to your home or place of business and stop you. But you should expect some negative reactions and you should expect to lose a chunk of your audience. Weigh that into your calculations, is all I’m saying. (I’d like to say, be reasonable and do the right thing, but again, cynicism. Plus, if we were ever likely to agree on what “the right thing” looks like, we wouldn’t have kerfluffles like this, would we? Evidence: this response to the Kerfluffle. But look: just don’t click on that link. And if you value your blood pressure remaining at healthy levels, for God’s sake, do not read the comments.)

But let’s go back to the positive, because there are positives here to talk about. In Hines’ article he speaks to an artist named Lee Moyer and asks “how a professional made the distinction between painting a beautiful woman (or man) and objectifying them.” Moyer’s response included the following: “I cannot speak for other illustrators. But for myself, the goal is always to paint the person first. To paint women as persons in their own rights is key, as opposed to painting women for the male gaze.”

So again: people who feel so strongly about having your SF/F served up with sexy sexy covers–you can still have that! But maybe the artists and designers just have to work a little bit harder. They’re professionals. They can handle it. And frankly, so can you, probably. It’s not like anyone’s asking you to eat kale or anything like that.

Yesterday I posted a massive rant. I tried not to write it as a rant, but that’s pretty much what it was. But I finished the post by commenting that on the bright side, the SFWA is taking the Kerfluffle very seriously and really actively looking to foster meaningful discussion. Thank you, Jim C. Hines, for taking part in that discussion, and challenging others to do the same.

Kerfluffle Watch, SFWA Edition: Call Your Detractors Liberal Fascists, Lose the Argument

This was supposed to be my last post on getting yourself unstuck when you’re putting a story together. I guess it has to wait. Sorry, guys.

A couple weeks ago, the SFWA released its summer bulletin, Issue 202, which contained some fairly heated responses to reader responses to this winter’s Issue 200 and spring’s 201. Going through the magazine rack on the back of our bathroom door as well as Nathan’s wastebin and my own wastebin on Saturday, I located all three issues and read the articles in question after reading E. Catherine Tobler’s blog post in which she explains why she’s leaving the SFWA (spoiler: it’s because of Issue 200, with a cameo by Issue 201, and the responses of some of its contributors to some complaints by readers).

Yes, I’m an SFWA member. No, I hadn’t read any of the Bulletins all the way through. The truth is that I don’t typically find that they feel relevant to me or my writing and publishing experiences thus far. I always chalked that up to the idea that middle grade fantasy is maybe a different beast in many ways from what most of the SFWA membership is up to. But now this kerfluffle is making me wonder if that’s not the only reason it doesn’t feel relevant.

In Issue 200, Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg have a dialogue about “lady editors.” That phrase did put a few backs up, but more bothersome than that seemed to be the repeated references to the physical attributes of the ladies in question. There was also an anecdote about how editor Beatrice Mahaffey joined the Cincinnati Fantasy Group and how after “ the members’ wives got a look at Bea in her swimsuit at the 1950 Midwestcon…the club’s makeup changed to the 50% men and 50% women that has existed ever since.”

Now, as a personal strategy for looking at comments that I find offensive, I try very hard to assume good intentions on everyone’s part at the outset, and I try to look at context. I don’t find “lady editors” to be immediately offensive. And to be fair, the dialogue does actually talk about the accomplishments of the women it profiles. It does mention some women without starting off their segments by calling them “knockouts.” And there is clearly a lot of admiration for these women. The anecdote above came from another woman who knew Ms. Mahaffey personally. Other anecdotes are included that seem clearly intended to draw more detailed portraits of the women, not necessarily to suggest that these things (including their physical attractiveness) are more important than their editing.

On the other hand, read this paragraph: “Anyone who’s seen photos of Bea from the 1950’s knows she was a knockout as a young woman. She was invited to Chicago to edit Other Worlds by Ray Palmer when she was barely out of her teens. In the process she also edited or co-edited Mystic, Science Stories, and Universe. (Some of them were the same magazine under different titles; Palmer changed titles a lot to keep a step ahead of the printing bills.)” Now, I don’t necessarily have any issue with including the fact that a brilliant editor was also beautiful, but I’m just going to say that if it had been me writing that paragraph, I would probably have mentioned it at the end if I really felt like it was that important. Just, you know, to keep anybody from thinking I thought it was critically important. And by the way, in the article, that’s the second of three mentions of Ms. Mahaffey’s attractiveness.

I’m sorry, Mike and Barry—I don’t think you meant to suggest that she accomplished what she did because she was beautiful, but bringing up one lady’s hotness three times in two pages…it’s weird if that’s not the point. Sloppy writing at least. At worst, well, it’s easy to read what is ostensibly an article about female editors and to come away with the impression that you might think one’s beauty was as important as her literary contributions. Which one would hope you can see is sufficient reason for readers to maybe get their backs up. And you certainly left room for that interpretation, gentlemen. Moreover, coupled with this, “lady editors” starts to seem less quirky and more condescending.

We’re writers. We put content out there for readers, presumably after we have honed it in order to do our very, very damnedest to make certain that the message our readers take away is the one that we intended to get across. I’m not going to say it’s always the writer’s fault every single time a reader takes something in a way the writer didn’t intend, but if a bunch of readers get their backs up…well, maybe it’s not just that the readers got it wrong. Maybe the writer/s needs to own the perceptions his/her/their words have created.

So, to summarize: I’m willing to assume good intentions and true regard for the women in question in the “lady editors” column, but in that case it’s seriously sloppy work. However, I also think it takes absolutely no work and certainly no agenda to find the column problematic or offensive. I certainly did (although admittedly I read it after reading about the shitstorm it caused, so I wasn’t a totally unbiased reader).

But Issue 202 contains Resnick and Malzberg’s rebuttal to the complaints they and/or the SFWA received about that column, and boy, even I, with my high-minded assumptions of good intentions, had a hard time reading that.

Their argument is that for the entirety of their careers, they have never (or almost never) before been “censored” despite writing stuff that could have offended plenty of people along the way, including the gatekeeper types who, if they had chosen, could easily have stopped publication of those racy pieces. But they worry that the complainers are calling for their censorship now, by those who responded negatively to their article and to the warrior babe on the cover.

Malzberg calls the objectors’ concerns “stupidity”—which he is willing to stomach as long as the objective isn’t to “shut us down” (which, presumably, is what would push those concerns from relatively harmless “stupidity” into true “censorship”). They argue that romance novels are just as bad about objectification of men on their covers. This might be a fair point, but while I’m not a member of the Romance Writers of America, I’m pretty sure the RWA would happily to discuss that any time its readership and membership choose to raise it as a concern. (Note: since writing that line, I found this excellent post, which–apart from containing the cover of 200 and the pdf of the dialogue column from 202–addresses that particular note directly. Evidently there is robust discussion on the topic. Hooray for robust discussion! That’s a good thing.) That’s what service organizations do—they respond to the concerns of their members and the readers they serve. And raising concerns is what many members and readers of the SFWA did, which is why the SFWA needs at least to have the discussion.

So, halfway through the rebuttal column, I had learned this much: the authors consider that either those who objected to the cover and dialogue in Issue 200 are at best stupid and at worst censorious. Resnick and Melzberg are also upset about the “anonymity” of those who complained, although ten minutes on Google would’ve given them ways to contact plenty of people eager to discuss their concerns—assuming they’re interested in discussion, and if I were still assuming good intentions, I’d presume they’d be pleased to do that. But by this point in my reading, I was no longer assuming good intentions. In order to explain why, let me tell you where I lost my ability to read objectively. It’s where Melzberg says this:

“Our Warrior Woman protesters and enemies of the adjective (who unlike Ms. Dworkin will not identify themselves) fall into the category of what Right Wing radio talkers call “liberal fascists,” and I cannot disagree with that description.” He then goes on to quote Sean Hannity: “The difference between the so-called liberals and conservatives is that the liberals want to shut us down. They truly do not believe that we should have airtime. They truly believe that we should be banned. We do not feel that way about them. We don’t like their positions but we acknowledge their right to expression. They do not extend us the same courtesy.” Melzberg continues: “This seems to be the subterranean issue here…the conviction held by at least some of the protestors that what they found offensive should be banned. That does not take us to anyplace that a writers’ organization should want to go, and I find the central issue here as distressing as you do.”

Actually, what I find distressing is the idea that a writers’ organization would not respond with discussion and debate to evidence that one of its mouthpieces (the Bulletin) does not represent the values of the community it serves. The problem is that the community is not one homogeneous organization. It now contains a lot of younger writers and fans and a growing number of women, many of whom, as Resnick points out, are making noise, demanding that the SFWA—which represents them as much as it represents the two men writing the dialogue—hear their concerns and take them into serious consideration.

And my interpretation of those concerns—having read rather a lot of them now—is not that hard-bodied Warrior Women should not exist or be on the covers of any books or magazines, and it certainly isn’t that women should never be described as beautiful (the adjective Melzberg mentions having “enemies” in the quote above). It’s not that no one should ever write or read material that anyone anywhere finds problematic. It’s that in 2013, many people are bothered when they see, coming from their writers’ service organization, so many potentially problematic things in one place—one of the mouthpiece publications of the organization—and they want to be able to discuss those things with the organization. And they have the right to that discussion by virtue of having paid dues.

Here’s something I’m pretty sure is almost universally true: when we disagree about something, there is a marked difference in the way we speak when we are willing to discuss that something on equal footing with the other party in an open exchange of views, and when we just want the other party to shut up. And the evidence that these fellows are too angry at being challenged to consider the possibility of the opposite point of view being valid and unwilling to engage in discussion is the way the article ends: with references to thought control, to Stalin and Chairman Mao; with comparisons between the negative response to their previous article and “the Federal Government (or the Supreme Court) telling you what you are allowed in your bedroom and with whom.” This not the language of anyone willing to consider that they might have caused legitimate offense and willing to take part in a discussion. This is the language of someone who isn’t willing to consider the other party’s point of view at all. The message here is: shut up and stop complaining, you’re behaving like a bunch of idiots and would-be dictators, and your challenging of what I wrote is on the same level as withholding my civil rights.

Note that at no point here have I accused the authors of the dialogue of behaving like Old White Men, which they claim is one of the reasons people are trying to silence them. On the other hand, dude, I’m really thinking it. I wish I wasn’t, but I’m not going to lie: I totally am. I also really wish that they hadn’t made the argument a liberal-conservative thing. I really wish they had just been willing to take part in a discussion. To have a conversation rather than a fight.

The conversation is important. The conversation has value. And it has value in this case especially, because, having now discussed Issue 200 and Issue 202, I should just mention one thing from Issue 201: CJ Henderson, in an article on how to maintain a writing life even when it seems to have stalled, includes an unfortunate bit of advice: Be like Barbie.

Now, once again, let me start from a place of assuming good intentions: while Henderson says, “Yes, Barbie has always been perfectly long-legged and tiny-waisted, perfectly proportioned in every way with dazzling blue eyes, terrific hair, and oh right, quite the pair of sweater-fillers as well,” (honestly, why would you even go there?) he completes that sentence with, “But, that is not who she is.” He goes on to suggest that Barbie’s great staying power is due to the fact that who she is is more—and more important—than the sum of her measurements. “That’s not who she is inside.” So far so…well, so far so really, really awkward, but I kind of see what you’re trying to do there. There’s a weird sort of parallel here to what I think maybe Resnick and Malzberg were trying to do—refer to a woman’s prettiness as part of her but not all that she is. But then Henderson puts his foot in it. “She has always been a role model for young girls…because she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should.”

No, no, no… And I’m not even touching the other thing he said that raised lady-hackles, about how Barbie’s staying power was due to the fact that, unlike the Bratz dolls who “dress like tramps and whores,” Barbie is a “nice girl.” I don’t have the bandwidth. But the net effect, of course, is that the rest of Henderson’s article, which on the face of it has nothing to do with preaching to women about how they ought to behave, disappears from the conversation, because, like Resnick and Malzberg, he says something he somehow thinks is complimentary but which makes a chunk of readers drop their heads on their desks in either (charitably) embarrassment or (more likely) disgust.

There are bright spots here. I had to break this post into three because I had so much to say, and the next one talks about a really excellent rebuttal piece that also appeared in Issue 202, from Jim C. Hines. Also, both SFWA President John Scalzi and Vice President Rachel Swirsky responded immediately to the concerns raised by readers and members alike. A task force has been created to evaluate the state of the Bulletin. And a lot of people are talking.

And that’s good. Even if Resnick and Malzberg aren’t willing to have a discussion, plenty of people are. And that’s good for everyone.

Nebula Season, and the Return of the Informed Voter Project

It’s Nebula Time, and I have a vote to be informed about! That’s right, from now until February 15th, SFWA members get to cast their votes in support of their favorite SciFi and Fantasy works of 2010. Are you an SFWA member? Then get off your duff and start thinking about your ballot.

For those who don’t know, there are two rounds to the process. This first round, everybody nominates their favorites, and the six in each category (Short Story, Novella, Novelette, Novel, Screenplay, and Young Adult Novel) with the highest number of votes make it to the final ballot. Votes can be entered and even changed right up until the February 15th deadline. Then the second phase begins, where SFWA members read the finalists and cast a second round of votes.

Admittedly, I started this project way too late last time around, when my goal was simply to read all the finalists and blog about what I read (I did manage to get the reading done, but I didn’t manage to get my comments up on every category before the voting deadline). This year I am actually getting to cast a vote to help determine those finalists, and while I certainly can’t possibly read the entire field, I am going to use it as an excuse to get serious about catching up on my TBR pile, and maybe to occasionally remind anybody who cares that my book came out this year and is eligible for the Norton Award for YA lit. I would bat my eyelashes at you, but I have no makeup on and am just finishing my first cup of coffee and it wouldn’t have the effect I was looking for. I will, therefore, settle for tossing out the reminder and also pointing out that SFWA members can read the text free, along with the work of lots of other hopefuls, via the SFWA message boards. There. Self-indulgent message completed.

Books I’m really excited about reading? A Tale Dark and Grimm, by Adam Gidwitz. Sarah Beth Durst’s Enchanted Ivy. Paolo Bacigalupi’s National Book-nominated Shipbreaker, of course–although I suspect he won’t need my vote to make it to the finals, much like Megan Whelan Turner’s Conspiracy of Kings, which it’s about time I read, too. Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought. The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu, which I have to double-check the rules about (it hit the US market in 2010, which I think makes it eligible). China Mieville’s Kraken. The Dark Deeps by Arthur Slade. Ian McDonald’s Ares Express. That’s just off the top of my head. How many is that?

Books I’ve read this year that I loved? Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama. Mistwood by Leah Cypess and Shade by Jeri Smith-Ready. Mockingjay, the final installment of the Hunger Games trilogy, which I also probably won’t vote for because, again, it’s not going to need my vote to place (which may be a crap way of doing things, but hey, it’s my vote, so deal with it). Monsters of Men, the final installment of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy, which anybody who liked The Hunger Games should start reading immediately if not sooner. Bruiser, by Neal Shusterman. Matt Kirby’s The Clockwork Three. I’m resisting the urge to get up and check my bookshelves. I read so much good stuff this year.

And then there’s the short fiction. I am so bad at actually reading short fiction. I love it when I make the effort, but I will be the first one to admit I’m bad at making the effort. So it’s time to start making the effort. I would love to hear your suggestions about short stories, novellas, and novelettes to start my reading off with.

So welcome to Nebula Season, and the Informed Voter Project! I’ll be posting comments on my reading in the coming months, and would welcome your comments and suggestions. Happy holidays, and happy reading!

The Informed Voter Project Concludes: The Nebula Novel Finalists

Two days remain until this year’s Nebula Awards Banquet, and it’s time for the final installment of the Informed Voter Project covering the finalists in the novel category. I had read four of the six books before I decided to start this project; in fact, my enthusiasm for them is what made me decide this would be a fun series of posts to write, and the ones I hadn’t read yet turned out to be just as much fun as the ones I had. But I might be biased; places invariably turn out to be my favorite characters, and while I suppose you can’t write fantasy or science fiction without doing some worldbuilding, not all fantasy or sci-fi is rooted in place the way these books are. It makes for my favorite kind of reading.

Here we go.

The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books, Sep09)

Sometime in a not-too-distant future of bio-engineering and bio-terrorism, Thailand is one of the last outposts of the world not entirely controlled by calorie companies. The calorie companies’ agents are there, though: men like Anderson Lake who pose as less-threatening things like factory owners while they look for ways to exploit the relative bounty still to be found in Thailand. There are also a few “New People” like Emiko, a creche-grown woman abandoned in Thailand by her Japanese owner and now employed as a sex worker. Like the gene-hacked cats known as Cheshires, New People are just another example of the rampant bio-engineering that also causes the constant blights that threaten the world’s food supply, and as such, they are reviled in Thailand. But Bacigalupi’s Thailand is on the cusp of change, like it or not. The premises that form the foundation of this novel–the calorie monopolies and their machinations, and the results of so much bio-engineering, both for basic foodstuff and for humanity, are absolutely terrifying. The uncertainty of Emiko, who knows she was created but cannot bring herself to accept what she was created for, cannot stop hoping that she will find a way to function as a real person, is both frustrating and heartbreaking. The way that this world warps honor and dignity are both sad and horrifying. And yet, there is hope, and maybe even rescue, in the strangest of places.

The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak (Bantam, Nov08)

Set in present-day Japan and peopled with locals and expatriates, citydwellers and country folk, Barzak’s novel is structured like a collection of vignettes on the subject of love and unexpected connections. Each is told from the perspective of a different character or group of characters, but each is linked to the rest as, for instance, a briefly-mentioned character from one story becomes the narrator of the next, or the girl wearing the fox costume on the subway in one vignette turns out to be the childhood friend whose memory has never stopped haunting character we follow through another tale. A subtle magic realism infuses this imagining of Japan, folklore and myth blending with modern elements like love hotels, suicide clubs, and karaoke. It’s a difficult book to summarize without resorting to a list of critical scenes–the final moments of a suicide club, for instance; or last the desperate act of a girl who believes she is trapped in the shape of a human–but it tells a beautiful and heartbreaking tale of the selfishness, sacrifice, loneliness and strange moments of connection that make up what we think of as love.

Flesh and Fire, Laura Anne Gilman (Pocket, Oct09)

The magic of this world is inspired by vinification, the making of wine. In the mythology of the Lands Vin, in times gone by the power to craft spellwines belonged to the prince-mages until the rampant abuses of power caused the man known as the Sin-Washer to break the vine from which spellwines were crafted, resulting in different vines and different grapes that, centuries later, can only be crafted into wines of power by Vinearts (who are forbidden to hold positions of power themselves). For long years the balance of power between the Vinearts and the princes has held, but now things are changing–just in time for the apprentice Vineart Jerzy to find himself an unwitting part of intrigues he barely understands. It’s a tremendously well-drawn world, and the idea of magic being crafted this way just works on so many levels–and I think that would be true even if I didn’t really love reading about wine. Jerzy is a strange and fascinating protagonist whose true character is still developing and (not to belabor the metaphor) but gaining complexity even at the end of the book, much like the conspiracies being set into motion in the world around him. The second installment of the series, Weight of Stone, comes out in October.

The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey, May09)

Two very different cities occupy the same space somewhere at the edge of Europe: Ul Qoma, shining and modern; and Beszel, dark and decaying. The story opens on a seemingly-routine murder case being investigated by detective Tyador Borlu that quickly turns out not to be routine at all. Revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, unificationists, and scholars piecing together evidence of a vast conspiracy complicate the matter at every turn, to say nothing of the fact that it’s no simple matter to cross from one city to the other when it starts to look like the evidence points from Beszel, where the murder appears to have taken place, to Ul Qoma.  The mystery of the murder is interesting, but it’s the fractured city that’s the whole point of this book, and the most fascinating thing about it: Beszel, Ul Qoma, and what’s known to exist between them–and maybe something else that’s existed there, too, more or less unknown and unremarked, all along.

Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor, Sep09)

Seattle, 1879. The Civil War is stretching on, and most of the city has been enclosed in a wall to hold in the disastrous effects of a blight gas loosed by the Boneshaker of the title. (Sixteen years ago, Leviticus Blue built and tested the Boneshaker, which was intended to expedite mining in the Klondike. Instead, it tore through the underpinnings of the city, releasing the Blight, which turns those who breathe it into flesh-eating undead “rotters.”) Ezekiel Wilkes, son of Leviticus Blue, is desperate to redeem the memory of his father, and finds a way into the enclosed city to search for something to prove Levi wasn’t the monster history has made of him. His mother, Briar, goes in after him when she discovers him missing. What follows are spectacular and deadly hijinks in a nightmarish landscape peopled not only with zombies but those who have, for one reason or another, chosen to make the deadly heart of Seattle their home. It’s a tremendous adventure, and although both Briar and Ezekiel are wonderful, it’s the scrappy survivor that is blighted Seattle that the author brings most vividly to life: a place that is at once hellish and awesome.

Finch, Jeff VanderMeer (Underland Press, Oct09)

The third installment of VanderMeer’s chronicles of the city of Ambergris (following City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek) opens on a city ravaged by war. The creatures known as gray caps control Ambergris now, with the questionable assistance of “partials,” former humans who have chosen an existence midway between man and fungus. Detective John Finch is a human and former revolutionary keeping his past carefully hidden. When he’s called upon by his gray cap boss to investigate a double murder, Finch finds himself at the center of the city’s final descent into anarchy. It’s noir, horror, and spy thriller all wrapped up into one–and, while the book can be read and enjoyed on its own (according to my husband, who wasn’t particularly into the first two Ambergris books), speaking as someone who was into those first two, I think Finch makes a terribly satisfying third chapter–although also a terribly sad one, if you happen to be a fan of the city you will watch being brought to its knees.

I feel like I should write some kind of serious wrap-up here, but it’s after 2 a.m. and I gotta go to work in the morning, so without further ceremony, I declare the Informed Voter Project complete! This Saturday, 5/15, the winners will be announced beginning at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, and this year the awards ceremony will be streamed live (you can watch it here). Thanks for reading, and massive amounts of congratulations to all the finalists. Good luck! I’ll be rooting for you.

The Informed Voter Project Returns: The Andre Norton Award Finalists

When last I posted in this series it was a little over a month ago, the day before the voting deadline for the Nebula, Bradbury and Andre Norton awards.  At the time I still had the two full-length novel categories left to review–and, er, two books left to read. It was a close thing. All I have to say is, thank goodness for my two hours of daily subway time and my shocking ability to function on zero sleep. You all voted, right? Of course you did. So did I. And in just over a week, the winners will be announced at the Nebula Awards banquet in Cape Canaveral, Florida. What better reason to leap back into one of my favorite bloggy projects? So without further ado, may I present the finalists for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. My thesis for the Norton finalists is a return to the idea that it’s all about identity–but more specifically, these are books about the quest to discover where one belongs, and The Hotel Under the Sand is the perfect place to start.

Hotel Under the Sand, Kage Baker (Tachyon, Jul09)

The Hotel Under the Sand begins with these words: Cleverness and bravery are absolutely necessary for good adventures. With this opening, we are promised something classic, and that’s exactly what Ms. Baker delivers. A storm at sea deposits Emma, violently separated from everyone and everything she knows and loves, on the wastes of the Dunes. But it turns out the castaway isn’t as much alone as she thinks: when night falls, she is visited by Winston, the ghostly bell captain of the hotel of the title, the Grand Wenlocke. Built by a strange and brilliant hotelier, Masterman Marquis de Lafayette Wenlocke the Fifth, the Grand Wenlocke entertained strange guests and was able to boast that within its walls time was forgotten, thanks to the owner’s Patented New Advanced Temporal Delay Engine. Until, that is, it was buried under the sands by the Storm of the Equinox. When another storm on the Dunes uncovers the hotel, Emma, Winston, and the Grand Wenlocke begin their adventures together, along with a pirate called Captain Doubloon; the hotel’s cook, Mrs. Beet; her dog, Shorty; and Masterman, descendant of the hotelier and last of the Wenlocke line. Emmadiscovers a home, a family, and a living, which she defends from pirates, storms, and predatory lawyers. We see her use her cleverness and bravery, but we also see her work hard. We see her lament the family she lost to the waves, and we see her build and protect and come to love the new family the strange hotel has collected to itself. Plus, there are fantastic machines, dread pirates, and the oddest collection of guests any hotel has ever played host to.

Ice, Sarah Beth Durst (Simon and Schuster, Oct09)

Ice takes East of the Sun and West of the Moon as its starting point, but it’s no simple retelling. Cassie Dasent ‘s grandmother (much to the chagrin of Cassie’s scientist father) always explained the fact of her missing mother’s absence by telling her that her mom, the daughter of the North Wind made a deal long ago with the Polar Bear King and is now being held at the end of the earth. When she turns eighteen, Cassie, who lives at an Arctic research station with her father and never credited her grandmother’s tale as anything more than an attempt to comfort her,  suddenly finds herself face to face with the Polar Bear King himself, who promises to bring Cassie’s mother back from the end of the earth…if Cassie will marry him. It’s a great, great adventure, and while plenty of books update classic fairy tales by resetting them in the present, Ice sets up a powerful contrast between the meticulously detailed scientific world of the research station and the magical realm that Cassie must find and journey through when things go wrong. Also, although while she is with Bear and protected by his power Cassie remains unaffected by the freezing polar setting, it isn’t long before she’s forced to cross the Arctic wilderness on her own, and must draw on all the real-world survival skills she has been taught by her father. But this isn’t just an adventure in which a young woman learns about herself and the depth of love while journeying from the familiar world into fantastic realms to rescue her beloved. Or rather, that’s exactly what it is, but it isn’t only her beloved for whom she is fighting. The stakes are incredibly high. And of course, Cassie finds her place, her family, and her way in the world.

Ash, Malinda Lo (Little, Brown and Company, Sep09)

Like Ice, Ash is a re-imagining of a classic fairy tale, but that’s where the similarity ends. Forced to work as a servant in her stepmother’s household after her father’s death, Ash’s only solace is in moments spent with Sidhean, a dangerous and seductive faerie with whom the girl desperately wants to escape. Ash’s mother had some connection to the faerie realm, and it looks like being kidnapped by Sidhean is the only way out of her new life, so she seeks him out over and over, each time only to be told that it isn’t time for him to take her away. Then she meets Kaisa, the king’s huntress, and begins to think there might be a potential reason to stay in the human world. Malinda Lo does a wonderful job conveying the agonized desperation and confusion of this girl even before she’s faced with choosing between the seductive faerie (and the world she’s convinced herself she’s meant to be part of), and the huntress, who is not only human, but a woman. One of the really nice details is that it is Sidhean who plays the role of the fairy godparent enabling Ash to attend royal gatherings, which adds a layer of complexity to their relationship. Also, while Ash is torn between her attractions to Sidhean and Kaisa, this is not presented as an epic issue of sexuality, but rather the necessity of choosing between two very different people the young woman is drawn to. It’s a story about risk and sacrifice and incredibly difficult choices, and, in the end, about finding one’s place and one’s true home.

Eyes Like Stars, Lisa Mantchev (Feiwel and Friends, Jul09)

Beatrice Shakespeare Smith has lived in the Theatre Illuminata ever since she was very small–although the details of her arrival there from the outside world are fuzzy at best, and she knows nothing about her mother and father. Surrounded by players bound to the Theatre by the power of a mysterious Book containing all the plays of all the ages, Bertie grows up enjoying something of a privileged existence among them until she told it’s time for her to leave at last. Unwilling to leave the only home she knows, she bets everything on an effort to make a contribution to the Theatre and earn the right to stay, and announces her intention to become a Director. And then things start getting complicated: what begins as an act of desperation meant to keep herself from being turned out into the Outside World becomes much, much more as the very existence Theatre Illuminata itself is threatened from within. It’s been a while since I spent time working in the theatre, but this book brought back memories. It evokes the world backstage, below stage, in the wings, in the flies, in the Green Room, in the Prop Room. It’s peopled with characters so familiar it seems it would be nearly impossible to invoke them in any new or surprising ways, and yet they do surprise, over and over. Bertie herself is an absolute treat, part uncontrollable teen, part lonely child, part artist in search of her magnum opus as she transforms herself to save both the Theatre and her place in it, and along the way, begins to work out the truth of her past. (The second tale of the Theatre Illuminata, Perchance to Dream, comes out later this month.)

Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi (Tor Aug08)

This book is the fourth installment in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, taking place during the same events as the third book, The Last Colony. In this vision of the future, where the universe is constantly at war because there are so few planets capable of sustaining life, a group of human colonists are sent to a previously unknown but habitable planet called (ha ha) Roanoke. Zoe is the sixteen-year-old adopted daughter of the leaders selected for the new colony (the protagonists of the first three books), and this is the story of Roanoke told from her point of view as she comes to discover that the survival or destruction of the colony and all who have made it their home just might wind up depending on her. Zoe’s is one of the best teen voices I’ve ever read. She deals with the standard teen issues (picking up and moving, making new friends, first boyfriend, fights with the boyfriend, that kind of thing) and several non-standard ones (issues with her identity as the blood daughter of a man considered both a traitor to humanity and a savior to an alien race called the Obin; frustrations related to being an all-but-religious icon among the Obin; vexations caused by the constant presence of Hickory and Dickory, two very devoted Obin warriors who have lived with Zoe as protectors ever since she was small). The manner in which this book addresses the questions of identity, purpose, and place in the world embraces all of the usual aspects and several very uncommon ones. To give just one example, there’s a wonderful climactic scene in which Zoe is forced to finally come to terms with her iconic status among the Obin so that she can ask of them a tremendous sacrifice and, well, that scene took my breath away.

When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books, 2009)

New York, 1979. Life starts to change for Miranda when her best friend Sal gets punched seemingly at random by a strange boy as the two walk home from school, then withdraws without explanation from their friendship. It’s a tough time to be without friends; a strange man’s been seen streaking near the school, there’s a crazy homeless man who spends his time lying under a mailbox near Miranda’s house, the boy who hit Sal turns out to be even stranger than the unprovoked punch suggested, and Miranda’s mother is preparing for a possible appearance on The $20,000 Pyramid. Oddest of all, and most worrisome, someone is leaving notes for Miranda inside her house–someone who isn’t her mother or her mother’s boyfriend, someone who seems to somehow know things that haven’t yet happened. This is hard, the first note begins. Harder than I expected, even with your help. But I have been practicing, and my preparations go well. I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own. I ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter. Second, please remember to mention the location of your house key. The trip is a difficult one. I will not be myself when I reach you. The events  the letter writer claims to be coming to alter creep inexorably closer, until at last the pieces fall into place in a shocking act of love and sacrifice. This January, When You Reach Me was awarded the Newbery Medal, the same award Miranda’s favorite book,  A Wrinkle in Time, won in 1963.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente (Catherynne M. Valente, Jun09)

Just after her eleventh birthday, while her father is away at war and her mother is at work in a factory, September is washing teacups when the Green Wind takes pity on her and whisks her away to Fairyland on the back of the Leopard of Little Breezes.  September’s adventures begin immediately: she encounters the Wyverary (part Wyvern, part Library) named A-through-L, the Marid Saturday, and the Marquess who, after succeeding the much beloved Queen Mallow as the ruler of Fairyland, introduced the realm to the wonders of bureocracy, red tape, and rules upon rules upon rules. There’s also a soap golem called Lye, an animate red paper lantern, and all manner of strange wonders, from a city sewn from fabric to a great, elaborate gearwork barrier that separates our world from Fairyland. September discovers that she has been set upon more than one quest, and determines to be as ill-tempered and irascible as she must in order to complete those quests and save Fairyland and the new friends she has made. This is a classically-structured fairy tale quest that pays sly homage to all manner of classics that came before, and the telling is beautifully tongue-in-cheek and begs to be read aloud. It feels old-fashioned, and yet there are tons of bizarre and not-at-all old-fashioned details (the soap golem, for instance, or the much-sought-after sword that turns out to be a wrench, or the volery of wild high-wheeler bicycles that carries September and her friends away from the city of Pandemonium). But most wonderful of all is September, who while being neither ill-tempered nor irascible, is the perfect heroine for this beautiful imagining of Fairyland.

Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld (Simon, Oct09)

Alek, Prince of Austro-Hungary, is roused out of bed, ostensibly for a piloting lesson in one of the two-legged war engines known as Cyklop Stormwalkers. It doesn’t take Alek long to realize something’s up and wrestle an explanation from his teachers: in Sarajevo, his parents have just been murdered, and the race is on to protect Alek from the same fate. In London, a Scottish girl named Deryn Sharp is preparing to take the tests that will start her on the way to becoming an airman. The actual aeronautics are no problem; it’s the fact that Deryn has to pass herself off as Dylan Sharp, a boy, that’s worrisome. But when “Dylan” volunteers to demonstrate her air sense by going up in a Huxley–a fabricated military airbeast crafted from the dna of jellyfish–the creature is blown off course and Dylan is rescued by the airship Leviathan, where she quickly becomes a member of the crew. It isn’t long before Leviathan’s mission brings it, and Dylan, into contact with Alek and his entourage, where their hesitant friendship alters the early course of the brewing conflict. In his reimagined World War I, Scott Westerfeld’s Axis powers are known as Clanker nations on account of their reliance upon elaborate mechanical war engines. The Allies are Darwinists, and through the use of natural philosophy they craft war beasts like the hybrid wolf-tigers called tigeresques, the Huxley ascender, and the Leviathan, a thing more like flying ecosystem than an airbeast. Both teens struggle with issues of who they are and who they can afford to trust, and although they could not be more different, they are equally wonderful characters and I can’t wait to see where the next phase of their story takes them. The book is decorated with gorgeous illustrations, which are just icing on the cake. (Behemoth, the second installment, comes out in October.)

And with that, friends, it’s nearly 1:30 in the morning, and I have to work tomorrow, so here I leave you for now. I’ll be back next week with the final installment of the Informed Voter Project, which will cover the Nebula Award nominees in the novel category:

  • The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books, Sep09)
  • The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak (Bantam, Nov08)
  • Flesh and Fire, Laura Anne Gilman (Pocket, Oct09)
  • The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey, May09)
  • Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor, Sep09)
  • Finch, Jeff VanderMeer (Underland Press, Oct09)

The Informed Voter Project, Part the Second: The Nebula Award Novelette Finalists

I’ll tell you this much: the hardest part about this is not getting the reading done. It’s actually getting the post written. I think I am discovering that I’m not a born blogger, and my time is running out. I’m really going to have to start moving faster on this project. But to put you out of your misery, since I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath for the verdict after week two of the IVP: the Identity Thesis lives! Here are the finalists for the Nebula Award for best Novelette.

Actually, hang on. What, you may be asking, is a novelette? That’s a good question. According to Wikipedia, “the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula awards for science fiction define the novelette as having a word count of between 7500 and 17499, inclusive.” So that’s pretty simple. But for anyone who can’t immediately convert word count to a solid understanding of actual page length, I offer this alternative definition: these are works long enough to take me a subway trip from Bay Ridge to SoHo (on the local) and back to read, but short enough that Nathan doesn’t scowl at me too much when I print them out. Does that help?

“The Gambler,” Paolo Bacigalupi

Ong is a Laotian refugee to the US, a man whose father once tried to speak out against injustice and oppression by casting words into the world and gambling on the slim chance that they could do some good. Ong is a gambler of a similar stripe, although instead of posting physical calls to action on lampposts, he posts as part of a media conglomerate. Revenue is calculated in clicks and the measurable attention of the world’s readers, visualized as blossoming color on a map of the world. The imagery here reminded me of the board of the Game of Risk—the “journalists” of these conglomerates are like generals, engaged in a constant battle for territory. A successful post is like the opening sally of a battle: it must be followed up with supplemental content to hold what it has won. For Ong, the challenge is that, in this world, the popular content and successful stories are (not surprisingly) things like celebrity gossip and scandal. Ong, who wants to write about, for example, the imminent extinction of a butterfly, is in danger of getting fired; his content doesn’t generate enough clicks or subscribers. If he loses his job, he loses his visa. A colleague riding a particularly high-profile story calls in a favor for Ong, an exclusive with a beautiful Laotian singer.

Now, I’m new to the world of caring whether or not my name or my content makes any kind of impact on the world stage (and, obviously: no, silly), but this story just seemed way not at all like speculative or science fiction. It seemed way too current. Way too accurate. A man eager to bring meaningful news of meaningful events to the attention of the world could lose his job and his citizenship because the work he turns out doesn’t generate enough hits in the media maelstrom. And the only story that might generate the readership he needs requires him to trade his identity and his ability to try to impact social change in the world for fifteen minutes in the tabloids. In the world of “The Gambler,” you are what you create, and if what you create doesn’t generate notice, you are nothing.

“Vinegar Peace, or the Wrong-Way Used-Adult Orphanage,” Michael Bishop

Mrs. K— is forcibly removed to Vinegar Peace when Elise, her last surviving child, is killed in the War against Worldwide Wickedness. There she discovers a sequence of rooms that, according to the Orphanage’s orientation video, will enhance her stay: a Cold Room in which she discovers effigies of her dead family, carved from ice, that she is made to watch melt. The Arboretum, where comfort creeps through the trees toward her in the form of figures clad in de-saturated colors, one of which Mrs. K is to choose for her spiritual guide. There is the salon, where bereaved Orphans in fancy clothes mix cocktails and meditate on how well one is treated when one loses a child. There is the room in which she and a guest view Elise’s body, laid in state. There is the room in which she reads Elise’s last letter to her and learns that her daughter’s quest for approval from her mother included the possibility of dying a casualty of war like her brother before her. There is the chapel, where Mrs. K’s spiritual guide, Father G—-, administers a sacrament offering vinegar peace: a stale rice cake and a shot of vinegar from a syringe.

So, full disclosure: I have dogs, not children. I have not yet experienced that shift where suddenly, as an adult, you are defined by your existence as a parent. I can’t quite imagine it; I am still too selfish. But certainly, that’s what happens. My cousin has two kids, and although she has always been a fascinating, artistic woman, once she started having kids, they became What We Talk About with Mary. I assume this is what will happen when I have kids; they’ll be What People Talk About with Kate. Because that’s what happens when you become a parent. You’re defined by your kids and what they do. Unless you outlive them, as Mrs. K. does, at which point, you are suddenly defined by their absence. For most “wrong-way, used-adult orphans” of the real world, this would be an exceedingly personal shift—a change in their own perceptions of themselves and their place in their extended families. In this story, however, that identity shift is extrapolated outward to imply that, by outliving their children, these orphans have in lost or outlived their relevance to their country and society. Having attempted to propagate the species (or at least, to provide more raw material for the Worldwide War on Wickedness), they have no further use and can be shunted off to Vinegar Peace.

“I Needs Must Part, the Policeman Said,” Richard Bowes

The fictional Richard Bowes, while in the hospital for a near-fatal intestinal illness, finds himself being recruited by one of the entities that oversee the boundary between the living and the dead. Bowes was identified as a youth as having an uneasy relationship with life and death, making him uniquely qualified to join the ranks of the transitional spirits. In the process, the spirits rewrite—or threaten to rewrite—the narrator’s past, even as Bowes takes his time in the hospital to revisit it.

This was a story infused by memory, both real and false. It presents a tremendously surreal take on having your life flash before your eyes: the fictionalized Bowes sees it as a mental internet search taking place in one corner of his mind, all the time, and he’s pretty sure it isn’t all accurate. This fear is confirmed when the policeman of the title threatens outright to change Bowes’ past, or at least his memory of his past, if Bowes does not agree to become an angel of passage: to change who he was in order to force him to change his mind about who he will become. The story also makes concrete certain basic, very common fears. The hospital is a place of transition—the policeman tells Bowes, for instance, that the light dying souls walk toward at the moment of death is the combined light of spectral hospital monitors. A more beautifully troubling example (to me, anyway) is the simple, terrifying possibility that people who undergo anesthesia might come back in some way different than they went under. There’s a lot to muse on in this story, and a lot of thematic elements to be digested and discussed, but I’m going to stop there so I don’t go on too long.

“Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast,” Eugie Foster

A guild of artisan maskmakers crafts identities for the constituency of the ravishing Queen by building masks inlaid with oversouls. The crafted faces guide the citizens in what to do, and what to feel. Each citizen changes his or her identity by changing masks each morning and evening. If one murders the person who wears the mask of his/her spouse, at the end of the day the mask is the only casualty. If one is flayed while wearing the mask of a man doomed to die by flaying, he/she will wake up the next day and choose the next day’s mask. One may wish he/she had chosen a different face for the day, but he/she will do what that face must. Yesterday’s murderer is today’s devoted spouse, and tomorrow’s degenerate shopkeeper. There are no consequences beyond the destruction of the day’s mask and little, if any, personality beyond what is endowed by the oversoul of each crafted face…until the narrator discovers a secret organization bent on destroying the Queen’s society.

Ten or eleven years ago I wrote my honors thesis on language in early modern English drama. While you’re chuckling at the nerdiness of that, let me add that a whole section of it was on the idea of language as costume—both something to dress up and something to conceal or change identity. Language, as much as the clothes the players wore, signified who they were to the audience. These are the masks of Foster’s tale: they give structure to the society—a very specific structure created to maintain a near chaos of endless permutations of murder and sex—while both giving and removing answerability, identity, and anonymity to the citizens. Stellar ending, by the way. I’m pretty good at predicting what’s going to happen when I’m reading, but this one caught me totally unawares.

“Divining Light,” Ted Kosmatka

The story starts with a gun, a bottle, a rocky, wave-tossed beach, and a man who is past being able to tell the two potential ends he holds, one in each hand, apart. He is a troubled researcher in quantum physics who, following a breakdown, takes a last-chance job and decides to reconstruct Richard Feynman’s famous experiment demonstrating the dual nature of light: it behaves like a wave until it is observed, at which point it behaves like a particle. When the researcher decides to investigate what species are capable of collapsing the probability waves into a single reality through their observation, he sparks a devastating debate on the nature of what it means to be human, and what–or who–can and cannot affect reality.

This was the first of the novelettes that I read. Now, don’t ask me to explain the math, but I love reading about physics. I know about this experiment, and I caught myself the day I read this story lecturing—lecturing, really, and poorly—one of my coworkers on the subject, trying to explain the awful reality rift the narrator discovers. The logical progression from the narrator’s experiment to the practical use seemed inevitable. It was horrifying. And then came the second discovery, the second rift. Bam. Even worse. I’d have had a bottle in my hand for sure, if I’d been this guy. But stories like this are why I love reading about physics. There are strange concepts, strange realities, that seem to need only the slightest twist and extrapolation to push them into the realm of the fantastic. And even then…if the math is sound…are we really so sure it’s fantasy? (Don’t panic. There’s no math included. I mean, panic—but not about having to do math.)

“A Memory of Wind,” Rachel Swirsky

The moment her father, Agamemnon, promises to sacrifice her to Artemis in exchange for wind enough to sail the Greeks to Troy, Iphigenia begins to lose pieces of herself and her recollection. The story is written as a missive to her father, a condemnation as well as a plea for understanding, a litany of her last memories as she is carried to Aulis under the pretense of being married to the hero Achilles so that she can be murdered in the name of wind and war.

Oh, it’s beautiful, this one. It’s heartbreaking. Even as Iphigenia’s memories fall apart, they are restructured into clearer versions of themselves; even as she accuses her father of keeping her from ever being allowed to experience womanhood, she begins, for the first time, to see things as an adult, even if the only great understanding this brings her is that the adults around her are just as helpless and unsure as the children they (at best) fail to protect (or, at worst, sacrifice outright). Her recollection is fragmentary, and it slips further and further to pieces as the story progresses, giving it the quality of a dream: specifically, the way the memory of a dream has of falling apart even as the dreamer tries to relate its events. There is also the troubling helplessness of a sleeper, dreaming: the pervasive sense that nothing she does will alter the outcome. There are troubling meditations on what it means to be brave, to be a girl, to be powerful—and what being beautiful does and does not excuse. And, of course, what it means to be the wind. “Learn to be your own wind,” she begs her silent little brother, Orestes. “Will you? Will you, please?”

So yes, the thesis lives on. But in any great story, there are plenty of themes to extract. Today, my observation collapses this multitude into one. And because this post is already very, very long, that is where we shall leave it for now.

Next up: the Nebula finalists in the novella category:

  • The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Kage Baker (Subterranean Press, Jun09)
  • “Arkfall,” Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Sep09)
  • “Act One,” Nancy Kress (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Mar09)
  • Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow (Tachyon, Feb09)
  • “Sublimation Angels,” Jason Sanford (Interzone, Oct09)
  • The God Engines, John Scalzi ( Subterranean Press, Dec09)

Adventures in the SFWA: My Efforts to be an Informed Nebula Voter

It’s Awards Season! Yes, I’ll be watching the Oscars this weekend, but I’m not really talking about that. March is voting month for members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). In May, the organization will present Nebula Awards to one exceptional short story, novelette, novella, and novel; the Bradbury Award to one film, and the Andre Norton Award to a young adult novel.

Last November, on the suggestion of a couple very nice gentlemen I met after a reading by Jeff VanderMeer, Geoff Manaugh, and Jeffrey Ford at Columbus Circle, I joined the SFWA and attended its  NYC reception.  There, I had the good fortune to spend a couple hours of my time there chatting with Sarah Beth Durst, so when the Nebula Finalists were announced last week, I was ecstatic to see Sarah’s Ice among those vying for the Andre Norton Award. Then I did another happy jig when I saw Malinda Lo’s Ash (Malinda’s a fellow poster on the Enchanted Inkpot), Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan (which I adored) and John Scalzi’s Zoe’s Tale (which has one of the best teen voices ever). Rounding out the list are the recent Newbery winner When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, Kage Baker’s Hotel Under the Sand, Lisa Mantchev’s Eyes Like Stars, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente, which I think was only published online. I haven’t read any of those. Yet.

There were actually a lot of books among those up for awards that I had read last year and enjoyed, some of which I truly loved: Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch, China Mieville’s The City and The City, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, and of course, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. I’ve seen all the Bradbury nominees, save two. I’d read none of the short works on the ballot, though, and it occurred to me yesterday that, unlike, oh, any other literary awards being given this year that I’m aware of, I actually get to cast votes for the Nebula Awards. And I believe in being an informed voter. So here goes.

I’m going to get moving and read all the works on the ballot. I’m going to make sure I’ve seen all the movies, which means I’m finally going to see Moon, which I’ve wanted to see and somehow never got around to (Hooray! Of course it also means I’m going to see Avatar, which–don’t kill me–I haven’t felt any great desire to see). Because I’m going to be an Informed Voter. And I’m going to share the journey with you lot, if you’ll come along. I’m particularly looking forward to telling you about the shorter works, because if you’re anything like me, you just might not have them on your radar. I love short stories, but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t read them as often or as widely as I’d like, given the breadth and quality of what’s out there. And I couldn’t even tell you the difference between a novella and a novelette (but don’t worry, I’ll find out, and then we can all rest easy). I may not manage to post about every category before the end of March, but I’m going to do my best.

Before I sign off, though, I want to add (and I can’t say this loudly enough, so I will–pardon me–format the hell out of it) IF YOU ARE ELIGIBLE TO JOIN THE SFWA, YOU SHOULD. If I started into why, this would turn into an even longer post than it’s shaping up to be, so I encourage you to read more here. In brief, it’s an organization that works for you, the writer, through advocacy, communication, information, mentoring, even legal assistance and benevolent funds. To find out if you’re eligible, read here.

So, the Informed Voter Project starts today! Coming up next: the Nominees for a Nebula Award in the Short Story Category:

  • “Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela,” by Saladin Ahmed
  • “I Remember the Future,” Michael A. Burstein
  • “Non-Zero Probabilities,” N. K. Jemisin
  • “Spar,” Kij Johnson
  • “Going Deep,” James Patrick Kelly
  • “Bridesicle,” Will McIntosh

Stay tuned!