Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hugos 2011: the shouting

The winners of the 2011 Hugo Awards have been announced, and just for future reference, I'm bad at picking them.

Actually, that's not really fair. Obviously when I was voting I went for the entries that I thought should win. If you'd asked me instead to pick the entries I thought would win, I think I would have guessed right in three of the four fiction categories (and I would have had no idea what to pick from the Best Short Story list). I really must remember to make predictions alongside my votes next year.

So here are my rapid-fire thoughts on the Hugo results, which I've had roughly an hour to digest. Let me get the facetiousness out of the way first: the Best Doctor Who Episode Hugo went to a Doctor Who episode, and the Best Girl Genius Story Hugo went to a Girl Genius story. To their credit, I understand the Foglios announced that they would be withdrawing Girl Genius from contention for the Best Graphic Story Hugo next year. It remains to be seen if that will turn it into an interesting category. My guess is if there's a Fables book eligible in 2012, it will win. Unless Neil Gaiman writes another comic book. 

Best Novel
Winner: Blackout / All Clear by Connie Willis
Where I ranked it: didn't read it
My pick: The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
Where it came: fifth

I'm trying pretty hard to resist the temptation to comment on this result, since I didn't actually read Blackout / All Clear. I liked the one Connie Willis novel I've read, a whole lot, but 1100 pages just seemed excessive. I kind of feel like I should give it a shot now, though, so I can have an informed opinion.

It's somewhat disappointing to see my pick -- The Dervish House -- come in last, particularly since I think it was overwhelmingly the best science fiction novel (that I read) on the ballot. That last place result is a little misleading, though, since the official stats show The Dervish House came third after the first redistribution of preferences, and was actually only three votes behind Blackout / All Clear after the first count. I think The Dervish House was the most challenging book on the ballot (that I read), so perhaps it's unsurprising that it got killed on preferences.

Best Novella
Winner: The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
Where I ranked it: second
My pick: "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" by Rachel Swirsky
Where it came: third

Okay, so honestly, I don't think I ever expected Rachel Swirsky's story to win. It's a fantasy story, for a start, and my feeling is that Hugo voters generally prefer the science fiction. There's also a bit of feminism about it, which is another thing that I think Hugo voters don't typically like. And to top it off, Ted Chiang is beloved of the Hugo voters: this is his eighth Hugo nomination, and his fourth win. I'm okay with this result. I don't think it's Chiang's best work, but it is an interesting story, for sure. 

It is also interesting to me that "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerephon" by Elizabeth Hand came in last, fairly convincingly. I thought it was a pretty strong story, but it was (almost?) completely devoid of science fictional or fantastical elements, which seems to have ruled it right out of contention.

Best Novelette
Winner: "The Emperor of Mars" by Allen M. Steele
Where I ranked it: second
My pick: "Plus or Minus" by James Patrick Kelly
Where it came: third

I think the obvious love for the history of science fiction on display in "The Emperor of Mars" was a huge factor in its win, and you know, I can get behind that. It wasn't a challenging story, and to be frank I'd be surprised if it went down in history as one of the greats, but it did make me smile. I'm not sad to see it win.

The second place went to "Eight Miles" by Sean McMullen, which means the two stories paying direct homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs took out the first two places. Bodes well for the forthcoming John Carter movie, eh? I know I'll be going to see it, although I refuse to comment on whether that's because Taylor Kitsch is in it!

Best Short Story
Winner: "For Want of a Nail" by Mary Robinette Kowal 
Where I ranked it: second
My pick: "The Things" by Peter Watts
Where it came: third

I really don't have much to say about this one -- I've already commented that I thought the Short Story nominees weren't particularly strong this year. In general, I like Mary Robinette Kowal's stuff, so I'm happy for her that she's taking home her first Hugo.

So that's it for another year. I think if I have a closing comment, it's to encourage you to look beyond the winners to the list of nominees. Blackout / All Clear won both the Hugo and the Nebula this year, but if you read only that one you'll be missing out on some really great novels.

Oh, and congratulations to all the winners!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The history, it's crushing me

Brace yourselves: this post contains footnotes and a graph!

I may be a little bit slow, but I'd like to talk today about NPR's Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books, which was announced on August 11. This was a popularity contest: first, they asked readers to nominate their favourite science fiction and fantasy books. Then, with the help of a panel of three experts, they narrowed the list of nominees to a few hundred books. Finally, they asked people to vote.

I'm just going to get this out of the way before I go any further: there are a lot of really great books on that list. You could do worse than use that list to guide your science fiction and fantasy reading. Of course, I think you could do a lot better, but that basically just means it's a list on the internet, right?

Here are four things I could complain about, but which I'm going to (mostly) skip. 1: The gender balance isn't good -- by my count, only 15 of the 100 entries were written by women. 2: Is Jules Verne really the only non-English, non-American writer on the list? 3: Why do we always group science fiction and fantasy together on lists like this? 4: The decision to allow series to count as one entry, while perhaps practical, has produced some bizarre results. Do all 14 books of The Vorkosigan Saga deserve to sit at #58? What about the 33 books of The Xanth Series at #99?

Instead of talking about all that stuff, I'd like to focus on the thing that I first noticed: the science fiction portion of the list seems to be dominated by older books, whereas the fantasy portion is full of newer stuff. I checked my gut feeling by finding the year of first publication for each of the entries in the list. I tried to include every book in a series written by the original author (1), and I split them up into fantasy and science fiction as best I could (2).

I ended up with 276 books, 177 of them fantasy and the remaining 99 science fiction. Here's a graph (I know! A graph!) showing the number of books published per decade since the 1920s (3) in each category:

See what I mean? Only 10 of the science fiction novels on the list were written in the last decade (that's roughly 10%), whereas 74 of the fantasy novels (that's 42%) were written since 2000. The most popular decade for science fiction novels in this list was the 1990s, although it's interesting to note that if you exclude sequels, the most popular decade for science fiction becomes the 1960s. Even excluding sequels, the 2000s remain the most popular decade for fantasy in this list.

I suppose this probably isn't surprising, although it does make a little sad. We do seem to be in a bit of a heyday for fantasy (4), and we do seem to constantly hear about science fiction sales being in decline. I could spend a while speculating on the reasons why older science fiction books dominated this survey -- aging readership? A decline in visibility on bookstore shelves? A more demanding audience? -- but I'm not sure how useful that would be. 

It is interesting to ponder, though, whether this is a result of a decline in the accessibility of science fiction to the average reader. That's certainly something I worry about, and it's perhaps suggestive that two of the five original (non-sequel) science fiction novels in the list that were written post-2000 are quite mainstream (The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger).

Instead of teeth-gnashing, though, I want to try making a suggestion: next time you're nominating or voting for a list like this, when you're reminding yourself to think of female writers and writers from places other than England and America, give a bit of though to novels that were written in the last decade. And if you're planning to collate a list like this, why not restrict it to novels written after 1990? Because we all know that Fahrenheit 451 and Stranger in a Strange Land are worth reading by now, right?

What would you put in your post-1990 Top 10?

I'm pretty sure I'll be back here soon -- by my reckoning, the 2011 Hugo Award winners are due to be announced in about 7 hours!
(1) That means none of the Brian Herbert/Kevin J. Anderson Dune books, no Brandon Sanderson Wheel of Time, no Eoin Colfer Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and none of the various Foundation spin-offs.

(2) We could probably argue the toss on a few of these. Where I didn't know, or wasn't sure, I tried to use the Wikipedia entry for a book (or series) as a guide.

(3) There were five books in the list published prior to 1920, all of the science fiction. The first was Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, in 1818.

(4) It's worth nothing here that young adult books -- Twilight, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, His Dark Materials -- were specifically excluded from this survey. It's just a guess, and maybe a pessimistic one, but if they'd been included I suspect they would have been more likely to nudge SF books out of the top hundred, rather than fantasy ones.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, by Daniel Solis

Last time I said I was going to talk about something a little bit different: a story-telling game by Daniel Solis called Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. I'm just going to jump to the end and tell you now why I want to talk about: because it's really, really lovely.

There are other reasons why I think it is worth discussing here. For a start, I really like playing games, and I'm sure that preparing plots and characters for them has an impact on the way I write. The connection between Do and writing stories is particularly strong -- 'story-telling game' is a very accurate descriptor. I'm also hoping I can introduce Do to people who might not ordinarily hear about something like this. But really, I just want to talk about it because it's lovely.

Let me start with a picture I totally stole from Daniel Solis' website:

Why am I showing it to you? I'm showing it to you because the whole book looks like this. Beautiful illustrations of flying Pilgrims and letters falling from the sky and giant fish towing entire planets. The art totally captures the happily meddlesome whimsy that I love so much about this game. It's just an absolute joy to flip through.

So what's the premise? In all of the worlds floating in the sky, whenever people find themselves in trouble that they just can't sort out, they write a letter. Maybe they hide the letter somewhere secret, or tie it to a shooting star, or give it to a passing sparrow, but somehow it finds its way to the Flying Temple at the centre of the universe. These letters are given to young monks-in-training, leaving the Temple on their big coming-of-age pilgrimage.

The Pilgrims fly out into the worlds, and try to solve all of these problems. Thing is, Pilgrims are always getting into trouble. They can't help it; it's in their nature to drop out of the sky and starting messing around with things. With the best of intentions, of course, but we all know where that leads! Sometimes they resolve the situation to everyone's satisfaction (the game calls this a parades ending), sometimes they're run out of town by the angry villagers (a pitchforks ending). No matter what, they try to leave each world a better place.

See what I mean? The premise of Do just makes me want to hug it.

To play Do, you start with a Letter (the book includes sixteen to get you going). This Letter describes the problem your Pilgrims are trying to solve, at least as it's seen by the letter-writer. It comes with a list of ten to thirty goal words; if you manage to include all of them in the story you write, you get a parades ending. If you don't manage to use them all by the end of the game, it's pitchforks for you.

Each turn, you draw stones from a bag to tell you whether you can write a sentence about your Pilgrim helping someone, or about getting herself out of trouble. The other players at the table might also get a chance to describe your Pilgrim getting herself into trouble. The stones you draw also tell you whether you're able to include one of the goal words from the Letter in your sentence. Once one player collects eight or more stones, the game ends. That's basically it -- the rules aren't complicated, and they certainly aren't competitive. This is a collaborative experience.

Each player creates their own Pilgrim. Pilgrims have two names, like Pilgrim Bouncing Trumpet or Pilgrim Purple Abacus. The first describes how your Pilgrim gets into trouble (Pilgrim Bouncing Trumpet gets in trouble by being over-enthusiastic), and the second how your Pilgrim helps people (Pilgrim Bouncing Trumpet helps by rallying the people to action). As you respond to Letters, your Pilgrim will grow, changing either the way she gets into trouble, or the way she helps people. Eventually, she'll make a decision about her Destiny: does she stay in the world, or return to the Temple as a full-fledged monk?

Underneath all of this loveliness, I think it's fair to say that Do is actually a really great tool for teaching people about writing stories. Obviously you're not going produce wonderful pieces of polished prose playing Do, but there's a lot of great stuff here about coming-of-age stories, about character growth, about the inventive interpretation of a premise to create an engaging story. It seems to me like exactly the sort of game you'd want to be playing with your kids. Or, really, with anyone who can sit still long enough!

There's so much more I could say -- Do, for example, was a real success of the patronage funding model, raising a surprising amount of money from fans (like me) to pay for its publication. One of the results of that process was The Book of Letters, which is a supplement consisting of a whole bundle (a sack, you might say) of Letters written by the people who backed the game during its funding drive. It's a great little resource, and I expect that you'll see Letters written by fans popping up all over the internet.

In fact, I think I might try my hand at writing one right now.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Hugos: it's all over but the shouting

Just a quick update today. The voting deadline for this year's Hugo Awards was yesterday. The hard reading work is done; now we wait until August 20th to find out who won. Over on his livejournal, Nicholas Whyte has gone to the trouble of collecting together the voting intentions of a whole bunch of bloggers (myself included). I recommend popping over to take a look; it's pretty interesting. Most of the categories have clear front-runners, and they're generally the ones I picked. I wonder if they'll go on to win?

I'm going to take advantage of Nicholas' work to read up on some of the lists that differed wildly from my own. That should be a fun exercise. 

I'm also reminded that although I've spoken separately about each of the Best Novel nominees I read, I haven't discussed them together. My final vote was: 1) The Dervish House, 2) The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, 3) Feed, 4) No Award. I did read Cryoburn, but I didn't get to Blackout/All Clear before the voting deadline. With that caveat, my feeling is that The Dervish House and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms were clearly superior to the other nominees. I'd be happy if either of those books won.

And if you're interested, at least at the time of writing the vast majority of the nominees in the shorter fiction categories (Novella, Novelette, Short Story) are available online, so you can still have a read and see what you think.

With any luck I'll be back later this week, with something a little different. I'm planning to talk about Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, a storytelling game by Daniel Solis. Here's a sneak peak: I think it's cool!