Top Ten Writers

As was noted back at the start of the week, and by a good number of people casting their votes in the poll, the popularity of series in the sf field can make it hard to single out individual books. Moreover, many writers are prolific — if someone’s written one outstanding novel in a decade, they may have an advantage, in this sort of poll, over someone who’s written three. So here’s another way of looking at the data, counting up the top ten writers who were nominated for multiple books, ordered by total nominations received.

1. Gwyneth Jones

Not a surprise, given her three appearances this week. But two other books were also nominated: Castles Made of Sand, the follow-up to Bold as Love, and Siberia, one of Jones’ YA novels (published as by Ann Halam).

2. Justina Robson

Natural History did well, of course, but plenty of people also nominated Living Next-Door to the God of Love, Mappa Mundi and Keeping it Real.

3. Tricia Sullivan

As noted in this morning’s post, in addition to Maul, nominations were sent in for every other novel she’s published this decade — Double Vision, Sound Mind, and Lightborn.

4. Elizabeth Bear

The first writer to appear on this list who hasn’t appeared in the main top ten, Bear received nominations for Hammered (often as a proxy for the whole Jenny Casey trilogy), standalones Carnival and Undertow, for Dust, and for By the Mountain Bound.

5. Elizabeth Moon

In addition to Speed of Dark, Moon picked up nominations for Trading in Danger and Moving Target.

6. Jo Walton

Farthing‘s placement low in the top ten certainly doesn’t reflect the strength of support Walton received, with many nominations for the second Small Change novel, Ha’Penny, and for Lifelode.

7. Liz Williams

Like Bear, Williams hasn’t made it into the main top ten; but she achieves the distinction of having more novels nominated than any other writer, six in total:Ghost Sister, The Poison Master, Empire of Bones, Nine Layers of Sky, Banner of Souls, and Darkland.

8. Karen Traviss

In addition to the nominations for City of Pearl, Traviss picked up a few nods for her tie-in work — Gears of War novel Aspho Fields, and Star Wars novels Hard Contact, 501st, and Order 66.

9. Ursula K Le Guin

Lavinia accounted for the bulk of Le Guin’s nominations, but a few enthused about the Western Shore novels, in particular Gifts and Voices.

10. Connie Willis

And finally, Willis picked up nominations for both Blackout/All Clear, and for Passage — both not that far off the top ten.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Hugo Nominee: “Shoggoths in Bloom”

The story. The comment:

Rich Horton:

“Shoggoths in Bloom” [is] a thoughtful (and quite straight-faced, despite the title) piece about a black scientist in the late ‘30s, investigating the reproductive habits of shoggoths off the coast of Maine. He learns a bit more than be expected — about shoggoths, their nature, their temptations — all of which is nicely put in the context of the times — his own heritage, as a black man; and the state of the world as Hitler threatens. I thought this quite intriguing in its speculations about shoggoths — for all they are obviously rather silly creations in the original, Bear does not betray Lovecraft’s vision (as far as I can tell) but riffs nicely on it. And then she constructs a morally serious character piece around the central idea, with some historical heft. A very strong story, surely one of the best of the year.

Karen Burnham:

… by firmly grounding this story in a time when almost unthinkable horrors were about to be unleashed, Bear seems to be dismissing Lovecraft’s “horrors” altogether. If you want horror, she seems to say, skip the stories and go straight to the documentaries.

Once more, like all the best stories with a point, in this tale the polemics never dominate the story itself. Bear is a great story-teller, and this one has some good humor and some in-jokes for the Lovecraft fans. Even on its own, without any background in Lovecraftian fiction, I think this story would stand up well. The message and the critique are embedded nicely within an enjoyable tale, just the way they should be.

Russ Allbery:

I think the best part about this story is how it gives you the impression it’s about one thing and then shifts to another, and then another. As advertised in the title, it’s clearly aimed at H.P. Lovecraft territory; it follows a black naturalist in the days just before World War II who is investigating shoggoths on the New England coast. Shoggoths, in this universe, are known creatures, blobs of living jelly, although no one really knows what they are or how they work. He’s trying to find out. From there, the story moves into a bit of the horror and revelation angle that one might expect, but not before race also enters the story mingled with the politics of World War II. And then the horror turns out to not be that horrific after all, just very weird, and the conclusion of the story turns to ethics. The flow from topic to topic is very well-done and kept me engrossed the whole way, and while the ending is reasonably obvious, I still liked it a great deal. Recommended.

Ian Sales:

I wanted to dislike this story. There seemed to be too much in it – 1930s race relations, Nazi persecution of Jews, WWI, and a sudden swerve towards slavery at the end – and I couldn’t decide if the central conceit, the shoggoths, was cleverly done or mishandled. I’m still not sure. But the story grew on me, and by the end of it I did think it was quite good. Not as good as the Kessel or the Bacigalupi, but better than the Gardner.

The Fix:

Bear depicts her setting with authenticity, tackling issues of race and social class in addition to Harding’s quest to understand the shoggoth lifecycle. The histories of Harding and of the shoggoth race meld together in a short, powerful climax that wraps this novelette up perfectly.

Abigail Nussbaum:

It’s a nicely atmospheric piece, and does a good job tying together the protagonist’s investigation of the shoggoths and his dark musings about racial prejudice–which is expressed genteelly in the behavior of the local fishermen and violently in the Kristallnacht riots, which take place shortly after the story’s beginning–most particularly in the choice the protagonist faces in the story’s end, between the freedom of one persecuted minority and another. I liked “Shoggoths in Bloom,” but unlike other Lovecraft pastiches such as Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” or Charles Stross’s “A Colder War,” I also can’t help but feel that my never having read Lovecraft is a barrier to fully appreciating it. For example, I assume that the story’s emphasis on racism is supposed to be intensified by knowledge of Lovecraft’s own well-document racism, and I’m wondering if there are other nuances that have gone over my head because I lack the proper grounding. I’m not sure how fair a criticism this is–and maybe the distance I feel from the story has nothing to do with Lovecraft and everything to do with the story itself–but the bottom line is that “Shoggoths in Bloom” leaves me somewhat cold, impressed by Bear’s technical achievement in creating her pastiche and grafting it to the real world, but not genuinely moved.

And now … over to you.

Reminder: “Shoggoths in Bloom” discussion, and future schedule

Last of the novelettes, this Sunday. Read it here.

We now hit a slight snag, in that the Hugo voting deadline is 3rd July, which on a weekly discussion pattern would get us through only seven of the remaining nine (having already discussedExhalation“) short fiction nominees. My proposal, therefore, is to do the novellas like this:

17 May: “The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress
24 May: “The Political Prisoner” by Charles Coleman Finlay
31 May: “The Tear” by Ian McDonald
7 June: “True Names” by Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow
14 June: “Truth” by Robert Reed

And then the short stories on Wednesdays and Sundays, like this:

17 June: “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss” by Kij Johnson
21 June: “Article of Faith” by Mike Resnick
24 June: “Evil Robot Monkey” by Mary Robinette Kowal
28 June: “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled” by Michael Swanwick

Sound OK?

The Short Story Nominees

I am usually underwhelmed by the Hugo short story nominees. I accept that my tastes are out of step with the pool of Hugo voters, as I am not a big fan of Michael Burstein’s short fiction, and the less said about most of Mike Resnick and Robert J. Sawyer’s previous nominees the better, but the one time I voted in the Hugos I put No Award first as a protest against how uniformly terrible the stories on that year’s ballot were. So it’s pleasing to report that the short stories, while not all great, range from pretty decent to really pretty damn good. Here’s my ranking:

Bottom of my ballot I would put Mike Resnick’s ‘Distant Replay‘. It’s the best Mike Resnick story I have ever read, and that’s why it wouldn’t end up below No Award, but the appeal of his work remains a total mystery to me. Yet another story about science fiction being used in some way to reunite a man with his love, (in this case, a man meets a young man and woman who are exactly like him and his (dead) wife, and hooks them up), it’s less cloyingly sentimental than usual and has a couple of nice ideas, and that’s about it.

‘A Small Room in Koboldtown,’ by Michael Swanwick, is a locked-room mystery noir in a fantasy setting. The internet informs me it’s a universe he’s written in before, and the setting is interesting, but then it uses the fantasy setting to pull a big cheat. I like mysteries, and they work best when they are clever enough that you can’t work out exactly how it was done but all the clues are there. When the resolution of the mystery is a magical solution I couldn’t predict, I feel cheated out of my ending.

Having dispatched with the bottom two, we get to two stalwarts of the UK SF scene who are harder to separate – Ken MacLeod’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?’ and Stephen Baxter’s ‘Last Contact.’ Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359? is space opera from Ken MacLeod, in the same setting as his BSFA-award-winning Lighting Out. Proper hard SF, it has AIs and seedships and lots of future civilizations, I can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t like it as much as I expected. I think it could do with being longer, to flesh out the events around the ending, and give us more of the central character. There’s just nothing which particularly grabs me, so I put it at number three.

Last Contact is a very English disaster story – the big SFnal idea is the end of the world, but the story is about two women preparing for the end in Oxfodshire, planting flowers that will never grow and sitting in the garden drinking tea while they wait for the ground to be ripped apart under them. It’s a cosy catastrophe, with a much lower degree of looting and general chaos and anarchy than what I think would actually happen if you announced the world was going to end in six month’s time, but I found it rather charming. I don’t think Baxter quite pulls it off, but it’s in second place for me.

My pick of the short stories is Elizabeth Bear’s ‘Tideline,’ which is a great example of how a small SF idea can turn into a lovely story. Lovely is the appropriate word, as it’s a heartwarming little tale of a shipwrecked war-machine, alone on a beach mourning her lost compatriots, and the human boy she meets and takes care of. The hints of worldbuilding fit around the well-drawn characters, filling out enough of the background to satisfy but leaving parts of it unknown, and Bear’s prose is probably the best of all the stories, bar maybe the Swanwick. It pulls off beautifully what Last Contact can’t quite do.

So I’d like the Best Short Story Hugo to go to Elizabeth Bear, but I won’t be upset if it goes to MacLeod or Baxter.

Other views:
Abigail Nussbaum mostly agrees with me, but doesn’t like Baxter as much. Nicholas Whyte doesn’t like the MacLeod at all, but agrees with my top pick. Karen Burnham agrees with my top two, but hasn’t read any of the others. John at SF Signal also isn’t fond of the Macleod, and likes the Resnick much more.

And in better awards news …

Strange day, when the John W Campbell Memorial Award is the award I feel positive about. The winner is:

In War Times by Kathleen Ann Goonan

This actually looks like a sane, solid choice; the reviews that I’ve seen have ranged from mixed to positively glowing (although see also). Anyway, I have a copy, and I’ve bumped it up the TBR stack, so there may be a review in the near-ish future.

UPDATE: Chris Mckitterick reports that Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union came second, and The Execution Channel came third.

Meanwhile, the Sturgeon Award choices are equally solid — choices because, for the first time, there are joint winners, and solid because those winners are:

Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear
Finisterra” by David Moles

See Abigail Nussbaum’s thoughts on the Bear here, and the Moles here; and congratulations to all three winners.

(While I’m here, have some links to other Locus Awards discussion.)

Welcome to Shadow Unit

The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit hunts humanity’s nightmares. But there are nightmares humanity doesn’t dream are real.
The Behavioral Analysis Unit sends those cases down the hall.

Welcome to Shadow Unit.

This is the premise of Shadow Unit, whose first season ended last week. It’s an unusual, possibly unique idea: a TV show told on a website, or fanfiction for a show that doesn’t exist, and either way a quarter of a million words of original fiction from five leading SF writers given away on the internet for free. (Although they would like it if you gave them some money for it.)

As Emma Bull explains in her introduction, it’s a show which wears its influences quite openly – a pinch of Criminal Minds, a bit of The Man from UNCLE, quite a lot of The X-Files. It’s a crime procedural drama, following a team of eight FBI agents who investigate crimes committed by the most horrible monsters you can imagine – human beings, albeit under the control of the mysterious “anomaly”, and not responsible for their actions. It’s a setup which lends itself well to an episodic drama, with a new investigation every week by a few members of the team, while the range of supernatural powers displayed by the literal monster of the week allows for variety. The episodes on the website stick pretty firmly to an episodic, 5-act structure as well, and at first I couldn’t understand why they would do that. Surely one of the strengths of fanfiction is that it can use structures and storytelling methods which are not tied into the necessities of television, it can cover timespans you can’t show on screen, it can even have bibliographies and graphs if you want them. Still, after reading a few episodes I changed my mind – I think the structure works, and even though I know I’m coming up to an act break I still get surprised by whatever plot revelation they have in store, plus there is enough variation to prevent it turning into a formulaic, “take the basic template and swap out the villains” show. And with a liberal fanfiction policy, it’s easy for the fans to play around in the universe themselves, but you can’t rebel against the episodic structure if there isn’t one on the show in the first place.

There are disadvantages to telling a TV story as prose, and the one big one I came up against is that telling apart your cast of eight people with similar occupations is much much easier when they’re all on screen. I read the first three novella-length episodes as a block, and it wasn’t until the third that I got the hang of who was who in the team. The first three also suffer slightly in that they do a lot of work building up the characters of Daphne, Chaz, and Hafidha, who form a strong friendship within the unit, and when I came back to episode four several months later I could remember the three of them but had to start from scratch with everyone else. As to why there was such a gap in my reading, while I enjoyed the first three episodes, and planned to read some more, when there was no more to read for a fortnight I drifted away and didn’t come back until last week.

It’s a good thing I did, because episode five, “Ballistic”, is where the first season kicks into high gear and pulled me in. Co-written by four of the show’s writers, it’s one of the episodes which rejects a whodunit and lets us know from the start that this week’s monster is a child, and that it’s not going to end well. Focusing on the perviously underused team of Brady and Lau, investigating murders in a small-town filled with servicemen and their families, it seems to deliver more of an emotional kick than the revious episodes, and a growing horrific realisation of where the pieces of a medical report scattered through the episode are going to lead.

While the next two episodes, “Endgames” and “Overkill”, are good solid installments with memorable and horrific moments, it’s all buildup for the multi-part season finale, Refining Fire. A whole novel penned by Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull (not that I could tell who wrote individual episodes anyway- it’s pretty seamless), it’s also the episode where it gets personal for one of the team, and does not shy away from having really nasty stuff happen. It’s also a fine example of really well done hurt/comfort angsty fanfic, without the tendency for everything to be fixed by the magical healing power of hugs. I will admit that I found it to be a gripping, emotional end to the season, and I will be sticking with it next year.

And if I get bored during the hiatus, there’s always the in-character Livejournals for me to read. I haven’t had time to keep up with them all year, because I like to eat and sleep, but the mixing of reality and fiction, watching real people comment on fictional journals as though it’s just another member of their friends list, and seeing fictional journals interact back with them in-character even when it’s all being done by real people who know each other, I find it slightly mindbending. Even if it does make the uncertainty of the ending to Refining Fire a little less uncertain, because if there’s a Livejournal post from a character it seems unlikely they are dead.

I’m assuming there is a second season planned, of course. Can you campaign against the cancellation of a show that never aired?