Monday, May 15, 2017

New Scientist Column: Kim Stanley Robinson and Gwyneth Jones

My latest column at The New Scientist looks at two novels that try to imagine how society will order itself in the wake of environmental and economic collapse.  Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140 imagines the titular city as a high-tech Venice, where a quasi-socialist community has arisen in the vacuum left behind when finance retreated, and must now defend itself as the forces of gentrification once again sniff out a profit to be made in the newly hip and livable canalized city.  It's been interesting to watch the reviews for this book pour in: Gerry Canavan at LARB, for example, wonders if it represents the shattering of Robinson's famed optimism, while Joshua Rothman at the New Yorker, and John Clute in Strange Horizons, see the book's vision of a city that survives and even flourishes in the wake of climate change as an inherently hopeful one.  I think that tension is entirely intentional--New York 2140 is a book that isn't entirely certain whether the future it imagines is a good one, and whether the survival it posits is something to celebrate or mourn.

Proof of Concept is a great deal less ambivalent about its future, in which most of humanity lives in cramped, heavily-policed enclaves while the rest of the planet is a polluted wasteland.  A group of scientists enter enforced isolation, supposedly to study a potential form of faster-than-light travel, but also as a form of reality TV that is a primary form of entertainment in a world that loves dreaming about an "escape ticket".  As you'd expect with Jones, everything is a lot weirder than even that premise might suggest, with the novella juggling so many balls that one could easily imagine it being fleshed out into a full-length novel.  It's amazing to think that we haven't had a new work from Jones in nearly a decade, and I hope that Proof of Concept is a sign of things to come, though as a work in its own right it feels incomplete (Paul Kincaid comes to similar conclusions at Strange Horizons).

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

We're All Mad Here: Thoughts on Legion

The superhero genre has been the dominant mode of our pop culture for at least ten years.  Which has turned out to be a bit of a problem, since, even by the relatively modest standards of blockbuster entertainment, superheroes do not lend themselves to particularly deep or thought-provoking ideas.  This is, after all, a genre that is still furiously debating the oh-so-provocative question, "should there be jokes?"  And so, as the years have passed, as character types have repeated themselves, as CGI spectacles have grown tedious and familiar, and as writers finally grew tired of rehashing 9/11 for the millionth time, we have inevitably reached the point where creators start experimenting, trying to prove that there's more to this genre by changing its preoccupations or storytelling methods.  In 2016, this meant political superhero stories, many wondering how civil society will cope with the emergence of superpowered people--which, for the most part, fell flat on their faces, because no amount of po-faced writing will change the fact that the answer to that question is "it can't".  In 2017, therefore, the focus has shifted from substance to style.  Instead of being political, superhero stories are now trying to be artful--from the barren, sun-dried landscapes and Western-inspired soulfulness of Logan[1] to the 80s-flavored camp extravaganza of Thor: Ragnarok.  And nowhere is the triumph of style over substance as blatant--or as much fun--as FX's recent series Legion.

Based on a relatively obscure X-Men character, Legion tells the story of David Haller (Dan Stevens), a young man who has spent his life in and out of psychiatric facilities because of, as he believes, schizophrenia.  In one of these facilities, David meets and falls in love with Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller), who turns out to be a mutant with the power to switch bodies with whoever she touches.  Through Sydney, David comes into contact with the Summerland institute, a group who seek to help mutants understand and control their powers, and who oppose the government-run Division Three, who want to exterminate mutants they consider too dangerous.  Summerland's leader, Dr. Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), assures David that what he and his doctors took for mental illness was actually a tremendous psychic ability, but as she and David work together to understand his powers, they discover hints of a malevolent entity hiding within David's mind and seeking to control him and his power.

The thing that made Legion interesting when it was first announced--beyond the fact that this is the first superhero series produced by a cable channel--was the involvement of Noah Hawley.  Hawley burst onto the scene two years ago with his improbably successful adaptation of the Coen Brothers' 1996 movie Fargo into an anthology crime series, and that show's distinctive style and approach to storytelling seemed to promise very interesting things for a genre that, until this year, has been extremely hidebound on both counts.  In its first two seasons (the third began just last week, so it's hard to tell yet how it will turn out) Fargo was characterized by a cheerful willingness to go over the top, to use bombastic music, striking visuals, and almost cartoonish characters to draw the viewer in.  It balances this excess of style with clockwork-precise storytelling that often hangs on the smallest of details.  Many scenes in Fargo feel like short movies in their own right, often revolving around a character thinking their way out of a problem, constantly two steps ahead of the audience.[2] 

Visually, then, Hawley was absolutely the right man to make something new and different out of the superhero concept, but plot-wise, he was in a bit of a jam.  The kind of precision storytelling he specialized in in Fargo relies on characters who are faced with concrete limitations which they then must work to overcome; it doesn't work in a world where people can fling each other across a room with their minds, or turn invisible, or change the properties of matter.[3]  Hawley's approach with Legion, therefore, was to turn the visual zaniness he employed in Fargo up to eleven, combine it with an almost labyrinthine structure, and use both to convey the turmoil and confusion of David's mind.  The pilot episode, in particular, bounces so swiftly from past to present, from fantasy to reality, that it's not until its final minutes that we can start to piece together what has happened.  And throughout the show's first season, we are constantly being wrongfooted, finding ourselves having to question what is real, and then, to parse different layers of fantasy.  Is David dreaming, or is he in the astral plane?  Are the repeated visions he has of Lenny, his friend from the mental hospital (Aubrey Plaza), a construct created by his own mind, or is she something else?

A lot of the joy of watching Legion comes from the audacity of its structural and visual choices.  We've gotten used to superhero movies and shows spoon-feeding us their stories and character arcs, hewing so closely to the conventional that even something relatively half-baked, like the spy movie homages in Winter Soldier, feels revolutionary.  Legion's willingness to challenge us means that it can find something fresh and new in even the most shopworn of superhero tropes--when Melanie's team sees recordings of a possessed David taking on an entire Division Three base on his own, or when they storm his childhood home and find themselves unable to speak, proceeding in total silence, there's a thrill of horror and tension that I haven't felt from a superhero story in a long time, if ever.  The centerpiece of the season is Plaza's magnificent villain turn, sliding from vaguely disturbing to strangely sinister to all-out derangement with such impeccable logic that by the time she shimmies her way through David's mind to the sound of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good", or cackles like a mad scientist in a silent, black-and-white monster movie, one can't help but gasp in exhilaration.

Another strength of the show is in rejecting the mundane realism that dominates in most of this genre, which refuses to allow even stories about Norse gods or wizards or aliens from Krypton to ever be weird.  The show's time period, for example, is impossible to fix--the clothing and interior design are all straight out of a mid-century magazine, but people reference email at the same time that they use archaic technology like magnetic tapes.[4]  Perhaps the most interesting choice that Legion makes is to present Summerland using terms that deliberately recall the communes and cults of the 70s.  This not only raises the possibility that Melanie and her project for David might be a sinister one, but completely deflates the more common superhero story approach of treating the superhero team like a bunch of badass commandos.  When David finally comes face-to-face with Division Three, his intimidating catchphrase is "War is over, if you want it".

Even Melanie's secret agenda turns out to be something weird and rather affecting.  She's trying to find her husband, Oliver (Jemaine Clement), a powerful telepath who got lost on the astral plane twenty years ago.  When David meets him, Oliver turns out to be an absent-minded dandy, always at least half-soused, and prone to breaking out into slam poetry or making plans to form a barbershop quartet.  It's such a delightfully unexpected touch, in any genre, and only made more delightful when it turns out that beneath his vagueness, Oliver has actually got his finger on the pulse of the situation, and may be the only person who can help David reclaim his mind.

It's a good thing that Legion has so many entertaining secondary characters, and such a penchant for weirdness, because the person that the show is actually about is, well, not even boring so much as half-formed.  This is, to be clear, entirely deliberate--the show's conceit is that David has spent so much of his life in a haze of medication, and in completely structured environments, that he's had no chance to develop a personality.  Stripped of its adornments, the season's main storyline is a rather familiar psychiatric drama, in which a sympathetic therapist helps a long-term patient push through to the origins of their disease--usually a suppressed memory of trauma--only after which can they begin to build a life for themselves.

But while the fact that David is barely a person is justified by the narrative, the devotion that more developed characters end up feeling for him is not.  This is particularly blatant in the case of Syd, a strong-minded, self-possessed young woman whose love for David only gets more inexplicable the more she dedicates herself to his cause.  Especially when you consider that the glimpses we do get of David's personality are not terribly appealing.  The season's plot only kicks into gear because he kisses Syd against her will, triggering a body-swap that brings both of them to Summerland and Division Three's attention. And even after that, he continues to try to push against her clearly-stated boundaries, for example the fact that she doesn't like being touched even when there's no risk of body-swapping.  When he starts to gain control of his powers, David immediately transitions from his earlier bewilderment to arrogance, and even his growth into social responsibility at the season's end, trying to broker a peace between Summerland and Division Three, feels like a power grab, a young man who only became aware of a problem a few weeks ago trying to supplant a middle-aged woman who has been dealing with it for decades.[5]

These, however, are all are fairly familiar flaws of the superhero story.  What makes Legion uniquely frustrating is its handling--or rather, its failure to handle--the issue of mental illness.  Pop culture keeps trying to use superpowers as a metaphor for marginalized groups such as POCs, Jews, LGBT people, or immigrants--an approach whose flaws keep being reiterated, and which is nevertheless attempted again and again.  But I've been saying for a while that a much more fruitful parallel can be made with mental illness, chronic illness, and disability.  It allows for a wide variety of origins and expressions--some people's illness is congenital and even hereditary, and some develop it because of trauma or the circumstances of their life; some people's illness is invisible, and some are unable to function in society because of it--and a wide variety of attitudes.  It allows for the vast array of damaging preconceptions that society imposes--that the mentally ill are dangerous and out of control, or that disabled people are a drain on society.  Most importantly, it allows for the delicate balancing act between the recognition that your illness is a part of who you are and has shaped you as a person, and the need for tools and resources to help you deal with it and live a good life.[6]

Of course, this all requires very delicate handling, of the kind that one rarely finds in either superhero stories or fictional depictions of mental illness.  Legion, unfortunately, falls into some very predictable traps.  At the root of its handling of David's mental illness is a simplistic binary: is David crazy, or does he have superpowers?  Are the events of the show actually happening, or are they a delusion brought on by his schizophrenia?  Obviously, by phrasing the question as an either/or, the show tips its hand--even in a show this weird, we were clearly never going to discover that the entire story had been a madman's fantasy.  Around the middle of the season, the show suggests that David might have both superpowers and mental health issues, but it immediately undercuts that idea by revealing that those issues are the fact that he has been possessed by an evil mutant.  David's mental health problems are thus externally imposed and, more importantly, removable.  The entire structure of the season--the familiar dramatic conceit whereby discovering the root of your problems makes them go away--is mirrored in David and the other characters' efforts to uproot the mutant possessing him.  But implicit within that structure is the assumption that therapy, and recovery, are an on/off state.  David can either be sick, and thus of no use to anyone--"I was in Clockworks for six years.  Drugged.  Doing nothing.  Contributing nothing"--or he can be healed, and thus completely over his problem (which was never his problem in the first place).  The possibility that people might be able to live productive, contributive lives with mental illness, or that recovery is a process, often a lifelong one, is never even entertained.

It's a shame, because in the periphery to David's story there are some interesting moments where the show seems to recognize that people who are abnormal might still have a perspective on the world that they would value and cherish, even as it caused them difficulties.  Discussing her power with David, Syd explains that the ability to be so many different people has convinced her of the existence of the soul, which probably contributes to the sense one gets from her, that here is a woman who knows exactly who she is and what she wants.  In a darker moment, however, she tells David about switching bodies with her mother in order to have sex with her boyfriend, and muses "who teaches us to be normal when we're one of a kind?"[7]  Ptonomy, whose power is the ability to remember everything and travel through others' memories, describes the ability to perfectly recall even the most painful moments of his life as not unlike being a time traveler.

In moments like these, Legion seems open to the idea that it is possible to be both a superpowered person, and someone with problems they need to work through.  But for most of the season the show seems convinced that you can either be one or the other.  When David first meets Syd in the hospital, she insists that "You're in here because somebody said you're not normal ... what if your problems aren't in your head?  What if they aren't even problems?"  In a later episode, when the being in David's mind convinces him and the rest of the characters that they are all patients in a mental hospital, Ptonomy explains to David that "that's the lie, the cruel-ish joke.  How somehow with the right dosage, the right therapy, stand on one leg, touch your nose, we could all go back to [being normal]".  The lesson, in other words, is that if you're really mentally ill, then there's no hope for you, but that if you have powers, then your problems aren't even problems.  It's wrong both coming and going.

I rewatched Legion before sitting down to write this essay.  In hindsight, I probably would have written a more positive review if I hadn't done that.  A lot of what feels audacious about the season the first time around is no longer surprising on the second, which makes it easier to notice how much the show relies for its effect on the reaction of "I can't believe they did that (in a superhero story)".  It's therefore all the more unfortunate that Legion couldn't find anything meaningful to say about mental illness, or anything else that might make it feel less hollow on a second look.  I'm still looking forward to what the show does next--or, if nothing else, to letting Plaza, Clement, and hopefully some of the rest of the cast cut loose on my screen.  But I have to wonder if the need to keep topping itself will eventually be the show's doom, and if we haven't yet again proved that there really isn't that much you can do with superhero stories to make them interesting and meaningful.


[1] Which, to be fair, also has a fair bit of political subtext.

[2] Most of these traits are things that Fargo shares with Breaking Bad and its prequel series Better Call Saul, but whereas those shows view their problem-solving characters with awe, Fargo is a catalogue of human folly.  Even its smartest characters can't keep themselves from getting into the messes they end up having to think their way out of.

[3] This is a problem that superhero stories keep running up against.  Consider Ant-Man, which wanted quite badly to be a smart caper story, but eventually had to admit defeat, collapsing into a generic superhero punch-up in its final act.

[4] This is a particularly interesting choice given how strongly recent X-Men movies have presented themselves as being rooted in their time period.  There's been talk, for example, of Professor X appearing on Legion, but one could just as easily make the argument for James McAvoy as Patrick Stewart, and neither one feels as if they would be completely welcome in the show's world, which is deliberately non-realistic.

[5] It's especially frustrating that the only person on Melanie's team who tries to challenge the notion that David is uniquely important or particularly heroic, Jeremie Harris's Ptonomy, is also a person of color, and that he is sidelined for the most of the season's final act.

[6] Much as I believe in the potential of this approach, I have to admit that very few superhero shows or movies have attempted it, much less managed it well.  The short-lived Syfy series Alphas did some interesting work with superpowered characters whose powers were paralleled with, or the cause of, various mental health issues.  And one of these days I will get around to writing about iZombie, which in its best moments executes this trope flawlessly.

[7] Though if I'm being honest, I don't think that "raping people is wrong" is a lesson that requires case-by-case instruction.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

The 2017 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on the Nominees

Yesterday saw the announcement of this year's Hugo nominations.  Usually I write an essay about the nominees and what state of the field they reflect, but these were announced just as I landed from a week-long trip to New York into several work and life obligations.  So instead, here's an itemized list of the reactions I had to the nominations when they were announced, not necessarily in the order I had them:
  • Happiness, at finally being able to announce that I am once again a nominee in the Best Fan Writer category.  Thank you very much to everyone who nominated me and to the award's administrators and staff, and congratulations to my fellow nominees, Mike Glyer, Natalie Luhrs, Foz Meadows, and Chuck Tingle.  But not Jeffro Johnson, because fuck anyone who willingly associates with a racist turd like Vox Day and tries to ride his coattails to an award they haven't earned.  Enjoy losing to No Award, my man.

  • Relief, because even though I was fairly certain that the puppy presence would be vastly reduced this year, there was always a chance that I would be wrong, and in the end I wasn't.  There are still puppy nominees in most categories--Alex Acks at Bookriot has a good roundup of which one is which--but in the major categories these are mostly things that would probably have been nominated anyway, such as China Miéville's This Census Taker in Best Novella, or Deadpool in Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form.  And because we've switched to six nominations in each category, and the puppies didn't manage to get more than one of their choices in each category, one can argue that we're getting the ballot we would have gotten under last year's rules, with the price of having to pay a small amount of attention to a bunch of whiny babies.  I don't know why Day's flying monkeys are so determined to keep up this silly game, in which the result is a foregone conclusion, but I guess people who choose to live such pathetic lives have twisted ideas of what counts as fun.

  • Pride, over the fact that several nominees whom I championed here made it onto the ballot.  It's likely that I didn't have that much of an effect--I was clearly not the only one who recognized how deserving The Vision, or Hidden Figures, were--but other nominees whom I've been stumping for for years, such as GigaNotoSaurus and Victo Ngai, have finally been nominated, and I'd like to believe that I played a small part in achieving that.

  • Frustration, because the puppies' ongoing presence on the ballot, even under extremely reduced circumstances, means that it continues to be impossible to talk about the nominees as their own thing, rather than a reaction to an attempted fascist takeover.  There's a lot to praise about this year's ballot, including the continued shift towards a more diverse slate of nominees, but in the short fiction categories in particular, the Hugo has once again thrown up a fairly middle-of-the-road selection.  Most of these stories aren't bad, but quite a few of them are meh, and it would be nice to once again be able to have a proper discussion of that.  Instead, we're all still in bunker mode, still cheering the fact that publishable fiction was nominated for the genre's most prestigious award, which increasingly seems like a low bar to clear.

  • Anger, at whatever abomination twitter has inflicted on their tweet threading mechanism.  Being on vacation last week, I missed the outrage over this when it was rolled out, but the limitations of the new system were made abundantly clear when I got tagged in multiple threads of more than a hundred participants each, with no ability to remove myself from them.  Until twitter comes to its senses, this is a good, brief primer on how to conduct conversations on the platform in a way that doesn't completely spam people's mentions.

  • Uncertainty, over the state of the three media categories, the two Best Dramatic Presentations and Best Graphic Story.  I think that all of these categories have delivered solid shortlists this year, with even a few surprises--it was by no means a foregone conclusion that the Hugo nominators would accept Hidden Figures's right to be on the ballot, and the fact that the hip hop group Clipping's concept album Splendor & Misery was nominated in the short form category is obviously delightful.  But overall, these are very predictable shortlists, and while that's not exactly a new development, it does make one wonder what their added value is, in terms of recognizing excellence in the field.

  • Hope, because now that Daveed Diggs is a Hugo nominee, perhaps he might be persuaded to come to Helsinki?  I say this, of course, in a public-minded spirit, and not at all because Diggs and I are both invited to the same Hugo nominee reception.

  • Deliberation, because now I have to decide what 2016 writing to put in my Hugo voter packet contribution.  If you have a preference, feel free to mention it in the comments.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Five Comments on Iron Fist

Marvel and Netflix's latest series dropped this past weekend, a week and a half after the pre-air reviews pretty much savaged it, calling it the partnership's (if not the MCU's) first complete dud.  What I found particularly damning about Iron Fist's reviews was their uniformity.  When one reviewer gives you a pan, you can blame the reviewer.  When a dozen reviewers give you pans that all make exactly the same criticisms--a dull and unsympathetic lead performance, an increasing emphasis on an unappealing villain, storylines that focus too much on boardroom shenanigans, lousy fight scenes--you've probably got a turkey on your hands.  Having watched the entire first season of Iron Fist, my only quibble with the reviewers is that most of the flaws they ascribe to the show were also present in the second season of Daredevil, which received generally favorable notices.  In fact, it's not so much that Iron Fist is worse than Daredevil's second season, as that it is more boring (it lacks, for example, a magnetic central performance in the vein of Jon Bernthal's Punisher), and this makes it easier to notice flaws that have been present in all of the Defenders shows, albeit taken to far greater extremes here.  The boring part means that the show doesn't really deserve a full review, but there are a few points about it that I thought were worth discussing.

  1. It is almost impossible to overstate how much of a drag Danny Rand himself is on this show.  To the extent that I strongly suspect that if you tweaked Danny but left everything else exactly as it was, Iron Fist would have gotten much kinder reviews.  In the show's first scene, a barefoot and bedraggled Danny (Finn Jones) arrives at the headquarters of his father's company, after a fifteen-year absence during which was presumed to have died in the plane crash that killed his parents, but in which he was actually training in the mystical city of K'un-Lun.  When he's refused entrance, he attacks and beats the guards who try to stop him, then makes his way to the executive floor where he accosts the grown-up children of his father's partner, Ward and Joy Meachum (Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup), insisting that he is their long-lost friend.  Later, he breaks into Joy's house (where he and his family used to live) and then boasts to her about it.  Later still, he steals Ward's car with Ward inside, and, after disarming Ward of his own gun, threatens him with it.  Through it all, Danny is increasingly affronted by the world's refusal to recognize him, and perceives that refusal as a flaw in the people he interacts with.  "You need to calm down," he condescendingly tells Ward after the latter orders him out of his office, and then later complains that "I have been met by nothing but anger and hostility."

    You can almost imagine how all these interactions might have worked in a show that was more willing to make Danny look vulnerable, misguided, or just plain wrong.  But it's clear throughout Iron Fist's first episode that we're meant to be on Danny's side, to feel that his behavior is reasonable and that it is the people who are refusing him who are being foolish and thus deserve everything he does to them.  What's worse, it's clear that Danny feels this way as well.  The show tries to spin him as an innocent who doesn't understand how invasive and creepy his behavior is, but--even leaving aside the fact that this is always the excuse offered when privileged men abuse their power over others--that is simply not how Jones plays the part.  His Danny is smugly certain of his right to other people's attention, and when that certainty is punctured, he slides almost directly into anger.

    You see this, in particular, in Danny's interactions with his new friends, dojo owner Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and Defenders stalwart Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson).  All of Danny's interactions with Colleen in Iron Fist's early episodes betray his conviction that he is entitled to her time and attention.  He repeatedly abuses her generosity--when she offers him a place to stay for the night but insists that he be gone in the morning, he instead wakes her up with loud music--and pushes against her clearly-stated boundaries.  In one particularly teeth-gnashing scene, he interrupts Colleen's lesson with Claire to take her out to lunch.  When Colleen points out that they made no plans and that she has prior commitments, he complains that "I ordered takeout"--actually, a full-course meal that he has had delivered to the dojo, complete with white tablecloth and waiters.  It's clear that Iron Fist's writers see this behavior as, at worst, clueless, and at best, sweet (and, eventually, romantic).  But it's a dynamic that constantly puts Colleen and Claire on their back feet, reacting to the rules Danny sets and never being allowed to set their own.  Later in the season, when Danny begins succumbing to PTSD from his unprocessed feelings over his parents' deaths, it falls to Colleen and Claire to baby him when he has outbursts of anger and even violence, and to reassure him that these reactions are not his fault.

    In the season's first episode, Danny is befriended by a homeless man, and after listening to his delusional ravings, muses that "I'm guessing people think we're pretty much alike".  Implicit in all of Danny's interactions in Iron Fist's first half, and in the show's constant validation of his sense of entitlement, is the belief that if people knew who he really was--the real Danny Rand, or the Iron Fist, defender of K'un-Lun--they would treat him differently.  But the truth is, most of the people who interact with Danny do see him for what he is: a pushy, arrogant, condescending man who feels entitled to their time and becomes hostile when they don't give it to him.  That Iron Fist fails to acknowledge this comes down to the show's misguided conviction that we will want to see Danny as a hero, and thus share his belief in his entitlement.  It does not seem to have occurred to the show's writers that Danny needs to earn his role as a hero, and that his behavior instead pushes him further and further away from it.

    Nowhere is this disconnect more apparent than in the show's handling of the Iron Fist concept itself.  As Danny explains to Joy in the fourth episode, the Iron Fist is charged with the sacred duty of defending K'un-Lun from invaders.  In the same breath, he admits that he only wanted the job because no one thought that an outsider could be chosen for it.  But as soon as the passage between K'un-Lun and our reality opened (which only happens every fifteen years), Danny left his post.  The only justification the show can offer for this dereliction is to argue that Danny's PTSD and feelings of abandonment caused him to pursue the role of Iron Fist for the wrong reasons, but (leaving aside that it makes the monks who chose him for the job look pretty foolish) that excuse doesn't make things any better for the people Danny abandoned--especially since the end of the season reveals that in Danny's absence, some calamity has befallen K'un-Lun.  Once again, there are interesting things that could have been done with this--if Danny were introduced at the beginning of the season as a failure who needs to redeem himself for his betrayal of his duty.  But Iron Fist seems genuinely not to realize how bad it makes its main character look to have pursued a position of great responsibility and importance simply because everyone assumed he couldn't do it, and then, once he realized what it entailed, to abandon it at the first opportunity.  It still wants us to see Danny as a hero, and entitled to the role of Iron Fist, without him having to do any work to (re)earn it.

  2. Iron Fist is about wealth and capitalism in a way that has been largely obscured in the publicity surrounding it.  There's been a lot of conversation about Marvel's decision to cast a white man as Danny Rand, despite loud voices coming out of the fandom requesting that the character--who is, let's face it, a tired '80s trope that doesn't make a lot of sense as a superhero in 2017--be cast with an Asian actor.  Like a lot of people, I had assumed that the choice to ignore those voices was rooted, at least in part, in the desire to make Iron Fist a "plot" show rather than a "message" show like Jessica Jones or Luke Cage (to be clear, I think that this is a false dichotomy, but I could believe that the decision-makers at Marvel bought into it).  Instead, Iron Fist turns out to be just as politically blatant as the Defenders shows preceding it, albeit in the exact opposite direction.  Danny's position as a member of the 1% turns out to be just as important--if not more so--to his story as his martial arts skills and magical powers.  Once again, this does not mean that Danny could not have been cast with an Asian actor, but given the political slant of the show, I think the only thing that would have been accomplished by this would be to give an actor from an under-represented group a high-profile job.  The hopes of so much of fandom, that casting an Asian Danny would be a way for Marvel to grapple with its history of Orientalism and dismantle the "white kung-fu superhero" trope, would probably have been left unanswered, because that is not at all where Iron Fist places its thematic weight.

    The villains of Iron Fist are The Hand, a clandestine, all-powerful cult who have appeared in both seasons of Daredevil, to very little effect.  Led by the perpetually-smiling Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), the Hand have tendrils in both organized crime and the occult, and in Iron Fist it's revealed that they have co-opted Rand Corporation by offering Ward and Joy's father, Harold Meachum (David Wenham), a cure for his terminal cancer.  This means that a great deal of Iron Fist is spent in boardrooms, as the Meachums first try to prevent Danny from taking his place on the Rand board, and then act exasperated when he tries to take the company in a more ethical, and less profitable, direction.  But what at first seems like the show treading water before Danny discovers the Hand's presence at Rand, actually turns out to be the point of the exercise.  Iron Fist is seriously trying to argue that all it takes for a billion-dollar corporation to be ethical is for one boardmember with a controlling share to insist on approaches such as selling a new drug at cost.  In one particularly tone-deaf plotline, Rand is sued by people living near one of their chemical plants who have been experiencing abnormally high levels of cancer.  Rather than reveal that the plant is indeed poisoning the residents, the show instead offers the weirdly implausible conclusion that Rand have abided by all existing regulations, but that they may be poisoning the residents through a process not yet understood, or regulated by the law.  This gives Danny the opportunity to insist that the plant be closed nonetheless, but more importantly, it allows the show to paint Rand as innocent--a company that has followed all the rules and is being sued nonetheless.

    The significance of this becomes clear when the show reveals that the Hand is actually an umbrella term that encompasses several warring factions.  Opposing Gao's violent, drug-funded faction is a seemingly more peaceful one, led by a charismatic guru named Bakuto (Ramon Rodriguez).  He introduces the Hand to Danny as a sort of benevolence association, who give a home and an education to disadvantaged children, and encourage them to go out into the world and take positions in public service.  One of the biggest twists of the season is the revelation that Colleen is a graduate of this program, Bakuto's own prize pupil, and that her dojo is a recruitment post.  Given the overt cult vibes that Bakuto and his compound give off, it's not surprising when this branch of the Hand also turns out to be sinister, but the terms in which Iron Fist couches this evil are telling.  This version of the Hand are the stereotypical evil Communist infiltrators, seemingly benign and concerned with the public good, but actually obsessed with obedience and conformity, and hard at work placing their operatives at every level of society.  When Colleen realizes she's been working for the wrong people and betrays the Hand to save Danny, her punishment is to be literally drained of her blood--which Bakuto describes as "giving to the Hand".

    In other words, Iron Fist is a story about an innocent corporation escaping from the clutches of an evil Communist plot.  And while Rand Corporation can be saved through the simple expedient of removing Harold Meachum and placing Danny and Ward at its head (Joy has, by this point, been seduced by the forces of evil), the Communist Hand can't be saved.  All of the good it does is corrupted by its ulterior motives, and with the exception of Colleen, its members are brainwashed, willing to turn on their former teacher and benefactor if their leader tells them to (the fact that the leadership of Rand is white and rich, while the Hand is carefully multiethnic and drawn from among the poor and working classes, only makes this conclusion more pointed).  It is, quite frankly, a bizarre turn of plot, and one that I'd like to see get more attention.

  3. Colleen Wing could--and should--have been the show's lead character.  That in the early episodes of the season Colleen ends up being more sympathetic and magnetic than Danny isn't terribly surprising--where he is a son of privilege who has run away from his obligations, she is a young woman with few advantages who has taken on obligations, to train and help the kids in her neighborhood.  It certainly doesn't hurt that Jessica Henwick has a great deal more presence than Finn Jones, as an actress and in her fight scenes.  She manages to sell lines like "you dishonor yourself when you fight for money" or "I stepped way outside the code of Bushido" where he doesn't, because her character always comes off as a person with a code that she believes in but nevertheless struggles to live up to.  Colleen's storyline in the season's first half involves participating in underground cage matches, which not only gives the show its only truly engaging fight scenes--there's a heft and energy to Henwick's fighting that is completely absent from Jones's underpowered attempts at it--but raises the suggestion that Colleen is fighting more because she likes the thrill of it than in order to keep her dojo afloat.

    What is surprising about all this is how closely Colleen's story follows the contours of a standard hero narrative.  All it would take is shunting Danny to the side for the show to be about her and her journey.  Even the revelation that she is working for the Hand--though it makes her anxiety about funding the dojo seem completely unfounded--could easily have been folded into this kind of story, with Colleen learning to see that the people who saved and trained her are actually evil, and striking out on her own.  It's such a blatant heroic journey that one can hardly believe it when the later episodes of the season sideline Colleen in favor of Danny's perspective on her, prioritizing the question of whether he can learn to trust her again, and whether their nascent romance can survive the trauma of learning about her deception, over her own path towards the side of good.

    There's a sense that Iron Fist is grasping towards an equivalence between Danny and Colleen, two young people raised and trained by rigid, dogmatic systems, taught to hate each other but forced to reconsider their prejudices when they actually encounter the enemy (especially since Ward and Joy Meachum, and Danny's friend and fellow acolyte from K'un-Lun, Davos (Sacha Dhawan), who follows him to New York, can also be said to be products of similar systems).  But this would require the show to have spent more time establishing what K'un-Lun is actually like, and less time demonizing Bakuto's faction of the Hand.  Most of all, it would require the show to place a great deal less emphasis on Danny, and turn Iron Fist into more of an ensemble show, and this is clearly not something the writers were interested in doing.

  4. The most interesting character dynamic in the show doesn't involve Danny at all.  In one late-episode scene, after removing Danny from a tense interaction between Harold, Ward, and Joy Meachum, Bakuto comments that "those people... are a pit of vipers.  You should thank me for getting you away from them".  He's right, but that's also why the scenes between the Meachums are consistently--and unexpectedly--the most entertaining thing about Iron Fist.  Though saved from cancer by the Hand, Harold is officially dead, and he's been prohibited from stepping foot outside of his lush penthouse, which he has decorated as nearly a parody of masculine obsessions.  This leaves Ward as his father's go-between, conveying his orders to the Rand board as if they were his own ideas, while an oblivious Joy takes him to be a business genius.

    The dynamic that develops between the three Meachums is thus deliciously twisted.  Ward--who is shown in flashbacks to Danny's childhood to have been a vicious bully--is hardly a sympathetic character, especially when he does things like send goons after Danny or loot the Rand employee pension fund.  But he's also the most self-aware character on the show, recognizing that his father is a monster, and that the path he's taking his family and company on is one of madness.  Ground down by his father's emotional and physical abuse, and lacking the strength to break away, Ward instead spirals into anxiety and drug abuse, which is a refreshingly realistic reaction to the kind of madness that tends to pervade in a Defenders show--not to mention a well-executed portrait of the toll of toxic masculinity.

    Joy, meanwhile, feels like White Feminism personified.  Smart and ambitious, and more than willing to play dirty--in order to close a deal, she manipulates the organ transplant list to help the nephew of a putative business partner; and when threatened with ouster from the Rand board, she coolly gathers sordid blackmail material on her enemies--she's nevertheless been allowed to think of herself as an innocent in all of Rand's dealings.  But Joy is smart enough to have known better, and even when she becomes an active participant in Harold's schemes, she refuses to see what's in front of her--for example, the fact that her father is murdering their opponents on Rand's board.  That there is nevertheless a great deal of love between the three Meachums--in particular between Joy and Ward, who despite their differences strongly support one another until their father comes between them--only makes the tangled family drama more fun to watch.

    The only problem with all this is that there's no place in it for Danny, or at least not Iron Fist's version of Danny.  The Meachums were Danny's second family before the plane crash that killed his parents and derailed his life, and after his return it's clear that he still romanticizes them and the chance to form a new family with them.  Playing on this desire in much the same way that he manipulates his own son, Harold very quickly suborns Danny and convinces him that he has been an unwilling dupe of the Hand.  But that is almost the extent of Danny's interactions with the Meachums.  He spends the season thinking that Harold is a victim--it's only right before the end that we discover, unsurprisingly, that Harold orchestrated Danny's fateful plane crash--and is not privy to Harold's abuse of Ward, or Ward and Joy's close bond and its corruption by secrets, or Joy's growing willingness to adopt her father's tactics.  When Danny finally catches a glimpse of the real Meachums near the end of the season, he's utterly befuddled, because the most interesting story in his own show has been happening largely without his input.

  5. You do not need to watch Iron Fist in order to understand the plot of The Defenders.  This is, obviously, mostly speculation, but Iron Fist is actually fairly self-contained in its storytelling.  Very little is left for The Defenders to resolve, and the only dangling thread that seems as if it might be relevant to that show's story is the fact that Bakuto's faction of the Hand has infiltrated much of New York's government and public services.  It's likely, however, that The Defenders will reintroduce this plot point in order to make its own storytelling work, so if you're planning to watch Iron Fist as a necessary stepping stone to the team-up event, don't bother.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The 2017 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Best Novel and Campbell Award

Well, here we are at last.  With a little more than a day left in the Hugo nominating period, it's time for the last two categories.  These are, in many ways, the big two (though possibly I'm giving the Campbell more cachet than it has for most voters--I just find it very interesting), but also the ones where it's tough to gather enough momentum to get interesting work on the ballot.  This year, for example, I'm taking it as a given that the Best Novel trophy belongs to Connie Willis, which, if you know my tastes, you can probably guess doesn't thrill me.  But though I wouldn't call 2016 a standout year for novel-length genre fiction, there were several very interesting and worthwhile works published this year, not to mention new authors that I'm sure will go to great things.

(I don't plan to nominate in the special category of Best Series, both because I find it poorly defined, and because I haven't read a lot of work that qualifies.  I suppose I could have nominated Dave Hutchinson's Fractured Europe sequence, but I didn't get around to reading Europe in Winter before the nominating deadline.)

(As usual, I relied for my Campbell nominations on the invaluable resource that is Writertopia's Campbell eligibility page.)

Previous posts in this series:


Best Novel:

Most years I complain about not reading enough recent books to nominate in this category, but I actually read quite a lot of 2016 genre novels.  Nevertheless, there are several books I wish I'd managed to finish before the nominating deadline--chiefly Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning, but also Emma Newman's After Atlas and Dave Hutchinson's Europe in Winter.

  • The Power by Naomi Alderman (review) - As I've said, this feels more like a Clarke award book than a Hugo award one, but nevertheless Alderman's chilling, Handmaid's Tale-esque story about a world in which women suddenly develop the ability to shoot bolts of electricity from their bodies, upending the world's balance of violent potential, is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking works of science fiction I've read in some time.  What's most interesting about The Power is that while it is undeniably a book about gender and the role that violence plays in maintaining gender roles, that's not its main interest.  What Alderman is doing with her premise is using it to discuss the role that violence and the use of force play in organizing our society, even when we pretend to be beyond them.  That feels like a vital issue at this point in time.

  • Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee - I wasn't as blown away by Lee's debut novel as some--under all its bells and whistles, the plot struck me as quite conventional, and the book feels hampered by being the first volume in a trilogy.  But none of that changes the fact that this is one of the most distinctive and fascinating space operas to emerge from a period that was already testing that genre's limits and capabilities.  Lee has been doing tremendous work in short fiction for years, but with Ninefox Gambit he synthesizes many of the ideas in those stories--most especially, the notion that math, and the basic axioms of your mathematical system, can be used as a weapon of war--into an effective and involving story of space battles and sieges.

  • The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar (review) - One of the best books I read in 2016, Samatar's sequel/companion to A Stranger in Olondria got less attention than that earlier book, but quite undeservedly.  It is, in many ways, a more conventional work than Olondria, one that plops the reader in the middle of a fantasy-world civil war.  But it's also, like the previous volume, an examination of its own genre, of the effect that writing and storifying can have on history and our understanding of it, of the uses to which empire puts those effects, and of the roles that women are allowed in such stories.  And, like so much of Samatar's work, it is beautifully written, set in an instantly winning world, and people with indelible characters.

  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (review) - It actually took me a little while to realize that Whitehead's exceptional, heart-wrenching novel about slavery was eligible for the Hugo, perhaps because of the gloss of respectability that attends a novel that has been so widely lauded.  But The Underground Railroad, which uses a fantasy premise to decouple American racism from any one period in time and sends its heroine on a journey through the different forms that it has taken over the centuries, is a genre work in almost exactly the same way as previous Hugo winner The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and like that novel it reveals the ways that genre can be used to make necessary observations about the state of the world today.

Campbell Award for Best New Writer:

  • Joseph Allen Hill - Hill wowed me with his novelette "The Venus Effect", which cannily examines genre tropes and which kind of people can end up being excluded from them.  He's also published other stories--"We'll Be Together Forever" from 2015 and "You Can't See It 'Til It's Finished" from 2016--which reveal an intriguing and unique voice, combining surrealist and metafictional elements with a quirky sense of humor.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Malka Older - Older's 2015 story "Tear Tracks" was an unexpected surprise that has lingered with me, and her debut novel Infomocracy more than lives up to the promise of that early work.  Nearly alone among writers imagining the near-future, Older focuses on the changing face of democracy, and on the role that information technology plays in those changes.  She writes about these topics with a clarity that is obviously rooted in a keen observation of the state of the world around--there is scarcely a bit of Infomocracy's worldbuilding that doesn't feel achingly relevant to our present moment.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Laurie Penny - Penny has been an outspoken and incisive feminist activist and non-fiction author for several years now, so it's kind of unfair for her to reveal that she's also a pretty good fiction writer.  Her novella Everything Belongs to the Future, and short story "Your Orisons May Be Recorded", reveal a good eye for details, a winning sense of humor, and a deft hand at combining politics with good fiction.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Tade Thompson - Thompson's novel Rosewater--a fungus-based work of cyberpunk in the vein of Lauren Beukes's Moxyland--is a little more interesting for its worldbuilding than its story.  But the worldbuilding is indeed very interesting, describing a world in which aliens invaded several decades ago, and physically altered a portion of humanity, but no one really knows what to do about that.  Set in Nigeria and focusing on a ne'er-do-well "sensitive" who can access the "xenosphere" created by the presence of alien fungus on Earth, Rosewater combines politics and technology, imagining how the irretrievable alteration of the world looks from the parts of it that have come last in the old order.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Tamara Vardomskaya - Vardomskaya caught my attention this year with the novelette "Polyglossia", but when I went back to look I realized that I'd read and liked several other stories by her, including "Acrobatic Duality" from 2015, and "The Three Dancers of Gizari" from 2016.  In all of her work, she constructs fascinating fantasy worlds in which the focus is on art and creativity--and in which those forces are nevertheless vectors for politics, oppression, and conflict.  Second year of eligibility.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The 2017 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Media Categories

These are the categories that have the most color and make the most noise.  And they're usually the ones where I feel the most grounded when I come to nominate, but this year I actually managed to miss out on several movies that I wanted to consider for Best Dramatic Presentation--things like High Rise, Midnight Special, Kubo and the Two Strings, and even Zootopia.  Nevertheless, I'm pleased with how my nominations worked out this year--I tend to think of media as being the more generic arm of SFF, but the works I've nominated here are each so much their own thing that I'd hate to imagine my year without them.

Previous posts in this series:

Best Related Work:

This is the category that I always feel most guilty about not nominating more widely in.  There's a lot of great non-fiction being written in genre right now, on- and off-line, but since my threshold for substantiveness excludes most individual blog posts, I often end up with very little that I want to nominate here.  The solution, obviously, is to read more long-form non-fiction--UIP's Modern Masters of Science Fiction is a great source that I somehow never get around to--but happily this year has been a good one for long-form online essays and blog series.

(Not listed in this ballot, because he's asked people not to nominate it, but still very much worth reading and remembering, is Jonathan McCalmont's "Nothing Beside Remains: A History of the New Weird", which delves into the short half-life of this genre, and the critical conversation that surrounded it.)

  • A People's History of the Marvel Universe by Steven Attewell - The only criticism I can make of Attewell's series is that it seems to be on permanent hiatus, just when we could use an independent history of this corner of pop culture, told from a decidedly leftist perspective.  Attewell delves into the origins of several key Marvel characters and concepts, from Magneto's background as a Holocaust survivor, to the infamous "mutant metaphor".  He describes both the evolution of ideas we've come to take for granted, and the pitfalls the Marvel writers fell into as they tried to grapple with social upheaval and the need to reflect it in their world of heroes and villains.  With superheroes currently one of the dominant forms in our pop culture, a perspective like Attewell's is invaluable.

  • Boucher, Backbone, and Blake - the Legacy of Blakes 7 by Erin Horakova - One of the many remarkable things about Erin's essay is how accessible and thought-provoking it is even to someone like myself, who has been hearing about Blakes 7 for years, but has seen almost nothing of it.  This is by no means an introductory piece or a guide to newbies.  Its focus is specific, one might almost say deliberately fannish.  And yet, by turning her eye on some very particular aspects of the show, and the people who were instrumental in achieving them, Erin builds a larger argument about the intersection between art and politics, about the capacity of popular entertainment to grapple with difficult, even radical ideas, and about the specific circumstances on the set of Blakes 7 that allowed it to do so, and how modern work would struggle to achieve the same effect.  It's a brilliant piece of cultural commentary (as already acknowledged by the voters for the BSFA award's non-fiction category) and one that absolutely belongs on this year's Hugo ballot.

Best Graphic Story:

  • Clean Room (Volume 1: Immaculate Conception) by Gail Simone and Jon Davis-Hunt - I didn't expect much from this series, which after all has a rather shopworn premise--spurred by the death of a loved one, an ordinary person begins investigating a secretive organization and falls through the trapdoor of reality.  But Simone executes this story incredibly well, starting with the organization at its center, a Scientology-esque cult that just happens to be humanity's last line of defense against body-snatching demons.  Davis-Hunt's artwork perfectly captures the horror of Simone's creatures, but the heart of this story is not the gore, but the two women at its center--plucky, no-nonsense journalist Chloe, and tough-as-nails cult leader Astrid, who quickly become fast frenemies, and allies in the war to come.

  • Paper Girls (Volume 1, Volume 2) by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang - Given all the excitement surrounding Stranger Things (which I have no doubt will be gracing this year's Best Dramatic Presentation nominations) it's a little surprising that Saga didn't use the Netflix juggernaut to promote Vaughan's new series, which tells a very similar story, but addresses the main complaint that a lot of fans had against it.  Paper Girls is Stranger Things starring four Barbs, the less-popular, slightly weird girls who just happen to be the only ones left standing when reality takes a break on one ordinary fall day in 1988.  In addition to being a weird science fiction mystery, it's also a story about the relationships between women--between friends, between the girls and their mothers, and, in the second volume, between one of the heroines and her future self.

  • Monsterss (Volume 1: Awakening) by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda - The story of Monstress is, frankly, a little on the familiar side--fantasy world, promised ones, looming apocalypses--but it's more than made up for by the richness of its world.  I've already written about Takeda's stunning art, but it would be nothing without Liu's work in building a complicated, multifaceted fantasy society divided between various races, castes, and guilds.  The fact that nearly every character in the story is a woman, and that disability is a common fact of life in the story's cruel, war-torn world, makes Monstress an interesting twist on its type, no matter how familiar.

  • My Life as a Background Slytherin by Emily McGovern - With her hilarious web-series, McGovern has done the seemingly impossible--found a new corner of humor in the seemingly exhausted field of Harry Potter fanfic and fan-art.  As the title indicates, the strip follows the adventures of Emily, a member of house Slytherin during the events of the Potter books (though background Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Gryffindor characters also make guest appearances).  It uses her perspective to poke fun at the book's characters, as well as the more questionable qualities of Hogwarts as an educational institution, and a house system that relegates a quarter of its students to the "evil" house at the age of eleven.

  • The Vision (Volume 1: Little Worse Than a Man, Volume 2: Little Better Than a Beast) by Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, and Michael Walsh - I've written about this comic several times already, including selecting it as one of the best books I read in 2016, so it's probably not a surprise to find it on this ballot.  But what feels particularly right about nominating King's run of The Vision for a Hugo is that, while most superhero stories are considered at least SF-adjacent, this is just a plain old science fiction story, about a robot who tries to be human, and the disastrous, tragic results that follow.  That the Vision is also a former superhero plays into the story (and allows King to make some interesting observations about the rights and duties of a person who has saved the Earth multiple times), but not as much as you might expect.  Walta and Walsh's art perfectly complements the chilling, compelling story, which manages to surprise you at every turn, even when you know how it's going to end.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:

  • A Midsummer Night's Dream (adapted by Russell T. Davies, directed by David Kerr) (review) - It might sound strange to say that Davies stages Shakespeare's play as an episode of Doctor Who, but that is exactly what he does, complete with a minimally-conceived yet surprisingly-coherent alternate world setting, a looming menace who seeks to stamp out freedom and creativity, and trickster figures who save the day by refusing to play by the rules.  The result is one of the best things Davies has done in a while, and one of the freshest approaches to the play I've ever seen.

  • Arrival (written by Eric Heisserer, directed by Denis Villeneuve) (review) - For all my reservations about the changes that Arrival makes to Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life", there's no denying that taken on its own, it's a powerful, moving film, one that proves that there is room and an audience for thoughtful, cerebral SF movies that center women, soft sciences, and emotional connections.

  • Deadpool (written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, directed by Tim Miller) - I expect at least one MCU movie, if not two, to make it onto this year's ballot, but I'd much rather see a nomination for Deadpool.  Deeply imperfect and not nearly as funny as it clearly thinks it is, it is nevertheless the only superhero work from 2016 that recognizes the inherent ridiculousness, and fundamental flaws, of the concept, and treats it accordingly.  For that, it deserves to be rewarded.

  • Hidden Figures (written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, directed by Theodore Melfi) - I can't think of a movie that came out in 2016 that seems more calculated to appeal to Hugo voters, with their space program fannishness and love of everything that is geeky and science-y.  The fact that Hidden Figures sheds light on a part of the space program's history that had remained relatively unheralded for years makes it even more perfect for this category--it's about time Hugo voters gave these women their due along with everyone else.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:

  • Black Mirror, "San Junipero" (written by Charlie Brooker, directed by Owen Harris) - There's been some discussion over what it means that the hands-down best episode of Black Mirror is also the one that abandons the show's trademark cynicism and brutality, and tells a sweet love story with a happy ending.  I think a better way of putting it is that "San Junipero" shows us Black Mirror at its best, as a show that imagines how technology can change us in ways that not everyone is ready for, and which are not seen as a universal good, but which can be embraced precisely by those people for whom the old system didn't always work--though the episode doesn't sensationalize it, it's no accident that the love story at its center is between two women (one of whom is bisexual, and spent years happily and faithfully married to a man).  Whether that's something the show wants to continue exploring is up to Brooker, but in the meantime, "San Junipero" is too fine an accomplishment not to recognize.  (Bubbling under is the episode "Nosedive", whose execution just gets more perfect the further I move away from it.  I don't think it's a coincidence that this story, too, is less bleak than the typical Black Mirror episode.)

  • Gravity Falls, "Weirdmageddon 3: Take Back the Falls" (written by Shion Takeuchi, Mark Rizzo, Jeff Rowe, Josh Weinstein, and Alex Hirsch, directed by Stephen Sandoval) - My last chance to get Hugo voters to recognize one of the best genre stories of the last few years.  "Weirdmageddon 3" is the final part of Gravity Falls's explosive and completely satisfying series finale, in which the titular town must ban together to defeat the incursion of Cthulhu-esque demons who plan to take over our reality.  It's an episode that gives all of the show's wide and wonderfully drawn cast of characters their moment to shine, and gives the evil villain Bill Cipher his well-deserved trouncing.  And it features the show's trademark weirdness and horror, both of which are achieved at a pitch that is astonishing in a work of children's entertainment.

  • Person of Interest, "The Day the World Went Away" (written by Andy Callahan and Melissa Scrivner-Love, directed by Fred Toye) - Person of Interest's final season was hit-and-miss, and I wasn't overjoyed by the neatness of its ending.  But in its best moments, such as this episode, it remained a show that challenged its audience to imagine how an all-powerful AI would see the world, and how such a creature could be a person without being in any way human.  "The Day the World Went Away" introduces some truly dizzying ideas about the meaning of life in a world in which we can all be modeled in a computer--"We're all simulations now", one character concludes, and therefore "we never die".  It's a reminder that at its best, Person of Interest was one of the most purely SFnal shows on TV.  (Bubbling under is the episode "6,741", which explores how an AI can play with, and even destroy, our perception of reality.  It's probably not a coincidence that the two standout episodes of the season are the ones that most heavily feature the Root/Shaw romance.)

  • Supergirl, "Falling" (written by Robert Rovner and Jessica Queller, directed by Larry Teng) - Supergirl has been extremely hit-and-miss, especially in its approach to political issues such as feminism or (in its current season) immigration.  But this first season episode shows off what the show can do when it gets its concepts just right.  It takes a well-worn comics trope, red kryptonite, and explores the true horror of its implications, for Kara herself as well as the people around her.  And it's an episode that dives straight into the show's feminist underpinnings, as going evil, for Kara, means trying on various "bad girl" personas modeled by the women in her life.  The result is a surprisingly resonant episode with a great deal to say about how women end up performing goodness and badness (it's no coincidence that every personality change Kara experiences comes with a wardrobe change), and how those roles can end up driving them literally insane.

  • The Good Place, "Pilot" (written by Michael Schur, directed by Drew Goddard) - I would have liked to nominate The Good Place's entire first season, but alas, the brilliant ending that takes a smart and interesting comedy and turns it into one of the most shocking and delightful series I've seen in a long time aired in 2017.  The show still deserves to be recognized by the Hugos, however, and the pilot is a good choice because of the way it lays out the show's fantasy worldbuilding.  The Good Place is a comedy whose laughs are derived in no small part from its ability to construct an internally consistent fantasy world, and the fact that it does this so well makes it one of the best genre shows of 2016.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

The 2017 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Publishing and Fan Categories

The trait that most sets the categories in this post apart from the rest of the Hugo ballot is that there doesn't tend to be much movement here.  Magazines that do good work tend to keep doing it.  Writers who produce excellent criticism will (happily) keep writing.  So the excitement of ferreting out the year's best work, of happening across a new discovery, is a little muted here.  Especially in my case, since so many nominees in these categories that I've been stumping for for years have continued to be ignored by the greater nominating membership (in other words, what is it going to take for Victo Ngai to get a Best Professional Artist nomination?).  Nevertheless, this year's reading has reminded me that it is possible to be surprised even by venues and writers you thought you knew well, as I elaborate below.

(As usual, I've omitted the editor categories where I don't feel qualified to nominate, and Best Fancast, because I don't really care for podcasts.  I also relied a great deal on the Hugo Eligible Art tumblr, and on the Hugo Nominations Spreadsheet, for suggestions in the art categories.)

Previous posts in this series:


Best Semiprozine:

  • GigaNotoSaurus (editor: Rashida J. Smith) - I continue to be blown away by this how this small magazine consistently delivers excellent work in the most unassuming setting ever.  For a magazine that publishes only twelve stories in a year to constantly end up with multiple selections on my ballot (this year I have a novella and novelette selection from here) is a pretty impressive hit rate.

  • Lightspeed Magazine (editor-in-chief: John Joseph Adams) - Lightspeed surprised me this year by developing something I had learned not to look for in online short fiction magazines--a clear and strongly-felt editorial voice.  In a significant departure from previous years, the stories Lightspeed published in 2016 tended overwhelmingly to be science fiction, to be focused on near-future issues caused by the interaction of society and technology, and to be strongly political.  That's not necessarily how I'd like all my short fiction, but it's interesting to see one venue with such a distinctive focus.

  • Liminal Stories (editors: Shannon Peavey and Kelly Sandoval) - This is a new magazine, and I haven't completely plumbed its depths yet.  But what I've seen has impressed me--Joseph Allen Hill, whose "The Venus Effect" was such a wonderful surprise, had another, very interesting story here, "You Can't See it 'til it's Finished", and the rest of their roster is an interesting combination of familiar names and new ones.

  • Strange Horizons (editor-in-chief: Niall Harrison) - The mothership, and still one of the most ambitious and hardworking genre magazines out there.  Strange Horizons had a great 2016--a successful fund drive, finally transitioning to a new website, and setting up several important projects that'll be debuting throughout 2017.  And through it all, it continued to publish excellent fiction and non-fiction--it's not a coincidence that all but one of my Best Fan Writer nominees did some of their best work for this magazine.

Best Fanzine:

I'm on the verge of no longer nominating in this category.  I don't like the idea of nominating personal blogs here--with the existence of the Best Fan Writer category, and the fact that Best Related Work is increasingly being used to recognize individual blog posts or series, it seems like an unnecessary duplication--and there are few group blogs I might consider nominating that do not quickly cross the boundary into the Best Semiprozine category.  I'm going to nominate Ladybusiness and People of Color in European Art History, both of which continue to do good work in their chosen fields, but it's not a category I'm particularly invested in.

Best Professional Artist:

What I really want to do, though I can't quite justify it to myself, is nominate Mark Bryan, whose painting "The Nightmare" uses genre imagery to perfectly capture the horrors of the nascent Trump presidency.  But, apart from everything else, I'm pretty sure "The Nightmare" is a 2017 work, so I'll refrain, difficult as it will be.

  • Likhain - In 2016, Likhain continued to draw on Filipino influences to create truly unique and breathtaking art.  See, for example, her cover illustration for Zen Cho's novelette The Terracotta Bride.

  • Victo Ngai - Look, guys, this is getting ridiculous.  Ngai is on the verge of being so big that nominating her for a Hugo would almost be an insult, so the fact that the fandom can't get its act together to recognize an artist who has been getting commissions from Apple, Lincoln, and the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy, who has been honored by Forbes as one of the top illustrators under 30, is more of a ding to us than to her.  We're lucky to still have Ngai creating works in the genre--this year, she contributed an illustration for Charlie Jane Ander's Tor.com story "Clover", and the cover designs for Nisi Shawl's Everfair and Kij Johnson's The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.  But she won't be around forever, and we should recognize her while we can.

  • Yuko Shimizu - Shimizu, too, is an artist whom the Hugo voters have been sleeping on for far too long.  In 2016, her genre-related work includes this variant cover for Dark Horse's Firefly comic, and an illustration for Laurie Penny's story "Your Orisons May Be Recorded" at Tor.com.

  • Sana Takeda - I wasn't as blown away by Marjorie Liu's Monstress as a lot of people (though I did like it quite a bit).  But there's no denying that Takeda's artwork in that comic is stunning, and unlike anything that is being done in the field.  The lush, busy illustrations are what makes the world of Monstress real, and particularly their hints of the bizarre, such as the old, dead gods who float across the world's sky, to the inhabitants' general apathy.

  • Gabriel Hernandez Walta - The Vision was one of the most astonishing and thought-provoking comics I've ever read, and it could never have achieved its affect without Walta's artwork.  Deceptively realistic, Walta's careful attention to details, and his orderly panels, make the world that the Visions make their home in feel real, and then oppressive as the demands of normalcy turn out to be more than they can cope with.  When the story inevitably bursts into violence, Walta is right there to convey both the urgency of the action, and the horror of its aftermath.

Best Fan Artist:

  • Vesa Lehtimäki - Lehtimäki's Star Wars focused photo-series, which combines real locations, photoshopped spaceships, and Lego figurines, is utterly delightful and unique even in the rather busy field of Star Wars fan art.

  • Daniel Shaffer - Shaffer's deceptively simple illustrations feel like something out of a fairy tale, but also have a weight of weirdness that sets them apart.

  • Nuria Tamarit - What wins me over about Tamarit's illustration is the expression of her characters.  Even in the most fantastic situations, they seem exasperated, amused, or even bored.

  • Vacuumslayer - In 2016, vacuumslayer continued to manipulate stock images to create truly unusual, Alice-in-Wonderland-inspired images.  This one feels particularly pertinent.

  • Kathryn M. Weaver - Weaver's illustrations initially seem similar to a lot of fantasy-themed art, but slowly you notice the slightly off touches, the hints of weirdness, that give them their own personality.

Best Fan Writer:

  • Nina Allan - In 2016, Allan continued in her role as one of our top critics, a writer who knows how to keenly dissect a work by a popular author, and how to introduce readers to writers they'd never even heard of and make them sound completely enticing.  Perhaps her most important work from last year is her commentary on the Clarke Award shortlist, which eventually lead to her establishing the Shadow Clarke Jury.

  • Megan AM - Another writer I encountered while reviewing the Clarke shortlist (and who is also involved in the Shadow Clarke project).  Megan's commentary on the shortlisted books was incisive and insightful, and as I continued reading her during the rest of the year I discovered the kind of book blogger I'd thought was no longer to be found.  Happily, I was wrong.

  • Vajra Chandrasekera - Vajra went from strength to strength in 2016, writing short fiction, taking over as a fiction editor for Strange Horizons, and continuing to write reviews and even a column, Marginalia.  That column, in particular, is what I want to highlight here even though it was short-lived--it drew my attention to books I would never have heard about, and in a way that made them sound completely necessary.  But don't overlook Vajra's excellent reviews, for example of Nnedi Okorafor's Binti, or Victor LaValle's The Ballad of Black Tom.

  • Erin Horáková - Erin has been one of Strange Horizons's top critics for years, but 2016 was a banner year for her.  She published the magnificent essay "Boucher, Backbone, and Blake - the Legacy of Blakes 7" (currently nominated for the BSFA's nonfiction award), as well as several magnificent reviews--see, for example, this one of Steven Universe.  She also reignited her blog, where she published several important pieces--this review of Neil Gaiman's illustrated story The Sleeper and the Spindle is particularly sharp on Gaiman's appeal and how people who encountered him as teenagers in the 90s see him today.

  • Samira Nadkarni - You may, like me, have encountered Samira on twitter, where she is a delightful and insightful critic (check out her trenchant twitter-thread on the massive blind spots with how Captain America: Civil War constructs its geopolitical situation).  It's no surprise that Strange Horizons wanted her to write for them, and the results have been magnificent.  Her review of Shadowhunters remains one of the best dissections of the current state of genre TV I've ever read, and her non-review of the anthology Deserts of Fire is a stern but necessary denunciation of its project and the limitations of how it executed it.  For a more upbeat take, check out her delightful (and delighted) review of the Bollywood superhero movie A Flying Jatt.