22 August 2019

Review: The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells by Ben Bova

Trade paperback, 275 pages
Published 2016 (originally 1994)

Acquired July 2019
Read August 2019
The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells by Ben Bova

Based on my short-lived career as an author of mediocre Star Trek tie-ins, I've been assigned to teach a science fiction creative writing class this fall. So, I cast about for a textbook, and after skimming through a couple, decided upon this one, which was focused and straightforward and had some good insights. Bova has had a long career as an sf writer (beginning in 1959, and he had a new novel out this year!), but more importantly he had a strong stint as an editor at Analog (1972-78) and Omni (1978-82). It mostly focused on short fiction (ch. 3-14), though it also touches on novel writing (ch. 15-16, 18).

The book emphasizes four aspects of writing: character, background, conflict, and plot. For each of these aspects, Bova spends a chapter setting up general principles ("theory"). Then, he includes one of his own short stories. Finally, a third chapter explains how that story embodied the principles he set up ("practice"). It's a nice format, let down slightly that (on the basis of this book, at least; I haven't read much by Bova), he's a fairly middling sf writer. Three of the four stories here were good ideas, but coolly written; Bova has set-ups and ideas that could make you feel, but don't. One, "Crisis of the Month," is decidedly poor. However, they are useful at illuminating his ideas, and my plan is to pair his ideas with stories from The Best Science Fiction of the Year for 2018. I like his ideas, especially his take on how to write interesting characters. I do wish he spent more time focusing on what specifically is science fictional in each of the four categories: the background section does this the most, but a lot of his advice is fairly generic to all short fiction.

All that said, if you want a book about writing science fiction and just science fiction, it appears to be one of the strongest out there. My perusal on Amazon was not very promising; a lot of his competitors are unfocused (taking in many speculative genres) or spend a lot of time on basic elements of writing (which Bova assumes one already knows, and is how I would prefer to tackle my class), or just are chaotic (the table of contents for Jeff VanderMeer's Wonderbook, for example, overwhelmed me, though I might take a second look at it). It's not a perfect book, but I suspect it will teach well-- Bova has a very straightforward writing style, very businesslike-- which is the point for me. I guess we'll see this fall!

21 August 2019

Joe Casey's Adventures of Superman: Introduction / #588: "Child's Play" / Reading Order and Index to Posts


Joe Casey's run on Adventures of Superman is one of those runs everyone in comics fandom speaks of in hushed, reverent tones, like Levitz and Giffen on the Legion, or Mark Waid on the Flash, or James Robinson on Starman. Although, it's not quite as widely spoken of as those; it has a more insidery feel than that. To the people that really know their Superman, Joe Casey is where it's at. Most noteworthy is the latter part of his run, where Superman never uses violence, allowing Casey to explore how Superman can be a superhero without throwing a punch.

Except, unlike all of those runs, it's never really been collected. DC has never released an Adventures of Superman by Joe Casey Omnibus, even though they've given the treatment to Justice League Detroit! I don't pretend to understand how DC's collected editions department makes decisions, but I suspect it's at least partially because for much of Casey's run, the four Super titles (Adventures, plain old Superman, Man of Steel, and Action Comics) were treated as one big title. Each week would see one of the four released, with stories rotating through them. So if you collect Casey's work, you have to collect a lot of other stuff too.

So, I spent some time tracking down the series on the secondary market. Casey's run ran from #588 (Mar. 2001) to #623 (Feb. 2004), minus a few fill-ins, a respectable three years that produced thirty-three comics. In addition, I'll be reading any crossovers with the other Super titles in full, sometimes in single issues, sometimes in collected editions (it just depended on what I could get cheaper). And I'll also be reading some other stuff from the era that seemed interesting to me (Traci 13, who I really enjoyed in Blue Beetle and Doctor 13, debuts in Action Comics during this time), as well as folding in Joe Casey's return to the era in his run on Superman Batman. The bottom of this post contains an index to the whole experiment that I'll update as we go.

Up, up, and away!

"Child's Play"

The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #588 (Mar. 2001)
Writer: Joe Casey
Penciller: Mike S. Miller
Inkers: Jose Marzan, Jr. and Walden Wong
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Asst. Ed.: Tom Palmer, Jr.
Editor: Eddie Berganza 

This is Joe Casey's first solo issue on Adventures of Superman. He was credited as co-writer on #587 with J. M. DeMatteis, but I skipped that, thinking it was mostly a wrapping up of storylines from DeMatteis's run. The story begins in medias res, with everyone in Metropolis, including Superman, acting nasty-- except for Lois. People are rude to each other on the subway, Superman uses his heat vision to graffiti a dam, Clark ignores Lois at work and hits on an attractive young Daily Planet employee. This comes from the era where Clark and Lois are married, and where (as I vaguely remember reading about), Metropolis is a literal city of the future, with flying cars and stuff like that.

It's not explained why only Lois realizes something is going on. Soon she's contacted by a weird spirit lady ("I am the living bridge between the corporeal and the noncorporeal. I see... and am never seen.") who tells her the Clark that Lois sees is only a hollow shell; his real essence lies elsewhere. Lois manages to transfer herself into the "Nightmare Realm" through "Torquasm-Rao," which I'm guessing from context is some kind of Kryptonian mental/meditation technique. It turns out Superman is held captive by some thing called Satanus; he traded his soul for the city of Metropolis. Satanus is using the power of a wheelchair-bound boy named Cary to do all this. Lois and Clark free Cary, Satanus's realm collapses, and they all fly away.

I had thought at first that Casey's run was a clean start and this was all some in medias res stuff, but as it went on, I realized this was picking up from earlier issues; there was too much left unexplained otherwise. Looking at covers shows that this plotline goes back to at least #583. Oh well. I probably didn't want to read all that anyway.

It almost works on its own. I liked Casey's emphasis on Superman as the wellspring of decency in Metropolis; with him gone, the city itself becomes hollow. And I can see the seeds of what is to come in Superman stopping Cary from unnecessary violence in defeating Satanus. Casey and penciller Mike Miller also do a good job with the tone, which is slightly disconcerting. But there are too many unanswered questions and too much unrelayed exposition for this to read compellingly as a single issue to someone who's just come in. The rules of the "game" that let Superman et al. win seem pretty arbitrary, too.

Presumably the good stuff is forthcoming.

Reading Order and Index to Posts

Issue numbers are preceded by "triangle numbers" (which ran across the Super titles, so that you knew how to interweave the four ongoings) where relevant.
  • 2001/11: The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #588
  • Superman/Batman #64
  • Return to Krypton
    • 2001/10 & /14: Superman vol. 2 #166-67 
    • 2001/15: The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #589
    • 2001/16: Superman: The Man of Steel #111
    • 2001/17: Action Comics vol. 1 #776
  • 2001/19 & /27: The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #590 & 592 
  • Our Worlds at War
    • Prelude to War!
      • 2001/30: Superman vol. 2 #171
      • 2001/31: The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #593
      • 2001/32: Superman: The Man of Steel #115 
      • 2001/33: Action Comics vol. 1 #780
      • Supergirl vol. 4 #59
    • All-Out War!
      • 2001/34: Superman vol. 2 #172 
      • JLA: Our Worlds at War #1
      • 2001/35: The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #594
      • 2001/36: Superman: The Man of Steel #116
      • Wonder Woman vol. 2 #172
      • 2001/37: Action Comics vol. 1 #781
    • Casualties of War!
      • 2001/38: Superman vol. 2 #173
      • Young Justice vol. 1 #36
      • 2001/39: The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #595 
      • Impulse #77
      • Superboy vol. 4 #91
      • 2001/40: Superman: The Man of Steel #117
      • 2001/41: Action Comics vol. 1 #782
      • Wonder Woman vol. 2 #173
      • World's Finest: Our Worlds at War #1
  • 2001/43: The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #596
  • Superman/Batman #68-71
  • 2001/47 & 2002/6: The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #597-600

      20 August 2019

      Review: Transformers: Unicron by John Barber, Alex Milne, Sara Pitre-Durocher, Andrew Griffith, Kei Zama, et al.

      Comic PDF eBook, n. pag.
      Published 2019 (contents: 2018)
      Acquired and read April 2019
      Transformers: Unicron

      Written by John Barber, with Chris Ryall, David Rodriguez, Brandon Easton, Christos Gage, Magdalene Visaggio
      Art by Alex Milne
      Additional Art by Sara Pitre-Durocher, Andrew Griffith, Kei Zama, David Messina, Nelson Dániel, Juan Samu, Paolo Villanelli, Fico Ossio
      Colors by Sebastian Cheng, David Garcia Cruz
      Additional Colors by Joana Lafuente, Alessandra Alexakis, Mattia Iacono
      Letters by Tom B. Long, with Curtis Fandango

      Though I gave up on John Barber's take on Transformers a couple years ago now, I still had some curiosity about how it would all end, and so I dutifully picked up Unicron, which ties up the IDW continuity that began all the way back in Infiltration-- three-and-a-half years of reading for me, and thirteen years of storytelling for them.

      I don't know why Rung of all people would be at the center of Optimus's memories of the fallen, but hey, I love Rung, so I'll take it.
      from Transformers: Unicron #6 (script by John Barber, art by Alex Milne)

      Anyway, it's about as bad as all post-Dark Cybertron John Barber Transformers comics have been. Too many characters I don't care about, too much ancient Transformer mythology, too many banal human beings, too many shoehorned-in other Hasbro properties, too much indecisive Optimus, too many characters reverting again and again. Why did Starscream undo his progress from Till All Are One? Why am I reading about yet another millennia-long Shockwave masterplan? Didn't the jokes about Thundercracker writing screenplays wear thin years ago?

      Why yet another story where Prowl is a jerk and this backfires?
      from Transformers: Unicron #5 (script by John Barber, art by Alex Milne)

      I guess the biggest point of frustration for me is the title character itself. Say what you will about the 1980s Transformers film, but Unicron is awesome in the original sense of the word. Its coming feels ominous and significant and unstoppable; it is the doom of a universe. Where and why does it come from? Irrelevant. It hungers, and it will have you. Here, though, Unicron never dominates. Neither the writing nor the art give it the immensity it deserves, it always feels squeezed in, instead of dominating. And then to give it an origin story that ties into one of the mediocre Hasbro properties! Visionaries, I think? I've already forgotten. This diminishes Unicron and thus the whole story.

      I usually like Alex Milne, but his Unicron just feels really unimpressive. Ooh, it's sucking up some rocks.
      from Transformers: Unicron #0 (script by John Barber, art by Alex Milne)

      The IDW Transformers universe had a strong start in Infiltration, and despite missteps such as All Hail Megatron, went some very interesting, unprecedented places once the war ended. But John Barber, the same architect of those innovations slowly dismantled them after Dark Cybertron and then piled on the mistakes with the Hasbro comics shared universe-- necessitating the destruction of the entire continuity, because there was no other way to reset things to the way they'd been. But that destruction turned out to be as banal and uninteresting as the writing that made it necessary to begin with.

      Next Week: Meanwhile, in another universal stream... the Fall of Cybertron!

      19 August 2019

      Review: Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker

      Trade paperback, 286 pages
      Published 2019 (contents: 2013-19)

      Acquired March 2019
      Read April 2019
      Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea: Stories by Sarah Pinsker

      The whole point of me reading all the Hugo finalists every year was to expose myself to what's happening in contemporary sf. It's given me some good novelists to follow, but when it comes to short sf, my favorite discovery has been Sarah Pinsker, whose "And Then There Were (N-One)" captivated me, and which I reckon deserved to win Best Novella in 2018. This collection brings together thirteen of her short stories, a small sampling of her prolific oeuvre (as of 2018, she had published 45 short works).

      Pinsker's writing tends to the literary, which is to my taste. A lot of these are subtle stories, where the sf element isn't the focus as much as the characters. "Talking with Dead People," for example, is about a woman who makes interactive replicas of houses where famous murders happened, and the only sf element is the AI that makes interactivity possible. Or "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind" is about a marriage, and the sf element is super-slight (and also a spoiler, so I won't say it). And in "The Narwhal," the sf element is buried at the end and not particularly clear. Except for "Narwhal," though, this approached worked for me. Especially "In Joy": the sf element is small, sure, and you could probably take it out and have a story almost as moving, but it adds something, an immensity to the themes and ideas of the story.

      Other stories are more blatantly sf. "And We Were Left Darkling" is a beautifully creepy story about alien babies coming to Earth. "Wind Will Rove" is a story about a generation ship and the role of cultural memory. (I thought this was just okay when it was a finalist for Best Novelette, and ranked it fourth, but on rereading, I think I did it a disservice. It has more to say than some of the stories I ranked over it.) This is the third time I've read "And Then There Were (N-One)," and it's still brilliant: a postmodern murder mystery set at a convention of alternate reality duplicates of Sarah Pinsker, a clever meditation on identity and self.

      Lots of stories here deal with music and/or climate change. The aforementioned "Wind Will Rove" is one that deals with both, but so do the title story and "Our Lady of the Open Road." "Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea" is about two women in a world where rising sea levels have taken their toll; one is a musician on the cruise ships the wealthy use to avoid consequences. It's a great story of friendship and adversity. "Our Lady" is about one of the last live bands in a world where holographic recordings and plague have made concerts a relic of the past; again, it's a great, well-observed story about holding on to what's meaningful, and learning to let go of what's not. I'm a little skeptical about stories about music (they sometimes get very self-indulgent, I think), but Pinsker excels with this as her topic, and almost makes me want to buy her forthcoming novel about a band. Almost.

      They aren't all hits, of course. Some I found a little too abstruse, or there wasn't enough story-- I didn't really get the opening story, "A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide," while "The Low Hum of Her" (a girl and her robot grandmother) and "The Sewell Home for the Temporally Displaced" (what the title says) seemed like they had promising premises, but didn't really deliver on them. But on the whole, this is a great book. Pinsker is a master of the short sf form, and if she publishes more collections, you can bet I will buy them.

      16 August 2019

      My 2019 Hugo Awards Ballot: Book(ish) Categories

      This final post covers my votes in the three of the Hugo categories for book-length works: novels, YA fiction, and nonfiction. (Though, as we'll see, "book" isn't entirely accurate when it comes to half of the Best Related Work finalists.) If I did a full review of a work, I'll link to that here. I only did that if I owned the book: I didn't do it for anything I read an e-version of from the Hugo voters packet, or borrowed from the library. I will also link if the work is available on-line.

      Best Novel 

      7. Space Opera by Catherynne Valente

      I just totally and completely bounced off this book, taking what felt like weeks to crawl through its low page count; I felt it squandered a great premise, though as I said in my review, I suspect it was a premise for a short story, not a novel.

      6. Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

      I read the first two Galactic Commons novels for the 2017 Hugo Awards; the first left me largely cold, but the second brought tears to my eyes, so I bought the third right when it came out (making it one of two novels on the shortlist I'd read before it was announced). But this was more like the unfocused, low-stakes storytelling of the first novel, and it did little for me. I've seen a lot of praise for these books for how they eschew the usual trappings of space opera for personal stories-- and I'm all for that, I read contemporary literary fiction! But something needs to be at stake for that approach to work, and outside of A Closed and Common Orbit, I never feel like it is in Chambers's work.

      5. No Award

      I have a couple different personal "No Award" tests. One is: do I understand why someone else likes something, even if I myself do not? Versus, do I find it inexplicable that someone else would like a thing, even if intellectually I know it must be the case? I have no idea what people see in Space Opera and Record of a Spaceborn Few (outside of the premises themselves), and so I have no desire to see them win a Hugo Award. On the other hand, even though I wasn't much into it myself, I can see why someone would like Trail of Lightning.

      4. Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

      This was fine. As essentially urban fantasy, very much Not My Thing, but I suspect a well-executed example of Not My Thing. I wouldn't be embarrassed if it won, but I wouldn't exactly be excited either, so here it sits.

      3. Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

      Revenant Gun is the other Best Novel finalist I'd read in advance, and with a similar reason for Record: it's the third book in a series where I largely bounced off the first installment, but then enjoyed the second enough to pick up the third. I definitely liked it more than Record or Trail, but I don't think it quite delivered on its own potential. A version of this book with more energy could have easily blew me away; as it was, the book kind of fizzles instead of climaxing, and I wouldn't be super-excited if it won. (I suspect it won't, though; the previous two Machineries of Empire books finished in third and fifth.)

      2. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

      This is the second-last novel finalist I read, and thank God for it, because after my first four books, I was wondering if this was really the best we could do. But Calculating Stars nailed it-- a great alternate history story with some intense writing and emotional scenes. One of the best of these finalists.

      1. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

      Even though I liked Calculating Stars a lot, I wasn't entirely satisfied with the idea of it as a Best Novel winner; I think I probably would have ranked it fourth or fifth in 2017 if it had been on the ballot then, which was a much stronger year for Best Novel. It does what it want to do very well, but I feel like a winner of the Hugo Award needs to do more than be very good. Spinning Silver is more than very good; it manages to be unique, and timeless, and of its moment all at once. I like Calculating Stars, but it feels very 2018, and I wonder how much people will care about what it's trying to do in 2083 except as an historical document. Spinning Silver also feels very 2018, but I can imagine someone reading it in 2083 and learning something about their own time. This is a great book. It's the clear best on this weak shortlist, but it would be a contender in any year (I'd've ranked it second in 2017, or above any of 2018's finalists.)

      Best Related Work

      7. Archive of Our Own by the Organization for Transformative Works

      I could be mistaken, but I don't think a website has ever been a Hugo finalist before, at least not as a website. The WSFS Constiution specifies that finalists for Related Work must be "either non-fiction or, if fictional, [...] noteworthy primarily for aspects other than the fictional text." So, despite containing 4.7 million fanfictions, Archive of Our Own isn't nominated for them per se, but for the project of archiving and maintaining them. This, I think, is an astoundingly good project, and AO3 is a really well put together website, but I feel like Hugos are for works, not projects, and I find it hard to justify rating a project particularly high in a category with "work" in the title. AO3 deserves all the awards it can get, but this particular one doesn't feel like a good fit.

      6. The Mexicanx Initiative Experience at Worldcon 76, founded by John Picacio

      This website chronicles the Mexicanx Initiative, where people could pledge money to fund Mexicanx creators to attend Worldcon 76; it funded 50 people, 42 of which ultimately attended. The site contains interviews with key participants, a photo gallery, and A Larger Reality, an anthology of Mexicanx speculative fiction. (Note that I didn't read the anthology because of the stipulation about non-fiction quoted above.) It's a really cool project, decently chronicled (though one kind of wishes for more participant narratives, and the photo gallery is poorly designed) and you can tell how much it meant to its participants but...

      5. No Award

      ...but one of my Hugo Award pet peeves is when they get too self-referential. Is one of the best sf-related things from 2018 that WSFS can find something that WSFS itself did? This isn't as bad as when one of the 2012 Dramatic Presentation finalists was the acceptance speech a Hugo Award winner gave at the 2011 ceremony, but it still smacks of fannishness, and so I am compelled to rank both websites beneath No Award for various reasons.

      4. Conversations on Writing by Ursula K. Le Guin

      Ultimately, I just felt like there wasn't much to this book; it doesn't compare favorably to Le Guin's Best Related Work finalists from 2017 or 2018, both of which were much more interesting and insightful collections of writing, but I would feel okay about it if it won.

      3. An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000 by Jo Walton

      Walton's book collects a series of blog posts she made on Tor.com from 2010 to 2011, where in each post she examines what the short list of Hugo Award finalists was for that year, and considers how well the award did at picking out the "best" books, through some combination of 1) has she read them, 2) did she like them, 3) and do they represent the state of sf at that time. I had read some of the blogs, though not systematically; usually, I have just dipped in to get a take on a year I am interested in. Walton's thoughts are interesting, but the book is somewhat overrun by lists: lists of finalists, many of which she doesn't say much about (she mostly comments on Best Novel, with a little commentary on the short fiction categories), as well as lists of books that did not make the finalists, usually culled from other award nominees. I like her comments, and thus I wanted more of them. Thank goodness the book has some extra essays stuck in where she rereads and reviews finalists in depth. I'm currently reading all the Best Novel winners, but she's made me want to read the other finalists, too. (I'll keep my undertaking to a manageable size, though.) The book also includes some of the comments from the blog posts, usually those by Rich Horton and the late Gardner Dozois. Dozois's are insightful, particularly once the book gets to the point where he is editing Asimov's. Horton's started out as more lists (of eligible short fiction), but as the book goes on, he gets better about providing commentary, which is usually interesting. Sometimes Dozois and Horton get more interesting than Walton. Anyway, I liked it well enough, but 500+ pages when so much of it is lists you can get on the Internet is too much, and I got to read it for free in the Hugo voter packet; I probably would have been less into it if I'd shelled out the inane $32 list price for a collection of free-to-read blog posts where much of the best content isn't always by the author.

      2. The Hobbit: A Long-Expected Autopsy / The Battle of the Five Studios / The Desolation of Warners, written and edited by Lindsay Ellis and Angelina M

      Best Related Work is always hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons in, as nonfiction books alone can be very different to each other; this year is worse than normal because I am meant to compare websites to books to... a YouTube video. But Lindsay Ellis's critique of The Hobbit has a depth to it that's missing from both Conversations on Writing and An Informal History of the Hugos. Running over ninety minutes, it explores the narrative and artistic choices that all too often just do not work, as well as delving into the backstory of how the films came to exist as they are. Ellis even travels to New Zealand and talks to one of the dwarf actors, which turned out to be kind of touching; as he and she both point out, the dwarves are the core of the film at the beginning, but not by the end. She also delves into the labor dispute that rose up around the films' production in New Zealand, which was resolved by the New Zealand government passing a law to restrict labor rights in order to ensure that production remained in the country, which continues to affect it today. Essentially it's documentary that delves into the transformation between something we loved in childhood but cannot love as adults. Not as impressive an achievement as Astounding, but imagine a big gap between it and everything below it.

      1. Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee

      This is essentially a biography of John W. Campbell, who as editor of Astounding/Analog from 1937 to 1971 reshaped the genre of science fiction, cultivating many great talents, and publishing many classics of the genre. But because editors do their work through their authors, it also weaves into Campbell's story the stories of three key writers, as indicated in the subtitle. It's a great, fascinating book; I knew a little about Campbell from reading Asimov's autobiographies, but Nevala-Lee dives deeps, showing his transformation to mediocre writer to sterling editor to hateful crackpot across the course of a long life. I didn't know that, for example, he helped Hubbard write Dianetics, or that it was first published in the pages of Astounding (because, surprise, no medical journal would take it). It's well-researched, well-written, and the kind of thing I would expect this category to be rewarding.

      Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book

      6. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

      If you read my review of this one, you'll know I largely bounced off it, for being derivative and poorly written. Only partway through, and I was already certain it would be near the bottom of my ballot, if not at it.

      5. The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

      This book was weirdly similar to Tess of the Road (see below): in both, the main character, who shares her name with the protagonist of a famous Thomas Hardy novel, is one of a pair of twin sisters, and the one more prone to acting out, while her twin does everything right. While they are human, they have an older half-sibling who is half magic, from the previous marriage of one of their parents. That all seems very specific, but they're very different books. Jude of The Cruel Prince was abducted from the human world along with her siblings and raised in Faerie by her older sister's father, a warrior fairy. She struggles to fit in, since her fairy classmates taunt her, and eventually finds herself roped into politics of the fairy courts, serving as spy for one of the princes. It's all fine, I'm sure but it's Very Much Not For Me. Ever since The Sandman, I've struggled to care about fairies, and this book did not change my mind. Parts of the book are very obvious and cliched, even though it has some effective twists as well. I didn't care for the narrative voice, which was a bit too much like Children of Blood and Bone's, though not as bad; is that how YA is written now? I did like that I actually kept on forgetting the narrator was a girl at first; Black writes her a plot and a characterization that I feel would usually be the province of a male character (except for the romances, which were the weakest parts anyway). On the other hand, that Jude and her twin wouldn't just move back to Earth didn't seem believable given how awful Faerie is for them, so I don't get why Black established that they could have if they wanted to. So yeah, fine enough, but it doesn't strike me as award-winning.

      4. The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

      At about page 200, I would have told you I was ranking this at the bottom. This novel is set in a fantasy world where most people are born ugly; special people called "Belles" have the magical power to reshape the body to make people beautiful. The narrator (first-person present tense again; I guess this is the way YA is written now, and I hate it) wants to be "the favorite," the Belle at the Royal Court, but is passed over... then ends up with a second chance. I just did not care about her or her tribulations; the world here seems like it could be interesting, but never clicked for me either. But I did get interested as the plot finally emerged and events accelerated, and I'd say by the end I was more into it than I had been Cruel Prince. Another thing unites CBB, Cruel Prince, and this book, though, and it's that they all lack real resolution because they're all set ups for trilogies. I don't mind trilogies per se but these opening installments just don't stand alone in the way that the trilogy-derived Best Novel finalists of the past couple years have (e.g., Ninefox Gambit, Fifth Season), and I find that hard to reward.

      3. The Invasion by Peadar O'Guilin

      I really liked the premise of this book. Ireland has been cut off from the outside world for a generation, a generation where every child is called by the Sidhe to the Grey Land during their teen years. At first, only three in a thousand survived, but now kids are enrolled in survival colleges to enable them to last the twenty-four hours you need to last to return to the real world. This book mostly follows two kids who survived such an ordeal in the previous book. I liked the sense of a changed world, but got bored by the actual story told, and neither of the main characters ever grabbed me (though I admit that may have been different if I'd read the first book). Plus, the ending wrapped a lot of stuff up out of basically nowhere, though it does seemingly leave room for a book 3. I'd say pretty comparable to Belles, but better worldbuilding and more interesting premise, and more self-containedness give it the edge. It doesn't really set me alight as a potential winner, though.

      2. Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

      Beginning this book, I was worried; it was my fourth present-tense first-person YA narrative, and I was already sick of the style. But I soon warmed to it, because Dread Nation has a distinct narrative voice, and actually makes good use of its tense, shifting between present and past as it shifts back and forth in time. Dread Nation is an alternate history zombie novel, where after the Battle of Gettysburg, the dead ("shamblers") began to walk. The Civil War thus became a zombie war, and American society has restructured around defending against the undead, including taking African-Americans and training them to defend whites from attack. Our narrator is one of those, the daughter of a plantation owner's wife and a slave, who is good at killing shamblers but not good at taking direction. I enjoyed it a lot; Ireland packs in a lot of interesting ideas, and uses the zombie conceit to make some commentary to make some commentary on our own world. (Though it raises some issues I wish it had actually dealt with, like the role of Native Americans in all this.) The dialogue is good, the characters are interesting, and the plot goes in a lot of unexpected but interesting directions. I did have some quibbles with internal chronology, though, and the ending packs in one too many surprise reveals. There is a sequel forthcoming, which I would read, but it works as a standalone.

      1. Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

      At first, I found this book plodding and a little obvious, but once Tess actually goes on the road, it steadily gets better and better until you're reading something quite special. It's kind of a fantasy riff on Tess of the D'Urbervilles, in big ways and small was, from the double standard of premarital sex for men and women to the solace of physical labor. Seventeen-year-old Tess, always the "bad twin," finally runs away from home shortly after her "good" sister gets married, escaping a negligent father and stringent mother. She teams up with a lizard creature, pretends to be a man, learns the joys of construction work, seeks out the Serpent that birthed the world, learns that sex can be more than she thought, and learns something about herself and the world. With the exception of one bit in the middle where I found the logistics wonky (how did she find time to work on farms while trailing the two ne'er-do-wells, and why did they tolerate her?), I really enjoyed Tess's trek; it's the best sort of travel narrative. My main reservation would be that I feel like it's the kind of YA novel that's not actually for young adults, but for the adults who read YA.

      Overall Thoughts

      Last year, I was grumpy at the Best Novel finalists. This year, I am slightly less grumpy, in that I think Spinning Silver is clearly better than any of last year's finalists, and is 100% a worthy winner that presents me with what I want in a Hugo finalist. But I found the ranking really easy to do, and I feel like the ideal set of finalists is the one you find difficult to rank. The YA Award, which last year I called a "smashing success"... well, you can see what a struggle it was for me this year. Again, I mourn the lack of any real sf in this category (though the only book I nominated myself, M. T. Anderson's The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, was fantasy). There are clearly a set of trends in YA fiction that are completely incompatible with my tastes.

      Based on buzz and other awards, I reckon The Calculating Stars will win Best Novel. If not that, I could imagine Spinning Silver (Novik came in second with her previous fairy tale novel, Uprooted, in 2015); I don't think any of the other four have broad enough appeal to win it. I also reckon very strongly that Children of Blood and Bone will win the Lodestar, though I would love to read a convincing positive review of this book, as I just don't get it. I also suspect Dread Nation has a good shot. I doubt it will be Tess.

      Related Work was just an odd duck. I don't think AO3 will get it; there were too many people grumbling about the weirdness of nominating a web site of fiction for not its fiction. Astounding is the most traditional finalist in this category, so I hope that's it, and I feel like it has the broadest appeal. Maybe Walton will appeal to Hugo voters' interest in themselves, though, or maybe the Le Guin streak will go on for a third year. (I miss her, too, but I really don't think she deserves to win it for this.) I've seen some grumbling about the oddness of Related Work, and some wondering if it should go back to "Related Book," but I like it, even AO3. Fandom is a broad church, and a reward like this lets us reward the interesting stuff about sf that is not itself sf. My life would be poorer for not having seen Lindsay Ellis's The Hobbit duology.

      13 August 2019

      Review: Transformers: The Wreckers Saga by Nick Roche, et al.

      Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
      Published 2018 (contents: 2010-18)
      Acquired May 2019

      Read July 2019
      Transformers: The Wreckers Saga

      Story: Nick Roche & James Roberts
      Art: Nick Roche, Guido Guidi, John Wycough, Andrew Griffith, Geoff Senior, and Brendan Cahill
      Colors: Josh Burcham, Joana Lafuente, and Josh Perez
      Letters: Neil Uyetake, Chris Mowry, Tom B. Long, and Shawn Lee

      Having enjoyed IDW's first two Wreckers comics, somehow I still missed the existence of a third, Requiem of the Wreckers until it was too late: the one-shot wasn't at my local comics shop, and wasn't even available at my usual aftermarket web site. It was collected in this trade paperback, but this trade paperback also collected the first two Wreckers miniseries, which I already owned, and I wasn't about to pay $20 for a collection of eleven issues that I already owned ten of. But then the collection appeared in my LCS's $5 discount pile on Free Comic Book Day, so of course I went for it.

      The first time I read this comic, I kept forgetting who Impactor was. I'm so bad at robots.
      from The Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers #2 (script by Nick Roche & James Roberts, art by Nick Roche & John Wycough)

      I'm actually really glad I did. I liked Last Stand of the Wreckers and Sins of the Wreckers the first time around, and I'm not going to re-review them here, but I liked them even more a second time around, with a firmer grounding in Transformers lore, and knowledge of where the stories were ultimately going. Small details became significant with foreknowledge in mind, and reading Last Stand and Sins (and Requiem) back to back made how it's all one big story much more apparent. (Poor Guzzle.)

      As you do.
      from Transformers: Sins of the Wreckers #1 (script & art by Nick Roche)

      Requiem is a fitting end for the whole saga, bringing together the villains of the first two stories, and tying off a lot of emotional and character threads, especially for Impactor and Springer, whose relationship is one of the backbones of the series. Kup is dead, so he can't feature like he did in the first two, but Roche turns that into a virtue.

      Nooo, Ironfist/Fistiron!
      from Transformers: Sins of the Wreckers #5 (script & art by Nick Roche)

      I also appreciated the presence of Verity Carlo throughout. Verity was there when IDW's continuity began, so I'm glad Nick Roche kept her character going once Simon Furman left, and gave her an ending as IDW's entire universe drew to an end.

      Hopefully if you lived through what Verity did, you'd gain some wisdom, too. I hope.
      from Transformers: Requiem of the Wreckers Annual 2018 (script by Nick Roche, art by Brendan Cahill)

      Roche is oft-praised by Transformers fans, I think, but probably still not praised enough. Of course he knows his continuity and stuff, and we like him for it, but even better, he understands character and theme. This is a saga about the damage war does, and how we need friendship to overcome it, and what the appropriate bounds of friendship allow for and what they do not. How do you forge an identity that meets the expectations your friends place upon you when the entire universe seems to be conspiring against you? This informs every character arc, every story beat. He also has a way with big crazy ideas, and his art is incredible stuff. James Roberts (co-writer on some of Last Stand) justly gets a lot of praise, but Roche is surely the talent of the IDW era. I hope IDW keep him involved in their new era, or that he goes on to do his own incredible stuff. Or you know, both.

      Well, that's one kind of personal growth, I guess.
      from Transformers: Requiem of the Wreckers Annual 2018 (script & art by Nick Roche)

      Wreck and rule!

      Next Week: Meanwhile, on Elonia... the universe is about to be devoured by Unicron!

      12 August 2019

      Review: Star Trek: Discovery: The Enterprise War by John Jackson Miller

      Trade paperback, 420 pages
      Published 2019

      Acquired July 2019
      Read August 2019
      Star Trek: Discovery: The Enterprise War
      by John Jackson Miller

      The most recent Star Trek: Discovery novel once again has no scenes aboard the title ship. Instead, this book follows a year in the life of the USS Enterprise, showing what it was doing during Discovery's first season, leading up to its appearance in the season one finale, and retro-foreshadowing some of season 2.

      I've always been a fan of Captain Pike's Enterprise-- I used to have a website on a shitty free hosting platform devoted to it-- and I was disappointed that the first Discovery novel, Desperate Hours, didn't quite lean into its Pikeness more. So of course I enjoyed this. At first it's a pretty action-y novel, as the Enterprise explores a dangerous region of space and ends up beset by aliens who kidnap a big chunk of the crew. Fun but disposable. But about halfway through, something dramatic happens, and the novel gets contemplative and atmospheric. I loved the difficult situation everyone ends up in, and I loved how they all handled it, and how it reveals so much about these people. Great big set pieces, awesome visuals of things I surprisingly can't remember being doing in Star Trek before. But also nice little touches, such as Nurse Carlotti's problem, or the role of shipwreck narratives. There are also some nice moments where the book joins

      Miller also does a good job with the characters. His Captain Pike captures everything I liked about Anson Mount's portrayal, his Spock is excellent, and he does a strong job with other mainstays like Number One, Yeoman Colt, Nhan, and Doctor Boyce. I also really enjoyed the original character of Galadjian (I hope we see more of him somewhere, but I know by Discovery season 2 he's not around), and I was surprised by he journey Miller took Connolly on. At first the guy annoyed me just as he did in the season 2 premiere, but by novel's end, I understood and liked him and felt bad about how he was depicted in "Brother." Which, I guess, is what a good prequel does!

      I'm not totally convinced by every aspect of the joining up, and some of the continuity-smoothing moments are groaners, but overall I really enjoyed this. I've been reading John Jackson Miller's Star Wars comics for over a decade, but this is the first prose fiction and the first Star Trek work I've read from him. He nails it in this universe as much as he did in that one.

      09 August 2019

      My 2019 Hugo Awards Ballot: Visual Categories

      These are my ballots for Dublin 2019: An Irish Worldcon, with commentary, in the two Hugo categories for "Dramatic Presentations" and the "Best Graphic Story" category (i.e., comic books). I'll start with the story I ranked the lowest and move upwards. Links are to longer reviews when I have written such a thing, or where the story is freely and legally available on the Internet.

      Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)

      6. Avengers: Infinity War, written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeeley, directed by Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

      Going into this film, I was convinced it was going to be terrible and there was no way they were going to pull it off. That they did pull it off is a testament to the skill of everyone involved, but I still don't think it's particularly great. Parts of it are clever and exceptional, but parts of it are bloated with spectacle. Characters have to make dumb choices a little too often to make the story work.

      5. A Quiet Place, screenplay by Bryan Woods & Scott Beck and John Krasinski, directed by John Krasinski

      A postapocalyptic horror thriller where people must make as little sound as possible: this was intense and well constructed. I think probably it was a better film than Sorry to Bother You or Black Panther. That I don't want to rank it higher than them reveals, I think, how voting in the Hugos is not just about quality, but about the best in a genre. It might be a better film than Sorry to Bother You but I don't think it's a better sf/f film. I told this to Hayley and she objected it was totally an sf premise, and she's right... but the movie isn't interested in doing sf things with that premise, it's interested in doing horror things. (I thought there were some pretty implausible parts of the premise, actually.) Those aren't mutually exclusive, of course, but the film definitely emphasize scares over, say, worldbuilding, and it's hard for me to point at A Quiet Place and say it's the best that sf on film has to offer even if it is very good.

      4. Sorry to Bother You, written and directed by Boots Riley

      If this whole film had been like its first two thirds, this would be hovering a little higher, probably just below Annihilation. It starts out a funny, dark comedy about a black guy trying to make it as telemarketer; once he learns how to adopt a "white voice" he's suddenly the superstar, right as his telemarketing workplace is unionizing. The scenes especially where he is initiated as a "power caller" are amazing. But if it had all been like its first two thirds, it wouldn't have been sfnal, not really, even if it does seem to take place about five minutes into the future. The last third gets strange, partially in ways that I liked, and that continue the satire of the beginning, but partially in ways that kind of make it feel like the film is floundering and doesn't know how to resolve. Great acting, great music, great visual gimmicks. Definitely more ambitious than Black Panther, but not as consistent in realizing its ambitions.

      3. Black Panther, written by Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole, directed by Ryan Coogler

      I admired this film more than I loved it. Great cast, good worldbuilding, but ultimately it's a Marvel superhero film by the numbers. Which is an achievement in its own way, but I felt that like many Marvel movies, it tries to raise issues of complexity without dealing with their complexity. No one in Wakanda actually seems tempted by Killmonger's plan, which makes it all a little too easy for Black Panther to win everybody back; he himself doesn't feel like he quite goes low enough to ultimately be reborn.

      2. Annihilation, written and directed by Alex Garland

      This film was really captivating, making you feel strange and tense. Like Arrival on the 2017 ballot, this seems like the kind of thing the Hugos should be rewarding. Great music, great direction, one of Natalie Portman's greatest performances, astounding visuals, great sfnal ideas. I like stories that point at how big the universe is, and how unfriendly it is, and this definitely does that. Every time you think you have the lay of the land, the movie changes tack, up to the strangely beautiful ending. I feel sad this had to come out the same year as Into the Spider-Verse, as I would have ranked it #1 on, say, 2018's ballot.

      1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; screenplay by Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman; directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, & Rodney Rothman

      I expected that I would like this; I did not expect that I would rank it so high. Funny, moving, clever, dramatic, it plays with superhero spectacle and interpersonal drama with equal astuteness, knowing how to mix them. Definitely the best Spider-Man film since Spider-Man 2; probably the best Spider-Man film of them all. If every superhero film was this good, the saturation of the genre would be worth it. Some Marvel movies feel manufactured (I enjoyed Captain Marvel, for example, but it's very Marvelly), but this one feels real. Plus it's just gorgeous, using the animation medium to its utmost, especially during the final battle. And the jokes. Oh the jokes! Honestly this is better than a Spider-Man cartoon movie had any right to be.

      Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

      6. The Good Place, Chapter 31: "Jeremy Bearimy," written by Megan Amram, directed by Trent O'Donnell

      Sometimes you can drop into a serialized show and figure out why you should care, and you do care. Sometimes you drop into a serialized show, however, and bunch of characters who were dead last time you saw them now live in Australia, and you spend the whole episode wondering what's going on. Lots of people go around doing things I didn't care about; the title of the episode comes from a joke I thought was vaguely amusing, but has nothing to do with anything.

      5. Doctor Who 11x03: "Rosa," written by Malorie Blackman & Chris Chibnall, directed by Mark Tonderai

      This episode-- Doctor Who Discovers Rosa Parks-- had its good and even great moments, but didn't come together. Like too many episodes of series 11, there are weird jumps in the story, bits that seem important but ultimately fizzle out. The Doctor feels curiously impotent, and there are spots where that's a feature, but too often it's a bug. I'm not surprised this was a finalist, though; it feels like the Doctor Who equivalent of Oscar-bait. (I nominated "It Takes You Away" personally, but I'm not surprised that didn't make the finalists list.)

      4. The Expanse 3x13: "Abbadon's Gate," written by Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck and Naren Shankar, directed by Simon Cellan Jones

      I was an avid viewer of The Expanse, but not long after I started watching season 3, I got busy somehow and fell away after just one episode, so I had to skip over eleven episodes to watch this and vote! But I figured it would be okay because between then and now, I'd read the book this season was based on. It kind of was. There are a number of characters in the show who are not in this particular book, and as a season finale of a serialized show, its pay-offs are mostly action/plot, and not emotional, which was the strength of book three. Plus, some aspects seemed overly compressed, especially the fall-out after the climax (book one got fifteen episodes, but book three only seven!). I enjoyed it fine, and could imagine myself enjoying it more if I rewatched it in context, though, and there were no glaring incompetencies as there sometimes were in "Rosa," so I gave it the edge.

      3. The Good Place, Chapter 36: "Janet(s)," written by Josh Siegal & Dylan Morgan, directed by Morgan Sackett

      This is the best episode of The Good Place of the four I've seen. I laughed at multiple jokes (I think for the first time), and it has an inventive premise: because the four main human characters have all been hidden inside the artificial construct Janet, the actress who plays Janet must play all four of them. (Most of the regular cast is barely in the episode.) She completely nails it, capturing their mannerisms and ways of speaking (without doing impressions) so well you kind of forget they're not being played by their normal actors. All that, plus a genuinely fun visit by Janet and Michael to Accounting, where the morality points people earn during their lives are reckoned. This is the first Good Place ep I've seen to actually make me want to watch the show. Thus, I could imagine myself wanting to rewatch it in a way that's not true of "Rosa," so I ranked it higher.

      2. Doctor Who 11x06: "Demons of the Punjab," written by Vinay Patel, directed by Jamie Childs

      I enjoyed this more than "Rosa": it's another "worthy" Doctor Who episode, this one is Doctor Who Discovers the Partition of India. It has nice human moments, and its lack of a real villain saves it from some of the problems that plagued a lot of other series 11 episodes. The thirteenth Doctor is at her best when being empathetic and enthusiastic, and this one did a great job with that.

      1. Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture by Janelle Monáe, directed by Andrew Donoho & Chuck Lightning, written by Chuck Lightning

      I actually nominated this; it's a series of music videos from a concept album packaged into an overall narrative. Set in a dystopian future, Jane 57821 is captured by the government for being "dirty" (i.e., noncompliant), and we see her memories as they are "cleansed." It's visually amazing and inventive, and resonates with the contemporary moment metaphorically. It's unlike anything else on this shortlist, or unlike anything else I can remember, and that seems like the kind of thing worth awarding. (Incidentally, fact fans, this is one of three Dramatic Presentation finalists this year to star Tessa Thompson. She plays a very different character each time!)

      Best Graphic Story

      7. Monstress: Haven, script by Marjorie M. Liu, art by Sana Takeda

      I liked the first volume of this series a lot, but with each successive volume, I enjoy it less. I'm happy other people are into it, and it seems a worthy finalist (and of course it's won the last two years), but it's hard for me to rank it remotely high.

      6. Black Panther: Long Live the King; scripts by Nnedi Okorafor & Aaron Covington; art by André Lima Araújo, Mario Del Pennino, and Tana Ford, Terry Pallot, & Scott Hanna

      Three standalone stories in the world of Black Panther: a three-issue one where he investigates the cause of an earthquake/blackout and runs into an old childhood friend, a two-issue one where he seeks out the leader of a dangerous cult and runs into an old childhood friend, and and one-issue one about a Venomized Black Panther who chases down robbers and runs into an old childhood friend. Apparently there is only one way to generate character drama. The first two stories are okay but unremarkable superhero adventures. Good concepts, but largely nothing is done with them except for fight sequences, and the art looks good but struggles to communicate action. The third I had to stop reading halfway through because I didn't understand where an interim Black Panther who was a wheelchair-using Nigerian girl carrying the Venom symbiote fit into things; I googled and discovered the whole story takes place in an alternate universe, which the comic book collection itself completely fails to mention. Anyway, last story aside, I understood what was happening so I ranked it above Monstress.

      5. No Award

      I don't feel like the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story is for merely competent superhero comics (even within the superhero genre, there is definitely better than Black Panther), so this seems like the kind of circumstance in which one ought to deploy No Award.

      4. Abbott, script by Saldin Ahmed, art by Sami Kivelä

      This was a fun comic book: a black journalist in Detroit in 1972 discovers that dark occult forces are at work, and only she can put the pieces together to stop them. It was fun, but not great, I think because honestly the supernatural stuff feels like a distraction because it's all kind of generic. I'd rather be reading a comic about a hard-nosed bisexual reporter investigating police corruption in Detroit, which seems much more unique than a comic about a woman encountering dark supernatural forces. Though of course then it couldn't be a Hugo finalist. Anyway, great art, strong dialogue and sense of character. Ahmed is clearly a rising star in comics.

      3. Paper Girls 4, script by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Cliff Chiang

      I felt this volume of Paper Girls was weaker than the volumes of Paper Girls on either side of it, but a weak volume of Paper Girls is still a comic book worth awarding. Vaughan and Chiang consistently do some of their best work here, month in, month out.

      2. Saga, Volume 9, art by Fiona Staples, script by Brian K. Vaughan

      Saga is always quality, and though I found aspects of volume 8 on the weaker side, volume 9 bounced back nicely, with some good character and thematic resolution. For me, Saga is slightly better than Paper Girls-- I think Vaughan has more to say in Saga-- so an above-average Saga wins out over a below-average Paper Girls even though they're both great comics.

      1. On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden 

      Even though I really like both Paper Girls and Saga, I can't say I was excited to have them ranked up top. I feel like awards, especially genre awards, need to recognize works that are pushing forward. But Saga already won in 2013 for volume 1, and was a finalist in 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018, while Paper Girls hasn't won yet but was a finalist in 2017 and 2018 already. All of my lower ranked placings also feel kind of recycled (Monstress already won in 2017 and 2018, even). But On a Sunbeam, which I read last, delighted and moved me. Walden takes the boarding-school story and the group-of-disparate-people-have-to-work-as-a-team-in-space story and makes something new in putting them together. Add a beautiful romance and even more beautiful art, and you have something quite amazing, something that even though it has many familiar elements, feels utterly unlike anything else I've read (except for maybe Moto Hagio). Great stuff, and quite obviously the most deserving of the award by far.

      Overall Thoughts

      Long-Form Dramatic Presentation was probably the strongest of these three categories, where I'd be reasonably happy if anything in my top five won. I appreciate how the Hugos always cause me to seek out a few non-franchise films I might not have gotten around to in a long time, if ever, otherwise. I don't think the eventual winner is as clear-cut as in some other years: Annihilation is my guess, but on the other hand, I feel like everyone who sees Into the Spider-Verse is taken by it. Short Form was kind of a muddle, but then it always is; even the stronger stuff here didn't blow me away. My guess is that the inexplicable and inscrutable love of the Hugo electorate for The Good Place causes "Janet(s)" to win. I really wish there was a more diverse pool of tv finalists, though; we supposedly live in the Golden Age of it after all!

      Similarly, I wish Graphic Story was more diverse; as my comments on On a Sunbeam point to, there's been a lot of repetition in this category in just the three years I've been voting. I kind of have a feeling Monstress will threepeat, but I have no idea why people keep voting for it. I guess at least Schlock Mercenary no longer makes the ballot.