Letter From The Editor - Issue 64 - August 2018

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
September 2018

Title: An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000
Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor Books

Did you know that in 1953 a Hugo Award was given out for "Excellence in Fact Articles"? (The winner was Willy Ley.) Or that Brian W. Aldiss was up for a Hugo in 1958 for "Best New Author"--and lost (to "No Award"!)? Did you know that one year the Hugo for "Best Dramatic Presentation" was given to . . . news coverage? (It happened in 1970, for coverage of the Apollo XI mission.)

Trivia aside, if you care at all about the history of science fiction and how the tastes of the field's community of readers and fans have changed over time, you'll want to buy this book. It delivers exactly what the title promises: a chatty, highly personal review of nearly fifty years of Hugo Awards--but much more than that, too.

Now, with any such project, a couple of questions immediately arise regarding our prospective tour-guide through literary history: what are her qualifications, and what's her sensibility? Regarding the first question: Jo Walton is herself a Hugo winner for the excellent Among Others (2011) and has authored many other fine novels, as well as the recent What Makes This Book So Great (2014), an impressive collection of informal essays on re-reading the classics of our genre. She has read not only many, many novels and stories that won Hugos (and other awards), but also many that were nominated or made other shortlists, and often she's read them more than once. Admittedly, she hasn't read every nominee and every winner in the years under review, but she's candid about this and explains why it is so. Perhaps as important as her first-hand experience with the texts under discussion is her endless enthusiasm for science fiction. She's coming at this from a place of love. Finally, another significant qualification is her willingness to state what kind of books appeal to her and why, and conversely what books she tends to stay away from, and why. This transparency is extremely helpful and leads directly to that second question of sensibility.

Walton's tastes are wide and varied. She is, to put it mildly, omnivoracious in the science fiction and fantasy genres. But she is certainly a discriminate reader, and there are a few sub-genres or modes that rub her the wrong way. She doesn't care, for instance, for the work of Philip K. Dick: "I have read half a dozen assorted Dick novels and hated all of them," she observes. A few pages later she adds: "I have no hesitation saying he's a good writer, as opposed to a bad writer; I'm just not sure he's a good writer as opposed to an evil writer. The way he thinks--the kind of characters he writes about, the kind of stories he tells, the kind of worlds he builds--repel me." Other novels she hates (her word) include Martin Amis's Dead Babies, John Varley's Wizard, Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, and Dan Simmons's The Rise of Endymion ("a book I really hate"). She's also not into cyberpunk. When discussing the first ever Hugo-winning novel, Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, she says: "It has everything I don't like about cyberpunk: unpleasant immoral characters, bribery, an underworld, a fast pace, lots of glitz, a metropolitan feel, chases, and a noir narrative voice that doesn't want you to get too close." It's therefore not entirely surprising that when we get to her discussion of the 1985 Hugos, she describes William Gibson's Neuromancer as a "huge, important book and I hated it." It seems that she also has a preference for upbeat novels (about Wilson Tucker's The Year of the Quiet Sun she says, "I haven't read it, because it looks like a bit of a downer") that are, on the whole, positive about humanity and technology. (When discussing, for instance, Michael Swanwick's Jack Faust she notes, "It's beautifully written, as with all Swanwick, but it's negative about technology and the possibility of progress in a way that makes it hard for me to like.") In summary, Walton's sensibility doesn't align with mine; she unquestionably dislikes a number of works that speak highly to me personally. In a sense, then, I'm a good test case for the proposition, "If I disagree with Walton's tastes, will I still enjoy her evaluation of the Hugo winners and nominees?" The answer is a resounding yes.

For one, though she may not like certain works, she doesn't devalue or demerit them on those grounds. This is a significant point in Walton's favor, and one of many reasons it's a pleasure to read her even when you're at odds with her perspective. Then too, identifying where you may diverge from Walton's aesthetic preferences still leaves a ton of room for convergence in other areas. Which brings us to one of this book's most endearing and helpful features, part of the reason it's a standout volume: each of Walton's pieces, originally a Tor.com blog post, is followed by curated comments penned by other subject matter experts. The two most distinctive figures here, with a staggering, encyclopedic knowledge of the field, are Gardner Dozois and Rich Horton, to whom the book--along with Kevin Strandlee--is dedicated. Their opinions help round out Walton's views, and they often invoke texts that would have otherwise been missed. I truly admire Dozois's acumen, candor, and humor, and I likewise appreciate Horton's comprehensiveness within the genre and his inclusion of many mainstream titles with slight genre elements.

Another big plus that takes this review of the Hugos far beyond what it might have been is the inclusion of other awards and shortlists. In the early years there's not much else to discuss besides the Hugo and the International Fantasy Award. But then, in 1966, the Hugos are complemented by the Nebulas; in 1971, the Locus and the Mythopoetic Awards arrive on the scene; in 1973, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award is launched; later still we get the World Fantasy Awards and the Philip K. Dick Awards. Proceeding chronologically, as the book does, it's fascinating to note not only the growth of awards and their various registers, but the concomitant multiplicity of recommendations associated with their nomination lists. Another reason to cherish this book: it's a treasure-trove of excellent suggestions for further reading, at every imaginable length and in every conceivable style. I know I'll be dipping into it for years to come.

As far as Walton's own voice, she tends to speak plainly, and she's compulsively readable. If you make your way through these pieces in quick succession, as I did, you do notice some slight repetitions (every so often Walton mentions loving a book when she was fourteen, but not so much anymore; she tends to gripe about the non-comparability of the non-fiction nominees; and so on), but skipping around or pacing yourself, as most sane readers will do, this will likely not be noticeable. The original posts, if you want to get a sense of the style, are still available online here. But it's a singular pleasure to have them, slightly edited, and bolstered by a thoughtful selection of comments, in book form.

And speaking of the Hugos--come next year's awards, I know one non-fiction book I'll certainly be backing.

Title: Alien Virus Love Disaster Stories
Author: Abbey Mei Otis
Publisher: Small Beer Press

Philip Roth would sometimes quote Chekhov's observation that the job of the artist is "the proper presentation of the problem." If that's indeed the case, then Abbey Mei Otis's highly artistic debut collection, which gathers a dozen dazzling tales, tells me we have quite the problem on our hands. The majority of these stories--eight previously published, four original to this volume--revolve around dystopic or depressed futures wherein rampant angst, alienation, decadence, and physical suffering seem like the only logical outgrowths. I use that word deliberately, as Otis has a particular knack for details that anchor her characters in their physical predicaments. In the collection's eponymous tale, for instance, one of my favorites, the inhabitants of a small town, in the aftermath of an accident involving alien technology in a nearby lab, develop bumps on their bodies and must be evacuated. These protuberances--which "feel hard and round like everybody's got ping-pong balls buried inside them"--are bad enough, but there's an almost-throwaway line early on that well illustrates Otis's attention to physicality: "He digs at the sole of his bare foot, peels off a big nugget of callus and flicks it onto the rug." The "Moonkids" of the next story, rejects from a lunar colony who are outcast to Earth at the age of sixteen if they fail to achieve specific test scores, experience immense discomfort in our higher gravity and must undergo difficult procedures: "Your muscles learn differently in moon gravity. Your bones form light like a bird's. Used to not even be possible to make the transition, you'd touch down into earthpull and collapse like fast-melting candles. Too many fractures for all the king's horses and all the king's men. Way, way too many for Earth doctors to deal with. (Earth doctors are known for not giving a shit.) Now, though, they've got ways around it. They've got operations and stuff. Every moonkid's got incision scars in the same places." Despite these treatments, though, "Earthpull is fickle like a trickster gnome. Sometimes even after months and months it sneaks up behind you and punches in your knees." The name of the game, thematically speaking, is not so much adapting as surviving.

Anatomy is even more foregrounded in the third story, "If You Could Be God of Anything", in which a bunch of kids discover a sex robot that has literally fallen from the sky, one of countless discarded objects from the "skyways" air traffic. In the fifth, "Blood, Blood," quasi-disembodied aliens derive observational pleasure from humans performing mundane activities, but they seem to become especially aroused by fighting. The sixteen-year-old narrator, who engages in these tussles, longs to escape her life and body. Guilt, she tells herself, is "just another trapping of the flesh." Again the body becomes a world, now made alien by a kind of ultra-sensitive latex encasing, in "Sex Dungeons for Sad People."

As this first batch of stories readily makes clear, the problematic worlds in which Otis's characters find themselves are not only globally insoluble but, more often than not, personally untenable. This doesn't always lead to tragedy; sometimes the possibility of transformation is enough to sustain hope. In other instances, such as "Teacher" or "Sweetheart," a retreat into surrealism seems like the only appropriate response. In yet others, such as "Rich People," the successful incursion into a different realm of class or status only opens up even more nauseating vistas.

Readers who enjoy traditional narratives may struggle with Otis's work, which celebrates voice above all else. Though there are plenty of science-fictional and fantastic elements here--rising sea levels, moon colonies, gene modifications, robots, virtual realities, even ghosts of a sort--they typically comprise the background, rather than the foundation, of the stories at hand. Otis displays enormous skill in first-person narration, and she relies on it almost exclusively, trapping us in an array of colorful subjectivities. Her characters, frequently youthful, tend to speak in a highly idiosyncratic, mordant, colloquial way. Otis's deliberate cadences and repetitions in sentence structures result in a kind of hypnotic poetics of the mundane. Privations--physical, mental, spiritual--are a constant focus in these stories, and those elements are immediately accessible, but their contexts often remain oblique. Consider, for example, this nugget of description about the aliens in "Blood, Blood": "They speak, or rather do not speak, in streams of thought directed toward our minds. Look at one straight, it's like the sunlight that plays on the hull of a boat in a lake. Only no boat, no lake, no sunlight."

"If You Lived Here, You'd Be Evicted by Now" and "Ultimate Housekeeping Megathrill 4," the volume's two closing stories, are longer than most preceding pieces and in some ways stronger. There's more room to explore the crevasses of Otis's thoughtfully-constructed worlds, and more time to engage with the characters' plights. There's also the opportunity for some truly amazing stylistic flourishes, such as the following, which occurs three paragraphs into the penultimate story:

Let's say there's no money in this world. Let's say if you want to obtain something, like rice or photocopies, you have to give somebody a handjob. Only nobody wants to give a handjob in the grocery store or the copy shop, so instead at each register, in a clear glass tank, they have one of those giant clams from the Pacific Northwest, which is a symbol for genitalia. In lieu of payment you dip your hand into the cold salt water and caress the clam: once, twice.

Just kidding; of course there's money. Casey and Stacy both work in finance.

If you get the sense that Otis's stories may provoke strong emotions in you, and disturb you, you're probably right. But I don't believe Otis's focus is on being transgressive per se, rather on illustrating how, for many, transgression has already become a cornerstone of everyday reality. Otis doesn't use science fiction to lift the veil of the familiar and peer at what's beneath. Instead, with great shrewdness and courage and originality, she reveals that the veil was itself an illusion, and the familiar a construct of anything but.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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