Review: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu – Making battle kites cool

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu is many things: a retelling of the fall of the Qin dynasty and the Chu-Han Contention which followed (an incredibly exciting historical period often overshadowed by the Three Kingdoms period which, together with the Chu-Han Contention bookended the Han dynasty); a thoughtful exploration of morality and governance; and a ripping good secondary world fantasy with strange innovations (battle kites) and interesting characters.

I’m excited to see that this is book one of a planned series and am VERY curious as to whether Liu will follow the story of Kuni Garu or whether he’ll jump forward to some of the other notable periods of excitement that peppered this time period.

This story focuses mostly on the lives of two men born after the rise of the first imperial dynasty of the former Tiro states – a confederation of island nations centered around one very large island which share a common culture and history.

An emperor, Mapidéré overthrew the squabbling kingdoms and established a dynasty largely out of a sense of grievance at how his nation was treated compared to the others. He quickly begins pushing forward grand engineering schemes, standardizes the alphabet, weights and measures and then begins questing for immortality, ignoring how his empire is crumbling around him.

While on tour he falls ill and dies and his ministers conspire to have his heir killed and replaced with his younger son, a child who is easily distracted by the power hungry prime minister and the scheming chatelaine. Rebellions arise quickly, and two people: the capricious but sincere Kuni Garu and the noble absolutist Mata Zyndu come to the fore-front of the rebellion. As they fight against imperial authority they begin to see each other as brothers. But Zyndu is uncomfortable with Garu’s often dishonorable tactics, while Garu is disturbed by Zyndu’s brutality.

As the old empire crumbles, so to does their friendship.

Before I get any farther a warning, things will get a bit obliquely spoilery. So, if you know about the history of early Imperial China, or if you read the wikipedia links I posted at the top please consider yourself warned.

The Grace of Kings as historical fiction

It’s very easy to identify the historical counterparts to many of the key players in the novel very early on. Kuni Garu is identifiable as Liu Bang the moment he joins the rebellion, as one of the most enduring establishing myths of the Han is played out on the page. With Garu marked as a stand in for the Han founder, it becomes clear that Mata Zyndu is playing the role of Xiang Yu.

This lends a certain air of inevitability to the story. If Ken Liu had decided to unambiguously set the story in China as opposed to the Tiro States, if he’d removed the Crubens and the airships from the story (and all of these things are delightful, but the story could exist without them) this book would be a straight-up historical fiction, and an exceptional one. Garu as Liu Bang does an exemplary job bringing life to an incredibly complex figure: a commoner who became emperor, a man who reformed many of the excesses of his predecessors but who betrayed his friends, a king who is celebrated historically despite an acknowledged streak of low cunning that would have, in another time, made him not much more than a bandit. Likewise the tragedy of Xiang Yu, who was peerless in battle, but who always made the wrong decision off the field, is rendered beautifully through Zyndu.

Most of the key historical moments of the Chu-Han Contention are explored and dramatized throughout the story, while the blank spaces of historic lives: the loves, fears, hopes and frustrations are filled in with deft skill.

This makes it even more interesting that Liu chose to make a fantasy story instead of writing a history.

The Grace of Kings as morality tale

The issue of ethics is what divides Zyndu and Garu throughout the story. They have vastly divergent opinions on the right way to govern a state, the right way to act in  a war, the right way to deal with enemies, the right way to reward followers, they even differ on what constitutes loyalty, and under what circumstances loyalty is owed.

Zyndu is generally brutal to prisoners, but late in the book, when a general with substantial personal valor opposes him, he treats the general and his followers with a surprising level of respect, because they faced him in a straightforward test of arms. Even though the general fell to him, he still respected him.

On the other hand, Zyndu cannot seem to forgive Garu for having succeeded in taking the imperial city without substantial loss of life or harm to civilians because he did so through trickery.

Kuni Garu spends the entire book worrying about whether or not he is being a good person as well as a good ruler. It’s made very clear that he wants to protect the populace. Garu is horrified by the human cost both of bad rulership and of war. It’s likewise very clear that he’s an ambitious man who wants to forward his own rise from street rat to emperor. In order to achieve his objective he’s willing to betray friends, use spies, lie, kill, and put his own family’s life on the line repeatedly.

Eventually the book decides that the ethics of a ruler must be, due to the very nature of ruling a state, different from the ethics of a single person. The book is ambivalent about whether Kuni Garu is really a good man. It is more clear that he is a good ruler; and suggests that in the span of history that is what will be remembered.

I suspect one of the reasons Liu chose to make this story into a fantasy was so that he could have the freedom to explore these issues without being entirely bound both to historical record and to the extensive body of commentary on the rule of the Han founder that has arisen over the last two thousand years.

The Grace of Kings as fantasy

But there’s another thing that sets The Grace of Kings apart from historical fiction. I’ve previously argued that Sanguo Yanyi was a fantasy novel, or at least the precursor to one, because of the introduction of supernatural elements such as the omens that foretell the death of Dian Wei and the deification of Guan Yu.

And this is another arena that Liu is having a lot of fun with. The pantheon of gods that preside over the Tiro states are a living, breathing and vibrant part of the world. They are constantly meddling with the lives of the mortals, and the book explores an important question: if there’s a god on every side of a conflict, do they cancel out?

Much like Kuni Garu’s goodness the answer is ambivalent. What is made clear is that humans will always be free to interpret design manifestations to benefit themselves, and that ultimately people are the guides of their own fates, even if they can be tempted or pushed by gods. Luan Zya’s divine book won’t tell him anything he doesn’t already know, and Mata Zyndu’s decision to sacrifice soldiers en-masse to one capricious god is something he must own, along with the consequences of that act.

The pantheon of gods that occupy this story are not the deities of Chinese myth. They aren’t the Buddhist kings of hell, nor do they bear much resemblance to the vast panoply of gods that occupy the Taoist cosmology. But they are also some of Liu’s best inventions. I enjoyed the battle kites, airships and mechanical crubens, but the story could have progressed just the same without them.

But without the gods of the Tiro states it would be a very different story, and the ideas they inject play beautifully off the exploration of ethics that occupies The Grace of Kings as a morality tale. By taking the bare events of the Chu-Han Contention and then weaving a story around them in a secondary fantasy world, Liu has managed to make a historical fiction into something greater than the sum of its parts.

Even though the fate of Mata Zyndu will be evident to an informed reader very early on, the question of how he gets there, within himself is open to question. As the story explores both the question of whether this noble, honorable, brutal, vulnerable man is good or not, and as it explores whether he is the captain of his fate or a victim of divine intervention it manages to make that doom into more than a clever retelling of history.

Final Thought

I rarely review a book if I don’t think it’s worth reading, and this is no exception. Though somewhat weighty at around 620 pages, this is definitely one worth reading.

Ken Liu has a deft command of language, history and the humanity that underpins all of his characters. I admit, I’m biased, secondary fantasy stories derived from Chinese sources are literally my favorite things to read, and they’re damn rare. But beyond my personal preferences, this is just a good book.

Furthermore, it’s a book that shows the value of fantasy. Because this didn’t have to be a fantasy, it’s so grounded in a deep appreciation of history that it could have easily been a historical fiction instead. But it is improved for being one.

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Hollywood and Fan Creator culture – copyright isn’t as simple as pirates and police

sad youtubeI’ve always been a fan of the Addams Family, as such it isn’t surprising that I found Melissa Hunter‘s fanseries, “Adult Wednesday Addams” to be absolutely adorable.

So I was sad a few days ago when I found out it had been pulled. Speculation on the internet was  that it was brought down because of backlash over the cat-calling episode (which I really wish I could link to because it was absolutely brilliant, sadly, it is now gone).

This does not actually appear to be the case. Rather the issue is an entirely different one, and one which is much more complex than yet another blow in the ongoing culture war would have been.

When I heard about the copyright strike against Adult Wednesday Addams I immediately visited the Tee & Charles Addams Foundation, the rights-holder for the Addams Family, and the organization which had brought the copyright strike against Hunter’s series.

I located the contact information and wrote the following letter to them:

I’ve always been a fan of the Addams Family in pretty much every one of its iterations. And I was a huge fan of the Adult Wednesday Addams webseries, which was funny, intelligent and tonally in keeping with the character. As such, I’m distraught over the news that your foundation has forced its removal from Youtube.

While I understand that you are the copyright holder, and legally you are acting within your rights, I think in this case you are sorely mistaken to have taken this action.

I ask, as a fan, please do not obstruct this wonderful little webseries.


sincerely,

Simon McNeil

I didn’t expect any response, but I figured letter writing campaigns have been successful in the past, and the best way for them to be successful is for somebody to start writing letters.

However I was mistaken. A mere four hours after I wrote to the foundation, I received a response from Kevin Miserocchi, the Executive Director of the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation.

Here is what he said to me:

Dear Simon McNeil,

Thank you for your comments concerning Charles Addams and his Family and the suspension of Melissa Hunter’s on line series titled The Adult Wednesday Addams. Perhaps this will help to enlighten you about the situation that has caused this to happen rather than assuming we don’t care. Unfortunately for all involved it is not as simple as you may be thinking it is: The Moneyed Establishment versus The Artist – on the contrary.

We have a contract with MGM to produce a full-length animated feature film of The Addams Family® to look exactly as Charles Addams originally painted them. That contract prohibits anyone from portraying those characters in any media during the life of the contract.

Regardless of her talent or the breadth of her audience or the entertainment it gave you, the online series is a violation of that contract, something for which both Melissa Hunter and this Foundation could have been sued heavily. You can thank Melissa Hunter for not having understood the need to contact us so as to obtain a license to protect her show. Now it is too late and she will have to wait to resume her career as the Adult Wednesday Addams© until a year after the film has been released. Hopefully, she realizes that she already has an audience and merely needs to change the title of her show and her appearance.

With best regards,
H. Kevin Miserocchi, Executive Director

So what we have is instead what appears to be a pretty awful contract. Apparently, MGM has purchased an exclusive license to the Addams Family in all media. Furthermore, according to Mr. Miserocchi, the foundation is liable for enforcing copyright on behalf of the license holder (MGM) at risk of lawsuit.

That’s all rather odious.

Now I will note that the substantial snark in the last paragraph is not very nice; and comes off a bit disingenuous. If the contract is as strict as Miserocchi describes previously, it wouldn’t have mattered if Hunter had come to the Foundation first, they would have been required to say, “no.” And I rather doubt her webseries could provide sufficient revenue to beat out MGM if it came to a competitive bid. Whatever MGM paid the foundation for this license I’d suggest they invest some of that money into a PR coordinator because there would have been much more diplomatic ways to communicate the message above.

And here’s where things get complicated. Adult Wednesday Addams is a perfect example of a fanseries. It was created by a single person (or a very small team), it has a very limited cast, episodes are based on a straightforward simple premise, riffing on something the creator / star / director / writer obviously loves.

But videos on Youtube are monetized, and the Adult Wednesday Addams videos, based on the number of views they had before being taken down and the average payout for ad-views on Youtube, might have made as much as $13,770.

Now that’s not much money, but it’s not nothing. And it’s money made through the unlicensed use of a copyrighted piece of IP.

There are two main camps on this issue. On one hand, some people will say that copyright in this case is just established industry players cutting out small-scale creatives. Considering it’s posthumous IP (Charles Addams died in 1988) they’d probably argue for some flexibility. And besides, Adult Wednesday Addams wasn’t hurting anybody and certainly wasn’t stealing any bank from MGM.

The other camp would argue that what Hunter did was technically illegal, and that the Foundation acted both within their rights but also within their own best interest pulling the plug.

I come down somewhere in the middle. My personal opinion about copyright terms would, if it were magically converted into law, put the Addams Family in the public domain – just barely (I’m a proponent of lifetime + 20 years). And 13 grand (or less) is really not that much money. And honestly the Adult Wednesday Addams webseries wouldn’t be likely to impact MGM’s revenue in the slightest – the enforcement of such strict contract terms on the foundation by MGM seems a bit overreaching.

On the other hand, the state of the law in the United States is (very loosely speaking) lifetime + 70 years, and Adult Wednesday Addams was a potentially revenue-generating product making use of that IP. And there’s a reason that Fan Fiction writers don’t sell their stories.

So I do see both sides of the argument, and both have some merit. I think, ultimately, our current copyright climate is poorly designed to handle technologies like Youtube, which can automatically take a piece of fan fiction and convert it into a profit-generating product. This isn’t even the first time this year that we’ve seen this problem.

I think we need to reexamine copyright law within the bounds of new technology. Doubling down on penalties through things like the Digital Milennium Copyright Act hasn’t worked; the vast grey area between fan product and professional product demonstrates that clearly. But copyright is also important; as much as I might like creative commons licensing and as much as I might call for a shorter than average copyright period, I’m not against copyright as a concept.

But studios and rights-holders suing or threatening to sue fans for their enthusiasm over IP isn’t cool either.

I don’t think I have an answer for this one guys. But if you do, please let me know.

Haxan – Weird(ish) West

There’s a lot of cross-pollination between Science Fiction and Western. Both are genres about boundaries: the border between settled and wild, the boundary between right and wrong action, the boundaries between nations (as the United States pushed aggressively westward, absorbing New France, pushing Mexico south and driving the indigenous nations before them in one of the most infamous, and and infamously un-discussed, genocides of human history).

The mythology that sprang up around the great colonial push westward is thus one about these boundary conditions, how boundaries change and how boundaries change people. In addition, the characters in westerns are frontierspeople, and their life is defined by exiting the familiar and colonizing the unknown.

Science Fiction deals with much of the same psychic content. Especially in the case of space exploration fiction, but also in stories like Starfish, or even Ancillary Justice characters find themselves thrust out of the familiar (be that the comfort of being one body of many networked to an AI, their remembered time or dry land) and sent to colonize the unfamiliar (a deep sea rift, the future, an existence as an individual) knowing  that they can never return unchanged.

Justice of Toren / Breq can never go back to being a vast AI ship mind. Seivarden cannot return to her past. Lenie Clarke does return to dry land, but what comes back isn’t really what went in. And like the history from which the western genre sprang, these colonizations of the wild are often highly destructive, especially to the people or creatures who already lived in those places.

With so much shared conceptual space, it’s not surprising that weird west is a thing that exists. And I’ve got to say, it’s one of those genres I really should read more often than I do. I like weird west. I even liked Wild Wild West – giant steampunk spider and all. It’s not a short hop from science fiction to weird, and it takes an even lighter touch to tint the already mythological ground of the wild west with a weird brush.

But a lot of weird west jumps up and down on its weirdness: spell slinging cowboys, monsters, demons, zombies, giant robot spiders whatever, just throw it all at the wall and sees what sticks.

This can be very entertaining. But it’s not very subtle.

Haxan is a subtle book.

It’s fully possible to read the book without any supernatural or unnatural context at all. The things that happen in the story are grounded in the grit and mythological realism of the western genre so thoroughly that there’s no actual need to say, “It’s western, BUT…”

However you can also read Haxan as a story about an immortal warrior, summoned from somewhere nameless to fight for order in a town that might exist at the behest of a psychic settler from a vastly distant elsewhere.

And that reading would be just as valid as the gritty mythological realist one. This is a story that assumes a Navajo understanding of the spirit world is at least equally valid to a surface reading. This is a story that takes the romantic ideal of the quickdraw gunslinger and simultaneously roots it in the dust and death of all-to-real gun violence while simultaneously cranking the mythic resonance of the act of the duel to 11.

This is a story where coyotes encroach on a town because the land is dry and they’re thirsty. But also because the town must be isolated so that its lone guardian can stand against What Must Be Faced.

Hoover has a beautiful talent for description, and the town of Haxan and surrounds is powerfully realized. But it’s not just the ability to see, taste and smell the world that gives this book power, it’s the author’s ability to infuse those descriptions with a sense of doom in the old Scandinavian sense of the word.

Haxan is the first western I’ve read in a very long time, and it hit just the right note of weirdness without going all to tentacles and mechanical spiders. And if this is indicative of the state of the genre, perhaps I should read more.

You probably shouldn’t sue somebody for stealing your idea

One of these days I’ll get around to reviewing Haxan (which I really want to write a review about) but it won’t be today sadly, because today somebody named Peter Joseph Gallagher sued Joss Whedon and basically everybody Whedon works with over The Cabin in the Woods.

Now let’s start by making sure to draw some goalposts. I’m an advocate for a robust public domain, I’ve come on record calling for shorter copyright periods before. I’ve also said privately that if anybody ever cared enough about anything I wrote to make fanfic / other stories in the world I built / etc. I wouldn’t likely care as long as they A) were not profiting from my IP and B) gave credit where credit was due.

However I’m not an advocate for unrestricted copyright violation. And this isn’t going to be a screed on the evils of copyright. As far as I’m concerned a content creator has every right to expect that other people won’t start profiting off their work.

Now copyright is a prickly subject, especially when you’re dealing with something so deliberately tropey as Cabin in the Woods (which is in the host of various media that probably, quite legitimately, owes Sam Raimi $10.) So before we descend into an issue as laden with satire / fair use wiggle room and overtly archetypal elements as The Cabin in the Woods let’s examine a much more straightforward example.

The Life of Pi and Max and the Cats

With thanks to Heather Emme for bringing this example to my attention.

In 1981 Moacyr Scliar wrote a novella called Max and the Cats about a boy who finds himself trapped on a lifeboat with a jaguar after his ship sinks.

In 2002 Yann Martel wrote a novel called Life of Pi, about a boy who ends up trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger after his ship sinks. Martel’s book went on to win the Booker Prize. In Life of Pi, Martel thanked Scliar, calling his earlier story the “spark of life,” for the latter.

Martel later said some very douchey comments, claiming not to have read the book and saying, “I didn’t really want to read it. Why put up with the gall? Why put up with a brilliant premise ruined by a lesser writer?”

Scliar and his publisher originally considered pursuing legal action but the authors were eventually able to settle their dispute without intervention from the courts.

There’s SO much going on in this example. We have an author who openly admits the influence of the previous work and then back-pedals in the nastiest way possible when he’s called on it. We have premises that are effectively identical. We have similar executions (lit-fic novella vs lit-fic novel) and in both cases we have widely respected authors. Scliar was one of Brazil’s most respected authors. Martel is widely regarded as a powerful writer (they don’t give away Bookers to just anybody).

And yet…

And yet…

Ultimately this wasn’t settled in the courts. And as much as I think how Martel responded to the initial complaints was awful. Despite Martel’s straight up lie that he read an Updike review of the book (such a review does not exist), despite how similar these stories were in both premise and execution, ultimately what they really shared was an idea: a boy, on a boat, with a predator cat.

And that’s not really what copyright is there to protect. The ability of ideas to cross-pollinate, of Tolkien to be influenced by Wagner who was influenced by Germanic myth, is a fundamentally important one. And yes, it can be abused. No system is immune to abuse. But when we strike out at the fact of literary inspiration and cross-fertilization in the name of copyright protection it is ultimately more harmful to the arts as a whole than not doing so would be.

I’m not saying Yann Martel was justified ripping off a respected Brazilian author and expecting nobody would notice. I’m not saying he was right to double-down by insulting the author when he was caught out. But there’s a difference between doing something worthy of social censure and something worthy of legal censure. Ultimately I think Martel earned scorn, but not a judgment of the courts.

Complicate a Situation: Just add tropes, parody, and Hollywood money

So here’s what we know about Peter Joseph Gallagher’s book:

  1. He self-published a run in 2007 of 2,500 which he claims in his court statement nearly sold out, leading him to print a second run of 5,000 copies.
  2. He was selling books on the street in a neighborhood that Joss Whedon has lived in.
  3. The book describes a group of five highly archetypical horror movie type protagonists going to a cabin in the woods, encountering a weird artifact room (a-la evil dead) and then are attacked by a killer. The twist is that they’re being manipulated into reliving horror movie tropes for the amusement of a viewing audience.
  4. There are other cosmetic similarities described between the book and the film, but they mostly boil down to tropes will be tropey.

So ultimately what this boils down to is Gallagher saying that Whedon used the idea of a trope-aware horror story in which an in-universe audience is secretly controlling the protagonists.

Most of the other elements of the stories boil down to the fact that Whedon deliberately used tropes. Heck, the archetypes that each character represented are carved on giant walls below the secret base. There are conversations in the book about the role that the characters, as archetypal avatars fulfill in stories. Whedon et. al weren’t going for “original idea” so much as “deconstruction of very well-worn ideas.”

I haven’t read Gallagher’s book. And since copies of it on Amazon are currently selling at over $1000 a copy thanks to opportunistic bookjackers (and the one and only copy at the Barnes and Noble website is going for almost $90) I’m not going to read his book. However, even if we assume that he was also doing a deliberately self-aware deconstruction of the horror genre based on an examination of well-worn ideas, that still doesn’t make this copyright violation. Because you can’t copyright a concept. And that’s all that this is, a concept.

But there’s more. Because Whedon’s work is largely considered a satire. And fair use gives extra leniency to works of satire and parody to play fast and loose with copyright. So even if Whedon was lampooning Gallagher rather than Raimi he’d still have a strong defense for these alleged violations.

What we have here is unfortunately a common dispute: person has idea, writes book, makes no money. Later, somebody in Hollywood has similar idea. Writes script. Makes movie. Makes much money. Book writer says, “but I was first,” and sues for a chunk of the money for “their” idea. Except you can’t copyright an idea. That’s why Sophia Stewart will probably never get any money from the Wachowskis.

And unlike in the case between Scliar and Martel, the execution between Gallagher and Whedon is vastly different. Gallagher framed his story, according to the reports I’ve read, around issues surrounding reality television and the ways in which reality TV producers deploy fiction tropes against unscripted participants to create conflict and ratings. Whedon deconstructed the genre by suggesting a shadowy cabal trying to keep down a world-ending menace by committing lesser evils to keep it placated. In one execution, entertainment is evil. In the other, entertainment placates evil. These are different riffs on  theme.

And of course, one is a book, the other a film and they have vastly diverging plots, trope use notwithstanding.

I imagine it can be very frustrating to see a product succeed when it’s so similar to something you worked on in relative obscurity. However, even when there is a very clear link between two very similar pieces of media, resolving out of court may be the better option. When all the two stories share is the kernel of an idea, it’s not theft. There’s an old adage, I think I read it in Writer magazine back in the day: Ideas are cheap. And they are. Artists, for the most part, get ideas like most people get cups of coffee. Sometimes an idea sticks, and you do something noteworthy with it. Other times it doesn’t.

If two people happen to have the same idea it might be because one inspired the other, in which case they should own up to that (I’ve never hidden the influence of Jin Yong on my work) in other cases it might just be random chance. Regardless, suing over an idea probably isn’t the best way to handle it.

Ad-Astra 2015 Wrap-Up

Another year, another Ad Astra. This convention has really become my home-con and this year only cemented that feeling, thanks largely to the incredibly hard work of the programming team, including my friend Angela Keeley. I’ve been to cons where the barcon was the highlight of the entire convention, and, despite some wonderful barcon memories from this time around, this was not one of them.

I’m afraid I didn’t get to attend many other people’s readings and panels – being on eight panels and having brought my wife and six-month-old daughter along, I was basically running from panel to diaper pail and back again. But I had a wonderful time on the panels; particularly on the unexpectedly robust comedy track, which I was fortunate enough to get onto three of the constituent panels.

And that’s what I’d like to contribute a few minutes to.

First up was the Merciless Deconstruction of Things Other People Like panel with Adam Shaftoe, David Blackwood and Mike Rimar. In this early hint to the madness that would follow the audience learned about how:

  • The rebel alliance were (possibly theocratic) malcontents with no unifying political purpose other than overturning the apple cart of the Empire.
  • The Empire, meanwhile was as strategically dumb as a bag of hammers.
  • The crew of the Serenity were thinly veiled confederate soldiers stealing medicine from the citizens of a highly liberal democracy – the Alliance.
  • The truck on Knight Rider was wider than the roads it drove on.
  • There was only one Latino in the entirety of Blade Runner’s LA.
  • Harrison Ford is almost as bad at accents as he is at flying airplanes.
  • The United Federation of Planets was an oppressive military autocracy similar to North Korea only with cornucopia machines.
  • And SO much more

The next panel of my ad-hoc comedy tour was the slash fic panel. Things got off to a monstrous start when David Blackwood described the love lives of Alien and Predator. I added an entirely-non-perverted (shifty eyes are shifty) solution to Guardians of the Galaxy that completely negated the third act. Michael Matheson read a bizarre story of Ms. / Pac Man as a trans noir detective in a city of darkness and posession. Angela Keeley then brought the roof down (killing everybody) with the most terrible Harry Potter slash fic ever committed. Possibly excepting My Immortal. But probably not. After the audience was raised from the grave, we were joined by Beverley Bambury and Marie Bilodeau for a reading of Skinhead Hamlet. I’m sure my old Shakespeare professor Paul Werstine would agree this is the greatest achievement in the editing of the play in its storied history.

There was another bad reading (not-necessarily slash) the next night. This time Angela and I were joined by Erick Buchanan, who managed to find the true badness in a powerfully dramatic reading of a famous fantasy best-seller. I provided a treatise on waffles, magic swords and elf-murder. Angela actually read My Immortal. Lacking much of the needed cast for our repeat performance of Skinhead Hamlet, we kind of split after that, though a few of us hung around to educate certain deprived friends as to the joy of Charlie the Unicorn and the Forest Nymph Vine.

Lots of other things happened. My book cover was officially revealed and the launch date was publicly announced. There was a con-long drinking game (mention the Hugos? Drink!) Barcons, loud parties, scotch tastings, swimming pools, an invasion of hockey playing children and their bemused parents, swords!

Oh yeah, and I had a really nasty head cold the whole bloody time!

Loved Ad Astra to bits. Going there every year feels like going home.

New layout for SimonMcNeil.com

Good morning all. I’m hoping to do a complete blog wrap-up of Ad-Astra in the next day or two, pending time and finally getting over this clingy head cold. However I have made one notable change. With the announcement of the release date and cover of the Black Trillium I’ve updated the layout of my website to facilitate pre-orders and to show off the lovely cover art.

Digital pre-orders are now available in most major platforms, with the availability of print pre-orders pending.

The book drops June 27, 2015.

Hugo roundup

There’s been a pretty big book worth of ink spilled over the Hugo ballots. Here’s what some people are saying:

This is what I’ve read so far, and could remember how to find. A note, I don’t agree with all of what’s been said on this list, and unless my comments include a specific endorsement (such as calling something “on of the most detailed and thoughtful analyses of the Sad Puppies) inclusion on the roundup should not be construed as overt endorsement of the comments therein. Furthermore, unless I include specifically incendiary language (ex: “rants about SMOFs and SJWs”) inclusion should not be considered criticism of the comments. My criteria is literally, “I read it and thought it mentioned something unique regarding the debate.” Please share links of interest in the comments and I’ll update the roundup periodically with additional links.

Why these things matter

I want to tell you a story. It’s about a life, and it’s true.

There was a boy. Teenager, in high school: bookish; liked magic cards and role playing games; he was into comparative theology and classical philosophy; he was good with computers. He didn’t like sports, other than martial arts. He knew he liked girls, liked them a lot. But he also liked boys, maybe not as strongly but enough to feel different. It’s hard enough being a weird kid in high school though without being a bisexual weird kid. And at this point he probably wouldn’t have even thought of calling himself that. So he didn’t mention it. He buried it deep. One person, somebody pretty close to him, guessed he was gay (he wasn’t) and used this as an emotional cudgel; this made him less inclined to tell anybody anything about it.

A few years later, the young man, now in university. He got into LARP and from there he found his way to the goth scene. Loved it. Dated a few girls. One was just wrong timing. Others didn’t work out for a variety of reasons. In this scene though he also kissed a guy for the first time. He liked it. But he was drunk, so was the guy, and he really didn’t know exactly how to process the feelings in the kiss so he said nothing and put it out of his mind. Mostly he still dated women, except for the occasional dalliance.

The young man graduated and moved overseas. His boss was openly bisexual and had taken some flack for it in the past. Things began to change in North America. Gays and lesbians were on TV enough that they weren’t oddities anymore. Canada was talking about legalizing gay marriage. Bisexuals were still kind of not talked about that much. Being not one nor the other seemed awkward. Like some people would hear bi and think, “It’s just a phase,” or alternately, “oh, you’re gay but not quite ready to come out.” And the truth is he wasn’t ready to come out. Not by a LONG shot. But it wasn’t the same thing. Around this time he met a woman, fell in love, got married. Being bisexual was, at that point a distraction, unimportant. It wasn’t that he’d changed. But having celebrity crushes of two genders instead of one wasn’t the sort of thing it was necessary to share, and since he was happily monogamous and very deeply in love he didn’t bother.

The man moved to Canada, got a dead end job and lost it. He moved to Toronto, his career started in earnest and his social circle exploded. He met all kinds of amazing people. Some were gay, or bi, or genderqueer or a variety of other orientations. He was married, to a woman and had been closeted for his whole life. It was easy to just play the good hetero ally. So he did that. He came close to telling a few close friends a few times, but always chickened out at last minute. He felt rather guilty for that, but he just didn’t see it as being anymore important to his self-identity than the fact he liked Jackson Pollack and Picasso, shirts with cufflinks or really spicy curry.

Time went by. His daughter was born. Around this time a young adult cartoon called Legend of Korra ended. He liked the cartoon a lot, he was a fan of wuxia stories, and the Avatar world captured many of the tropes of wuxia much better than any other western tv show or film ever had. The finale of the series closed with the titular character entering into a same sex relationship. She’d previously been in a heterosexual relationship, and unlike the Buffy dodge this wasn’t presented as a change in her orientation. She was a bisexual protagonist. She was the first one he’d seen on television. Now he was introspecting a lot about how he wanted to raise his daughter. The world was changing, and for the better, but it wasn’t there yet. He’d looked back over his past and regretted not having been more open about that one little quirk of his. After all, plenty of his friends knew that he liked Jackson Pollack and Picasso, shirts with cufflinks and really spicy curry. So why shouldn’t they know this too? It wasn’t that he didn’t trust them, there was just so much inertia behind the decision to keep silent.

So he started slowly. He told his wife, then his mother. Then a few friends, slowly, carefully. Mostly friends he knew to be bi or otherwise queer themselves, not even very many of them, because it was a little easier. It wasn’t that he was unsatisfied with his wife (she was still entirely the love of his life) nor was he likely to be signing up for Grindr or going out to bear nights; he was happily monogamous. When female co-workers at work joked about how cute Thor was and then apologized to him, he wanted to say, no, honestly, go ahead. I agree. He still hadn’t quite gotten that far.

But his wife accepted him, knowing he loved her.

And the friends he told didn’t make it a big deal, didn’t change how they interacted with him, which was good.

The one co-worker to whom it slipped out almost by accident felt him out for a week, possibly treating him more like one of her gay friends, and then they settled back into patterns of work and she seemed to forget all about it, which was just fine.

And the funny thing is that all of this really wasn’t any more important than Jackson Pollack, Picasso, shirts with cufflinks and spicy curries. But even though he’d been able to hide this little detail, this unimportant detail, from everybody he’d loved for nearly two decades, he couldn’t countenance living in a world where something like being not gay, but also not straight was a problem, a world where having two celebrity crushes was something you hid out of fear that somebody might use it as an emotional cudgel against you. He wanted her to live in a better world. One where a cartoon character could be allowed to love indiscriminately without “changing teams.”

It seems like such a little thing.

And then some jerk comes along and calls people like me “a sexual aberration.” He calls two creators whose only wrongdoing, even in his eyes, was to admit that bisexuality was something that existed, “disgusting, limp, soulless sacks of filth.” He calls them, “termites,” and expresses a desire to, “exterminate them.” That jerk is now up for five Hugo awards because a few conservatives with sour grapes didn’t like all the women on the ballot two years ago.

I spent twenty years of my life being a little dishonest with the people I cared about because I didn’t want everything in my life to center around ducking attacks from shit-sacks like him. When I became an author I CERTAINLY didn’t want my career to be defined by that anymore than it is by my fondness for Pollack, Picasso, cuff links and curry. Well congratulations to the Sad Puppies. Because what they accomplished was to make a man who was effectively silent on this part of himself finally build up the courage to say, “fuck you,” and to speak out, publicly, to whoever happened by.

I can tolerate that bigots still exist. The tide of history is against them and they’ll fade eventually. I’m patient.

But while they’re fading away, I can’t tolerate the community that I’m a part of honoring them. I want my daughter to grow up in a world where these things aren’t shameful, where people understand the only thing confusing bisexuals is a lack of role models reflecting our experience. And where even that is history. So, yes, I know that ultimately the Hugo awards aren’t much more than a popularity contest. I know they don’t confer much beyond bragging rights.

But it still matters to me. Because I’m through tying myself in knots just to duck the bigots. I owe more than that to my daughter.

The problem with Hugo – Assessing the work on their merits, a moderate approach

So this was a thing that happened. Short form, after three years of concerted, non-stop campaigning, the sad puppies managed to game the system of the Hugo Awards sufficiently to stack the ballot to the point where there are some categories where, quite literally, there is no choice but Sad Puppy options.

Furthermore, in some of these cases (though not all) the options presented by the Sad Puppies are so obviously included just to stick one to the “pink shirts” that, even disregarding the inside baseball of the various cliques involved, “no award” is the best available option.

I don’t say that lightly. Now I’m going to break down the categories one-by-one and discuss what I know of the entries on them. And in the process, I’m going to act like I don’t know the Sad Puppies exist as a thing because I want it to become apparent how blatant ridiculous this ballot is. But before I do that, I want to talk about options.

The Way Forward

We have a few options going forward:

  1. Fully politicize the Hugo awards by forming an organized slate of candidates to counter the Sad Puppy clique.
  2. Abandon the Hugo awards to the Sad Puppies.
  3. Push for a complete redesign of the Hugo Awards

Now, of these options, I think 2 is by far the worst. I’m tired of ceding ground in public space to conservative interests, of seeing Overton windows constantly sliding right.

So let’s examine the other two options.

A fully politized ballot

Despite my previous (very public) comments regarding the inseparability of art and politics, I actually think this is not a good option. I’m no more interested in turning the Hugo Awards into a permanent battleground of the Culture Wars than I am in abandoning them to become the paleoconservative awards for genre fiction.

Unfortunately, I think that this is what probably will happen short term. Certainly, for the 2015 Hugos it’s going to happen, because, as I’ll show later, it’s effectively impossible to vote in the majority of categories in the Hugo awards without it being politicized.

Since I refuse to throw my hands up and abandon the awards to the Sad Puppies, any voting that happens kind of will end up being political.

And any changes to the structure of the Hugo Awards will require successful votes at two successive Worldcons, so we’re probably looking at the same sad fight next year. However, notwithstanding this stop-gap measure to prevent the Hugo Awards from honoring grossly inappropriate throwbacks, I think that the real fight should be to change the Hugo Awards structure so that it’s harder to game the system.

Changing the Hugo Awards

Ideally, the Hugo Awards should be honoring the best SFF has to offer, rather than the thing any one camp was able to push forward as the best avatar of their political vision. But with the current structure that’s hard to do. So what are some options?

Raise the price to nominate and vote

No. Unlikely to work, kind of jerky to boot. I only mention it because it’ll invariably come up as a suggestion.

Eliminate multiple nominations

When a single author has been spammed across every nomination in a category it’s clear that some rigging is going on. So I’d suggest this as a first measure: a single individual or organization will not be allowed to be nominated more than once for any given award, and not more than three times for all award categories. In the event that a nominee receives more than one qualifying nomination in a category, whichever work receives the most nominations is the one that goes on the ballot. The others are discarded. The same applies if a person is nominated into more than three categories. The strongest nominations stay. The weaker nominations are tossed.

I think this might be one of the easiest fixes for the problem we’re facing right now. It’d, at the very least, mean that a greater diversity of nominees would be on every ballot, and would slightly weaken the power of voting blocs aligning behind specific high-profile incendiary candidates.

Of course, nothing stops voting blocs from just finding five different names for each slate and pushing that slate forward just as strongly. But at least they’d have to work harder, and as my later analysis will show, when the voting bloc can’t lean on a single author to push their agenda, the situation becomes more difficult.

Make the Hugo Awards a juried award

Of course this’ll make the selection of the jury a matter of political contention. But if we switched the selection of the nominations list from an open pay-for-vote situation to a juried one, it would at least introduce some accountability. That’s something we don’t really have right now.

Something else?

Honestly, I’m looking for suggestions here, comments welcome.

A breakdown of the award categories

Of course, everything I’ve been saying is predicated on the brokenness of the current list. So let’s look at that in greater detail.

Best novel

  • Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • The Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson (Tor Books)
  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) (Tor Books)
  • Lines of Departure by Marco Kloos (47North)
  • Skin Game by Jim Butcher (Roc Books)

This is one of the two best categories on this year’s ballot. Frankly Ancillary Sword has been my pick for the 2015 Hugo award ever since I read it. Leckie is a genius and her book is a tour-de-force. And I say that as somebody who’s often bored by space opera.

I’ve heard good things about The Goblin Emperor though I haven’t read it. It’s on my TBR list, but, being honest, it’d have to be AMAZING to dislodge Leckie’s book from my top pick.

Jim Butcher has long been one of my guilty pleasure reads. I enjoyed Skin Game, with a big caveat that I thought Butcher leaned FAR too hard on the femme fatale tropes of noir in this outing, and there were small parts of the book that veered into straight-up sexism which I found jarring and which I SERIOUSLY hope he dials back in his next outing. Still I’ll be buying his next Dresden book because it’s an enjoyable read. Would I call Skin Game the best SFF book of 2014? No. Nope. Nooooooope. I would not. But, I wouldn’t really blame somebody who did – Butcher is a very competent and entertaining author.

I haven’t read, or heard anything about The Dark Between the Stars so this one’s a bit of a shoulder-shrug on my part. I have no problem with Kevin J. Anderson, and some of his Dune novels were entertaining reads. But I’m still going to stump for Leckie over him. Because Leckie is a freaking genius.

Lines of Departure puts the military in military SF. I don’t read much straight up military SF (Scalzi notwithstanding) so I can’t really comment. Scalsi seems to like Kloos. But it’s kind of the same situation as with Anderson, I’m more saying “not enough information to comment” than “don’t vote for this guy”

Conclusion: If I knew absolutely nothing about Sad Puppies I’d probably have absolutely no problem with the ballot for best novel. Vote for who you like. I’ll be voting for Leckie first because I REALLY like Leckie and I think she really did write the best science fiction novel of the year.

Best Novella

  • Big Boys Don’t Cry by Tom Kratman (Castalia House)
  • “Flow” by Arlan Andrews, Sr. (Analog, Nov 2014)
  • One Bright Star to Guide Them by John C. Wright (Castalia House)
  • “Pale Realms of Shade” by John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House)
  • “The Plural of Helen of Troy by John C. Wright (City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, Castalia House)

Ok so here’s where I do this:  (ノಠ益ಠ)ノ彡┻━┻

I’m going to start with John C. Wright. The man who, according to the Hugo ballot wrote three of the five best novellas of 2014. Wright called the creators of Legend of Korra termites for confirming that Korra was bisexual. He said they should be, and this is a quote, exterminated.

I’m sorry, but this falls back to my, “you can’t ever entirely separate the artist from the art,” statement and I could no more vote for anything this man wrote than I could one of Orson Scott Card’s paeans to the wonders of child soldiers. By using his author platform to spread hate, he has excluded himself from consideration.

Tom Kratman is also on the list of people who have excluded themselves from serious contention on the basis of the things they’ve said online. Look here and here to see what I mean.

And then there’s Arlan Andrews Sr. He’s on the advisory board for the Lifeboat Foundation. And they’re a rather… frightening… group of people.

So in the novella category we have three nominees: one who wants to exterminate the creators of a YA cartoon for daring to admit bisexuals exist, one who seems to believe affirmative action is more racist than the promotion of Rushton-style memes regarding “race” and genetic inheritance, and one who is involved with a trojan horse NGO whose advisory board also includes one of the most infamous anti-islamic radicals in the USA.

This grouping doesn’t include the best SFF has to offer. It doesn’t include the best any random grouping of people have to offer. There’s no way I could endorse any of these people.

So “No Award” carries in novella.

And the rest

This is going to take all day so I’m going to hustle things along. Novelette includes more John C Wright, somebody published in an Orson Scott Card branded publication, and a bunch of things I haven’t read. I’ll probably try to get around to those and report back on a future post.

Short story has more John C. Wright, more Castalia House (on why that’s a no-go zone read Stross here) and more I-haven’t-read-report-back-laters. (Of note, Lou Antonelli, on his blog, claims that “typical literary s-f is dystopian slipsteam pornography,” and not in the tee-hee, I love dystopian slipstream pornography sort of way, so I don’t have high hopes for him. But at least he isn’t as publicly awful as the novella contenders.

Related work: Oh hey, look, Castalia House again. What’s that? Patriarchy Press? That’s just straight up trolling now. In fact, considering Patriarchy Press seems to have no visible web presence, at all, I’m inclined to think it is a troll. Perhaps a self-pubber’s imprint name which he thought was droll or something. Regardless, not filing me with confidence here related work.

Graphic novel: An unremittingly awesome field. Possibly even better  than novel. Ms. Marvel? I love Ms. Marvel – anything related to the Inhumans really, but it’s a wonderful book regardless. Rat Queens, yes, yes, yes. Saga is the comic I haven’t read that is most frequently recommended to me by comic fans and non-comic fans alike. It probably deserves to be on this list. The other two? No clue. But with a minimum of three STRONG contenders out of five this is fine.

Dramatic Presentation – Long and Short: An uncontroversial list in both cases. When I first read the Sad Puppy slate when Torgersen released it, I shrugged and said, “they’re not doing any damage there.”  Haven’t seen Edge of Tomorrow yet, I don’t watch Grimm and I haven’t seen Orphan Black… YET… but everything on those two lists looks highly appropriate and all will be above “no award” on my ballots.

Best Editor: Hey look – Vox Day is on both lists. Well he’s going BELOW “no award.” Beyond that, I don’t know, need to do some research into what the others edited.

The only weirdness in Semiprozine is the presence of Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and Beneath Ceasless Skies on it. I’d have counted them as prozines. Loved Women Destroy Horror though. And I know someone over at Apex & Abyss who I wish nice things for. So, yeah, lots of reasonable choices here once you get past the oddness of how they seem to be defining semipro.

Fanzine: I don’t care, as long as it doesn’t go to Revenge of the Hump Day. As far as I’m concerned this “equal opportunity offender” repository for racist, sexist, anti-islamic, anti-atheist and anti-liberal jokes and editorials has no place being lauded by the Hugo Awards.

Other fan categories. I don’t know any of them. Research will be needed before voting. Or I might just leave those sections blank since time is at a premium and I already have a fair bit of research to do in the pro categories.

John W. Campbell Award: Oh, I LOVE Wesley Chu (which reminds me, I have to get around to getting to reading The Rebirths of Tao – it’s been sitting in TBR basically since I finished The Deaths of Tao, despite not being out yet at that time.) So I know who my #1 will probably be. I don’t know the rest of the authors on this list, so if anybody wants to shout out a favourite book of any of them in the comments I’ll happily give it a peek.

Wrapping up this mess

Between Novel and Graphic Novel on one end – which look like proper and appropriate spreads for the Hugo awards, and the unrelenting shit-show that is the Novella category, most of the professional categories of the Hugo awards show tampering from the Sad Puppies, and Vox Day’s more militant Rabid Puppies. (I’m not making that name up.) And this tampering is to the detriment of SFF.

Specifically, the frequent insertion of one small press with an overtly Christian Dominionist mission over and over and over again is a problem. It’s not just “problematic” in the culture wars sense of the term, no, it’s a fucking major problem, one that needs to be solved.

Ultimately, literary awards should be about good literature. But what we have here isn’t a list of good literature. It’s a manifesto of a world where SFF answers to Christianity, fears other religions, hates gays, sidelines women. (Oh yeah, out of 80 nominees, only 21 were created, in whole or in part, by women.)

So we can’t treat this year’s Hugos like a normal year. Because they’re not. And so some collective action might be necessary. I think, ultimately, some people who were stuck on Sad Puppy lists don’t deserve to be excluded just because the Sad Puppies liked them (looking at you Lego Movie) but what I’d say is this: make sure anybody you put above the “no award” line is somebody you know to be worthy of winning an award. Best case: read them first. At least make sure they’re not a bigot before you give them your vote. And don’t put anything from Castalia House above that line.

Because seriously, Vox Day needs to go away.