Monday, September 15, 2014

All Change

It seems like only yesterday that I was announcing on this blog my new position as Strange Horizons reviews editor.  That day, however, was nearly four years ago, and in that time I've worked with incredible people and helped bring fantastic, thought-provoking, necessary criticism into the conversation about genre.  It's been a privilege, and an enormously rewarding experience (not least in the form of two Hugo nominations), and I'm extremely grateful for it.  Four years, however, is a long time, and as editor in chief Niall Harrison announced today in an editorial, I will be stepping down from the position of reviews editor at the end of the year.

So first, I want to take this opportunity to thank all of the reviewers I've worked with in the last four years, the department's contact managers, Donna Denn, Dan Hartland, and Tim Moore, the Strange Horizons proofreaders, and last but not least the readers and commenters who reminded us every week how vibrant and passionate (if, sometimes, a little too vibrant and passionate) the community of genre fans and readers are.  (We are working on getting comments back on reviews and the blog, and I'm hopeful that before I step down this will have been achieved.)

Second, I want to welcome and wish the best of luck to the new reviews team: senior editor Maureen Kincaid Speller, and editors Aishwarya Subramanian and Dan Hartland.  Those of you who read the magazine will recognize all three from their reviews for the department (as well as their own blogs), and will join me in feeling certain that I'm leaving it in more than capable hands.  I'll be working with all three to hand over the department until the end of the year, and I'm very excited to see what they bring us.

Third, we are still working to staff up the department.  Along with Niall's editorial, we've published a call for a media reviews editor, to handle reviews of film, TV, games, and other media.  This is a subject that's been handled ad-hoc for most of the department's lifetime, and it feels like more than time to have someone focusing on it full-time.  In addition, at the Strange Horizons blog Niall has published a call for new reviewers.  If you're interested in writing for the Strange Horizons reviews department, drop us a line--more details about what we're looking for and how to contact us are at the link.  We are, in particular, looking to increase the diversity of our reviewing body, and will be glad to hear from women, PoCs, LGBTQ people, and other under-represented groups.

Fourth and finally, what's next for me?  There are a few projects I'm working on that I hope to be able to tell you more about in the coming months, and of course I always want to get more writing done on this blog, and will hopefully have more time to do that now.  But reviews editor or not, I am still--as I have been for almost as long as I've been writing online--a Strange Horizons reviewer, and you'll be seeing my work, and that of so many other smart and talented people, in that magazine for, I hope, some time to come.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Lucy

Three things you will probably have heard by now about Lucy, Luc Besson's latest film and his first foray back into proper, no-holds-barred science fiction since The Fifth Element.  One, that the film's success demonstrates the viability of a female-led action/SF movie, and cements Scarlett Johansson's position as the reigning queen of filmed SF (or at the very least co-reigning queen, along with Zoe Saldana).  Two, that its handling of race, and particularly of its Asian characters, whom it depicts almost uniformly as violent drug dealers who menace and threaten to rape its innocent white heroine, is irredeemable.  And three, that it unwisely nails its colors to the mast of the "humans only use 10% of their brains" meme, despite the fact that no one buys into it any more and that most SF fans would find it an extremely annoying strain on their suspension of disbelief.  These things are all true and worth talking about, but what I find interesting about Lucy--which is not, I hasten to point out, a good film in any sense of the word, but which depending on your personal tolerance for that sort of thing might be called entertainingly weird--is how its effective and extremely misleading marketing campaign leads you to expect something very different than the film actually delivers.  Most people, I imagine, will go into Lucy expecting a superhero film, when in fact it is quite the opposite--an anti-superhero movie.

An American student in Taiwan, Lucy (Johansson) is coerced by her shifty boyfriend into delivering a locked case to his employer, Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi, who manages to convey an amusing, low-key sense of menace despite speaking solely in untranslated Korean).  Things quickly go south, and Lucy finds herself dragooned into couriering a packet of a new designer drug, PCH4, which has been sewn into her stomach.  Instead of being ferried to the airport, however, Lucy finds herself in the hands of another group of thugs (it's never made clear what happened here, though we can assume that one of Jang's cronies double-crossed him) who attack her when she resists their pawing advances, rupturing the drug packet.  The resulting overdose inadvertently proves the theories of Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) that if humans could learn to use more of their brains, we would gain control over our bodies, over the bodies of other people, and finally over matter itself.  The rest of the film is broken up by title screens announcing that Lucy is has now reached 20% brain capacity, 50%, etc., as her abilities develop according to Norman's timeline and she draws closer to the elusive 100%. (Though much has been made of the annoyance of a movie so dedicated to this canard, the unscientific moment that I found truly frustrating was a scene in which Norman is questioned about his predictions of what each usage level would enable, admits that they are only a theory, and then compares them to the theory of evolution, ignoring the fact that Newton Darwin was theorizing based on observed data, whereas his theory is mere guesswork.)

In the scenes immediately following the overdose, the film seems to be following the familiar template of a superhero story, in which an experience that should be horrifically traumatic or even fatal instead imbues our hero or heroine with special powers and allows them to take control of their world.  Lucy wastes little time in dispatching her captors and freeing herself, and quickly makes plans to remove the leaking drug packet from her body and figure out what has happened to her.  But what almost immediately becomes clear is that if Lucy is a superhero, it is along the lines of Watchmen's Doctor Manhattan.  Unlocking the unused parts of her brain has made Lucy so much bigger than ordinary people that she has become essentially inhuman, and perhaps monstrous.  Much has been made of a scene in which Lucy cavalierly but non-fatally shoots an innocent Taiwanese taxi driver because he doesn't speak English and can't take her where she wants to go, but there's been surprisingly little discussion of a scene immediately following, in which Lucy forces her way into a hospital operating room and kills the patient on the table (because she's glanced at his tests and concluded that he was going to die anyway) so that the doctors can operate on her.  (If you really want to, you can use scenes like this to try to justify the film's racism by claiming that it is Lucy who is indifferent to these deaths, not the movie.  This, however, is clearly not Besson's intention, and anyway does not explain why the film's villains are exclusively Asian, or why even post-overdose Lucy is able to relate to white, American women like her mother, or the roommate whom she diagnoses with kidney failure and gives medical advice to.)

Watching the film, I was surprised to recall reviews of it in which the pre-overdose Lucy is referred to as an unintelligent party girl.  In fact, Lucy is a painfully ordinary but hardly reckless or stupid person.  She seems to be someone who is enjoying the party life while abroad but who also recognizes its limits.  In the opening scene, she's seen explaining to her boyfriend that she has to go home and study, and never even considers delivering the case for him until he forces her to do it by handcuffing it to her wrist.  Her reactions to falling into the clutches of dangerous criminals are disarmingly human and believable, with just a enough of a hint of courage to make us root for her to triumph.  When she's being driven to what she thinks is the airport, we get to hear Lucy's internal monologue, as she tries to reassure herself that she is still alive and might yet survive this ordeal.  That person--the very human, flawed young girl who made some bad judgment calls but ultimately was just in the wrong place at the wrong time--disappears after the overdose, and the film seems to be arguing that far from being transformed into a heroine, she has effectively died.  Johansson's flat, emotionless affect after the overdose seems designed to convey that Lucy is a completely different person who is quickly losing touch with who she used to be.  In the film's most affecting scene, she calls her mother from the hospital as the drug packet is removed, and while there are hints in their conversation of the girl Lucy used to be, they are filtered through her growing strangeness--she explains that she can remember her whole life, including suckling from her mother as a baby--and it's clear that she is calling to say goodbye, while she still has enough human left in her to be able to relate to her parents.

The rest of the film seems, deliberately or not (and I confess that I lean towards the "not" reading) to be trying to disassemble some of the tropes of the superhero origin story.  Every moment that we might expect to be triumphant and badass is instead realigned to highlight Lucy's growing strangeness and inhumanity.  When she returns to Jang's hotel room from a position of strength, it's not to wreak righteous vengeance, but because she wants information about where the other couriers carrying PCH4 have been sent.  She seems largely indifferent to the suffering she causes Jang, musing that she now realizes that the things that made her who she was were in fact "obstacles" to achieving her true potential.  A car chase scene in Paris might have been expected to be fun and pulse-pounding, but instead it continues the film's theme of depicting Lucy as indifferent to collateral damage, and when the policeman accompanying her (Amr Waked, whose character is positioned as Lucy's tether to humanity but is so underserved by the script that he ends up feeling like an afterthought) warns that she's going to get both of them killed, Lucy merely intones that "we never really die."  Perhaps the most egregious example of how indifferent Lucy--and perhaps also the film--is to the conventions of the action movie is a scene in which she squares off against dozens of Jang's henchmen, and instead of fighting them simply causes them to float to the ceiling, walking past them as if they weren't even there.

The problem with all this--and the reason that Lucy ends up as more an interesting failure than a watchable film--is that it isn't a story.  Besson has an interesting premise, and an actress who can carry it (it's interesting to note how much of Johansson's bid for major Hollywood stardom in the last year has depended on playing in- or post-human women, and how successful that tactic has been), but he doesn't have a plot.  Though the film makes much of Lucy's progression towards using 100% of her brain, the fact remains that from the moment she hits 20%, she's effectively unstoppable, so that none of the film's action movie tropes have real resonance.  And though, as I've said, it's interesting that the film undermines so many tropes of superhero movies, its ideas of what to replace them with are limited and not very compelling.  Lucy manages to skate past the common Hollywood pitfall of depicting the super-intelligent as unemotional and lacking in sympathy--her disconnect from humanity comes not from accelerated intelligence but from her massively broadened perspective, and she's clearly still affected by the realization that the drugs in her system will inevitably kill her, and by the question of how to leave something behind that will allow humanity to learn from her experiences.  But in trying to depict what it means to be posthuman, Besson falls back on clichés--from the cutaways to nature documentaries that parallel Lucy's situation in the early parts of the film, to scenes late in the story in which she travels in time, meeting dinosaurs and early hominids.  Even worse is the cod-philosophy that Lucy spouts as she tries to explain her new worldview.  While obviously Besson couldn't have been expected to truly articulate what it's like to be posthuman, the fact that he tries, in lieu of delivering an actual story, is a major flaw in the film--as is the fact that he keeps Jang, and his plot to kill Lucy, around long past the point where he ceases to be an actual threat.  Lucy is short enough (89 minutes) that its forays into weirdness as it attempts to articulate how big Lucy has become don't have time to outstay their welcome, but the film's ending still comes as a bit of a relief.

Much like Johansson's earlier Her, Lucy is interesting less for its story and characters and more for the world it suggests but has no interest in exploring--a world in which posthumanism has been unlocked, in which anyone can take a drug that gives them superhuman powers while robbing them of their humanity, and in which people who have unlocked their full potential effectively become gods who can now interfere with ordinary human life in whatever way they like.  It's a shame that Besson can come close to recognizing the true implications of his story only to fall back on action movie clichés and meaningless philosophical ramblings (and an even greater shame that he was unable to tell his story without resorting to easily avoidable racism).  Still, while I can't exactly recommend Lucy--your enjoyment of it will largely depend on your tolerance for pointless weirdness, and on how much you feel that Scarlett Johansson playing a woman with superpowers compensates for that weirdness--I am glad that it was made.  If only as a reminder of how ideas about SF and posthumanism, no matter how simplified and unscientific, are percolating into popular culture, and as a promise that perhaps, some day, someone will make an SF film worth of those ideas, and of Johansson's talents.

Friday, August 22, 2014

London and LonCon

Well, here I am, back from London and Loncon, with much to tell.  I combined my third foray to Worldcon (and my first as a Hugo nominee) with a family vacation, both of which were delightful if a little tiring--a classic "I need a vacation after this vacation" situation.  The experiences of both convention and city are already swirling in my head, so I'd better get them down while it's still possible to make sense of them.
  • The City - I've been to London many times, but the last time I toured it, rather than simply stopping on my way from one place to another for a bit of shopping or theater, was in 2001.  And this trip was also the first time my family and I had vacationed together since 2008 (longer if you include my aunt, who joined us for the first weekend as an early birthday celebration for her and my mother).  We ended up doing a lot of the tourist standards, many of which have changed substantially since I last visited them--the whole area surrounding the Tate Modern, for example, has been built up into a river walk that I hadn't seen before (plus the Millennium Bridge, which I found both ridiculous and delightful).  And, of course, the city is constantly rebuilding itself, with new buildings going up all the time--my aunt, who is an architect, would have been thrilled to spend her entire time in London looking at them.


    I really appreciate that so many of the London museums are open free of charge, but on this trip it was the temporary (and thus ticketed) exhibits that linger in my memory: the Matisse cutouts at the Tate Modern (open until September 7th) were lovely and, to me, a little more accessible than some of the other work there (though I was also very taken by the surreal, and rather clearly slipstream-y, drawings of Louise Bourgeois); Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK at the British Library (closed on August 19th) was as insightful and eye-opening as advertized, offering a counterpoint to the familiar, US-based narrative of the medium's emergence and growth into political engagement (though I would have appreciated it if the exhibit did not take its dark tone so literally--at times I found it difficult to read some of the explanatory texts).  At the V&A, we saw two very different exhibits--Disobedient Objects, about the material culture of protest movements (open until February 1st), and Wedding Dresses (open until March 15th), whose title is self-explanatory, and where I was amused by the gender (im)balance of the crowds.


    Other highlights of our time as tourists include lunch at Nopi, one of Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's restaurants.  You might recognize those names from their recent blockbuster cookbook Jerusalem, and though the book is truly excellent, I was a little bemused by the idea of going all the way to London to eat Israeli/Palestinian food.  I shouldn't have been concerned.  Though the flavors at Nopi were familiar, the dishes were their own creation, and expertly prepared.  Highly recommended--and be sure to check out what is probably the most ridiculous ladies' bathroom in London.  I'm a little more dubious about our theater excursion, Book of Mormon, which was funny and very well done, but not really to my taste.  The skewering of Mormonism was more thoughtful than I was expecting, but the conclusion the show reaches is more than a little trite, and I'd be curious to know how the show's handling of race has been received by more knowledgeable critics.  And though I'm loathe to complain about this from my living room outside Tel Aviv where the air conditioner is just barely keeping the 83% humidity at bay, the weather left something to be desired--we'd planned for temperatures in the mid-20s with occasional showers, and got high teens with frequent downpours.  Still, on the whole this was a very successful vacation.


  • Accessibility - When my family and I planned this vacation a year ago, it was in the belief that my mother, who had recently undergone a double knee replacement, would be back to normal by the time we traveled.  Flash forward a year, and my mother's knees are still giving her trouble, so we ended up traveling and touring with a mobility scooter.  This afforded us some unexpected privileges--as the able-bodied companions of a disabled person, my brother and I benefited whenever our mother was waved through lines (this was particularly helpful when a public transport snafu brought us to the theater two minutes before curtain time)--but also some challenges.  The underground was out of consideration, and although we were able to get around with the help of buses and copious wheelchair ramps on sidewalks, my sense is that London accessibility was designed with the assumption that disabled people always have someone able-bodied traveling with them.  From the fact that most buses don't have Oyster card swipe points at their back door, to the number of times that my brother and I had to lift our mother's scooter those few steps to get into a building (fortunately, she's able to walk short distances with a cane), it quickly became clear that she'd be having a very different trip if she were traveling alone--though, I should be clear, still a better time than she would have had in Israel, where the assumption seems to be that disabled people all have cars, or stay home.  (For some further thoughts on accessibility in London, check out the recent LJ posts by Mari Ness, who was clearly attempting the London-while-disabled thing on a higher difficulty setting than us.)

  • The Convention - LonCon 3 was held in ExCel, the gigantic convention center in the redeveloped Docklands area.  The size of the venue dwarfed even what turned out to be the second-largest Worldcon ever, but this was far from a bad thing.  I never found myself short of a place to sit at any of the panels I went to (though I understand that people who attended program items with big-ticket participants like George R.R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss tell a different story); there were rarely any lines in the bathroom; and there was always a free table in the long food gallery.  The convention itself seemed to acclimatize itself to this space quite well, and was in general very well-run (one exception and personal peeve: I didn't receive my Hugo nominee packet, with certificates and pins, when I registered, and later when I went to program ops to ask about it was given a Hugo nominee ribbon and not even told that I was supposed to receive anything else; by the time I realized this, no one seemed to know where the Hugo materials had gone).  The sheer number of attending members meant that I was constantly hurrying past people I desperately wanted to stop and talk to who were themselves hurrying somewhere else, but nevertheless I was able to meet and talk with a large number of people, including many I'd previously only known online.

  • The Program - I'm far from the first person to say this, but the program at LonCon was fantastic.  There was rarely a slot in which I didn't find three or four panels I desperately wanted to go to--and that's accounting for the fact that my interest lay primarily in the literature and media tracks (my brother, who was more interested in the space and science panels, seemed to have an equally fascinating time).  Some highlights: Occupy SF: Inequality on Screen (Thursday, 15:00-16:30; Martin McGrath (m), Carrie Vaughn, Roz Kaveney, Laurie Penny, and Takayuki Tatsumi), which discussed the presentation of class issues in SF film and TV.  The panel began with moderator McGrath offering the thesis that present-day SF is afraid of poor people, and went on to discuss whether this had changed from the past (when more SF authors were at least fellow travelers if not outright Communists), and whether the dominant forms of popular SF--the superhero story, the dystopia--are capable of addressing class and inequality.  Content and Form: Writing SF/F in Non-Western Modes (Friday, 13:30-15:00; Amal El-Mohtar (m), Aliette de Bodard, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, JY Yang, and Nick Wood) was a fascinating discussion by genre writers from non-Western cultures of whether and to what extent they find themselves boxed in by Western storytelling modes--by the expectation, for example, of three-act structures, or stories focused on individuals rather than communities, or big heroic endings--and how they can incorporate the modes of their own culture into their work.

    I also had the strange and humbling experience of attending a panel that kicked off from something I'd written: You Don't Like Me When I'm Angry (Sunday, 15:00-16:30, Mary Anne Mohanraj (m), Martin McGrath, Stephanie Saulter, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Nin Harris) built on a passage from my review of X-Men: First Class to discuss how anger is perceived in popular culture, and what its value is.  The participants discussed their own personal experiences of injustice and oppression (and the anger that resulted) in a way that I could never have done, and also wondered whether genre fiction, with its fixation on the heroic narrative, could ever be capable of dealing with the reality of impotent, damaging anger, or whether it would always vilify it.  And on Friday at 21:00, I was dragged into a panel that I never would have looked into myself but which turned out to be one of the con's most unexpected delights.  You Write Pretty (Frances Hardinge, Christopher Priest, E.J. Swift, Greer Gilman) charged its participants to each pick a sentence they found beautiful and talk about why.  I was expecting a writing seminar, but instead all four participants approached the assignment as readers--albeit thoughtful and talented ones--and talked about the different ways of achieving affect, and the ways in which each genre and mode worked its magic on the reader in different ways.

  • My Panels - Unfortunately, I'm terrible at taking notes in my own panels, so I can only offer the vague impression that they all seemed to go over fairly well.  Happily, some of them have been written up elsewhere.  Kate Nepveu wrote up my Sunday panel The Gendered AI, moderated by Charlie Jane Anders and with Nic Clarke, Michael Morelli, and Jed Hartman, which I thought went particularly well, and Ana S. has a nice long summary of The Review is Political (moderated by Kev McVeigh and with Tansy Rayner Roberts, Elias Combarro, and Alisa Krasnostein).

    This convention was the first time I'd been asked to moderate panels, and both times I was anxious, for different reasons.  At Saturday Morning Cartoons: The Next Generation, the other participants (Amal El-Mohtar, Abi Sutherland and Andrew Ferguson) and I discovered that we were each familiar with different shows, and I was concerned that the panel would turn into the spoken equivalent of a wall of text.  But we were able to find commonalities between the shows, and ended up discussing whether the brand of silliness that is thriving in genre cartoons, for kids and adults, could ever make its way back to live-action TV (this panel also benefited from having the best sort of audience, clearly familiar with the shows we were talking about, and more interested in discussing them than squeeing over them).  For my second panel as moderator, The World at Worldcon: Israeli SF/F, I was concerned that the topic would only be of interest to fellow Israelis, but though these made up a good half of the audience (and, like proper Israelis, frequently interrupted the panel discussion to add their own input), I was surprised by the number of interested foreigners.  The other panelists (Lili Daie, Noa Manheim, Einat Citron, and Liat Shahar-Kashtan) and I discussed Israeli fandom (which tends to be younger and more female than the Worldcon crowd), fiction, media, and (of course) politics.

  • The Hugos - At which I lost.  Twice.  This was, obviously, a disappointment, but I feel that in both categories I (or the group with which I was nominated) made a good showing.  Strange Horizons came within sixteen votes (!!!) of winning the Best Semiprozine Hugo, which is a result that none of us were expecting and which leaves us feeling extremely energized.  And while my second place to Kameron Hurley in the Best Fan Writer category isn't nearly as close--she beat me by a handy 250 votes--it was a category in which hundreds of people put me in second place to what was clearly a juggernaut (Hurley also won the Best Related Work for her essay "We Have Always Fought," and in his acceptance speech for Best Fanzine, Aidan Moher gave partial credit for his win to the fact that it was published on that blog).  And it helps that in both categories I feel that we lost to worthy opponents, to whom it is no shame to come second.

    In general, in fact, the Hugo results are solid.  Most categories have respectable winners, though in some cases I would have (and did) choose differently, and in some categories--XKCD's "Time" winning Best Graphic Story; Sarah Webb winning Best Fan Artist; most of all, Sofia Samatar winning the Campbell--the results are extremely gratifying.  Unlike a lot of people, I never thought that Larry Correia's Sad Puppy ballot had a real chance at a good showing--the Hugo tends to be susceptible to manipulation at the nominating stage, but once the larger voting population gets a look at the nominees, a course-correction usually occurs.  So that fact that Vox Day, for example, lost to No Award in the Best Novelette category, while amusing, didn't come as a surprise.  Which is not to say that I wasn't surprised when the voting and nominating statistics were published (within seconds of the ceremony's end; we were reading them on our phones on our way to the Hugo Losers' Party), with revelations like that fact that The Wheel of Time never even came close to winning the Best Novel category, or that the Doctor Who voting block finally appears to be splintering, reminding all us Hugo commentators of how little we really understand this award.  The most interesting discovery, to me, came in the nominations breakdown, where I discovered that, if it hadn't been for Correia and for the Wheel of Time campaign, this year's Best Novel ballot would have had four women on it, with Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls and Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria only a few votes short of a nomination each.  I'm sure that Correia and his cronies will be only too thrilled to know that they had this effect, but for the rest of us, it should be a reminder that the Hugo should be about rewarding today's excellence and promoting tomorrow's diversity, not pandering to a nostalgia for yesterday.

    The ceremony itself, meanwhile, was nicely done, but I'm afraid I wasn't in a state to appreciate it.  I think I enjoyed myself a lot more when I attended the Hugos as a member of the audience, wearing jeans and comfortable shoes and making snarky jokes with my friends when stuff I didn't like won, than sitting in the front row waiting for my name to be called out (or not).  One definite upside, though, is that I found myself sitting several meters away from Peter Davison and David Tennant, who came to support The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, though I sadly didn't get the chance to speak to either one.

  • The Future - I'm extremely unlikely to attend next year's Worldcon at Spokane, and though Kansas City in 2016 is more plausible (in that I have a lot of family in St. Louis that I haven't seen in years), the thought of Missouri in August doesn't exactly appeal.  I think that Jonathan McCalmont has a point when he argues that it's time for North American dominance of the Worldcon to end, and for the convention to start living up to its name.  It's impossible to look at the size and vibrancy of LonCon 3 and not feel that it represents--or should represent--the convention's future, and though Worldcon doesn't always have to be enormous, I would like to see it leave the US more often.  So I very much hope to be able to announce, this time next year, that I will be attending Worldcon in 2017 in Helsinki (and to that end, it's worth noting that supporting members of a Worldcon can vote for site selection, albeit for an additional fee).  Whichever Worldcon I end up attending next, however, it will have a lot to live up to.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

My Worldcon Schedule

The Worldcon program was published today, and just from a quick glance I can already tell that I am going to be a) worn off my feet running from panel to panel, and b) overcome by agonizing choices between conflicting but equally awesome events.  I'm truly looking forward to this convention.

My own excellent slate of panels is below.  In addition to these, I will be on hand at the Strange Horizons brunch, on Saturday from 10AM to 12AM, at party tent A.
  • A Reader's Life During Peak Short Fiction

    Friday 12:00 - 13:30, Capital Suite 10 (ExCeL)

    There are now more speculative short stories published than any one person can hope to read -- or even find. So how do fans of the short-form navigate this landscape? With so much ground to cover, how does an individual reader find stories they like -- are we more author-driven in our reading habits? Conversely, how and why do particular stories "break out" and become more widely known? To what extent is the greater volume of material enabling -- and recognising -- a greater diversity of authors and topics? And what is the place of short fiction in today's field -- testing ground for ideas, the heart of the discussion, or something else?

    Jetse de Vries (M), Elizabeth Bear , Abigail Nussbaum , Jonathan Strahan , Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

  • Saturday Morning Cartoons: The Next Generation

    Friday 16:30 - 18:00, Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)

    Alongside the much-discussed golden age of animated cinema, we're living in a golden age of animated TV. Shows such as Gravity Falls, Venture Brothers, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Adventure Time, and Avatar: The Last Airbender can be as clever, funny, politically challenging and emotionally sophisticated as any live-action show. This panel will discuss when and why the best of these shows work so well -- as well as the constraints they still face, and whether some of them fall short of their ideals.

    Amal El-Mohtar , Abigail Nussbaum , Abigail Sutherland , Andrew Ferguson

  • The Review is Political

    Saturday 12:00 - 13:30, Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)

    Every review is a political act because every review makes choices: about which aspects of a work to focus on, what context to provide, which yardsticks to use, and more. And while no choices are neutral, some can be the default -- a focus on plot and character, for instance, and less discussion of style and politics. What other defaults can we identify in SF and fantasy reviewing? How are reviews that depart from those defaults challenged? Are any defaults changing -- and if so, how can we help that process along?

    Kevin McVeigh (M) , Abigail Nussbaum , Dr. Tansy Rayner Roberts , Elías Combarro

  • 2014 Hugos: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

    Saturday 13:30 - 15:00, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL)

    Our panel will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the nominees, try to second-guess the voters, and tell you what else should have been on the ballot.

    Carrie Vaughn (M) , Tanya Brown , Kim Newman, Abigail Nussbaum , Mary Turzillo

  • The Gendered AI

    Sunday 13:30 - 15:00, Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)

    Strictly speaking, there's no reason an artificial intelligence should express gender in human terms (or at all). Yet in much recent film and TV -- such as WALL-E, Her, Person of Interest, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Caprica -- gender and/or sexuality has been integral to the vision of AI. How have such portrayals affected what stories are told? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What would it mean to imagine a genderless AI -- or a queer AI?

    Charlie Jane Anders (M), Nic Clarke, Michael Morelli, Abigail Nussbaum, Jed Hartman

  • The World at Worldcon: Israeli SF/F

    Monday 13:30 - 15:00, Capital Suite 13 (ExCeL)

    In her essay, "The Man From the Yellow Star", Elana Gomel asserts that, as a general rule, "Israelis do not read science fiction and fantasy." In a 2013 interview published at Strange Horizons, Lavie Tidhar and Shimon Adaf addressed the same issue, identifying a "bias towards naturalism" in the way Israeli fiction is discussed. But things may be changing. Who can we say is writing Israeli SF/F? How are the market and the fan community developing? And who should Anglophones be hoping to get the chance to read?

    Abigail Nussbaum (M), Galia Bahat, Lili Daie, Noa Menhaim, Einat Citron, Liat Shahar-Kashtan

Friday, June 20, 2014

He Would Never: Thoughts on Game of Thrones's Fourth Season

Jaime: When we make camp tonight, you'll be raped.  More than once.  None of these fellows have ever been with a noblewoman.  You'd be wise not to resist.
Brienne: Would I?
Jaime: They'll knock your teeth out.
Brienne: You think I care about my teeth?
Jaime: No, I don't think you care about your teeth.  If you fight them, they will kill you.  Do you understand?  I'm the prisoner of value, not you.  Let them have what they want.  What does it matter?
Brienne: What does it matter?
Jaime: Close your eyes.  Pretend they're Renly.
Brienne: If you were a woman, you wouldn't resist?  You'd let them do what they wanted?
Jaime: If I was a woman, I'd make them kill me.  I'm not, thank the gods.

Game of Thrones, "Walk of Punishment"
Despite the title, this post isn't intended as a review of Game of Thrones's recently-concluded fourth season, about which I feel largely the same way I felt about the third and the second--I find the show terribly engaging while it's on, and tend to lose interest very quickly once the season has ended.  I think Todd VanDerWerff is dead on when he writes about the fourth season's increasing bittiness--an effect that I suspect was exacerbated by the choice to split the third book in A Song of Ice and Fire over two seasons, and that will probably increase as the series begins to adapt the books in which, by all accounts, George R. R. Martin began to lose what thread his story originally had.  The effect of that bittiness is that it's hard to think of the fourth season as a single unit, rather than an arbitrarily demarcated period of time in which certain things happened to the show's characters.  This also makes it hard to write about (though if you're looking for more traditional criticism, for my money the best to be found is Sarah Mesle's Dear Television column at the Los Angeles Review of Books).  Coming to the end of the season, then, the only definitive statement I can make about Game of Thrones has less to do with what was happening on screen, and more with the popular and critical reaction to it, the fact that the fourth season was the one in which a critical mass of people suddenly noticed just how rapey this show is.

In the season's third episode, "Breaker of Chains," Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) rapes his sister and secret lover Cersei (Lena Headey), over the body of their recently-murdered son.  The incensed reactions were swift to follow, complaining that showrunners and episode writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had changed what in the books was a consensual encounter, that doing so threw a wrench in the character development of Jaime, who had spent the third season developing a growing awareness of his selfishness and privilege, and that the scene represented but the latest instance of Game of Thrones's rape-happiness, its willingness to use sexual violence against women (always women) as a way of upping the stakes and increasing tension, with no consideration, or even interest in, the complex reality of rape and its victims.  AV Club reviewer Sonia Saraiya led the charge with her essay Rape of Thrones, but she was quickly followed by many other commenters decrying both the specific rape scene in "Breaker of Chains" and the show's overall use of rape as a plot device, culminating in a New York Times report on the debate.

To be sure, there are some obvious and serious problems with how rape is used and depicted in "Breaker of Chains," most crucially the fact that both Coster-Waldau and episode director Alex Graves sounded off, after the episode aired, to say that they believed the encounter "becomes consensual" because Cersei eventually lets Jaime have his way.  The rest of the fourth season has reflected this belief, with no change in the show's depiction of Jaime (he in fact plays one of the season's more positive figures, sending the stalwart knight Brienne to rescue the missing Stark daughters, and standing by his brother Tyrion when he is wrongly accused of murder), and no indication from Cersei that she views the encounter between them as a violation--in the season finale, she even rekindles their romantic relationship and initiates consensual sex with him.  But in the days following the episode, before knowing how the rest of the season would play out, I found the reactions to the rape scene confusing and troubling.  I hadn't enjoyed watching Cersei be raped, but as a depiction of rape I thought the scene in "Breaker of Chains" was brutal and unflinching in just the right way.  Compared to the sensationalism of Sansa's attempted rape in the second season (now they've got her on the ground!  Now they've torn her clothes off!  Now they're forcing her knees apart!  Will she be rescued before penetration?!?!!!!), Cersei's rape felt devastatingly spare and low-key.  This is how most rape happens, after all: in places where women feel safe, committed by men whom they know and had previously trusted.  Cersei's behavior throughout the rape, the way she tries to minimize and take control of the situation ("not here!"), her unwillingness to involve anyone else because that would make what was happening real and awful, are more wrenching than any of the brutal, larger than life scenes of rape and abuse the show had featured in the past.  They make the point that what's driving her is shock that such a thing could happen, that at the moment when she probably feels the least sexual in her life--standing over the body of her oldest son--she can still be cast as a sexual object by someone else, and forced to enact that role. 

Obviously, the fact that the scene wasn't intended as a rape and that the rest of the season behaves as if it wasn't one means that its effectiveness is, at best, accidental (and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Game of Thrones, a show that rarely hesitates to plump for the sensationalistic end of the sexual violence spectrum, can only touch on the true, stifling horror of rape when it doesn't even realize it's doing it).  On that front, I think the criticisms of "Breaker of Chains" and the rest of the season are spot-on, and in general I think that it was high time for the discussion of the show's use of rape and sexual violence to hit the mainstream, and for its producers to be made to answer for their choices to more than just a crowd of angry feminists.  But many of the terms in which the post-"Breaker of Chains" conversation was couched left me uneasy, and are, I think, ultimately counter-productive.

I'm bothered, for example, by the emphasis that so many criticisms of the episode put on the fact that it changes the details of the book.  Even if we agreed that this was a meaningful complaint--and at this point, the show has deviated from its source material so much that I hardly see how it could be--the original scene, as quoted, for example, in Saraiya's essay, is dubiously consensual at best.  It's fairly standard bad-romance-novel, no-means-yes stuff ("She pounded on his chest with feeble fists, murmuring about the risk, the danger, about their father, about the septons, about the wrath of gods. He never heard her."), and the fact that it's told from Jaime's point of view makes its interpretation of the encounter highly suspect.  In the more realist tone of the TV series, without a guiding point of view to tell us how to feel and react, it's not surprising that the same or very similar events look like rape.

Even more troubling, to me, is how much of the discussion of "Breaker of Chains" seemed focused on Jaime and how the rape of Cersei "ruins" his character and redemptive arc.  I could quibble with whether Jaime's arc of redemption is really as profound as many of the people commenting on the episode have made out--after all, even excluding the rape, his actions in the fourth season mainly consist of helping people he likes and letting his power-hungry, sadistic father walk all over him--but I do agree that he's become more sympathetic since he was introduced in the show's premiere episode throwing a ten-year-old boy out of a high window, if only because the show has given us more of a glimpse into his history and thought-process.  Nevertheless--or maybe even precisely for that point--I thought the choice to make him a rapist was actually a brilliant one, driving home precisely the kind of world the show takes place in.  The undertone of a lot of the criticisms made after "Breaker of Chains" was "Jaime would never," but if we've learned anything after four seasons of Game of Thrones, surely it's that there are very few men in the show's world who truly never would?

There's a very effective encapsulation of rape culture in the fact that multiple people were involved in scripting, acting, and directing a scene in which a woman is physically overpowered by a man over her repeated and clearly-heard cries of "no" and "stop," and yet apparently none of them think that what they've depicted is a rape, because after he's wrestled her to the ground and torn her clothes, she lies back and lets him finish.  But if we're all products of rape culture, what about the characters on Game of Thrones?  This is, after all, a world in which the intelligent, compassionate Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) has to think long and hard over whether he's going to force his child-bride Sansa to have sex with him, and when he decides not to the show signposts this as an indication of his goodness rather than, you know, the bare minimum of human decency.  A world in which the dying mercenary The Hound (Rory McCann) muses that he should have raped Sansa himself, because then he would have experienced "one moment of happiness."  A world in which characters who set themselves against rape--such as the mercenary Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein/Michiel Huisman), who loudly and repeatedly proclaims that one of the great pleasures in life is "to make love to a willing woman," or the Dornish nobleman Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), who, angry over his sister's rape at the hands of a Lannister knight, wastes no opportunity to express his disgust at their use of rape as a weapon--are obvious aberrations.  It's a world in which men, even well-meaning ones, feel completely justified in directing the lives and choices of women, whether it's Robb Stark cavalierly promising his sister's hand in marriage in exchange for a strategically important bridge, or, in "Breaker of Chains" itself, Night's Watch member Sam Tarly (John Bradley), one of the gentlest, kindest characters in the series, forcing his friend Gilly (Hannah Murray) to leave Castle Black and live in a brothel, despite her repeated protestations.  (This proves to be a disastrous decision, as the village Gilly moves to is destroyed by raiding wildlings, and her and her child's lives are only spared through the compassion of another woman; nevertheless, Sam still feels justified in telling Gilly what to do, and the show clearly views this as a sign of his emerging masculinity.)

Jaime's rape of Cersei captures the pervasiveness of rape culture--in Westeros, and in our time and place--more powerfully and effectively than any of the series's more sensationalistic handling of the subject.  In other episodes, the show pretends that rape is the purview of monsters--characters like the vicious, bloodthirsty knight The Mountain, who raped Oberyn Martell's sister, or the renegade Night's Watch member Karl (Burn Gorman), who is introduced against a literal backdrop of women being brutally assaulted as he cackles "rape 'em till they're dead!", and who later menaces Bran Stark's friend Meera Reed (Ellie Kendrick) while she's tied up and whimpering.  But when the handsome, charismatic Jaime, who spent the third season being woobified and forming one of the show's more satisfying character pairings with the honorable Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) commits rape, the message it sends is something much more powerful.  It tells us that in a world in which concepts like consent, or women's agency, are only dimly understood, even supposedly good men can find themselves treating women like things. 

A lot of fans have pointed to the way that Jaime saves Brienne from being raped in the third season episode "Walk of Punishment" as a reason why he would never disrespect Cersei in the same way, but to me that only makes "Breaker of Chains"'s (unintended) message more powerful.  Like the episode's writers and director, Jaime can recognize rape when it's monstrous, something violent that a bunch of filthy soldiers are about to do to his friend.  But as the quote at the beginning of this episode demonstrates, he still lack basic empathy towards women, or any real understanding of what it means to be vulnerable (even the loss of his hand at the end of "Walk of Punishment" doesn't seem to have taught him this lesson).  I don't find it at all unbelievable that such a man would think that his former lover doesn't have the right to refuse him, that his feelings for her are something that she is responsible for, and that in forcing her to have sex he is only taking what is rightfully his.  Does this mean that every man in Westeros is a potential rapist?  Probably not--though as examples like Sam show, pretty much every man on Westeros apparently believes that he gets to order women around by sheer virtue of being a man.  But if you're going to pick a male character on Game of Thrones who would never stoop to rape, then Jaime Lannister--child-maimer, sister-fucker, generally depraved dude--is probably not the hill you want to die on.

None of this, of course, is to say that I am glad that Cersei was raped by Jaime--especially, again, given that what positive qualities I saw in the depiction of that rape are there largely by accident, and are undermined by the rest of the season's treatment of the scene as a consensual sexual encounter.  But it was very hard to read reactions to "Breaker of Chains" and not feel that their writers' main problem was not the show's use of rape--which, again, in the episode itself is much more subtle and effective than anything it has done before or since--but the fact that this particular rape had spoiled their ability to enjoy a beloved male character.

Flash forward a few weeks to the season finale.  Tyrion Lannister, who has been accused and convicted of the murder of his nephew (the same boy over whose body Cersei was raped) is freed from prison by the selfsame Jaime.  Instead of taking Jaime's offered escape route, Tyrion makes his way to the chambers of his father Tywin (Charles Dance), the architect of his conviction and a generally baleful influence in his son's life.  There he finds the prostitute Shae (Sibell Kekilli), his former lover, who denounced him during his trial.  Shae wakes up and, seeing Tyrion, grabs a fruit knife.  He jumps her, overpowers her, and strangles her to death with her own necklace.

To be clear, the fact that Tyrion murders Shae is not, in itself, a problem.  I knew that it happened in the book, I had hoped that the show would decide to avoid it, and I wasn't happy when it happened.  But as I've been saying, in a world like Westeros, a man killing his former lover, and especially a prostitute, for what he defines as a betrayal, is not a surprising or inconsistent turn of events.  What's wrong here isn't the fact of the murder, but how the show constructs the episode--the entire season, in fact--in order to get us to sympathize with and even condone Tyrion's actions.  Shae, who in the previous three seasons had been depicted as a warm, intelligent, kind person, is here stripped of all personality and discernible motivations.  There are no scenes from her point of view or in which she's free to express herself, so we never find out why she turns on Tyrion--is she being threatened, or bribed, or is she simply angry that he sent her away "for her own safety" (another reminder that even "good" men on Westeros don't let women make their own decisions)?  Does she really mean it when she testifies that all her expressions of love towards Tyrion were an act?  And why is Tyrion so angry at her betrayal, when earlier in the season he ordered his squire Podrick to save his own skin by doing the same thing?  Wouldn't Tyrion assume that this was what Shae was doing, and forgive her?  The murder scene itself seems equally determined to stress Shae's "guilt"--the fact that Tyrion finds her in another man's bed, the fact that she reaches for a weapon (never mind that Shae would have a pretty good idea of what happens to women like her when they're found in the wrong bed by a man who believes he owns them).  Her actual death isn't even about her--the camera remains fixed on Tyrion's face, and his anguish and mental distress over killing her are what fuel his immediate, cheer-worthy confrontation with Tywin, whom he kills.  (If you want some more discussion of how fucked up and disturbing the arrangement of Shae's death scene and her plotline during this season were, Sady Doyle has the goods.)

And the thing is, it really didn't need to be that way.  When Tyrion hears Shae's testimony in the episode "The Laws of Gods and Men," he breaks down and has what can only be described as a supervillain moment, castigating Shae, his family, and the entire population of King's Landing, whose lives he saved during the siege at the end of the second season, but who have now turned on him for, he believes, something that he never had any power over, his dwarfism.  "I wish I had enough poison for the whole pack of you," he tells the assembled noblemen at his trial.  "I would gladly give my life to watch you all swallow it."  It's a bitter, deranged moment in which Tyrion lets go of all his decency and goodness and gives in to anger and resentment.  If that tone had been allowed to persist, if Tyrion's murder of Shae (and Tywin) had been depicted as the act of a man driven by abuse into behaving like a monster, I think I could have accepted it.  But such is the state of Game of Thrones, that it can depict rape in all its horrifying complexity only by accident, but when it sets out to deliberately get at the terrible reality of intimate partner violence, it does so only to justify and excuse the abuser.  (And to be clear: Cersei's rape could have easily been made as sympathetic to Jaime as Shae's murder was to Tyrion, if only someone had understood what it was they were filming.  Cersei is, after all, a much less likeable figure than Shae, and Jaime is under the influence of exactly the same cocktail of frustration and feelings of emasculation driving Tyrion, and which the show uses to justify killing Shae.)

So what I want to know is: what the fuck is wrong with this fandom, and with the people writing about this show, that it can get up in arms over a pretty shady dude committing a rape that is actually very effectively depicted, but isn't bothered by a previously decent guy committing a murder that is manipulatively set up to make him look as guiltless as possible?  If fandom truly believes that Jaime would never, why is it not a problem that Tyrion did?  And yes, I know that Shae's murder was in the books, but A Storm of Swords was published fourteen years ago, and in all that time I haven't noticed the slightest diminution in Tyrion's appeal.  Fandom still thinks that he's the bee's knees, and no one seems terribly bothered by that girl he murdered that one time (if nothing else, this should alleviate the concerns of fans who are worried that they won't be able to like Jaime after seeing him rape Cersei).

To put it simply, this is why we can't have nice things.  If the only thing that gets a serious segment of fandom up in arms about Game of Thrones's use of rape and violence against women is the fear of having tarnished the gleam of a favorite male woobie, then the showrunners have absolutely no reason to change their behavior.  If they know that favorite characters can get away, literally, with murder so long as the person they murder is a woman who hurt them and slept with other men, they will simply keep showing us that.  I'm not saying that I have the solution here, and god knows that simply by continuing to watch the show I'm part of the problem.  But it is enormously frustrating to watch a critical conversation build around this show and its handling of violence against women, only to devour itself when it becomes clear that the real problem is a man (compare the paltry staying power of the post-"Breaker of Chains" conversation to the way that the role of women--or lack of same--on True Detective became the dominant theme in most discussions of the show, finally obliging even the show's creator to promise to do better next season).  Until actual fans of the show are willing to stand up and say that Shae's murder is as big a problem as Cersei's rape, we can keep looking forward to a lot more of both from Game of Thrones.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Review: Edge of Tomorrow

Over at Strange Horizons, I review the Tom Cruise time travel movie Edge of Tomorrow, a film that I thought was just terrible but which seems to be getting good reviews from all other quarters, which I honestly find quite baffling.  It's starting to feel a little like being the only reviewer not blown away by Looper, but where Looper had some genuine strong points (not least, recognizing that just because the male lead wants Emily Blunt to save him doesn't mean that's all she's got going on in her life, a fact of which Edge of Tomorrow remains sadly ignorant), Edge of Tomorrow is merely a competently made action film that squanders everything potentially interesting or thought-provoking about its premise and characters.

Incidentally, between watching the film and writing my review I decided to read the original novel, All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, just to get a sense of how big the gap between the two is (answer: not great in general but pretty huge in certain points).  It's not a great book by any stretch, but it's a quick read, and a hell of a lot more interesting than the movie in its handling of its premise, its world, and its characters (in particular, the relationship between the male and female leads is a lot more equitable, though the other female characters are often problematic).  If anything good comes out of Edge of Tomorrow it will be to call attention to Haikasoru and its project to bring Japanese SF to Anglophone audiences, and All You Need Is Kill is a good place to start.

(Note: the comments on Strange Horizons reviews are currently not working.  If you'd like to comment on the review, please do it here until we resolve the issue.)

Friday, May 30, 2014

The 2014 Hugo Awards: The Hugo Voter Packet

As has become traditional, the Hugo award administrators have published the Hugo voters packet, which includes ebook copies of many of the nominated works and samplers from many of the nominated people.  This includes myself and the other nominees in the best fan writer category (as well as Strange Horizons, nominated in the best semiprozine category).  I was a little mortified to discover that while the contributions by my fellow fan writer nominees ran to less than twenty pages, mine was more than twice as long, but I guess that won't come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog.  (For those of you who are curious, the posts I selected for inclusion in the voter packet are my reviews of Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks, the first season of Elementary, Star Trek Into Darkness, and A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar.)

If you're a member of LonCon 3, you can download the voter packet here with your membership number and PIN (which you should have received by email; if not, contact the award administrators at the email address on the voter packet page). 

The voter packet caused a bit of a stir this year when Orbit, the publishers of three of the nominated novels (Parasite by Mira Grant, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, and Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross) announced that they would not be including full copies of their nominated novels, but only excerpts.  It's easy to understand Orbit's reasoning.  Though there's a lot of debate about the effect that a Hugo nomination has on a novel's sales, the Worldcon membership is precisely the demographic that you'd expect to seek out your novel because of a nomination.  This year's Worldcon is on track to be the biggest in years, and in addition, the nomination of the Wheel of Time series (and publisher Tor's announcement that they will include all fourteen novels in the series in the voter packet) has caused a surge in supporting memberships--according to some accounts, over a thousand new members in the month since the nominations were announced.  It's hard to blame Orbit for choosing not to give away novels that they might have a reasonable expectation of selling, especially given that so many pundits have already declared the best novel race over and Wheel of Time the winner.

Nevertheless, the decision was greeted with exasperation and not a little ire--some of it from proponents of ebook publishing, who argue, perhaps quite rightly, that Orbit is being shortsighted, and that giving away books creates sales in the long run (both Grant and Leckie's books have sequels coming out later this year); and some simply from readers who expected to see Parasite, Ancillary Justice, and Neptune's Brood in their voter packets and now feel cheated.  Industry insiders have wasted little time in dubbing this latter group "entitled" (see, for example, this post from John Scalzi, who first came up with the idea for the voter packer several years ago and administered it himself before it was taken over by the Hugo award team), but this strikes me as massively unfair.  The fact is that, rightly or wrongly, the conversation around the voter packet has for years been taking it as a given that all nominated works will be included, and creating that expectation in voters and potential voters.  People who encourage others to buy supporting memberships in Worldcon (and to use them to vote for specific nominees) have been doing so with the argument that "you pay $50 and get five novels plus a lot of other stuff."  They might have been giving out misleading information, but I don't remember anyone with a huge megaphone hurrying to correct them.

Orbit's decision feels like a good excuse to have a conversation about the voter packet and the effect it's had on the award.  We've spent a lot of time this Hugo season, both before and after the nominees' announcement, talking about the changes that the award has been going through, the increasing effect of campaigning on the final shortlists and the growing balkanization of the voter base.  The role that the voter packet has played in this process can't really be overstated--it has made it much easier to galvanize the fans of a particular author of blogger, people who may not necessarily have any interest in the Hugos or the field as a whole, into buying supporting Worldcon memberships.  Possibly as a result of this, or simply because people like free stuff, the perception of the voter packet has shifted.  The original--and very laudable--idea was a way of evening the playing field, letting little-known authors stand alongside big names, and giving the less popular categories a platform that might encourage more voters to participate in them.  But from a method of creating a more informed electorate, the voter packet has come to be seen as a goody bag.  Does anyone think that the thousand new Worldcon members who joined after the nominations were announced did so because of a genuine interest in the award?  A sizable percentage of them, at least, probably did so in order to get free ebook copies of the entire Wheel of Time series for a mere $50.

We've already seen one effect of this in Orbit's choice to keep their full novels off the voter packet.  Another potential side effect was identified on the Coode Street Podcast.  According to the Hugo rules, to hand out an award in any particular category, it must have received at least 25% of the total number of voting ballots.  In other words, if 2000 people send in Hugo ballots, but fewer than 500 of them vote in, say, the fanzine category, no fanzine Hugo will be awarded.  This is usually not a problem--last year, even the least popular categories (fanzine, fan writer, and fan artist) came in at well over 40% of ballots.  But this year, with the huge influx of supporting memberships, we could very well see a situation where a large number of ballots vote solely in the best novel and other big categories, and where some of the smaller categories are starved out. 

In the immediate future, what this means is that those of us who care about the Hugo as an award for the whole field should feel an extra urgency about using the voter packet as it was intended, and voting in as many categories as possible.  In the long term, it would be nice if we could finally have a proper conversation about the Hugos and what's been happening to them, one that acknowledges that there is a difference between the interests of any single nominee and potential nominee, and the interests of the award and the field as a whole.  I'm already seeing more and more people talking about the unintended but deleterious effect of the voter packet (see Patrick Nielsen Hayden just this morning on twitter), and while that's not the full extent of the problem, it does feel like a good start.