Reading for the Hugos 2016: Graphic Novel Update 8/1

I’ve read quite a few graphic novels this last week. Some of them – Thor: Goddess of Thunder, the second volume of Sex Criminals, and the second and third volumes of Ms. Marvel – are likely to have plenty of advocates come next year’s Hugo nominations. But there was another book that I thought a pleasant break from the usual run of superhero comics, both in story and in visual style.

apocalyptigirl_cover

Andrew MacLean’s Apocalyptigirl: An Aria for the End Times is the story of Aria, a solitary survivor in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, accompanied only by her cat Jelly Beans and a rusty nonfunctioning mech named Gus.

I thought MacLean’s writing demonstrates an admirable range of register and tone, switching effortlessly, for example, between Aria’s casual dialog with herself and some almost poetic explication of the mythology of Aria’s world. And MacLean also does an excellent job of building up, within only a couple scenes from Aria’s post-apocalyptic life, a character of surprising complexity.

I was initially a little disturbed, though, by how MacLean handles the other humans in the book. The area’s two warring tribes, the Blue Stripes and the Grey Beards, both speak in “garbled-up languages” that are unintelligible to Aria and represented in the book only with dingbat-like characters. This language barrier seems intended to emphasize Aria’s isolation, but it also has the consequence of helping render the tribes as dehumanized, undifferentiated others that can subsequently be shot, dismembered, and otherwise dispatched by Aria with casual ease.

But the more I mull it over, the more I suspect the discomfort I felt was no accident. One minute, Aria is singing opera, playing “gotcha nose” with her cat, reveling in freshly picked apples; the next, she’s slaughtering her enemies in exaggerated and slightly comical fashion. She even insists, early in the book, that she’s no killer, and yet, it soon becomes clear that she’s more than capable of killing, and doing so with practiced skill and expertise.

apocalyptigirl_excerpt

MacLean highlights these internal contradictions, in fact, by setting off Aria’s narration in two ways that are distinct in both content and visual appearance: the first, set off in speech bubbles, is her breezy casual banter with herself and her cat; the second, in internal monologue captions, her more sophisticated reflections on her world, with the two sometimes coming into conflict and Aria quite literally arguing with herself.

Stories of kickass heroines struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world are hardly new territory – indeed, it’s been a recurrent theme of late – but I suspect there’s also something subtler here, a subtext about the psychology of violence and survival and the things we tell ourselves to keep ourselves sane in horrible circumstances.

And in that respect, I think this is really a standout book, despite appearing at first to be visiting well-trodden ground. It’s not a perfect book by any means – the conclusion of the book felt rushed, with several twists that I found less than wholly satisfying – but it was certainly a nice break, both in terms of subject matter and in visual style, from the superhero comics that I expect will feature strongly in next year’s Hugo nominations.

The Unofficial Veg*n Guide to Sasquan

With Sasquan now at more than four thousand attending memberships, I figure there’s likely a nonzero number of vegetarian or vegan attendees coming to Spokane. I’m not much of a con person myself – I’m planning to stream the awards from the comfort of my own couch, maybe get a day pass for the one day I’m not working – but I do eat in downtown Spokane with some frequency, so for the two or three of you for whom this is applicable, here’s my guide to vegetarian- and vegan-friendly dining in downtown Spokane:

That One Block of Main at the East End of Downtown
So, yeah, what’s been called the hippest block in downtown Spokane doesn’t really have a name, nor can we agree on what to call it. Suggestions have included the bewildering moniker “East West Main” and the groanworthy “Little Portland,” but nothing has really stuck. But just head vaguely southeast from the conference center and look for the Main Market Co-op at the corner of Main and Browne, and you’re there.

Next door, you’ll find Boots Bakery & Lounge, one of the more popular brunch spots in Spokane. All of the food at Boots is vegan, much of it also gluten free. The food is served deli style from the case, but for brunch on Saturdays and Sundays, they often have waffles prepared to order. Across the street, the Saranac Public House is one of my favorite places for casual dining, with a number of local brews on tap and ample vegetarian and vegan options on the menu. I go there nearly every week for the Thai flatbread with tofu and smoky vegan cheese.

Mediterrano at the Saranac Commons
Mediterrano at the Saranac Commons

Near the Saranac Public House, you may want to check out the recently opened indoor market, Saranac Commons. Inside, the lunch spot Mediterrano has falafel and other options, and Caffe Affogato, just across the aisle, had vegan ice cream options last time I was by. And while you’re in the Commons, keep an eye out for the magical side exit that will take you straight into Merlyn’s, downtown’s biggest location for comics and tabletop games.

Elsewhere in Downtown
For more upscale dining, you may want to make a reservation at Mizuna Restaurant and Wine Bar, about two and a half blocks west of the convention center. The menu at Mizuna rotates seasonally, but they have always have a separate vegetarian menu, much of which can be prepared vegan on request. Mizuna is also conveniently located near Spokane’s largest independent bookstore Auntie’s, tabletop game shop Uncle’s, and novelty shop Boo Radley’s, in case you want to do a little shopping.

Further west in downtown, Method Juice Cafe, just across from the STA Plaza, serves up freshly blended juices and healthy fare. The brown rice and quinoa bowl with peanut sauce is perfect for a quick lunch. And if you’re staying at the Davenport Hotel, you can hop across the street to grab a beer and a burrito at Neato Burrito, the dimly lit hipster eatery attached to Spokane’s tiny but popular Baby Bar.

North of the River
If you happen to take a stroll through Riverfront Park to gaze upon the nation’s second largest urban waterfall (and you should), it’s not much further to the Ethiopian restaurant Queen of Sheba and the gourmet sandwich shop Stella’s Cafe, both of which have vegetarian- and vegan-friendly options. While you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to check out the collections of eclectic second-hand books at Giant Nerd Books and vintage toys at Time Bomb Collectibles.

Finally, if you’re feeling particularly ambitious, I strongly recommend finding a taxi, bus, or car north up Nevada Street to Allie’s Vegan Pizzeria & Cafe. Allie’s pizzas feature fresh veggies and house-made vegan cheeses on delicately thin, hand-tossed crusts. Well worth the side trip out of downtown.

Reading for the Hugos 2016 7/20

In the couple weeks since my last update I haven’t had the time to read a whole lot of short fiction, but I did start adding some items to the Hugo Nominees 2016 wiki to signal boost a few of my favorites. I’ve been working my way through a few novels, namely Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. I’m enjoying them both, but the latter has been particularly engaging, and honestly, with my attention span, it’s going to have to be equally good throughout to hold my interest for nearly nine-hundred pages, but I’m hopeful.

I also recently finished Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey, an entertaining and accessible introduction to the past and future of space exploration. I had to look through past nominees in the Best Related Work category to see if popular science books ever made it among the final nominees, and there is some precedent: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, for one, which won in 1981. Plus, Chris Impey drops more than a few references to works of science fiction and integrates into the book his own original SF short story, a fragment of which introduces each section. The Best Related Work category is a bit of a grab bag anyway, so Beyond is at least on my mental short list of potential nominees.

I’ve managed to fit in a little movie watching, too, and there were three that stood out: I thought Spring, an indie horror from Drafthouse Films, was particularly good. I might otherwise have thought the central trope – a beautiful woman with a dark secret – a bit lazy, but the film subverts the trope in some ways that really elevate it within the body horror genre. Some handwavey scientific-ish explanations make it narrowly SF, but the focus on character make it stand out in a year that’s likely to be otherwise dominated by a lot of bam-whizz-pow superhero films.

The other two that I think are particularly worth watching include Ex Machina, a refreshingly cerebral film about artificial intelligence, and What We Do In The Shadows, a hilarious send up of the vampire genre, with Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame. The latter of the two films, by the way, is short enough to be nominated for the Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) award if you’re a cord cutter, like me, who’s typically a year behind on broadcast television.

Next update, I’ll hopefully have a bit more to say about potential nominees for the short-fiction categories (and likely something about the art categories, which, frankly, seem to be an ungainly mess to figure out for anyone who isn’t an industry insider, but I shall try). Anyway, there’s plenty more good stuff over at the Hugo Nominees 2016 wiki. If you’ve read or watched or listened to anything this year that you consider Hugo-worthy, please do consider adding it.

Reading for the Hugos 2016 7/7

So, I’ve still been working my way through the short-fiction periodicals since my last “Reading for the Hugos 2016″ update, notably the short fiction in Clarkesworld. But I also, realizing the sheer volume of material that’s been published in the last six months, have been skipping around a bit, concentrating on stories I’ve seen recommended elsewhere. The recommendations by K Tempest Bradford, Charlotte Ashley, Amal El-Mohtar, Brit Mandelo and Niall Alexander, and Lois Tilton have been particularly valuable, although I admit I’m still struggling to catch up even with that more curated set of fiction to read.

Disciple by Julie Dillon Anyway, here’s what I’ve been reading lately: The January issue of Clarkesworld, besides having yet another excellent cover illustration by Julie Dillon, had a couple of standout stories.

My first introduction as a tween to adult science fiction was to Ray Bradbury short stories, and although I didn’t quite have the vocabulary to describe it then, I remember being impressed with his use of speculative scenarios to “defamiliarize” common human experiences and make readers look at the everyday with a fresh new perspective. For me, the novelette “Ether” by Zhang Ran (originally published in Chinese in 2012, translated here into English for the first time by Carmen Yiling Yan and Ken Liu) does that particularly well. Without giving too much away, “Ether” puts an interesting spin on the tension that many feel between, on the one hand, not wanting to make waves socially, and on the other, craving conversations and relationships of real depth and substance.

Similarly, the short story “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer addresses a fairly universal human experience, but through a narrator who isn’t human at all. Almost everyone knows someone who, maddeningly, seems to act consistently against their own best interest, no matter how many offers of help their concerned associates provide. In “Cat Pictures Please,” that concerned associate is an AI who, by crunching the data on individuals’ browsing history, really does know what people need, but is frustrated by the human capacity to avoid the things that would most benefit them. The AI also, as the title implies, has a mild obsession with cat photos, a theme which mercifully sweetens what could otherwise have been a bitter pill of a story, as well as making the AI narrator stand out a little in a genre which seems flooded lately by AI narrators. A smart, well-crafted story with both charm and depth.

waterknifeIn other-than-short-fiction categories, I finished The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi last night, and I’m still mulling it over. It was definitely a fun read, the last third of the book particularly, as the different threads of the novel began to coalesce and fall into place. Frankly, though, I couldn’t help but compare it to Bacigalupi’s previous Hugo winner, The Windup Girl, which I loved. Bacigalupi follows the same formula of beginning with multiple (and seemingly unconnected) character perspectives that ultimately collide in a fast-paced climax. It’s a solid formula, but I just wasn’t as engaged with the characters and world-building to the same extent as with The Windup Girl, which seemed, with respect to both its characters and setting, to have been much more ambitious in scope. Definitely an entertaining read regardless.

I’ve also been catching up with this year’s SFF movie releases to date, which I should have more to say about in a future roundup.

The Hugo Award for Best Novel (if it were determined by Goodreads)

So I’ve described before on this blog the controversy over this year’s Hugo Awards, so I won’t delve too much into the details here, apart from reiterating what the Sad Puppies describe as one of their main objections to the Hugos in recent years and what motivated the Sad Puppies campaign:

“Brad Torgersen, a Sad Puppies organizer, says that the Hugos have long strayed from ‘the larger body of fans’ and disdained what’s popular. Michael Crichton, the author of Jurassic Park and other blockbusters, was never nominated for his books, Mr. Torgersen notes. ‘Some of us decided to get active about pushing back against the blind spots.'” – Wall Street Journal

I’ll admit that I’m not completely down with the idea that a literary award should largely reflect popular demand. If I want bubblegum fiction – and there are plenty of times I do – it’s not all that difficult to find. I don’t need an award to guide me toward what’s popular; I go to award listings when I’m in the mood for something of more substantial and enduring quality.

Nonetheless, it got me thinking: What would a truly popular Hugo look like?

Granted, the Hugos, in theory, are already a popular award: eligibility to vote in the Hugo awards is open to anyone willing to pony up the money for a supporting membership. But that alone skews the voting demographics toward those who are strongly invested in sci-fi and fantasy fandom: authors, industry professionals, and superfans with enough disposable income to blow forty bucks on a chance to vote.

For another data point on what a truly popular sci-fi and fantasy book award might look like, I looked at the Goodreads Choice Awards. For the Choice Awards, the only requirement is a free Goodreads account. I’m sure that requirement alone skews the demographics somewhat: Goodreads, like many social media sites, does seem to lean a bit young and female. But, for that matter, so do readers in general, so I’m pretty comfortable with it being a decent representation of the reading population at large.

So what would past slates of Hugo Best Novel nominees and winners look like as voted on by Goodreads? I looked across all the categories at novels with fantasy or science fiction elements from a given year and ranked them in order according to the highest number of votes they received in any one category. Here are the results:

2010 Best Novel (based on the 2009 Goodreads results)
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (Winner)
Dead and Gone by Charlaine Harris
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith
City of Glass by Cassandra Clare
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

2011 Best Novel (based on the 2010 Goodreads results)
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (Winner)
Spirit Bound by Rachel Mead
Last Sacrifice by Rachel Mead
Dead in the Family by Charlaine Harris
Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare

2012 Best Novel (based on the 2011 Goodreads results)
Divergent by Veronica Roth (Winner)
Shadowfever by Karen Marie Moning
A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare

2013 Best Novel (based on the 2012 Goodreads results)
Insurgent by Veronica Roth (Winner)
City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare
Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness
The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King
The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett

2014 Best Novel (based on the 2013 Goodreads results)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (Winner)
Allegiant by Veronica Roth
Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Lover at Last by J.R. Ward

2015 Best Novel (based on the 2014 Goodreads results)
City of Heavenly Fire by Cassandra Clare (Winner)
The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness
Written in My Heart’s Own Blood by Diana Gabaldon
The Martian by Andy Weir
The King by J.R. Ward
Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

So, yeah, there’s a bit of truth to the Sad Puppy claim that the Hugo winners don’t really reflect popular opinion, but neither do the Sad Puppy Best Novel slates. In fact, I suspect that the Sad Puppy supporters would be a little put off by what you’d find in a truly popular Hugo award: a lot more YA titles, a fair bit of romance, and even more women authors.

Also? Pretty much no military sci-fi. In fact, among the more than one hundred titles listed in the sci-fi category of the Choice Awards since its inception, I counted only three nominees that Goodreads users had tagged “military”: a single Lois McMaster Bujold book, a Warhammer 40k tie-in, and a book by the Sad Puppies’ favorite bête noire, John Scalzi.

All that being said, Catherynne Valente’s suggestion of a Best YA Hugo now seems especially appropriate…