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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Reading for the Hugos 2016 6/24

Since my last post, I caught up on everything published this year in Lightspeed Magazine, the free content at least, and there are some real gems. I’ll probably end up buying their Queers Destroy Science Fiction! Special Issue for the additional exclusive content. So far, though, I loved Brooke Bolander’s action-packed cyberpunk novelette “And You Shall Know Her By The Trail of Dead”, which evoked for me a lot of what I loved about reading Neuromancer in my teens, combined with the guilty pleasures of coarse language and ultraviolence that I love in authors like Chuck Wendig. And it features an illustration by the excellent Galen Dara, for whom I’ll almost certainly be voting in one of the art categories next year.

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Another Lightspeed novelette I quite liked was Dale Bailey’s “The Ministry of the Eye”, a well-told story of a grim, industrial dystopia in which beauty is contraband. And there were a couple short stories that do some clever things with the form: “Bucket List Found in the Locker of Maddie Price, Age 14, Written Two Weeks Before the Great Uplifting of All Mankind” by Erica L. Satifka is, as the title implies, written in the form of a teen’s last minute to-do list before humanity is uploaded to something called the Sing. And “Time Bomb Time” by C.C. Finlay is, well, it can’t really be described without spoiling the effect, so just give it a read. It’ll be worth your time.

I’ve also been working my way through the 2015 back issues of Apex Magazine, and there have been a few standouts there too, but so far, Ursula Vernon’s lovely modern folktale “Pocosin” is my favorite.

In graphic novels, I just finished reading The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, the collection of Sydney Padua’s comics about an alternative nineteenth-century in which Lovelace and Babbage succeed in creating the Difference Engine and then use their steam-powered computer to battle the various ills of Victorian England. I’m not a huge fan generally of graphic novels that are collections of individual strips without an overarching plot, but it’s still a fun, quirky volume, and the copious footnotes and appendices added to the print edition provide a bit more substance for history fans.

lovelace_and_babbageThere’s been some discussion online whether Lovelace and Babbage is eligible for next year’s Hugo since it was based on a webcomic that well predated 2015. But as far as I can tell comparing the printed volume with the webcomic, many of the stories previously available only in draft form have been completely redrawn and relettered, the story “Ada Lovelace: The Secret Origin!” has been expanded to several times its original length, and some stories, such as “Luddites” or “Mr. Boole Comes to Tea,” don’t appear to have been previously available online. Padua has also added extensive footnotes, endnotes, and illustrated title pages throughout, as well as more than fifty pages of additional content and illustrations in the appendices and epilogue. I’m no expert on the Hugos, but I’ll go out on a limb and guess that it will be found eligible if it makes it through the nomination round.

That being said, there are quite a few graphic novels that my library has on pre-order or in cataloging at the moment that I’m excited about, including Bitch Planet: Extraordinary Machine, Thor: Goddess of Thunder, and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Power, so Lovelace and Babbage will likely have stiff competition for my vote.

Reading for the Hugos 2016 6/14

So, this year, for the first time, I forked over forty dollars for a supporting membership to Worldcon so, yes, I could vote in the 2015 Hugo Awards but also to have a say in next year’s nomination round. Usually, I’m too busy catching up on a growing backlog of previous years’ award winners to actually keep current with newly released material, but the Puppy debacle, for better or worse, inspired me to take a more active role.

I’d like to think I usually have a good handle on the big categories, like the Best Novel, Graphic Story, and Dramatic Presentation (Long Form), but the shorter fiction and fan categories, in particular, haven’t been on my radar. So this year, I intend to be a little more intentional about my reading, broaden my SFF horizons, and share anything interesting I find with … um… the two or three people who actually read this blog.

Cover_Issue_Four_med-340x491So far, I’ve caught up on this year’s issues of Uncanny Magazine, which began publishing last year but didn’t have the requisite four issues in 2015 to qualify for the Best Semiprozine category. They’re eligible this year, however, and thus far, I’ve been very impressed with the overall quality.

Two stories in particular, Sam J. Miller’s alternative history of the Stonewall uprising, “The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History,” and Elizabeth Bear’s charming story of research in a magical library, “In Libres,” stood out enough for me that I put them on my list of potential nominees in the Best Short Story category. They’ve also featured some great art, like the gorgeous cover by Tran Nguyen for their May/June issue.

octavias_brood_postcard_front_final_revOn the short-story front, I’ve also been reading through the anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements, which I originally encountered via BoingBoing. The majority of the featured authors hadn’t been published before in the genre and yet managed to produce some real quality speculative fiction. My favorite short stories included Bao Phi’s clever take on the zombie genre, “Revolution Shuffle,” and Morrigan Phillips’ dystopian tale about state power and the control of history, “The Long Memory.”

In miscellaneous other categories, Tea & Jeopardy, one of this year’s nominees for Best Fancast, has continued to produce some great episodes in 2015, including recent interviews with Kameron Hurley and Patrick Rothfuss. Mike Glyer’s File 770 has my nomination for Best Fanzine (and, apparently, George R.R. Martin’s as well) for its excellent ongoing coverage of the Puppy controversy. And, Alexandra Erin, hands down, is my front-runner for Best Fan Writer for her pitch-perfect “Sad Puppies Review Books” series. Also, I’m pretty confident Mad Max: Fury Road will be on my final list for Dramatic Presentation (Long Form).

So far, those are the highlights. If you happen to stumble on this blog and have recommendations of your own, feel free to leave them in the comments.