Tag Archives: sci-fi

Hugo 2016 wrap-up

Here are the winners of the 2016 Hugo Awards | The Verge

Thrilled that my top picks (or #2 pick, in one case) in the major categories for the Hugo were awarded top honors yesterday. Especially thrilled that good writing came out on top, from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds and cultures.

Please go check out the year’s winners if you need some new books in your life.  In some cases, I found all the nominees in one category to be good reads – I noted that in my reviews:

Novel: The Fifth Season (review)

Novel: Uprooted (review)

Novellas

Novelettes

Short Stories

Hugo Awards 2016 – Novellas

Yay! I am happy to report that I genuinely enjoyed every selection in this category. These long works of short fiction (oxymoron, no?) have the space to develop good characters and deliver a good plot punch within their 50-100 pages. If you can find any of these, and some are online, they’re each worth your time.

In case you’re curious, I’ll rank them in the order that I used on my ballot, but I can recommend each to any general reader of fantasy or sci-fi.

Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor, imagines a girl from the reclusive Himba tribe of Namibia, or whatever Namibia ends up being a few thousand years from now, who chooses to leave everything she knows to accept the invitation to study at a huge intergalactic university. On the journey, she finds herself at the center of a life-and-death situation, one that highlights her unique perspective on communication, culture, and negotiation.  The story blends in magic realism, some science fiction elements, and a warm cultural feel that made me nestle into the tale and make myself at home. I genuinely loved this novella, and I’m so glad to see Okorafor get attention for tackling cross-cultural communication within science fiction from the perspective of a non-Western culture.  This was even cooler since I’d just happened to run into an article about the Himba, so the cultural references made sense.

Slow Bullets, by Alastair Reynolds, explores a relatively familiar dilemma in science fiction tales – that of the prisoner ship – but spins the question into a new direction by adding the “slow bullets” technology. These projectiles are used by armies to permanently “tag” their soldiers with a record of everything the soldier has ever done, along with information about their families, some familiar photos, and other snippets of memory. But terrorists can also use these “bullets” to burrow slowly, excruciatingly through a prisoner’s body. With that background in place, Reynolds soon takes the action to the aforementioned “prison ship,” allowing familiar themes like amnesia and extinction to complicate matters. But the ending left me genuinely surprised and pleased. It’s a good read.

After these two, it gets hard for me to rank the remaining stories – I think they’re all good and worth your time. So don’t take it too harshly that I ranked one above another.

The Builders, by Daniel Polansky, uses animals in ways that remind you of the best of Watership Down (but not as heavy) or Redwall. If Jacques had written his Redwall books for adult lovers of action and adventures, we would have gotten The Builders much sooner. Maybe with some Quentin Tarantino thrown in…. I smiled a lot as I read it, racing from page to page to get to the finish. If you’ve never imagined a salamander as a character in Firefly … well, now I know your imagination is actually missing out. The characterization just sparkles in this tale, and I hope you find a copy and read it.

Penric’s Demon was authored by one of established fantasy author Lois McMaster Bujold, and her experience crafts each sentence in this story to fit the mold perfectly. It’s not stunningly original, but it’s well written and fun to read. I liked the characters, I liked the story, and her world needs little exhaustive introduction. If you’ve ever read a fantasy story, played a tabletop RPG or delved into a fantasy video game, you’ve been there. And that’s ok. It gives us room to enjoy the story, which features a man coming to terms with his literal inner demons.

Brandon Sanderson’s Perfect State hardly deserves to be listed last, but I felt the others were a little more original and maybe a shade better written, if one can split hairs like that at this point? Imagine The Matrix, but spin the central question more toward the boredom that would set in for the intelligent minds occupying known cyber-reality. What happens when some just can’t stomach the fact that programmed antagonists and crises aren’t as interesting as human to human conflict?  The cyber-reality subgenre is a little tired for me, but the story does ask a good question, and I absolutely agree that Sanderson’s work deserves the nomination.

Thumbs-up all around to the long-form story writers. Good stuff here, and I’m sure several more great ones that never hit my radar since they weren’t nominated.

*****
I did read several of the ancillary works, fan writing, semipro-zines, etc etc. But I won’t take time to blog about those.

I’m glad that sci-fi/fantasy has such an active fan culture, especially in the blogging age, but I’ll be thrilled to put the Rabid Puppies nonsense far behind us.  Bottom line:  I want to read good stuff in each of the nominated categories. And by “good,” I mean a) well-written; b) centered on interesting questions or content; c) not trying to beat me into a particular point of view. Of course, we’re all going to haggle over the details, but perhaps we could move back toward haggling with some grace and kindness.

*****
Not sure what’s up next on my fiction reading list. I subscribe to Lightspeed magazine but rarely have time to read it each month. Might return to more short stories, since I love those, and try to plow through my massive backlog of Wired magazines and Comment.

Review: Hugo Awards 2016 – Novelettes

What is a novelette? you ask.

It’s what, as an English teacher, I would’ve called a short story just a little bit too long to assign for one night’s homework. (That makes novellas, to me, about a week’s worth of high school homework.)

I found more to like among the Novelette nominees for the 2016 Hugo Awards, though the Sad and Rabid Puppies certainly left their muddy paw prints all over this category. All 5 nominated works were on one of the Puppy slates, but usually not both.

The nominees continue to suffer, in these shorter works, from poor selection but perhaps that’s as much a result of fan voting as it is the Puppies’ attempt at chaos and domination.

In order of my appraisal:

  1. “Obits” by Stephen King is going to be my top pick in Novelette, though my #2 selection is within a hair’s breadth of taking my top vote.  But it’s hard to deny the feel of sentences coming off the pen of a man as experienced and talented as King. It’s like holding a real $20 bill after checking out some counterfeits. Sure, his writing has weakened in the past decade (that auto accident did something to him, I think) but he’s still a master of the craft, and I’ve always liked his shorter fiction the most.
    This tale is nearly perfect – the “voice” of the main character just fits, the way it’s supposed to. Every word slots into its the sentence, painting exactly the picture King wants you to see and feel.

    This story, like a good sci-fi/fantasy tale, pushes people to the forefront to carry the plot, allowing the non-realist elements to create a rich background tapestry that absolutely supports the plot without shouting it down. I enjoyed pretty much every line.  The conceit of the tale isn’t a new one, but King handles it well, and I think that’s worth a lot.

  2. “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingling, trans. Ken Liu surprised me in several ways. The story would be at home in the dystopian future of Paolo Bacigalupi, a world in which man’s inability to care for himself and his planet yields ugly consequences.In this story, Beijing in the future has been engineered so that the richest 10% of the population lives in spacious homes and parks for 24 hours, then the city “folds” itself, origami-style, and rotates, giving a second group of people 12 hours of daylight. That second group represent a minority class of educated professionals who rush to get everything done. Finally, the bulk of Beijing’s 50 million inhabitants are crammed into the teeming, squalid third realm, which emerges in the last quarter of the 2-day folding cycle to see 12 hours of night.

    Against this rich background Hao tells us a story of love and loss that’s poignant and touching.  The writing is a little bumpy – I know Liu is a good translator – perhaps there’s something about the cultural shifts and language usage that isn’t quite coming over clearly. But this is a story well worth your time to read.I’m not sure if this next story deserves a Hugo, but I sure enjoyed it:

  3. “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander mashes up two of my favorite genres into one lively and darkly funny story that still manages to be very human and very perceptive.  She takes the cyberpunk world of Blade Runner or Android Netrunner and inserts the kind of hard-bitten characters you want to find in 1950s pulp detective fiction. But her protagonist, Rhye, blows through any gender stereotypes, presenting as a tough-as-nails street tomboy with a mouth like a sailor. (I noted that several folks on Goodreads gave up on this story quickly due to the flying F-bombs in just the first paragraph.)

    As a woman who happily inhabits gamer culture, I found this story like stepping into online multiplayer – a bit crazy, a bit vulgar, and very fun. It wasn’t exactly new thinking, but the writing was great. Plus, even as a Puppy nomination (Sad, not Rabid …. since I can’t envision any Rabid Puppy being supportive of a Strong Female Lead), this story shows that “classic” sci-fi themes aren’t destroyed when authors bend the genders and honor the culture of gamers/cyberpunk with good character writing.These two stories will fall below the “No Award” bar on my ballot, for sure

  4. “What Price Humanity” by David VanDyke was interesting enough, but the Big Idea has been done before (many times) and the story itself was a little ham-handed in its construction and plot pacing.  I guessed the twist at the end easily; the frame tale that attempts to give the story some context feels disjointed and preachy. Even the Big Question that VanDyke is trying to wrestle with falls flat.  It could have been provocative, but … it wasn’t.

    SPOILER ALERT…. I don’t want anyone who’s planning to read the story to see this accidentally so again — Spoiler!! — but VanDyke didn’t even raise a deep ethical quandary IMO. Is there anything unethical about copying a human’s consciousness and having it control a weapon? well, doesn’t that depend on whether the human whose consciousness is being copied gave his/her consent or no? and it’s so materialist (in the philosophical sense) to ground a story in the idea that copying someone’s brain pattern exactly (an engram) would somehow recreate a whole *person.*  Nah.  This is a bad knock-off of cloning ethics, at least in the way he handles the story here, and I’m confused why VanDyke didn’t learn anything from the other, similar stories in this vein that surely he’s read.

  5. “Flashpoint: Titan” by Cheah Kai Wai is the personification of what I expect the Rabid Puppies want in their foreign policy. I found the story to be a bit naive, slightly racist, overly reliant on stereotypes, and dull due to its reliance on technical details.  It had good moments, and I didn’t mind reading it through to the end. I even liked the main character and his crew, and I learned things about space warfare that I hadn’t considered (like the incredible cost to delta vee and propulsion systems that a simple redirection of course would take).

    That said, this story – like “Seven Kill Tiger” on the Short Story ballot, from this same collection There Will Be War – feels like a bunch of 50-something Republicans who like to shoot guns but never actually went to war decided to chew the fat about how much they hate Muslim terrorists and the Chinese, and turned that into a short story instead.

    Cheah’s story is at best tone deaf when it comes to racial stereotyping, totally unaware of how playing into 40s and 50s era pulp caricatures of other countries should strike 21st century readers as offensive. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure the Rabid Puppies who nominated this work consider that kind of insensitivity a badge of honor.

One final thought —

Military sci-fi can be brilliant (I thought The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu presented amazing military/space dilemmas) and very thought provoking (Joe Haldeman’s Forever War) even when it’s “fun” (eg: Hammer’s Slammers by David Drake).  But Drake and Haldeman write like men who experienced combat — because they did —  and their stories focus on the human side of war, not the details of the warfare itself.

To me, that’s a key difference between military sci-fi worth my time, and military sci-fi that reads like it was sponsored by the Koch Brothers.

*****

Next up (and already in progress): Novellas! I’ve read 2.5 and enjoyed them so far. Looking forward to writing that review.

Review: Hugo Awards 2016-Short Story nominees

Well, that was a waste of my time.

If you are following the Hugo Award ballot, the annual fan-nominated and fan-elected winners for excellence in sci-fi and fantasy writing, you are aware of the Sad / Rabid Puppy controversy.

If you aren’t familiar, or if you just want to read an outstanding article on the issue, Wired Magazine wrote a great piece last year, in the wake of Puppy Scandal 2015. It’s hard to boil down, but the Puppies claim the Hugos have been taken over by pretentious liberals who are pushing their “agenda” into the stories, while the rest of us, whether we think the Puppies have a point or not, are tired of crap being shoved into the Hugo Award balloting as a protest move. And these Puppies do seem hell-bent on shoving women and people of color out of science-fiction, in the name of “making sci-fi fun again.” (Did these guys read The Forever War? “Sandkings”? 2001?  Those aren’t “fun” novels…..)

The Culture Wars are raging at the highest levels (and all corners) of American society. Substitute weaponry for verbiage, and this could easily be the stuff of a sci-fi novel…..

Now, in the same year that the so-called mens’ rights movement was driven into a froth by Mad Max: Fury Road, in which Charlize Theron seeks to rescue a bunch of women from sex slavery (and Max is little more than a sidekick), another flashpoint emerged: Puppygate.

In our telephone call a few weeks back, Beale explained that his plan was a “Xanatos gambit.” “That’s where you set it up so that no matter what your enemy does, he loses and you win.”

Source: Who Won Science Fiction’s Hugo Awards, and Why It Matters | WIRED

Last year, many of the Puppy-nominated works were, to be frank, total shit. They were badly written, frothy, of little value literarily or conceptually. But the problem remains: Anyone who wants to shove crap into the Hugo ballot can do it if they’re organized enough. And the Puppies followers jump when they’re told.

*****

So that explains why I spent my early afternoon groaning at the short stories nominated for the Hugo this year. I will be voting “No Award” for this category, and here’s why:

  • “Asymmetrical Warfare,” by SR Algernon:  Cute. If this story had been written in 1931, it would be fresh and interesting. In 2016, it’s basically a copy of an idea that’s been written to death. I think I had middle-school writers who hit on similar ideas. This isn’t worthy of a major award.
  • “Cat Pictures Please” took the place of “The Commuter” on the ballot; I’m not sure why; some authors withdraw from the contest when they realize they’re being used as pawns in a political/cultural war. Aside from that, this was my favorite story of the set. But it, like the one above, is a familiar idea. No novel thinking here.
  • “If you were an award, my love” published on the Vox Day blog is a hate-parody of a winning story from a few years ago that the Puppy people despise. This entry is simply a puerile pot-shot at John Scalzi, a sci-fi author who’s happy to tangle with Puppy stupidity in public and reveal its foolishness. Nominating this for an award is like celebrating some junior-high kid’s dick drawing that he taped in Stevie’s locker just because he wanted to be an asshole to Stevie.
  • “Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao: With a tone-deafness toward its racial stereotyping, this story also suffers from a decided lack of interest or even plot. He imagines a scenario in which China releases a super-virus to kill all the black people in Africa so they can take the land. Ummmmm….. I feel like this guy will probably vote for Donald Trump.
    …and that brings me to … I can’t even believe I’m writing this….
  • “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” by Chuck Tingle:  If gay dino porn is your genre, Chuck Tingle is your man. The fact that this was nominated is nothing but a slap in the face — or a dick in the face, if you will — to the people who actually want the Hugo Awards to be something that matters.

So there you go.  In past years, I might have read gems from the likes of Ursula LeGuin, George RR Martin, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Philip K Dick, Ted Chiang, and countless other great authors who put honest work and craftsmanship into their writing.

Instead, because some controlling asshat who just wants to watch the nerd-world burn is angry that there are too many non-male, non-white, non-straight people all up in his grill and competing against him for readers and sales, I had to spend waste an hour of my time skimming stories about dinosaurs banging a lonely astronaut or tired, worn-down ideas that have been floating around for decades.

The Puppies claim they’re just trying to prove that Hugo voters don’t care about quality, that we will simply vote for people we agree with.

No.  I want to vote for people who can actually write. And if these WASPy men can’t get their shit together and promote stories that might be worth my time to read, they sure as hell don’t deserve any place among the Hugo nominees.

Unfortunately, the Hugo ballot — like the American ballot in 2016 — is deeply broken.  I don’t know if we’ll ever recover.  And that’s pretty hella sad.

*****
Next up: Novellas and Novelettes. The slates of nominees are entirely dominated by works recommended by the Sad and Rabid Puppies, but many nominated authors had little to do with that. I’m hoping there’s some valuable reads here.

*****
If you’re looking for some good, recent sci-fi short stories, try subscribing to one of the fan magazines. Or grab the “Best of…2015” short story collection next time you’re at B&N or BAM.

I enjoyed several of the short stories that Microsoft released as part of a collection last year, Future Visions, especially the story by Annie Leckie that closes the book.

Review: The Fifth Season, by NK Jemisin

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1)The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. (Since you asked, Goodreads, “What did I think?”)

I rarely read fantasy. I generally find the genre vacuous and tedious, reveling in arcane magic babble and tired story patterns. Rarely do fantasy novels explore deeper, valuable questions about humanity … which is why I usually consume fantasy in the form of video games. But this novel breaks that mold. Grinds it to pieces, really.

I find that sci-fi and fantasy can reach new heights when the authors writing them are people outside the “mainstream,” people who bring a new voice into the genre. And people of color have been serving up some of the best new writing in sci-fi and fantasy (IMO). NK Jemisin absolutely delivers with this excellent novel about an alternate earth. Is it sci-fi? Is it fantasy? Well…. I’d say it’s fantasy with a sci-fi edge. It’s not magic, it’s “orogeny,” the ability to manipulate the actual earth, to harness its power to stabilize earthquakes or maybe level a city. Brilliant.

I loved the voice of the narrators. The shifting pronouns (using both 2nd person and 3rd person) could have been annoying but I found them a useful narrative device, drawing a tighter bond between author and reader. The plot fit tightly together, moving at a fast clip but forcing this eager reader to slow down and wait for things to develop, a tactic that builds tension and makes the ensuing “release” all the more enjoyable.

This book is earthy (other readers will get the pun – don’t groan) in all the right ways. The characters feel quite real, even though their cultures are foreign. We unite through the folkways and familiar threads of daily life, and that familiarity makes the characters sympathetic (or despicable, since they are believable and relatable). This book sets up a vivid universe and offers the potential to become a memorable series. I can’t wait for book 2…. is it out yet??!

I read this book because it’s one of the Hugo Award nominees for 2016. Honestly, since Dark Forest by Cixin Liu was snubbed in the Hugo nominations this year, I expect my top vote will go to The Fifth Season. I think it was that good.

Any critiques? Not really. I can find little to complain about, and much to celebrate. I guess if you’re prudish about people “getting it on” in the pages of your book, you might be offended by that. *shrugs* Fictional people gotta reproduce too…. Or if you’re the Grammar SS, the 2nd person narration will set your teeth on edge. Whatever. Go police somewhere else.

View all my reviews

My Hugo Awards ballot (2015): So much drama

This was the year Coart & I decided we’d take the plunge and pay our membership fee to WorldCon so we could vote in the annual Hugo Awards.

So of course this was also the year the Hugos exploded in a brilliant display of obnoxious politicization.

The Hugo Award is distinctive in being a fan-determined award with long roots.  Named for Hugo Gernsback, an editor of an early and seminal sci-fi story magazine (which is still where most sci-fi material gets published before “getting famous”), the awards have existed since the 1950s and generally point to good quality writing in sci-fi and fantasy. (Mostly sci-fi.)

sci fi guyI don’t need to rehash the year’s controversy.

I recommend reading a good overview of the drama – the Daily Kos published a great one.

Basically, the Tea Party of Male Sci Fi Writers Who Miss The Past got together and incited both the naive sheeple of the Internet and the worst trolls to game the system together in the name of preserving their values from the “social justice warriors” who are nominating all kinds of ridiculousness from female writers, foreigners, and *gasp* non-Christians.

The Hugo Awards are based on a ballot of nominees that garner enough collective nominations to make it onto the actual voting ballot. So if one group decides to organize themselves into a voting block, they can throw the vote.

It’s not really rocket science (haha) or even illicit, but it’s galling when the people shoving nominees down my throat a) have an obvious political and moral agenda that’s just as oppressive as the liberalism they hate so much; and b) they nominate a lot of shitty stories that I then had to wade through.

The Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies (yes, that’s what they call themselves) are welcome to their personal viewpoints, but preachy literature is always bad literature. And I’m wondering if the leaders of these mobs have any good sense when it comes to literature in any form, because geez, this is really lame stuff.

For those of you who might care, my Hugo ballot decisions are listed below.

The TL;DR version is this:  You should try reading Three Body Problem by Liu and definitely read the Ancillary Justice / Ancillary Sword series by Ann Leckie. Leckie’s first novel won the Hugo last year and it’s a great piece of fiction.   By contrast, John C. Wright may be one of the worst writers published today. Bleh. Utterly lacking in nuance or artistry; relies on crass sexism and religious overtones in lieu of actual storytelling prowess or skill. Yet he was on this ballot 4 times in 3 categories. and almost squeezed out my novelette vote from even making it onto the ballot.

Few of the shorter works were worth my time, but I commend a couple as noted below.

To explain the listings here: I’ve listed my votes in ranked order. The NO AWARD line indicates the point in the list where I think any further nominees do not deserve a Hugo.

Hugo 2015: Best Novel

  • The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu, Ken Liu translator (Tor Books)  great book! read this!
  • Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie (Orbit US/Orbit UK) great book! read this!
  • —–NO AWARD—-
  • The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) (Tor Books) solid book and interesting work of steampunk-fantasy; but the ridiculous names pissed me off. It reads like a first novel, but this is an established author.  The underlaying idea is a good one.
  • Skin Game, Jim Butcher (Orbit UK/Roc Books) – fun!
  • The Dark Between the Stars, Kevin J. Anderson (Tor Books)

Hugo 2015: Best Novella
This whole category was crap, IMO.  Wright’s “Plural of Helen of Troy” is a decent idea but as badly executed as the rest of this stuff, and offensively misogynistic in his attempt to be “retro.” That’s the best I can say about this group.

  • ——NO AWARD————
  • “The Plural of Helen of Troy”, John C. Wright (City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, Castalia House)
  • “Flow”, Arlan Andrews, Sr. (Analog, 11-2014)
  • Big Boys Don’t Cry, Tom Kratman (Castalia House)
  • One Bright Star to Guide Them, John C. Wright (Castalia House)
  • “Pale Realms of Shade”, John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House)

Hugo 2015: Best Novelette
Generally poor writing and story telling, but Heuvelt’s little story is a bright spot.

  • “The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator (Lightspeed, 04-2014) A neat little tale that was unexpected, though it didn’t bowl me over in writing style. Got on the ballot only because Wright’s nomination was disqualified. Another reason to despite John C. Wright. 
  • —– NO AWARD ——–
  • “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium”, Gray Rinehart (Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, 05-2014) – a decent story here, just not very original
  • “The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale”, Rajnar Vajra (Analog, 07/08-2014)  – a lot of promise but fails to deliver at the end
  • “Championship B’tok”, Edward M. Lerner (Analog, 09-2014) –
  • “The Journeyman: In the Stone House”, Michael F. Flynn (Analog, 06-2014)  I got tired of the pseudo caveman speak real quick

Hugo 2015: Best Short Story
I was so so disappointed. I *love* short stories. They are my favorite literary form. It’s usually easy to find a good one, even within mediocre collections. So there’s no excuse for the unoriginal bullshit that ended up nominated for this category.

  • A Single Samurai”, Steven Diamond (The Baen Big Book of Monsters, Baen Books)  – the writing style fit the story and it’s kind of a neat premise. A weak winner, though, I’ll admit.
  • ——-NO AWARD————
  • “On A Spiritual Plain”, Lou Antonelli (Sci Phi Journal #2, 11-2014) I almost nominated this one, but in the end, I was drawn more to the philosophy questions embedded in it than the story itself.  To me, the Hugo winner should be worth reading, both for content and for the writer’s craft. I do recommend reading this story, though.
  • “Totaled”, Kary English (Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, 07-2014)
  • “Turncoat”, Steve Rzasa (Riding the Red Horse, Castalia House)
  • “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds”, John C. Wright (The Book of Feasts & Seasons, Castalia House) in which Wright tries to be CS Lewis but fails miserably

Hugo 2015: Best Related Work
Essays and other non-fiction. I love this kind of writing. For example, John Scalzi’s collected blog posts in the book Whatever is a recent “favorite read.” This pile? Not so much.

  • Letters from Gardner, Lou Antonelli (The Merry Blacksmith Press) – an interesting ramble between thoughts about writing and Antonelli’s process and the short stories he’s recently published. Cool enough to merit a vote from me in what is admittedly a scattered and weird category.
  • ——-NO AWARD———
  • “The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF”, Ken Burnside (Riding the Red Horse, Castalia House) – an argument to sci-fi writers not to mess up their thermodynamics science. *salutes* Noted.
  • Why Science is Never Settled”, Tedd Roberts (Baen.com) – Yawn. Why was this even on the ballot?
  • Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth, John C. Wright (Castalia House) in which Wright declares that he hates Flannery O’Connor. I can’t even.
  • Wisdom from My Internet, Michael Z. Williamson (Patriarchy Press) – oh look! something so narrow-minded and offensive, it bumped Wright up a notch!

Hugo 2015:  Movies [Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form]

  • Interstellar
  • Lego Movie
  • Edge of Tomorrow
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • —-NO AWARD—-
  • Captain America: Winter Soldier

Hugo 2015: TV [Best Dramatic Presentation – Short Form]
Tough category. How does one judge a TV episode when you have to be watching the entire season for it to make sense?  Moffat’s writing for Dr Who shines brilliantly as always, but this whole category is a stretch IMHO.

  • Dr Who – “Listen” (by Moffatt)
  • Game of Thrones – “The Mountain and the Viper”
  • Grimm – “Once We Were Gods”
  • Orphan Black – “By Means Which….”
  • The Flash – pilot

 

I didn’t really vote in the other categories, except to try to push Vox Day (the leader of the Rabid Puppies) lower in the Editor categories. And I didn’t get a chance to read the Graphic Novels or the new writers for the Campbell Award, or listen to the podcasts. It’s a long ballot.

There you have it. Give the novels a shot.  And definitely grab some of the past years’ Hugo winners. They’re usually quite good.

 

Discussion ideas for Ex Machina

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Warning: Don’t read this post if you haven’t watched the film Ex Machina, because 1) you really really should go see this movie* even if you don’t think you’ll like it, and 2) therefore, I don’t want to spoil it for you. 

OK?  Ok.  *N.B.: The film earns its R rating with some language (no biggie) and some shots of full female nudity. It’s a story about a female robot, so the images make sense within the narrative and I wouldn’t call them gratuitous. But I don’t want anyone to show up and be shocked (especially if they took their teen sons with them.)

from the movie website
from the movie website

Ex Machina is a cerebral sci-fi film, taking us deeply into questions about human intelligence, sentience, consciousness, gender identity, and scientific morality. A well-crafted story in its own right, the sparse cast (only 4) and single location suggest the film is closer to ‘indie” (made on a very tight budget) than anything that usually hits our screens. That tight budget still paid for 4 fantastic actors and some incredible VFX work.

I think Ex Machina is one of the best discussion films I’ve seen in a while – stories that are well worth taking apart afterward (and if I’m with over-21s, a pint is a necessity). Below are the questions and ideas that occupied our in-hosue talk the day after we saw the movie.

I invite you to see the film and talk it through, or include it in classroom discussions (on the college level) in classes ranging from gender studies and feminism to tech ethics and artificial intelligence.

Questions for initial discussion

  1. Is Nathan a reliable or unreliable narrator of his own motives and story?  What can we say with certainty that we know about him or his actions in the film?
  2. Does Caleb ever do anything we would consider truly unethical? Does he “deserve” his end?
  3. Speaking of the ending – how many legitimate storylines can you draft for the final scenes in the film? (“Legitimate” means the words and actions on screen as well as the previous scenes can support the storyline you suggest without breaking people’s expectations for story structure, honesty, or common sense.)
  4. Do you think there are any plot holes in the film?
  5. Before Ava “puts on” the skin of the other robots, do you think she passes the Turing Test? In other words, is her sentience / conscious awareness enough to allow her to exist with humans, or must she also take on the form of humanity?
  6. Kyoko is a disturbing character to watch. What do her interactions with the other characters show us about Nathan, Caleb, and Ava? And about herself?
  7. If you say it fast enough, Bluebook sounds a lot like Google. The similarities were thinly veiled. What does the film say to us about the dangers of our technophilic world?

Themes for discussion

Scientists never work only for the benefit of objective “knowledge.” There’s always an element of personal interest.   Nathan is a rich and disturbing character. We don’t know whether he’s lying about himself or being lied about. But one thing seems to be clear: He created these robots, so he does not view them (or treat them) as human. But Caleb doesn’t fare much better in his attempts to assess Ava “objectively.”  She nails that when she asks, “What will happen if I fail your test?”

We create in our own image. I think Ex Machina is, at its core, an “image of the Creator” story. There are plenty of these – the Avengers: Age of Ultron film is exploring some of the same ground. But Ex Machina does this theme really well. The ending leaves us with many questions.  One of them (to me) is to wonder whether Ava is merely acting out what she learned from the only two humans she’s ever met. (He who sets a trap will fall into it, as the Proverb says. Maybe that explains her actions toward Caleb in the final scenes?)  If so, is she morally responsible for her choices?

Parallel reading: It’s hard to beat George R. R. Martin’s short story “Sandkings” when you’re looking for an example of just how bad an idea it is for humans to “create” in their own image.

It’s extremely difficult to define human-ness, or even consciousness. The film forces us off-balance, constantly observing (just like Caleb) and assessing Ava. Is she “human enough”? What would that even mean? Scientists keep changing the rules of the original Turing Test as our AI’s get smarter and more useful. We’re struggling to define the edges of consciousness.

Alex Leadbeater wrote an excellent discussion of this theme on What Culture. I recommend checking it out and adding his article to your discussion material.  He also delves into some of the nuances of the characters’ actions and choices, and offers a few explanations for the ambiguous ending.

And, of course, for those who view humanity through the lens of Christian theology, the questions get even more interesting. Can humans create an intelligence that’s “better” (morally, ethically) than we are in our brokenness? If we hold to the idea that the imago Dei principle must extend to our own creative efforts – that we cannot escape making an intelligence in the shape of our own humanity – does that intelligence have any chance of choosing a higher moral ground? Or will an AI drive us all to extinction or termination (as nearly every sci-fi story seems to fear)?

To put it another way, would it have made the story stronger or weaker if Ava had shown mercy to Caleb in the final scene and released him from what seems to be a death trap?  His own trap, but one he set on her behalf. (Leadbeater suggests an alternate reading of the ending that makes Ava less of a cold blooded killer.)  Anyway, I’m glad the film doesn’t send Caleb and Ava off into the romantic sunset to live out some kind of weird AI – human relationship.  But I was a little stunned by her actions in the ending. That was disappointing too. Must all of our AI’s be dragged down by original sin, too? I s that the fate of human creation?

Ava’s journey also reminds us that true sentience must involve self-will, and that means (from the perspective of the human creator) loss of control.  Is that what we fear most from the idea of artificial intelligence – that we will lose control? Why don’t children terrify us the same way?

Perhaps – if humans ever do create a genuinely conscious AI – we will begin to understand much more about the paradox of free will vs determinism (especially when that question rolls into theological realms and takes up the mantle of “the problem of evil“).

Ava’s final scenes show her applying “skin” to her frame, examining her appearance, putting on clothes, and blending into humanity. Her conscious intelligence cannot take her into the realm of humans safely. There’s a lot of feminist imagery in those final scenes, as she is “born” into the world of men through her rise to the surface. Worth discussing.

Cross-Posted to Teaching Redemptively