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Monday, April 30, 2012

The Croning - Laird Barron

I'm not a horror consumer, generally speaking. I've never seen what I would call a "scary movie" and authors like Stephen King or Dean Koontz or (dare I say it) H.P. Lovecraft have rarely done it for me. They rely heavily on ambiance and tone, oftentimes leave me wanting more when it comes to plot. Thus, I fully admit to not being Laird Barron's target audience. Once again in an effort to push the boundaries of what I read, I delved into The Croning with vigor. What I found was an accomplished piece of fiction that never quite coalesced, succeeding scene by scene, but not as a novel in its entire.

The novel begins with a re-imagining of a the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale. Already one of the darker Brothers Grimm stories, Barron takes it up another notch melding a creepy dwarf (er.. little person?) with occult sacrifice rituals. Things then jump to Donald Miller and his wife Michelle, in 1950's Mexico. Some bad shit happens, and we rejoin the couple in the present where Donald is a doddering semi-retiree whose mind sees threats in every shadow. But as I always say (not really), just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get me.

How well The Croning connects these disparate times in the Miller family history (the Miller is a character in the Rumpelstiltskin myth you may recall) determined its success as a novel. The truth is, they don't connect all that well. The first section is overly long and adds very little to the story other than setting up a thoroughly disturbing milieu. As a story of its own, it's perfection, lending itself perfectly to novelette format, somewhat comparable to Don DeLillo's genius Pafko at the Wall, which was the prologue to his opus, Underworld. Likewise, the Mexican post-prologue-but-not-quite-the-main-narrative, has its own beginning, middle, and end, telling a compelling and haunting story of a husband desperate to find his missing spouse.

The main narrative then is where the bulk of the plot takes place, following Miller in his old age as he comes to grips with the occult. Barron riffs on senility, pondering what might happen if Miller's confusion was the result of outside intervention and not merely his advanced age. He calls into question his family, his friends, and his memory. In short, Donald Miller is tortured a page at a time, and done so with a master's sense for suspense.

By the end I'd realized Barron wasn't trying to create a densely layered plot, but to build tension over time. It works, but I also realized that horror as a subgenre may not be for me. Despite exceptional prose, masterful pacing, and incredible ability to create motif, I constantly kept asking myself, "Where's this going?" In effect, I struggled to grasp the plot or theme that The Croning was designed to accomplish. Ultimately, I decided it wasn't necessarily trying to do either.  Instead, Laird Barron was trying to scare the shit out of me. Repeatedly.

Scene by scene he raised the hair on my arms. He had me looking over my shoulder and leaving lights on. He set the tone from the first page and carried it through to the last. For this reader though, it just wasn't enough. I wanted something more from The Croning. I kept waiting for the twist to come that connected it all together. It never came.

I suspect that horror adherents will find more to love than I did.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Blue Remembered Earth - Alastair Reynolds

Blue Remembered Earth. Great title, isn't it? The evocative image of leaving Earth behind, only to remember its color in the blackness of space. It's an image that resonates on a visceral level. It also perfectly describes the nature of the technological period imagined -- the moment when Earth no longer becomes the center of humanity. Vast in scope and dense with character development and world building, Alastair Reynold's newest novel is a return to Utopian science fiction whose story isn't about the darker side of humanity, but the boundaries of our collective horizons.

Set one hundred and fifty years in the future, Africa has become the dominant technological and economic power. Crime, war, disease, and poverty have been banished to history courtesy of mandatory implants that curb and/or correct deviant behavior. While humanity has colonized the nearby planets, Earth remains the center of attention with known(ish) physics underpinning the whole operation.

Geoffrey Akinya is heir to the corporate super power that makes much of it possible. He's also a loner, living on the family estate and conducting experiments on the endangered elephant population that lives there. When his grandmother and company founder, Eunice, dies, Geoffrey's more entrepreneurial cousins task him to ensure the family's name remains unblemished after mysterious assets come to light.

It's really as simple as that. Blue Remembered Earth is a classic quest novel. One clue leads to the next, leads to the next, leads to an eventual big reveal that opens up a host of new possibilities for future novels. Given this standard narrative structure, Reynolds's novel places a premium on thematic exploration, characterizations, and world building. The degree to which he does it makes the novel a rousing success despite a plot that's as inventive as hyperdrive.

Admittedly, I wondered in the early going whether Reynolds was writing a novel or transcribing a science fictional reality television show about the African Walton Family. Entitled rich kids, a black sheep, an artist, the old guy, and a few insensitive assholes made up the cast who spend page after page just living their lives. As things progressed, I began to appreciate the pacing. Reynolds folds his world building into his characterizations and plot seamlessly, never resorting to sloppy info dumps or exposition. Does it cost him an extra hundred pages along the way? Probably. But it's time well spent, delivering a crystal clear picture of his imagined future and characters that shine.

From that basic framework Blue Remembered Earth takes a different approach than so much of today's genre fiction. Not dark or grimy, Reynolds spins a yarn that reflects on something inherently optimistic -- wonder and awe.
"Geoffrey had never been further than the Moon in his life. The sun was now more than thirty times as distant as it appeared from his home, and the light it offered was over nine hundred times fainter. It was a bullet hole punched in the sky, admitting a pencil-shaft of watery yellow illumination, too feeble to be called sunshine. For the first time in his life he truly understood that his home orbited a star."
It's not all roses among the stars though and Reynolds's excellent prose communicates the fear of the unknown and the inherent claustrophobia of space. If it's a throw back to Arthur C. Clarke science fiction as some might observe, it's a throwback with an understanding for the modern reader, embracing something of the space opera tropes and melding them with the hard science fiction tradition.

I have little doubt that there will be detractors out there. Blue Remembered Earth is not a thrill a minute science fiction. Slow burn is an accurate discriptor, but even once things get moving there is little action. Instead Reynolds offers the tension of space walks, faulty heat shields, and out of control robots. Perhaps such conceits no longer hold mystery for the cynical reader. They do for me and I found Alastair Reynolds's first effort in the Poseidon’s Children series to be an exceptional piece of milieu science fiction.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Guest Post | Robin Hobb Brings the Agency Discussion to a Close

I've noticed more and more authors lamenting the treatment of women in fantasy novels. Despite widespread agreement that there should be a more concerted effort to depict strong women, I wasn't necessarily coming away with the impression that agency is something a character has to have. I asked a swathe of fantasy authors about their thoughts on the subject. Some of the questions I asked the authors to consider were:
  • What is agency?
  • Why is it important? 
  • Why do we find more male characters with agency in fantasy novels than females? 
  • Is it OK if a character doesn't have it?
  • Can a character still be interesting if it lacks it? 
  • Can a book be good if none of the characters have it?
The answers I received were varied. When this series is all said and I done I hope to have an informed opinion on the subject. For now, I'm going to listen.

In the final installment of the series...

Robin Hobb.


Wow, are you asking the wrong person! I tried to find a discussion about it on the Internet, I flunked. So, speaking very off the top of my head and a bit flippantly, I uh, still don’t know what the discussion was about.

In fact, I looked at the heading of your message and your first question and my answer was, “Agency is the guy in New York who does all the boring parts of being a writer in exchange for 15% of the take. In my case, The Lotts Agency. And it is a very fine Agency indeed! I am a writer and I got Agency.” In that sense.

It’s not a word I would use in the way you’ve described as I suspect it has migrated to literature from philosophy or sociology. People using that word undoubtedly know what they mean by it when they apply it to characters in a story, but I don’t.

Not speaking specifically of ‘Agency’ but of any specific quality in a fictional character (intelligence, charisma, endurance, physical trait), I would say that it’s fair for a reviewer to call the reader’s attention to the presence or absence of it. If there are no women in a tale, or no left-handed vegetarians, that’s a fair thing to mention if the reviewer’s readership is specifically interested in tales that feature women or if it’s for the Left-handed Vegetarians Journal. After all, readers read book reviews to find books they will enjoy.

As a reader myself, I like a wide variety of characters, with all sorts of talents, aspects, attitudes and backgrounds. So, for me, for a character to lack a specific trait, or for all the characters to lack a specific trait is not a big deal. It’s simply how that story is told. Example: I am completely unbothered by the ‘lack’ of female characters in Lord of the Rings (book). The makeup of the Fellowship fits the society he created in the story. And a character does not have to be female for me to identify with him. So, for me, it’s not an issue. Nor is it a ‘lack’.

If we carry this ‘characters must have agency’ thing to its logical conclusion, then we are going to end up with a checklist of characters and traits that every book must have in order to be ‘good’: Lovely young woman with agency, check! Drunken sea captain, check! Angsty white prince, check! Philosophical tea-sipping dragon, check! Lesbian war-monger, check! Psychotic editor, check! Dashing, handsome, intelligent, charismatic, agency-possessing part-time dragon-slayer and book reviewer, check!

Lord save me from having to pander to my readers’ special interests in order to rate a ‘good book’ label!

I write the characters who live in my world. Then I invite the readers in.

If I read a book and find that the characters don’t work for me, I put it down and read a different book. So I guess that I, as a reader, have agency, too!


Robin Hobb is an International Bestselling author of bunch of books. She has recently finished writing a four-volume series called The Rain Wild Chronicles. The volumes are named The Dragon Keeper, Dragon Haven and City of Dragons, with Blood of Dragons forthcoming in 2013. Her other recent release, The Inheritance, is a collection of short fiction published by Subterranean Press.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Guest Post | Is Robert Jackson Bennett a Secret Agent?

I've noticed more and more authors lamenting the treatment of women in fantasy novels. Despite widespread agreement that there should be a more concerted effort to depict strong women, I wasn't necessarily coming away with the impression that agency is something a character has to have. I asked a swathe of fantasy authors about their thoughts on the subject. Some of the questions I asked the authors to consider were:
  • What is agency?
  • Why is it important? 
  • Why do we find more male characters with agency in fantasy novels than females? 
  • Is it OK if a character doesn't have it?
  • Can a character still be interesting if it lacks it? 
  • Can a book be good if none of the characters have it?
The answers I received were varied. When this series is all said and I done I hope to have an informed opinion on the subject. For now, I'm going to listen.

In the penultimate installment of the series...

Shirley Jackson Award winner, Robert Jackson Bennett.


Agency can be a tough thing to nail down. We can definitely tell when a character has it, and when they don’t; though what they have, precisely, isn’t quite so distinct. As it’s already been pointed out, “agent” essentially means “to do,” but it’s perfectly possible to have a character doing all sorts of things, yet they feel like they have no agency. So what does it mean?

To me, a character has agency when they’re a player in The Game – when they’re invested in what’s happening, when they have an agenda, and they’ve thought out how to pursue it and are actively working to achieve it. If a character has no agency, then they’re either on the sidelines, watching, or they’re not part of The Game at all, and might as well be offstage for the story.

The Game, of course, is decided by the story: while I’m sure a mortgage lender character would have  a strong agenda and would actively pursue it, in a story about second character trying to locate and defuse a bomb, the mortgage lender is probably background. The Game is about the bomb – other characters may have their own games in their head, but the story hasn’t framed them to make them a priority.

Now, like I said, just because a character is actively doing something in a story, it doesn’t mean they have agency. If a character is trying something and repeatedly failing and not adjusting their actions, and seems wholly ignorant to the idea that they might want to do that, then they are not so much an agent as a device, committing the same action over and over, and not taking in information or contemplating their situation.

An agent must not only have an agenda central to the story that they are actively pursuing: they must also connect and communicate with the world around them in a reasonably intelligent fashion, and adjust their behavior accordingly.

And yes, it’s possible to have a main character be a device more than an agent: it’s just usually not very satisfying to read about.

As to whether or not agency is important, that depends on the story. The story sets the frame and the objectives of The Game. And sometimes the objectives don’t concern the characters’ actions at all. Elizabeth has examined two great examples in Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead, and Waiting for Godot; I’d also suggest looking at something like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Suttree, where the characters feel very small, dwarfed by the landscape of the world, and their actions frequently have little effect on the story. Because that’s not what the story’s interested in observing – if anything, the story’s interested in how little the world cares about what people do. The point of those stories, especially Blood Meridian, might be in examining how people don’t have agency.

I do think the majority of contemporary popular culture frequently relegates women to the capacity of device more than agent. There’s even the character type of The Girl, as in “Does he get the girl at the end?” which does not quite acknowledge her as a person as much as a component in a story structure. The Girl is backdrop; The Girl is a goal, an objective; The Girl is not a player in The Game.

Though sometimes female characters can accompany a main character in attempting to accomplish something – a sidekick role, frequently spunky, often not romantically involved with the main character, because that’s reserved for The Girl – they aren’t directly invested in The Game: they’re invested in the person they’re helping, frequently male, even if it is in a platonic fashion.

And I think a lot of this is self-perpetuating. People write stories like this because these are the stories they read, and these stories are ubiquitous. And I think these writers – almost entirely male – are also rather divorced from interacting with girls and women throughout their lives. I know I was: as a kid, there was something of a floating, unspoken rule among male society that girls were not to be made friends with, that they were For Later, though exactly what that meant we didn’t know. There were things girls did, things boys did, and the twain should never meet. So in many subtle and unsubtle ways, I do think our culture encourages a lack of contact between the sexes, perpetuating a system in which a young man can come of age without ever having really talked to, or come to understand, any woman in any way at all. (Viz, the internet.)

So you have boys growing up that way, and when these boys decide to write stories, female characters become just sort of a big blind spot, a vast unknown that they don’t know how to apply agency to. Women then become devices and components in the story, framework to hang characteristics on and perhaps serve as interesting backdrop, and not much more.

I do think agency isn’t quite as necessary as everyone might think, depending on the book. It’s possible for an author to approach a character as a case study, examining their reactions within a given set of circumstances, which isn’t the same thing as agency. And I think a writer – and perhaps this requires a higher level of talent – can make a character without agency interesting and compelling.

After all, sometimes we feel we don’t have agency in our own lives: sometimes we only get to sit and watch. In the right hands, this can be no less involving and compelling than, say, a character racing through a mortgage lending firm, trying to find and defuse a very dangerous bomb.


Robert Jackson Bennett is the author of three novels: The Company Man, Mr. Shivers, and The Troupe. He's live in Austin, Texas. He once (digitally) put shoe polish on his infant's face to simulate facial hair. His newest novel, The Troupe, is exceptional.

Elizabeth Bear Knows What Agency Is
Michael J. Sullivan on Character Agency
Bad GMs Don't Allow Agency - Mazarkis Williams
The Weekend Edition of Character Agency (Long)
Is Robert Jackson Bennett a Secret Agent?
Robin Hobb Brings the Agency Discussion to a Close

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Guest Post | The Weekend Edition of Character Agency (Long)

I've noticed more and more authors lamenting the treatment of women in fantasy novels. Despite widespread agreement that there should be a more concerted effort to depict strong women, I wasn't necessarily coming away with the impression that agency is something a character has to have. I asked a swathe of fantasy authors about their thoughts on the subject. Some of the questions I asked the authors to consider were:
  • What is agency?
  • Why is it important? 
  • Why do we find more male characters with agency in fantasy novels than females? 
  • Is it OK if a character doesn't have it?
  • Can a character still be interesting if it lacks it? 
  • Can a book be good if none of the characters have it?
The answers I received were varied. When this series is all said and I done I hope to have an informed opinion on the subject. For now, I'm going to listen.

In the fourth installment of the series, I have a duo of  surveys from...

Nebula nomatined author of God's War, Kameron Hurley
Author of Shadow Ops: Control Point, Myke Cole

and a quick hit from...

Author of  The Alchemist of Souls, Anne Lyle


What is agency?

Kameron Hurley: Agency is about having the ability to determine your own future and be the hero of your own story – not just the sidekick in somebody else’s. Secondary characters in fiction fall into this trap even more often than heroes. It’s vital to remember that even sidekicks believe they’re the hero of their own story. In a perfect world, they’d be depicted as actively engaged (or not) in the hero’s story for reasons that relate to their journey, not the hero’s. If a character is being passively controlled by the interests of others, or exists only as a faceless satellite circling your protagonist’s shining star, congratulations! You’ve created a character without agency.

Myke Cole: I suppose it can mean different things to different people, but I have always understood it to mean a characters ability to take possession of their own life and influence/control the events that impact them (as opposed to being hopelessly tossed about like a cork on the ocean).

Why is it important?

Kameron Hurley: Truly engaging characters are those imbued with the whims, desires, frustrations and passions of real people. If they act like dolls or puppets jerked around on the protagonist’s (or the plot’s) coattails, they’re far less interesting. It can also be much more insidious than that. When entire classes, groups, or types of people in an author’s body of work are consistently portrayed as having no personal agency, or agency subsumed by a hero from the dominant culture, it also sends readers a message that these people are just objects that exist to support the hero’s journey. If we’re all the heroes of our own story, then we, as writers, are training an entire generation of heroes to objectify the people in their lives, and see them merely as vehicles for getting what we want.

Myke Cole: Whether or not a character has agency will seriously define them in the eyes of the reader and the other characters in the novel. We have all met people without agency in real life, and it can be tough to respect folks who allow themselves to slapped around by life's waves. Such characters are less likely to make compelling protagonists, though I will say that the struggle to develop/recognize/obtain agency for a character is a fascinating thing and makes for a great protagonist/story.

You don't want to set up a false dichotomy here: More agency - good. Less agency - bad. Having little agency can be part of an interesting story as well, and the fact is that in life, some folks don't have much agency. Good stories have characters that reflect this range. It's also important to keep in mind that having agency doesn't necessarily mean that a character will achieve their goals in life. You can have all the agency in the world and still lose.

Why do we find more male characters with agency in fantasy novels than females?

Kameron Hurley: It’s interesting that this question wasn’t an “if” question but a “why” question. Ten years ago (or on another blog, perhaps), it would have been an “if” question. Men’s experiences have been given greater weight and importance than women’s in both history and popular culture. It doesn’t take more than a couple history or English class reading lists to figure that out, if you didn’t already pick it up from general media. There’s a very long history of narrative that positions women and “Others” stories as subservient to the goals and desires of a male hero from the dominant culture. Prioritizing these experiences over those of others not only teaches women and those from disenfranchised groups that they their stories are less important, it also teaches men from the dominant culture that this is as it should be. It reinforces power imbalances and reduces alternative narratives.

Myke Cole: There's a difference between females having less power/being oppressed and not having agency. Even females in the most dismal conditions (medieval settings, for example) can have incredible agency. In fact, it is a female's ability to find ways to shape events, advance her goals and protect her interests in the face of a deck stacked horribly against her that shows the greatest agency of all.

A good example of this is Arya Stark in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Arya is both a female and a child in a society that isn't particularly nice to either. Yet she exhibits incredible agency. She resists attempts to make her into a docile, compliant court lady and homemaker (like her sister Sansa). She faces down intense social pressure and threats to her life to carve her own path in spite of the obstacles laid before her. Contrast her with Sandor Clegane ("The Hound") who, despite being a physically powerful male and a skilled warrior, basically just tugs his forelock and does whatever the depraved boy prince/king tells him. The small, female child shows incredible agency, while the socially enfranchised, physically powerful male warrior shows very little.

Societies can oppress females, discriminate against them, try to force them into subservient roles. But no one can take a female's agency unless she lets them. Many would argue that women with great agency are more interesting, but I find Sansa Stark (who is almost bereft of all agency) FASCINATING. She's fascinating the way watching a car wreck is fascinating, but it's still a great story.

Is it OK if a character doesn't have it?
Can a character still be of interest lacking it?

Kameron Hurley: Not everybody is willing or able to take an active role in their own lives, it’s true. But most of us do. Sure, you can write about a character that doesn’t have agency. The trouble comes when you have an entire subset of people operating without agency. Not only does that perpetuate a lazy cultural narrative, but that same laziness means that those characters won’t be terribly interesting. A character without agency is a Cinderella, a woman of Gor, believing that if she is just good enough, and subservient enough, she will be rewarded for her passivity. There’s nothing wrong with a story like that read in isolation (it’s creepy, but not wrong), but when you’re just reproducing a lazy stereotype, taking part in the retelling and reinforcing of these stories, which have been done for generations, across multiple media, it’s no longer “just a story” but instead, part of the tacit instruction manual for leading a “normal” life. Your work becomes part of cultural narrative designed to favor one group’s experiences over another. You become part of the problem. Without a multiplicity of stories, we risk touting a single fictional narrative as “the way things are supposed to be” instead of presenting many ways that things can be.

Myke Cole: Yes. I'd argue that it's pretty hard to get behind a protagonist who lacks agency (unless the story is about the protagonist's struggle to develop/awaken to their own agency). That said, there are plenty of characters who lack agency who are still compelling and fascinating. I have already given the example of Sansa Stark (even if she disgusts you, she still INTERESTS you). I think our fascination with characters who lack agency is similar to our enjoyment of reality TV. We're either watching hoping that they will find a way to turn things around and take possession of their own course, or we're hoping they will reap what they've sown. Either way, we're WATCHING, and that means the writer has done his/her job.

Can a book be good if none of the characters have it?

Kameron Hurley: “Good” is such a wildly subjective term. Lots of people enjoy watching powerless people caught up in epic events beyond their control, moved about like croquet balls by the gods. It’s how we all feel sometimes. But for me, as a reader, characters who attempt to take some control over their lives (even if they fail) make for more satisfying books. Eliminating a character’s need to make a decision about
whether or not to leave their spouse, or spare their enemy, with a violent earthquake or timely heart attack also limits their agency. The more interesting, powerful story is the one that forces characters to make hard choices. The scullery boy or farm maid who just sits around waiting for great things to happen to them is an incredibly relatable character, but not exactly an inspiring one. Alternatively, handing a woman a gun and some sexy pants and having her run off to do the bidding of a group of guys and calling that agency isn’t terribly interesting either. If her story’s just in services of theirs and their goals, we haven’t made much progress.

Stories are powerful things. “Oh, it’s just a story,” people will say, “why get so worked up?” But stories contain the power of possibility. They inspire different ways of thinking. They tell us how life can be. There’s nothing wrong with a few “be a good girl and good things just happen” stories. But when you’re raised on nothing but “sit around and wait for your hero” stories, odds are you’re going to be sitting around in your mom’s basement folding laundry for a long, long time waiting for your fortunes to change.

And wow, let me tell you – that would be a boring story.

Myke Cole: Here, I'd have to say no. Stories are ultimately about people facing conflicts/obstacles and doing what they must to overcome them. This is, by definition, an expression of agency. While supporting characters can lack it, protagonists and antagonists need it to address that core principle of story-telling. Otherwise, they'd be faced with the challenge and just throw up their hands. "Get the One Ring to Mordor? Dude. Waaaaay too complicated. Let's go play X-Box. I'm sure someone will figure out a way to stop Sauron. Are there any Fritos left?" or "Storm Troopers massacred my parents while I was talking to you, Obi-Wan. I know you want me to go to Alderan, but can I just live with you until this whole thing blows over? The Rebel Alliance will take care of the Empire. I just need a place to hide."

See? Not very interesting.

Kameron Hurley is the author of the Bel Dame Apocrypha from Night Shade Books. Her debut novel, God's War, has been nominated for the Nebula Award for best novel. The final novel in her trilogy, Rapture, is due out this fall.

Myke Cole is the author of Shadow Ops: Control Point, a new blend of urban fantasy and military thriller. He's a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve and a tremendous advocate for genre fiction. He also prefers his beer fruity.


Anne Lyle

To me, for a character to have agency they must have the freedom and will to make plot-relevant choices independent of other characters in the story. A character who is always a follower and never the leader, even for a moment, lacks agency. This is perfectly fine in a sidekick or minor character, because this kind of person exists in real life, and they can still be interesting if they have a distinctive personality. The problem comes when you have a major character, either protagonist or (more rarely) antagonist, who is like this.

Male characters lacking agency are much rarer than female ones, undoubtedly because it's an unconscious assumption in our culture that men are the doers, the movers and shakers, whilst a woman's role is to be supportive and compliant. This is frustrating for female readers in particular, who have just as great a desire as men to see their own dreams and aspirations reflected in the heroes of stories.

In genre fiction especially, many readers are looking for an escape from their mundane life, which is often one of passive reaction to circumstances beyond our control. Reading about a character who is similarly passive - lacking in agency - fails to satisfy that need. Through characters who have agency, or who struggle to attain it, we gain a glimmer of faith in our own ability to control our lives.


Anne Lyle is the author of the new novel from Angry Robot Books, The Alchemist of Souls. Rumor has it she's pretty short. I've read her novel and highly recommend it to everyone who enjoys, you know, good books.

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Guest Post | Bad GMs Don't Allow Agency - Mazarkis Williams

I've noticed more and more authors lamenting the treatment of women in fantasy novels. Despite widespread agreement that there should be a more concerted effort to depict strong women, I wasn't necessarily coming away with the impression that agency is something a character has to have. I asked a swathe of fantasy authors about their thoughts on the subject. Some of the questions I asked the authors to consider were:
  • What is agency?
  • Why is it important? 
  • Why do we find more male characters with agency in fantasy novels than females? 
  • Is it OK if a character doesn't have it?
  • Can a character still be interesting if it lacks it? 
  • Can a book be good if none of the characters have it?
The answers I received were varied. When this series is all said and I done I hope to have an informed opinion on the subject. For now, I'm going to listen.

In the third installment of the series...

Author of The Emperor's Knife, Mazarkis Williams


A character with agency can speak for herself and make her own decisions. Her actions are grounded in her free will, her beliefs, and her desires and hopes. But it is not enough for the writer to know that is the case; when a character pulls a lever and saves the world, it is an empty event unless the decisions and choices the character made on the way to that lever are written into the story.

In gaming there is a term for bad GMmanship: “railroading.” It means the GM pushes you along the adventure when there is no reason for your character to be there. Some powerful person or god is feeding you clues and making sure you encounter the right bad guys and the right time. Your character has little say in the matter; all you need to do is to be there and roll the dice when it’s time to fight. It’s no fun. You want to go to the tavern or buy a magic sword with the money you got from the last adventure, but here you are traipsing through the salt plains for no discernible reason.

That’s what it’s like for a character who is stuck reacting to the plot. The reader can’t tell what motivates him to walk this way and that, pull a lever, press a button – whatever – because he is constantly being faced with new developments and forced to react because the story requires it. You might be told he feels happy about an achievement, but you don’t otherwise get that from the text. Nothing seems to flow from his own initiative.

But does a character stuck in an intensely plot-driven book lack agency? No; It just seems that way sometimes, because the story focus is elsewhere. And for me this is where agency and writing choices get mixed together, especially where female characters are concerned. There are cases in which a character truly lacks agency – based on her situation – and this is legitimate, though tricky to write. (And it should be temporary – characters are flat-out uninteresting if they can’t make choices and influence the path of events.) Other times, a character appears to lack agency because she exists only for plot-y reasons, or is badly written. ‘Badly written’ can include having a man, or a god, or anything else telling her what to do all the time. Technically she does not lack agency if she chooses to do whatever she’s told, but oh gods is it dull. And makes me raise my eyebrow at you (not really – I can’t do that cool thing with my eyebrow).

In all of these cases, I feel any perceived issues can be fixed with better writing. Give the characters depth. Let them walk a path filled with choices and errors and hopes – a path that leads to that last, big moment. Make us not only understand why they are pulling that lever, stabbing that guy, or poisoning that wine but put us right there with them, cheering them on (or hiding our eyes). And don’t just tell. Make us feel. By bringing out the humanity of our characters, male and female, we enrich our stories. That can never be bad.


Mazarkis Williams is an enigma and the author of the novel The Emperor's Knife. Williams straddles the Atlantic like the Colossus of Rhodes. This author's gender is unknown, which is irrelevant normally, but may have some bearing on this conversation.

Elizabeth Bear Knows What Agency Is
Michael J. Sullivan on Character Agency
Bad GMs Don't Allow Agency - Mazarkis Williams
The Weekend Edition of Character Agency (Long)
Is Robert Jackson Bennett a Secret Agent?
Robin Hobb Brings the Agency Discussion to a Close

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Guest Post | Michael J. Sullivan on Character Agency

I've noticed more and more authors lamenting the treatment of women in fantasy novels. Despite widespread agreement that there should be a more concerted effort to depict strong women, I wasn't necessarily coming away with the impression that agency is something a character has to have. I asked a swathe of fantasy authors about their thoughts on the subject. Some of the questions I asked the authors to consider were:
  • What is agency?
  • Why is it important? 
  • Why do we find more male characters with agency in fantasy novels than females? 
  • Is it OK if a character doesn't have it?
  • Can a character still be interesting if it lacks it? 
  • Can a book be good if none of the characters have it?
The answers I received were varied. When this series is all said and I done I hope to have an informed opinion on the subject. For now, I'm going to listen.

In the second installment of the series...

Author of The Riyria Revelations, Michael J. Sullivan.


Justin Landon from Staffer’s Musings sent me an email regarding the subject of agency, and in particular how it applies to women characters and fantasy. I’ve actually only run across that term once, during a particularly negative review (that I would prefer to just fade away), but not being one to shrink from controversy I told him I would give a few opinions on the subject.

As I understand it, “agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.” – thanks Wikipedia.

As a fantasy author who writes in an invented world that closely resembles Medieval Europe, I have followed the social conventions of that age. In that context, women do indeed have fewer opportunities than men. Does this mean that I think women shouldn’t have agency? Not at all, and in fact I have a six book series where women break the bonds of convention and become as strong and independent as any of their male counterparts. It’s true that early in the series some women are portrayed as locked in established roles, but I did so to provide a contrast to what they develop into.

Because many fantasy authors also set their stories in worlds where men are dominant, it is very reasonable for people, and especially women, to become frustrated and disappointed with how the female sex have been portrayed over the years. But in the author’s defense, I think it has more to do with a desire for authenticity, then a desire to pigeonhole women. So, I think when determining agency, or lack thereof, it is important to consider context. For instance, I would never use the “n” word privately or publically, but in a novel set in the south, or in racially divided Detroit in the sixties, should I not use this term because it will offend modern readers? For me the answer would be no. It is more important for my novel to be true to its context.

I would suspect that women (writing a review discussing female characters), are more likely to mention a lack of agency because they are more sensitive to the practice. But I also think people see what they want to see, and they will discount or ignore anything that refutes their pre-conceived notions. For example in the case of the review I previously mentioned, the reviewer pointed out that a young women who turned suicidal by the death of her father was a poor representation of women with agency. But this same reviewer didn’t mention how the girl took it upon herself to travel a great distance to hire men to save her father in the first place. Depending on your perspective, you can come to very different opinions on Thrace’s independence.

So why doesn’t agency come up in relation to men? Well mainly because men have always had agency and have been portrayed as such. I’m old enough to have lived through the feminist movement of the sixties and seventies, and my wife obtained an Electrical Engineering degree in 1984 when only three of her graduating class of several hundred had been women. For my daughter’s generation it’s hard to imagine a time when women’s choices were indeed limited, and if fact it wasn’t all that long ago. Since writing mirrors society, it will take time to balance the scales.

Justin also asked if a character can be interesting if they lack agency. My answer is yes, and in some cases it is a legitimate technique to have characters subjected to trials and tribulations that have nothing to do with decisions they make. While I’m sure most didn’t think of him this way (maybe because the character was male), Forest Gump is the perfect example of someone who floats through life allowing others to decide his fate. He joins the football team, not because he wants to play the game, but because others saw his ability. He joins the army, not because he wants to, but because a recruiter approaches him at the exact moment he was trying to decide what to do next. Even his lucrative fishing career wasn’t Forest’s idea, but a fulfillment of a promise to a dead friend. I did enjoy the character of Forest Gump and was invested with his ups and downs. For me I was riveted to see where the winds of fate would take him, so lack of agency doesn't always have to be negative.

Actually, now that I think of it, many fantasy characters (both male and female) are subjected to a predetermined destiny. No matter what decisions they make, their fate is sealed and yet we often don’t jump to a criticism about lack of agency. I’m not sure what part this has played into sensitivities on the subject, but it might just go to show that there is a great deal of foundation that has been laid, and until there is a larger body of work showing strong-willed independent thinkers (especially women) we may continue to find those that take offense to any characters that lacks agency, even if it is done purposefully for dramatic effect.


Michael J. Sullivan is the author of the very successful Riyria Revelations. Initially self published, Sullivan sold thousands of copies on his own before the series was purchased by Orbit Books. To learn more about him and his series, visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

Elizabeth Bear Knows What Agency Is
Michael J. Sullivan on Character Agency
Bad GMs Don't Allow Agency - Mazarkis Williams
The Weekend Edition of Character Agency (Long)
Is Robert Jackson Bennett a Secret Agent?
Robin Hobb Brings the Agency Discussion to a Close

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Guest Post | Elizabeth Bear Knows What Agency Is

Several of last year's more controversial reviews included charges that female characters lacked agency. Not surprisingly the comment sections on those reviews reflected a great deal of confusion about what it means for a character to lack agency, and furthermore some disagreement about whether it was a legitimate criticism. While those examples brought the issue to my attention, I've noticed more and more authors lamenting the treatment of women in fantasy novels. Despite widespread agreement that there should be a more concerted effort to depict strong women, I wasn't necessarily coming away with the impression that agency is something a character has to have.

Given the wonderful Women in SF&F series currently being conducted by Kristen at Fantasy Book Cafe, I thought now might be an appropriate time to 'survey' a wide swathe of fantasy authors about their thoughts on the subject. Some of the questions I asked the authors to consider were:
  • What is agency?
  • Why is it important? 
  • Why do we find more male characters with agency in fantasy novels than females? 
  • Is it OK if a character doesn't have it?
  • Can a character still be interesting if it lacks it? 
  • Can a book be good if none of the characters have it?
The answers I received were wide and varied. Over the next few days I'm going to share those answers. Some are long, some are not as long. I asked women, I asked men, and I even asked an author whose gender is a mystery. I asked authors who've been published for thirty years and some who haven't even made it a full year yet. When this series is all said and I done I hope to have an informed opinion on the subject. For now, I'm going to listen.

Up first....

2005 John W. Campbell Award Winner, 2008 Hugo Award Winner for Best Short Story, and 2009 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novelette, Elizabeth Bear.


Agency, as we use the term in literary circles, is--quite frankly--the thing that makes characters interesting to the reader. As much as we talk about tactics of characterization that may or may not appeal to any particular reader (making the character accessible, making them funny, making them identifiable)... the one thing that I have found that does not fail to connect to the audience is giving a character agency.

You ask what it is: it's actually quite simple, for all that many writers have a hard time internalizing and writing it.

Agency is when a character has an agenda, and is making attempts to complete that agenda. This is the so called try/fail cycle of the three act structure of genre fiction; when internalized, it's the striving that drives literary fiction. It's what the character wants, and what they need, and what they are willing to do to get it.

We also refer to it as "protagging," because it's what protagonists do.

Kurt Vonnegut famously offered this bit of advice to writers: "Make your character want something, even if it's only a glass of water."

Now--especially in mythic fiction--there can be what we refer to as the refusal of the call before the protagonist settles in to doing their job. The character still wants something: they want to be left alone.

Rick in Casablanca says, "I stick my neck out for nobody." His refusal is active. It can even be heroic, as when a protagonist chooses not to fight in an unjust war, for example.

And when the protagonist converts to pursuit of a different goal, he actively pursues that goal.

So agency is having an agenda. Being an agent. From the Latin, agere: "to do"

Agency is doing stuff. Not because somebody else tells you to, but because it's got to be done.

A lot of people use the term "strong female character" to mean "kickass heroine." I think this is silly. In my estimation, one of the strongest women in Range of Ghosts never picks up a weapon. She's a fourteen-year-old-girl who escapes execution for being pregnant with the wrong man's child by running across a desert at night in her bedroom slippers.

That's pretty damned tough. She wants to live, and she wants her child to live, and she does what she has to do to make it happen.

Readers love agency. It lends narrative drive and connection better than any other tactic (I'd say any other three tactics) that a writer can use.

As for why female characters have it less often than male ones? Well, there's an implicit assumption in the question that I'm not sure I agree with. Do they really? Does Lessa have less agency than F'lar? Does Juliet have less agency than Romeo? Does Jessica have less agency than Paul? Does Elizabeth have less agency than Mr. Darcy?

Women may have traditionally had to express their agency in more limited ways--but that doesn't mean it's not there. Just that they were pushing a bigger boulder uphill to express what they want, and their options on what to do to get it were more limited.

But for the moment taking the question in the spirit in which it was offered, I'd say that if women are written passively by some authors (for reasons other than to make a literary point--which we'll get to in a moment), it's due to two things:
  1. bad writing and
  2. failure to interrogate an internalized social construct that men are active and women are acted upon. Which has probably never been true, but it's one of the founding myths of the patriarchy, ain't it?

As for the question of whether a character can be interesting and a book can be "good" if none of the characters have it--well. Waiting for Godot is still taught and performed, and the entire point of that play is that none of the characters have the least little bit of agency. Not a scrap, not a speck. They exist in a blur of existential despair.

But that's a special case, and we're not all Samuel Beckett, and frankly, I've read Waiting for Godot three times, I've seen it performed, and I hate the fucking thing. I mean, I admire it: it's a hell of a technical accomplishment.

But it's boring and painful.

And as genre authors, we're generally not trying to be boring and painful, because we're here to entertain as well as enlighten. Literature doesn't have to *hurt.*

Now, as a counterexample, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Again, a play in which nobody has a hell of a lot of agency, for literary and thematic reasons. They don't really want anything, and when they kind of start to, universe itself thwarts their attempts at agency! As it is written, so it shall be... and I kind of love it.

Because it's funny.

Now, your mileage may vary. There are those who love Godot and hate R&G.

But I'd suggest that unless a writer is Tom Stoppard or Samuel Beckett, a writer might want to go with making their characters a little more active. Especially when writing for a genre audience--and a genre audience of which about half is going to be seriously upset with the work if they notice that all the women just sit around waiting to be rescued.

(And yes, GODOT and R&G are both rather light on female characters, but they were the contrasting works I could think of that demonstrate how to use lack-of-agency as a thematic technique.)


Elizabeth Bear is the author of a shitload of novels and short stories, nearly all of which are reputed to be awesome. I've only read Range of Ghosts, and I can testify to its awesomeness. I suggest everyone who enjoyed this post to read it.

Elizabeth Bear Knows What Agency Is
Michael J. Sullivan on Character Agency
Bad GMs Don't Allow Agency - Mazarkis Williams
The Weekend Edition of Character Agency (Long)
Is Robert Jackson Bennett a Secret Agent?
Robin Hobb Brings the Agency Discussion to a Close

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Scourge of the Betrayer - Jeff Salyards

I began Scourge of the Betrayer expecting a Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, Glen Cook orgy. Something I'm sure all three of those men have long dreamed about, but only Morgan could write (Steel Remains joke intended). It's on the cover after all (their names, not the orgy). As a reviewer, expectations are a no-no, but when the publisher puts them in my face, what's a guy to do? As it turns out, the only one of those names I would truly associate with Jeff Salyards's debut novel is Glen Cook, and only then for the narrative style. Instead, I found an extremely unique take on the fantasy genre that shares more commonality with one of my favorite 2011 science fiction novels, Germline by T.C. McCarthy.

Like Germline, Scourge is all about a writer outsider who finds himself in the middle of a war he's completely unprepared for. In this case, the outsider is Arkamondos (Arki), a scribe of no repute who gets offered the chance to follow a Syldoon company into enemy territory and record all that he sees. Of course, the Syldoon are up to more than they initially appear and Arki is in way over his head. Told entirely in first person, Scourge is foremost a character study. Salyards puts the reader inside the head of a naive, scared, and incapable Arki, who is revolted by and attracted to his subjects in equal measure.

Interestingly, the character study I speak of isn't so much Arki, but Captain Braylor Killcoin, the secretive leader of the company, and his merry band of slaves turned soldiers turned guerrillas turned brooding veterans. The narrator becomes the cipher through which the reader perceives reality and thereby the other characters. No one gets a pass. By that I mean the typical fantasy protagonist would justify the commission of violence in a cause and laude the skill. It's seen time and again in the genre. Arki reflects those values much differently. He pities the soldiers for the ease with which they kill while fearing and envying them for the same. In a world hard boiled, Arki is anything but and his perceptions, and therefore the reader's, reflect that skepticism. Not to say that he's uninteresting, but readers will attach themselves to Scourge, and look forward to its sequel, not for more Arki, but for more interpretation of the events he witnesses.

The world itself is fairly bland. Unlike other recent first person fantasies, Among Thieves (Hulick) and Prince of Thorns (Lawrence) coming quickest to mind, Scourge has very little that I would call world building. Other than a brief section in the latter parts of the books where Arki learns who the Syldoon are, and what they represent, the nuance and the texture of the world could be anywhere. It's not unique, or vibrant. The reason isn't that Salyards lacks creativity, rather it demonstrates a commitment to his narrative style. He never breaks out of Arki's perceptions to become didactic. He creates a sense of wonder and mystery not by the specialness of his imagination, but by withholding his narrator's access to information.

It's that which calls Glen Cook so strongly to mind. The Black Company series, one of the most significant works for modern fantasy, is told through the point of view of Croaker, the company's doctor and annalist. Cook focuses on character over milieu, and more importantly on the social dynamics of soldiers in a fantasy world. What separates the two is Salyards's use of Arki's status as observer. Croaker is the quintessential insider and an active participant in the action -- he lacks perspective. Using Arki, Salyards creates a wholly different paradigm that reflects on the fantasy genre and the nature of violence in a way that's entirely unique.

This uniqueness does not always lead to the most compelling read. Scourge is the definition of a slow burn, beginning in a small faceless town, continuing with long stretches of reflection over barely textured wilderness, and ending without a denouement that genre readers have come to expect. Even the prose shows more workmanlike efficiency than dazzling style, opting to preserve Arki's status as a painfully average chronicler. Despite that, I found myself coming back to it every night. The haunting nature of Killcoin and Arki's revelatory witnessing of his life, carries the novel, delivering one of the most unique fantasy reading experiences I've had.

It should come as no surprise that it's a Night Shade published title. Putting aside its similarity to Glen Cook, one of Night Shade's most prolific authors, Scourge of the Betrayer screams 'new voice'. Like last year's God's War (Hurley), it isn't reinterpreting old genre conventions, but finding entirely new pathways. Once again I find myself applauding Night Shade for its editorial vision, further cementing them as my go to source for something I've never seen before. I can't wait to read whatever's next for Jeff Salyards. His debut can't be considered anything but a tremendous success.

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Friday, April 13, 2012

Today I wrote a post somewhere else...

The Speculative Scotsman is on vacation in America. He's taking the unlikely tour of the American South for his first trip to the States. To keep his blog alive and well during his absence, Niall asked me to write a post for him. Ok, he also asked like twenty other people many of whom have already had their posts run, but for the purposes of this particular write up let's assume he only asked me because he thinks I'm the best. I think Niall would have preferred me to write something professional and well thought out. Maybe a review or a post about genre stuff. I did no such thing; I wrote about sex (not gender).

Oh, and if for some reason you're following MY blog, and NOT Niall's, you should definitely remedy that situation when you click through to read the rest of my "article". Enjoy!
Sex. Dirty, icky, squishy, sloppy, romantic, loving, and harmoanious (sic) sex. Most fantasy novels have it to one degree or another, but very few seem to get it right. Ask any author, what's the hardest thing to write? Most of them, I suspect, would answer sex. Although, Sam Sykes would probably say something like words. Smart asses aside, sex is hard because everyone's had it. Unlike sword fights, or politics, or horse riding, sex is a universal experience. If an author gets it wrong, readers will know it on a visceral level.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hugo Awards 2012 - Best Short Story

After my weekend piece on the Hugo Short Lists, I decide to jump right into a category I'm not as well versed in -- Best Short Story. I read shorts from time to time, but rarely is it part of my weekly reading. This year's list for best short story includes: stalwart Mike Resnick with The Homecoming, short fiction superstar Ken Liu with The Paper Menagerie, former Jim Baen's Universe editor Nancy Fulda with Movement, and Princeton student E. Lily Yu with The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees.

I only mention four stories because, despite John Scalzi's popularity with the Hugo voters, I can't take his story, Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue,  seriously. It's occasionally clever, but doesn't really possess a narrative thread. Even Scalzi calls it a fake-prologue to a fake-novel about a fake-dragon who isn't as fake as everyone thought it was replete with run on sentences and incoherent names that riff on the time honored tradition of fantasy that does the same without ever actually making a new observation that hasn't been made a hundred times before. (If that sentence offends you, go read the first two paragraphs of Scalzi's short). Ok, Scalzi didn't really say that. Either way, I'm disqualifying it from consideration on my ballot. This spot should have gone to Maureen McHugh's After the Apocalypse and that's not a position I'm budging from.

The other four stories are all worthy to varying degrees and criticizing them is an exercise in nitpicking. I'll start with Resnick's story, which is the only one of the four not likewise nominated for the Nebula. The Homecoming looks at the oft mined relationship between parent and child. Jordan and Julia have a son named Phillip, who left years ago to pursue his dreams in space. Phillip, coming home to visit his dying mother, finds his relationship with his father seemingly strained beyond repair.

Told in the first person, from the father's perspective, Resnick left me with a slight emotional disconnect. Perhaps because my own daughter is so young, I found myself far more invested in the son's emotions at losing his mother and the guilt from leaving his parents to pursue his own dreams. The result is a psychic distance that didn't lend itself to my full investment. I suspect mileage will greatly vary depending on the reader. Given the reputation of an advanced average age for Hugo voters, The Homecoming's appearance on the short list doesn't surprise me.

From a science fictional perspective, Resnick's story confronts the fallout of human modification, the strains it might place on the structures of family, and the gains and losses of living life beyond the boundaries of Earth. In that way, it is the most successful of all the nominated stories in connecting with the themes and issues that make a Hugo story. Interestingly, I don't find any of the other three stories to be exceptionally science fictional (or fantasical). Each contains some genre elements (or they wouldn't be in the magazines they were in), but by and large only The Homecoming fully embraces their discussion.

Continuing, Ken Liu's The Paper Menagerie tells the story of a half-Chinese boy raised by his American father and his Chinese-mail-order-bride mother. His mother folds paper animals and imbues them with life, a menagerie of origami. Liu, a writer of Chinese descent, describes experiences that I imagine come at least somewhat from his childhood, or at the very least the childhoods of people within his community. Ideas like the abandonment of cultural identity, the pressure to become Americanized, the feelings of belonging, are all resonant. Echoing Resnick, Liu spends quite a bit of time on the pressures and expectations of the relationship between parent and child and the deep sense of loss and sometimes betrayal when those expectations fall short. It's an emotional story, but not one that challenges the reader, nor does it feel like Liu stretching himself as a writer.

E. Lily Yu's The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees is quite the opposite. Using a distant dry voice that reads more like a scientific text than a narrative, Yu leaves the reader with a unique texture so unlike the more traditional stories on this list. It feels worked, as though Yu is pushing the reader toward something. Unfortunately, the result is a story that lacks character, literally and figuratively. Starting with a boy knocking down a wasps nest only to find it becomes a beautiful map when dried out, the story becomes the migration of the last wasp nest to an island ruled by bees. Yu describes the world they live in and how they move through it; the living and dying of several generations over an all too short ten pages leaves no room for characters (literally). While the prose is well formed and the narrative well constructed, Yu's overview style precludes heart, leaving me impressed, but unmoved.

That said, "impressed" will be enough for many voters and I expect the Hugo to end up in Yu's hands. My vote, however, will go to Nancy Fulda's Movement. It evokes a perfect combination of genre themes, emotional investment, and progressive storytelling. Hannah is autistic child whose parents are considering a procedure to "cure" her. The future has brought about many changes, not the least of which is a non-invasive procedure that can rewire Hannah's neurons, making her like everyone else. Told from inside her head, Fulda captures Hannah's disconnect from the world her parents inhabit. She describes the nature of Hannah's communication with world outside her skull, a unique focus on the dance she uses to find peace, and her eventual unrelenting desire to be who she is.

Unlike Liu and Yu's stories, Fulda's is more a fiction of ideas. She discusses autism as an evolutionary tool, as well as compares the advent of technology and the gap it creates in generational communication to the one between Hannah's autism and the world. Fulda melds these notions with a little girl trying to make her parents understand who she is -- her dreams for the future. It's executed flawlessly and the Hugo voters should be commended for recognizing Movement's brilliance.

As I read these stories what struck me most was the ubiquitous application of parents pregnant with expectations for their progeny. It's an indeleble theme that connects with any reader -- everyone is someone's child. How a culture relates to its previous generation, and the one to come, is most revealing. I wonder what it says about the Hugo voters that such pervasive sentimentality is reflected within this list. To those who read me often, especially my Hugo commentary, I have been known to use the term 'old boys club' when referring to the elder statespeople (women can be old boys too!) of fandom.

Perhaps this is a case where that's not such a bad thing. Only parents with an inherent fear of failure when it comes to our children and aging children with older parents relying on the support no child is ever ready to give, would connect so consistently to these themes. Either way, John Joseph Adams or Gardner Dozois might want to pay attention to the power of these stories, a mother/father's day anthology could do a lot worse than starting with these four.

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Sunday, April 8, 2012

Comments on the Hugo Short Lists

Last night the Hugo Awards announced their shortlists for 2012. I find myself fairly disappointed across the board, which is unfortunate and expected. In fact, of all the nominations I myself made, only a small handful made the short lists -- Stina Leicht for the Campbell, Patrick Nielson Hayden for Editor (Long Form),  SF Signal for Best FanZine, and SF Signal Podcast for Best Fancast. I'm going to go through each category, offering my thoughts on the choices, and occasionally opining where there may be some missteps.

Best Novel (932 ballots)
Among Others by Jo Walton (Tor)
A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin (Bantam Spectra)
Deadline by Mira Grant (Orbit)
Embassytown by China Miéville (Macmillan / Del Rey)
Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey (Orbit)
I suppose it should come as no surprise to see George R.R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons nominated here. I do think it sets a bad precedent to say that his worst novel in A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the five best novels of 2011. Ridiculous. That said, I fully expect it to win. Maybe it's a make-up award after not winning for A Storm of Swords, which is easily one of the best fantasy novels ever written. I could live with that reasoning. Kind of.

I expected Among Others and Embassytown to make the list. While I've not read either, lots of people I trust consider them worthy. I'll be reading both in the next month or so. As for Deadline and Leviathan Wakes, I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but I am confounded. I thought Feed was an odd choice last year, and to see its sequel on the list this year surprises me even more. I can only guess it's a signal to Seanan McGuire's (Mira Grant) popularity as she has been short listed four times this year across various categories. Good for her, she's a very good writer, but I find her books more entertaining than significant. Which, not surprisingly, is also how I feel about Leviathan Wakes. It's a pulp, noir, old school space opera. It's nostalgic and epic, a tighter Peter F. Hamilton with fewer ideas. Sadly, I don't even think it's the best novel Daniel Abraham worked on this year (Dragon's Path).

Quick question, and one I'm legitimately curious about, why hasn't Joe Abercrombie or Steven Erikson caught on more among the voters? Both have written some of the absolute best work over the last five years, and neither have yet to receive a Hugo nomination. Maybe it's got something to do with the fact that the Hugo Award trends more toward SF than fantasy. Or maybe they don't resonate as much with American readers? I'd love to hear some thoughts on this.

For everyone's information, I'm going to be reviewing every one of the novels nominated via Cheryl and Fizbane, even the ones I've already written reviews for. They're all good novels, but they could all used to be mocked a little, because who couldn't?
Best Novella (473 ballots)
Countdown by Mira Grant (Orbit)
"The Ice Owl" by Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction November/December 2011)
"Kiss Me Twice" by Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov's June 2011)
"The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson (Asimov's September/October 2011)
"The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" by Ken Liu (Panverse 3)
Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente (WSFA)
Best Novelette (499 ballots)
"The Copenhagen Interpretation" by Paul Cornell (Asimov's July 2011)
"Fields of Gold" by Rachel Swirsky (Eclipse Four)
"Ray of Light" by Brad R. Torgersen (Analog December 2011)
"Six Months, Three Days" by Charlie Jane Anders (
"What We Found" by Geoff Ryman (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction March/April 2011)
Best Short Story (593 ballots)
"The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees" by E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld April 2011)
"The Homecoming" by Mike Resnick (Asimov's April/May 2011)
"Movement" by Nancy Fulda (Asimov's March 2011)
"The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction March/April 2011)
"Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue" by John Scalzi (
Ken Liu is like short fiction sex, bottled, aged for two decades, decanted, and drank, eliciting the immediate reaction of, "I wish there was more." That is to say, when is this guy going to write a novel? I didn't personally make a lot of nominations in these categories. I don't read much short fiction. I was hoping that two authors would get nods here -- T.C. McCarthy and Maureen McHugh. McHugh's After the Apocalypse was the best piece of fiction I read last year. The fact it wasn't included is a monster oversight. I can't comment on who I'd expunge from the current short list until I've read them all, but I'm sure something wasn't as good as the McHugh (wow, that makes me sound like a jerk).
Best Related Work (461 ballots)The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Third Edition edited by John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls, and Graham Sleight (Gollancz)
Jar Jar Binks Must Die... and Other Observations about Science Fiction Movies by Daniel M. Kimmel (Fantastic Books)
The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature by Jeff VanderMeer and S. J. Chambers (Abrams Image)
Wicked Girls by Seanan McGuire
Writing Excuses, Season 6 by Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Jordan Sanderson
I don't entirely grasp this category, which is definitely my own fault. It just seems too broad. Either way, I'd probably lean toward the Encyclopedia. It's a tremendous resource for the community at large. I've heard great things about The Steampunk Bible as well, but I really don't care for the subgenre (usually).
Best Graphic Story (339 ballots)Digger by Ursula Vernon (Sofawolf Press)
Fables Vol 15: Rose Red by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham (Vertigo)
Locke & Key Volume 4, Keys to the Kingdom written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW)
Schlock Mercenary: Force Multiplication written and illustrated by Howard Tayler, colors by Travis Walton (The Tayler Corporation)
The Unwritten (Volume 4): Leviathan created by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Peter Gross (Vertigo)
I don't read graphic stories. No comment. In other words, I really liked Watchmen.
Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) (592 ballots)
Captain America: The First Avenger, screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephan McFeely, directed by Joe Johnston (Marvel)
Game of Thrones (Season 1), created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss; written by David Benioff, D. B. Weiss, Bryan Cogman, Jane Espenson, and George R. R. Martin; directed by Brian Kirk, Daniel Minahan, Tim van Patten, and Alan Taylor (HBO)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, screenplay by Steve Kloves; directed by David Yates (Warner Bros.)
Hugo, screenplay by John Logan; directed by Martin Scorsese (Paramount)
Source Code, screenplay by Ben Ripley; directed by Duncan Jones (Vendome Pictures)
Why bother? Game of Thrones in a walk. Captain America sucked, by the way.
Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) (512 ballots)
"The Doctor's Wife" (Doctor Who), written by Neil Gaiman; directed by Richard Clark (BBC Wales)
"The Drink Tank's Hugo Acceptance Speech," Christopher J Garcia and James Bacon (Renovation)
"The Girl Who Waited" (Doctor Who), written by Tom MacRae; directed by Nick Hurran (BBC Wales)
"A Good Man Goes to War" (Doctor Who), written by Steven Moffat; directed by Peter Hoar (BBC Wales)
"Remedial Chaos Theory" (Community), written by Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna; directed by Jeff Melman (NBC)
Doctor Who three times? Really? How come no individual Game of Thrones episodes here? I'm surprised. I'm pretty sure this is Gaiman's category to lose and that he'll win by the same margin that Games of Thrones wins the long form. My one major complaint here is the nomination for The Drink Tank's Hugo Acceptance Speech. It might have been awesome, but it makes the whole thing look like the 'old boys club' patting itself on the back. Garcia and Bacon both received multiple nominations across several categories. They do good work, but putting this speech ahead of the aforementioned Game of Thrones episodes or hosts of other programming reeks of inside baseball. It only further highlights an absolute need to bring new blood into the Hugo voter rolls (in my opinion).
Best Semiprozine (357 ballots)
Apex Magazine edited by Catherynne M. Valente, Lynne M. Thomas, and Jason Sizemore
Interzone edited by Andy Cox
Lightspeed edited by John Joseph Adams
Locus edited by Liza Groen Trombi, Kirsten Gong-Wong, et al.
New York Review of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell, Kevin J. Maroney, Kris Dikeman, and Avram Grumer
No comment. Don't read them enough.
Best Fanzine (322 ballots)
Banana Wings edited by Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer
The Drink Tank edited by James Bacon and Christopher J Garcia
File 770 edited by Mike Glyer
Journey Planet edited by James Bacon, Christopher J Garcia, et al.
SF Signal edited by John DeNardo
I'm not going to lie. I'm disappointed. I was hoping for more blogs to be nominated, in particular Pornokitsch run by Jared Shurin and Anne Perry. SF Signal is incredibly worthy though, and I'm excited to see DeNardo's ten years of hard work recognized. The other four are the usual crowd, who we'll be seeing more of a little later in this post.
Best Fancast (326 ballots)
The Coode Street Podcast, Jonathan Strahan & Gary K. Wolfe
Galactic Suburbia Podcast, Alisa Krasnostein, Alex Pierce, and Tansy Rayner Roberts (presenters) and Andrew Finch (producer)
SF Signal Podcast, John DeNardo and JP Frantz, produced by Patrick Hester
SF Squeecast, Lynne M. Thomas, Seanan McGuire, Paul Cornell, Elizabeth Bear, and Catherynne M. Valente
StarShipSofa, Tony C. Smith
I'm still not sure what to think of this category. It seems to me all of these would also be eligible under related work and in SF Signal's case (at least), under Best Fanzine. I have a hard time thinking Podcasts deserve their own category and blogs don't. I believe this is just a one year award and may or may not be on the ballot next year. I'll be interested to see how that turns out. From a "did the nominators get it right" stand point, I think they did (mostly). I would have liked to have seen Speculate! or The Functional Nerds also make the list, but these are good choices too. I'll be voting for SF Signal.
Best Professional Editor — Long Form (358 ballots)
Lou Anders
Liz Gorinsky
Anne Lesley Groell
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Betsy Wollheim
[rant] No Jeremy Lassen, no care. These five are all great editors, but no one had the kind of year Lassen did. He created the New Voices Program at Night Shade Books and brought us first novels from Kameron Hurley, Teresa Frohock, Stina Leicht, Bradley Beaulieu, Courtney Schaefer, Mazarkis Williams,  Michael Dempsey, Will McIntosh, Rob Ziegler, Katy Stauber, among several others. If this is an award for best copy editing, or best story editing, maybe Lassen doesn't deserve to be on it (none of us know though, right? It's not like we read the original manuscripts). But, if it has ANYTHING to do with editorial direction, not having him on the list is a fucking tragedy. [/rant]
Best Professional Editor — Short Form (512 ballots)
John Joseph Adams
Neil Clarke
Stanley Schmidt
Jonathan Strahan
Sheila Williams
No comment. I don't read enough short fiction to have any serious ideas about this other than "people whose anthologies I dug."
Best Professional Artist (399 ballots)
Dan dos Santos
Bob Eggleton
Michael Komarck
Stephan Martiniere
John Picacio
Very surprised not to see two names here: Raymond Swanland and Kekai Kotaki. I think they did the best work this year in terms of covers. It's probably Picacio's award to lose given his A Song of Ice and Fire calendar that has garnered a tremendous amount of (deserved) praise.
Best Fan Artist (216 ballots)
Brad W. Foster
Randall Munroe
Spring Schoenhuth
Maurine Starkey
Steve Stiles
Taral Wayne
Who? No idea who any of these people are. Not surprisingly it's by far the least "voted on" category with only 216 ballots submitted. I just don't really know where to even find Fan Art, much less who all the artists of this art are. Again, my own failing. I'm looking forward to the voter packet so I can get a feel for these folks.
Best Fan Writer (360 ballots)
James Bacon
Claire Brialey
Christopher J Garcia
Jim C. Hines
Steven H Silver
Well, here are they are again. Bacon and Garcia, who also co-edit another Zine with Brialey. Silver has been nominated ten times for this award. I'm bummed no non-professional writer blogger was nominated, but these things happen. From what I've read of them, everyone on this list is a good writer, but I don't read Zines, nor do they hold much interest to me based on the ones I've previewed. Look back over the last five years of this category (and FanZine). The same names keep popping up, over, and over, and over, and over again. That's a problem. One that would urge me to eliminate several categories from consideration at all.

My vote will go to Hines whose blog is consistently funny, interesting, and timely.
John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (396 ballots)
Mur Lafferty
Stina Leicht
Karen Lord *
Brad R. Torgersen *
E. Lily Yu
*2nd year of eligibility 
NOT A HUGO! My first thought on this list are that only two eligible novels have been published by authors on it -- one each for Leicht and Lord. Lafferty will have a novel out in 2013, well past her continued Campbell eligibility (and Torgersen has one in the works). I know this award is for short fiction as well as novels, but Yu and Laffery have only one story each that qualifies under the award. Torgersen at least has several, now in his second year of eligibility. The take away from this list is that several thousand words are enough to make you the Best New Writer of 2011. I feel like the floor should be a little higher. At least in Torgersen and Yu's cases, their stories are also nominated for Best Novella and Novelette respectively, giving some hope that despite the scarcity of their work, what they've had published is of exceptional quality.

Unfortunately, this is going to sound like an attack on Lafferty, which I wanted to avoid because her nomination certainly isn't her fault. But, I feel like her reputation as a tremendous advocate for genre fiction and one of the friendliest people in the business has given her a leg up on the competition. I'm sure her story is very good, and she's got quite a bit of non-eligible work out there, but calling her one of the five Best New Writers seems premature. Meanwhile, award winning author Robert Jackson Bennett is passed over for a second time (a nearly Jeremy Lassen level tragedy), and T.C. McCarthy and Teresa Frohock, two of my favorite 2011 debuts, are also sitting on the sidelines unrecognized.

This seems a pretty poor year for the Campbell with some this year's best novel debuts either not eligible (Kameron Hurley, Doug Hulick, Bradley Beaulieu) or outright evasive about eligibility (Mark Lawrence). Maybe that's all this is, but I can't help but look at the 396 ballots (and how many didn't have a full slate?) cast here and wonder if this isn't another example of the inside baseball mentality of the Hugo voters at work once again.


All of this leads me wonder, is the Hugo format broken? Is providing a barrier to entry ($50 membership fee) a sensible way to nominate work? Or should it be done by panel (Clarke) or a popular vote that doesn't have a barrier to entry (Gemmell)? I'm perfectly fine with having only "Hugo Voters" vote on the ultimate winner, but in allowing them to pick the short lists as well gives an incredible amount of power to the convention conclave. And for those who say there are plenty of Awards out there that do it differently, the Hugo carries more weight than any of them, at least here in the U.S. It's the one genre award that people have heard of. It sell books. The winner should not be a popularity contest.

The truth is, the Hugo doesn't really represent me. I'm not one of the old curmudgeons that make up the majority of its voting pool. I can't help myself though. I care because I want to see good work recognized. I want to see new blood recognized. Without that, what do we have? The same old shit year after year. That's not good enough and we should insist on better.

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