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All over the multiverse the Magids, powerful magicians, are at work to maintain the balance between positive and negative magic, for the good of all.
Rupert Venables is the junior Magid assigned to Earth and to the troublesome planets of the Koyrfonic Empire. When the Emperor dies without a known heir, Rupert is called into service to help prevent the descent of the Empire into chaos. At the same time, the senior Magid on Earth dies, making Rupert a new senior desperately in need of a junior. Rupert thinks his problems are partially solved when he discovers he can meet all five of the potential Magids on Earth by attending one SF convention in England. However, the convention hotel sits on a node, a nexus of the universes. Rupert soon finds that other forces, some of them completely out of control, are there too….
Deep Secret is, perhaps, a book that this is not the most auspicious time to rerelease; in the midst of serial dramas in fandom, a novel that is very much about fandom is a risky choice. On the other hand in the wake of the first UK WorldCon in nearly a decade, a novel that has an awful lot of its action take place at a UK convention (modelled closely on EasterCon) is perhaps not all that bad a choice after all…
Jones’ novel is nearly two decades old now, written in the dying years of the Major government, when fanzines were still largely paper affairs and the modern idea of social media not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye. Deep Secret is, in some ways, dated by that; its description of convention running, and how that functions, is surprisingly accurate to Satellite4, though, right down to the rather confusing (although thankfully not ratty-looking) schedule. Indeed, the portrayal of gophers, of casual and well meaning chaos, of unexpected feuds appearing mid-con all seems to line up with my own limited convention experience. But this isn’t really the core of the novel; more an aside before we delve into Deep Secret‘s own secrets.
The plot of Deep Secret is a slightly messy one. Rupert is assigned to oversee the transition of power – and, theoretically, downfall – of an inter-universal empire where magic is accepted much more readily than on Earth, whilst also, on Earth itself, searching for the replacement for his now-deceased mentor. Inevitably, the two jobs have a lot more interaction and entanglement than expected, and complications ensue. Some of these complications and really well written and, indeed, are foreshadowed interestingly or make sense of earlier elements of the book in hindsight; the way Jones conveys the intention of the Magids to allow the empire to flounder, for instance, is there right from the start with Rupert. However, Deep Secret also uses fate as a deus ex machina an awful lot at the end of the novel; indeed, the resolution is almost literally a god from the machine, played in such a blunt way as to bring the reader – up to that point greatly enjoying the tension and invested in the way Jones builds it – to a screeching halt in the face of “Suddenly, resolution!”
On the other hand Deep Secret‘s romance plot works much better than the main plot, even while ticking off any number of the stereotypes of the romance, especially the one of disdain becoming attraction. Mind you, a romance plot of reliant on strong character-work, and it is here that Jones delivers in spades; Deep Secret has a wonderful, and incredibly human, cast. From the increasingly shaky arrogance and self-assurance of Rupert, and his relationship with the ghostly and down-to-Earth Stan, to the student Malee Mallory with her heartbreak and stereotypical teenage self-absorption (a little odd in a 20-year-old, granted), each member of the core cast has a unique voice and brings something different and individual to the ensemble; and the supporting cast do the same, with their different relationships to the various protagonists and their simpler but still unique styles.
Deep Secret is a fantastic novel of character, and a wonderful portrayal and send up of fandom; it is simply a shame that Jones’ plot relies so heavily on deus ex machina to solve its problems at the close of the novel.
DoI: Review based on an ARC requested from the publisher, Tor Books. The new, paperback edition of Deep Secret will be released 16th December.
LonCon3 ended on Monday, after five glorious, busy, action-packed, panel-filled, people-meeting, face-learning, discussion-having days of just geeking out as one more fan among many… but of course, it wasn’t all perfect, and you’d presumably like a little more detail than that!
The con actually, for me, got off to a fairly bad start; between trains here being cancelled or hugely delayed and a broken suitcase, Zoe and I barely made it to the Ritz in time to meet the wonderful Alisa Krasnostein, Julia Rios, Tansy Rayner Roberts, and Jenny, Alisa’s mother-in-law, for tea – but we did just about manage it, and am very glad we did; not only were the grown ups wonderful, Alisa’s 9-month-old joined us, and Alisa let me hold and play with her! Discussion freewheeled around all sorts of things, and I got to pick up my copy of Kaleidoscope, with a number of signed stories, directly from the editors, which was pretty damn awesome. After tea it was off to the hotel to unpack, sort ourselves out and crash before registration; which, by the time we got there at around half five, was down to a fine art unless they lost one’s badge. Which they did mine, before providing me with a sharpie to edit my badge-name.
After all that chaos, it was finally time to head to my first panel of the weekend… Universal Language: Good or Bad? With a panel largely made up of people for whom English was not their first language, this was an especially interesting discussion, touching on the problems of a lingua franca, the way cultural imperialism elides indigineous languages, the assumptions that anyone creating a conlang brings with them from their own cultural background, and a fascinating discussion on language as a marker of power. The ranges of experiences and expertises brought to bear on the questions raised by the panel made it a more interesting discussion than could have been the case, reminding attendees of the power of a WorldCon to draw on a wide variety of cultural backgrounds amongst its participants and panellists.
A few hours later, and in stark contrast, that greatest and most ridiculous of all panel games was played; I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, also known as the antidote to panel games. Lee Harris presided over an hour of well-ordered anarchic fun, including an appearance of the excrable Scottish accents of Emma Newman and Paul Cornell as Hamish and Dougall and some amazing singing from the three female players of the game, especially impressive from Seanan McGuire who was unfortunately really rather ill. In contrast to Only A Moment at Nineworlds, all the panellists seemed to be very much up for the game and having a huge amount of fun with it, as well as being properly pre-prepared, an absolute necessity for something like this.
After a good night’s sleep, then, it was back into the fray not for panels, but for signings, the Fan Village and the Dealer’s Room; indeed, until three, I didn’t attend a single panel. The Dealer’s Room was a thing to behold, with an amazing array of exhibits including a display of whisky bottles in honour of Iain M. Banks and a semi-recreation of John Clute’s study; but the dealer’s room, with publishers from Gollancz to Tachyon, from Twelth Planet to Titan, and smaller still, in attendance and selling books; academic presses like Liverpool University Press attended, with an amazing array of non-book-selling stalls too; and the art was truly amazing. Despite a couple of artists who rather missed the mark – Chris Foss’ T&A obsession, Anne Sudworth’s self-conciously twee-goth work – there was also some truly beautiful art on display; John Harris’ Ancillary Justice triptych, an appropriate tribute to a now-Hugo-winning novel, chief among them.
But of course, I was mostly at LonCon for the panels. My first of the day, The Politics and Economics of Cover Art, was fantastic; Justin Landon’s barely-concealed disgust at the hooded man, Irene Gallo’s counterpoint of practicality combined with her joy at the free range offered by Tor.com, and especially Sarah Anne Langton’s personal experience as both a graphic designer and Forbidden Planet employee, combined to give a fascinating array of views on the book-cover industry. The discussion skimmed over the issues of whitewashing, but did have an interesting discussion of the ways covers are gendered and the folly of that (as Justin noted, women are over half the book-buying population), which was good to see.
From there, I went to the packed ‘Imagining Fantasy Lands’ panel, which jumped off the back of Kate Elliot’s blog post on the topic. The panel was a brilliant exploration of how that status quo works in worldbuilding, and the ways in which it erases people, places, issues; indeed, the topic of history-versus-histories was, and not for the first time, discussed on the panel in some detail. Unfortunately the moderator, Mary Anne Mohanraj, inserted herself strongly into the discussion and didn’t spend enough time bringing some other panellists out to speak more; but Tobias Buckell’s brilliant points about race and racial perception – as a mixed-race Caribbean who is often perceived as white – were fascinating in the light they cast on the failures of popular racial narratives and their flexibility in different places.
Continuing the political-economic theme of the evening, I attended a panel entitled ‘Liveship Trading’, mainly to hear Max Gladstone and Juliet E McKenna on the topic. The wide-ranging discussion of different economics systems that have historically been used, from barter-economies through fiat currencies to discussion of the idea of gold as carrying value and conspicuous consumption. Unfortunately, the discussion of gift economies was abortive and rather unsuccessful; it failed to engage with the historical idea and practice of gift economies, as opposed to economies where gifts were seen as signs of wealth. However, the discussions of the failings of capitalism – especially from Juliet McKenna and the way economics works as a kind of magic – and fiat currency as a shared illusion, and Max Gladstone’s reworking of that as soul-as-currency – were absolutely fascinating and brilliantly held, well-worth attending. Unfortunately, the questions section of the session rapidly became a discussion between panellists and members of the audience, who did not have any amplification; as someone sitting at the back and with minor hearing difficulties, this was incredibly frustrating as an end to an otherwise great panel.
I slipped out early, and went to find Kate Elliot, with whom Zoe and I had arranged to have dinner. Lovely on the internet, she is at least as lovely in person; talking to her about life, conventioning, and so on was an absolutely lovely experience, and demonstrated once again that not only are authors people too, but that many authors are the best among people. Kate was patient and thoughtful, and unfailingly polite; a really wonderful experience, added to by the wonderful opening of the poem she handed to me, the start of the Beatriciad, whose conclusion I am patiently and joyfully anticipating!
Like any con, LonCon for me seriously hit its stride on the weekend. Saturday morning started at ten, and panels ran until nine with a break of only two hours in the middle; and that’s before we include the barcon of the blogging community at which I finally met the wonderful Book Smugglers in person, who are perhaps the most glamorous members of the reviewing community out there. I also fitted in a beer with Catherynne M. Valente – not a private beer, unfortunately, but a Literary Beer; ten or so people sat around a table talking to Cat about her work, her travels, future projects and inspirations, and more. It was a wonderful experience, although not with the same kind of informality as dinner with Kate had been; a really nice idea.
As far as panels went, I started the day with a panel on The Politics of Utopia, a fantastic panel looking at how white and male, and indeed American, fantastical utopias often are, and the troubling colonialist implications they tend to have; with a diverse panel those issues were reasonably well explored, as well as the idea of who decides what a utopia looks like and the problems of distribution of power in a utopia – Maureen Kincaid Speller noted that she was unwilling to be sidelined politically in order to live in a utopia, and yet that is a trope common to them.
Imaginative Resistance was a very different panel; a less diverse panel but with Sarita Robinson attending as an academic psychologist at UCLan, Jeff Vandermeer’s moderation ensured an interesting discussion which dug down into some of the more interesting issues around our suspension of disbelief. The discussion of where we draw the lines, politically – what we find ourselves unable to read or write, the way we deal with historically different settings and ideas – was beautifully covered, and although the panel didn’t discuss what I was hoping to hear about, the nonpolitical points where we lose our belief in a story, what it did look at and analyse was fascinating.
More pertinently for this blog, ‘The Review Is Political’ was a discussion which I intend to take forward and incorporate into my blogging. What we review, how we critique the politics of what we review, the kind of things we focus on in our reviews – all these things matter, and are political decisions. The panellists noted the extent to which we tend towards the default, the extent to which we don’t notice when someone’s politics are the status quo and therefore don’t challenge that in their work. There was also discussion of the role of review; inevitably, the choice of who one is talking to, what one is trying to do with reviews, and what one is trying to say, are all political decisions, and one I will be trying to take a lot more care to think about in future.
The evening’s panels were similarly brilliant. ‘Full-Spectrum Fantasy’ demonstrated Mary Robinette Kowal’s unique approach to moderation, starting with audience questions to focus the panel on before starting the discussion; in an hour-long panel which already had a reasonably precise description this was perhaps a mistake, but the panel itself, which focussed on the way disability is (mis)represented in fantastic literature, was brilliant. The discussion touched on, among other things, the failed representations of depression which are not only rare but also very poor; the narrative of the cure, including a lot of discussion about agency, cure-as-desirable, and the forced-normativity of many stories, which undermine their positives by truly wrecking their treatment of disability. More treatment of class would have been appreciated, although it was covered somewhat especially in the context of different class systems in different countries, though!
From there I ran to ‘Imagining the City’, an hour long self-advertisement panel from Kathleen Ann Goonan. While the rest of the panel, the moderator included, engaged in an interesting discussion about cities, the writing of cities, the individuality of cities, and even the idea of “city”, drawing on their own works and those of others (Simon Spanton brought up Jan Morris’ Hav) to discuss the different ways cities work in fantasy and the different reasons for them. Discussion of things like Trantor, the technological upper-limit on city population, Scott Lynch’s focus on cities in his fiction, and the benefits and risks in drawing on real cities to create one’s fantastical urban environments; had Goonan engaged more with the panel and less with self-advertising this would have been a brilliant hour.
The last of my Saturday panels suffered a slightly different problem; ‘Chivalrous Critics of Fannish Dimensions’ could have benefited from a moderator more directly interested in the topic and also more interested in letting the panellists run their mouths off a bit, rather than the impressively disciplined Myke Cole. In some panels his moderating style would have been massively appreciated, keeping panellists and audience in line as he did; but here, it kept the discussion a bit too locked down. While discussion of the role of critic, the purpose and target of reviews, and of course, Liz Bourke’s wonderful review of Theft of Swords was interesting, as was the discussion of epic fantasy, one got the feeling the audience and panellists were waiting for the formality imposed by Cole to drop so they could simply have a good time.
Sunday was lighter, in part because of the truncated evening; but began well, with ‘Seeing the Future, Knowing the Past’ suffering from Karen Miller’s determination to justify her own use of prophecy but also including the impressive, intelligent, well-sourced and well-informed rants from Kari Sperring and Liz Bourke on the historical nature and role of prophecy. Each brought their considerable expertise to bear, both from the point of view of fantasy readers and of academic historians; they tore apart the stereotypical and dull use of the trope of prophecy, completely shredding the way fantasists use it as a lazy approach to storytelling. It was a real sight to see, and one not to have been missed!
‘A Queerer War’ followed, which also seemed to be a bit of an unbalanced panel; Tanya Huff threw herself on every question-grenade happily and enthusiastically, while S. J. Groenewegen tended towards being quite a quiet panellist who considered what she wanted to say before saying it. Ann Leckie put in a decent performance but, with her lack of military experience, was a little sidelined and seemed happy to be so, although she contributed some excellent things to the more literary side of the discussion; while Huff and Groenewegen talked about the decriminalisation, across various armed forces, of homosexuality amongst serving members and the closet queers preceeding that. Despite some utterly foolish questions and a not entirely on-the-ball moderator in the form of Duncan Lawie, productive discussion was had by most.
The Kameron Hurley-inspired panel ‘We Have Always Fought’ followed a rather different path, almost totally diverging from historical female warriors and also from the fantastic; it was, instead, something of a Feminism 101 panel in some ways. Jeanne Gomoll didn’t appear to have prepared for the panel and was incredibly flustered – perhaps understandably – and the rest of the panel seemed only a little more prepared, talking more about women’s achievements in the last century than before that, and really failing to talk about the issues of erasure of women from earlier history, let alone how we can and indeed are reassessing things to ensure we recognise the role of women.
After that, I wanted to do something relaxing before the Hugo Awards, so attended Elizabeth Bear’s reading. In honour of the Hugos that night, she read her Hugo-winning work ‘Shoggoths in Bloom’, or at least the first half of it – which mentions the Retro-Hugo-winning War of the Worlds audiodrama. It was a good session, and Bear, unsurprisingly, has a real knack for reading her own work; a couple of ad libs thrown in and the emphases she put on different parts of the story were fantastic, really aiding in the effects of a by-turns amusing and dark story. Unfortunately you can’t find her reading it online, but another reader did so for Starship Sofa, and I strongly recommend listening to the story!
I’ll pass over the awards themselves in favour of a little discussion of the ceremony at the Hugos. First, the drama of the ceremony’s opening was very well handled; beefeaters guarding a fantastic display stand that opened into a frame for the beautiful array of Hugo statues, a veritable wedding cake of awards. Unfortunately, all the glamorous assitants who assisted the presenters and award-winners with the ceremony were pretty women in sparkly dresses; given Geoff Ryman’s sparkly tiara, it would have been nice to see either a man in a sparkly suit or a dark tuxedo taking that traditionally-feminine role too. I’ll talk more about the winners themselves tomorrow, though…
Monday, of course, was the day everything wound up. I attended just one panel, ‘Space Colonies’; while Tony Keen moderated and avoided inserting himself into the discussion too much, four Americans discussing how space would become a libertarian paradise so long as it looked like a white American small-town, or a survivalist colony, was terrifying. The number of unchallenged assumptions, thoughtless political conservatism, and the amount of closet-racism and classism was seriously shocking, as was the disablism directed at the non-neurotypical; psychopath and sociopath became interchangeable with violent murderer, and children of the educated middle classes were assumed to be strong, intelligent people while the children of the working class were assumed to be less worthy disaffected idiots, and the only place from where criminals came. A poor note to end the LonCon panels!
That wasn’t the end of my WorldCon though; there were two more social engagements. First, tea with a group of critics and fans – Liz Bourke, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Paul Kincaid and Maureen Kincaid Speller, and more. It was a great discussion about the con, about books both good and bad, about future cons, and more; an excellent experience and a great meeting with people I’ve conversed with for a while on the internet but never actually met in person before. The evening was taken up with a meal with Tansy Rayner Roberts, Jenny, Alisa Krasnostein, and her baby; the talk was not, inevitably, of the most deep kind, as much of it was a sort of gentle blathering about post-con plans, future works, some con experiences, and of course, I got to play with the baby again, giving a nice kind of symmetry to the whole weekend. A very good experience, all told!
Nineworlds is, this year, one of the most major convenions in the UK, what with taking place a week before WorldCon in London, and therefore sharing a reasonable proportion of guests and attendees. It’s also a very special convention, especially in a year where the venerable feminist science fiction convention WisCon is being rocked by serious problems around harassment and how to deal with it: Nineworlds is an actively inclusive, progressive, social-justice-oriented convention. With (separate) tracks on Geek Feminism, Race & Culture, and LBGTQAI Fandom on top of the more traditional tracks like All The Books, Doctor Who, Podcasting, Fanfic, Cosplay, Knitting, and Food Geekery (that’s not an exhaustive list of all the tracks on offer), Nineworlds isn’t just a matter of having something for everyone, it’s also looking to have something to *welcome* everyone.
So, my Nineworlds experience.
I went into Nineworlds with a plan for the panels I wanted to see, largely more than one at any one time; my plan didn’t survive contact with the convention, of course, but there was a lot of spontaneous socialisation, which helped! Panels started at 9am on Friday, and I was in one by quarter past after registration; “Archaeological Exploration of Fantasy Worlds”, a fascinating topic, led by H Grünefeld. Unfortunately, Grünefeld’s talk was less about the idea of how archaeology can help us approach fantasy worlds generally, or how the techniques of archaeology can be applied in our reading and writing for a deeper understanding of these worlds, and more about the ideal dig in a series of fantasy worlds including Middle Earth and Westeros; while moderately interesting, I had hoped for a more analytical approach. The Geek Feminism track’s “Geek Culture Needs Feminism Because…” open session was rather glorious; the modified slogan was, of course, on a number of whiteboards for completion and photographing. It was also here that I first ran into Laurie Penny, whose feminist writing I am rather a fan of; I got to shake the (truly diminutive) intellectual powerhouse by the hand. “Suffering Sappho: Queer representations in superhero comics” followed; while an interesting discussion in some respects, and which undoubtedly came out with some great recommendations and fascinating thoughts about why queerness is more commonly found in villains than heroes, the panel largely wandered far and wide without any real moderation or serious engagement with the topic; instead fanfic ideas were more heavily featured than any discussion of existing queer characters and their presentation (for instance, Batwoman or Young Avengers). The “Superheroes and Superhuman: exploding the myth of the superwhathaveyou” panel, featuring among others Stephanie Saulter and Nick Harkaway, was one of the best discursive panels of the weekend; the panellists moved from discussing comic book heroes to the idea of normality, through posthumanism, discussion of what makes a hero (and indeed what makes one super), and the impact of the absolutely out of the ordinary on the everyday. The discussion was brilliantly moderated by Jenni Hill, and it moved from point to point with such a level of intellectual debate and fascinating ideas that it was a real highlight of the con. The evening’s entertainment, by contrast, was less so; “Only A Moment” (or “Just A Minute But The BBC Says We Can’t Call It That”) only works when the participants are all confident, know what they’re doing, and are very up for the silliness of the game. As it was, while Laurie Penny got into the swing of it over the course of the session, the rest of the panelists really didn’t seem terribly up for it, unfortunately. On the other hand, seeing the Bear-and-Lynch show in the bar afterwards was fantastic, the first of a number of times that weekend; both are warm, friendly, funny and interesting people, and excellent conversationalists, with Lynch’s particular strength being his raconteurship.
Speaking of which… but before we get to that, the first panel of Saturday, on “Rule 63: Gender and subversion in history, popular culture and fandom”. Moderated by Alex Dally MacFarlane, who of course has interesting thoughts related to this subject for Tor.com, the discussion felt a little stilted but still interesting, largely looking at the way the idea of Rule 63 reinforces the binary in ugly ways and how that could be fought back against, including the raising of a reworded version replacing “opposite gender” with “different gender”. There was also fascinating discussion of how Rule 63 allows fans to explore gender experiences outside their own that otherwise they might be unable to experience; that tied in brilliantly with personal anecdotes from the panellists themselves. The panel that followed rather threw it into the shade and was the most purely entertaining part of the weekend; “Dragons vs Werewolves vs Vampires vs Warlocks: the ultimate deathmatch smackdown”, with Elizabeth Bear representing dragons, Gail Carriger representing werewolves, Joanne Harris representing vampires, and the effusive Scott Lynch representing (or possibly being one of?) warlocks. In this panel we learned that dragons are the baddest motherfuckers in the valley, werewolves are great if you’re into kinky sex or beastiality, vampires are responsible for all culture ever including the Kardashians, and that warlocks will claim responsibility for everything ever. The panellists were brilliant, and really played off each other, in the most wonderful ways; the joyfulness of the panel really permeated the room brilliantly. After a break from formal conventioning for a few hours, I followed it up with the most impassioned of the panels I attended, “Monsterclass: Post-Colonialism”, led by Fabio Fernandes. The small room when I first arrived was sparsely populated, leading to a little worry on my part; but by the time we started, it was packed to the point of people sitting on the floor, and Geoff Ryman reclining on a sideboard and half-concealed by the whiteboard. Fernandes opened with a brief-ish introduction to the issues, before we had an excellent discussion around the idea of “post-colonial literature”, and the problems with it; Tade Thomson and Rochita Ruiz were particularly fascinating on this point, and Stephanie Saulter’s thoughts about the problems of the monolithic nature of the term given widely varying experiences of colonialism were brilliant. The whole panel made me think in a new, better way about literature from the global South and how we should understand it. Inevitably we then decamped again to the bar, where I continued the discussion with Rochita and Anne Lyle; the beauty of cons is of course that this is possible, and the passionate discussion that ensued (I’m afraid I may have spoken rather too much) was notable for its nuances, especially going on as it did until nearly midnight.
Sunday opened with that most enjoyable of topics… rape. Specifically, a panel titled “Assaulting the Narrative: rape as character motivation”, with panellists who had either written or written about rape; Sophia McDougall, for instance, stated she thought she was there because of her Rape of James Bond post. Mind you, that didn’t mean she had nothing to say, if anything the opposite; McDougall and Cara Ellison, a games writer, dominated much of the discussion which was fantastic, infused with feminism and brilliantly sensitive on the topic. Den Patrick and Tom Pollock, the other participants, also pulled their weight; they let the women speak, but also had points of their own to make, largely about sensitivity and necessity; both acknowledged their limitations in writing about rape, derived in no small part – as McDougall highlighted – from their lack of fear of it. The pace of discussion was brilliant and the thoughts exchanged really give me hope for the death of rape as thoughtless, easy character trope. There was a degree of crossover in the discussion of historical figures in my next panel, too; “Writing Historical Fiction and Fanfic: Is RPF okay when the person is dead?” discussed sensitivity to the individual, to those related to them, but also more broadly to cultural harm. Aliette de Bodard’s raising of the issue of the harm that RPF, historical fiction and similar things can do to other cultures, especially those not largely represented in the mainstream narratives, was powerfully expressed and heartily picked up by the rest of the panel. It was a good, nuanced, thoughtful discussion, and the different media and genre the panellists represented really brought an extra something to the panel. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of “X-Punk: punk as suffix, genre and state of mind”, whose panellists were perhaps rather too inexpert on cyberpunk and steampunk, either in their origins or their current forms, to really discuss anything but the broad-stroke categorisations and the theoretical ideas they held of these. The discussion was rather quotidian, unfortunately, and more about trying to understand what the suffix “punk” does without really looking at how it is used. The last panel of the day provided a good contrast; as a fantasy reader, “Epic Fantasy: the panel of prophecy!” was always appealling, and with Bear, Lynch and Gaie Sebold among the panellists, it also promised significant amusement. And so it delivered; Den Patrick’s moderation, focused heavily on discussion of the tropes of epic fantasy and how the panellists engaged with and used them, meant that the panellists built up an idea of the ur-form of bad epic fantasy, and demolished it utterly. The discussion of tropes was brilliant, and their various dissections by especially Scott Lynch, who has a lot to say on the topic, were hilarious.
And that was my weekend; exhilerating, enjoyable, educational, friendly, and bloody brilliant. Bring on Nineworlds 2015!!!
By now, we’ve all had a chance to see what the ballot for this year’s Hugo Awards looks like; if not, you can find them here. I was in the room as they were announced by the committee, so please bear that personal presence in mind as you read this post; also note that a discussion about the Hugo Awards and what they say about fandom with Stephanie Saulter, author of Gemsigns and a woman of colour, will feed into discussion in this post.
This looks like a ballot of two halves. Some sections strongly reflect one part of fandom, while others are more mixed. Before we go any further I’d like, with four individual exceptions, to congratulate every nominee on that ballot; especially Ann Leckie, who I am a big partisan of and was more than honoured to be the avatar of at the BSFAs on Sunday when she won best novel, and Liz Bourke, who is both a friend and someone whose writing I hugely admire, among others. Those exceptions are Brad Torgersen, Toni Weisskopf, Larry Correia and – most especially – the truly loathsome specimen Vox Day, aka Theodore Beale.
Before we talk about the bad, let’s talk about the good. Of our five Fan Writer nominees, four are women, none have won before, and (at least) four are very outspoken on social justice issues including anti-racism, feminism, and gender and sexuality issues. I won’t claim I always agree with them or their politics, but I wouldn’t expect to; I respect them, the integrity of their positions and writing, and perhaps more significantly, I respect their willingness to stand up to the people on the other side of these issues, the truly toxic souls who don’t believe (for instance) that women can be science fiction writers, or who believe that left-wing politics are evil.
This combination of well-written work, integrity and good politics are also clear in some of our semiprozine and fanzine nominations; The Book Smugglers are a wonderful pair of writers and their blog, whilst sometimes truly infuriating (sorry, Thea and Ana!) and focussing largely on parts of the genre I’m not very engaged with, is still absolutely fantastic work and they’ve really been willing to stick their necks out on the issues over the past year; similarly Strange Horizons, Lightspeed and Beneath Ceaseless Skies all promote progressive fiction, progressive writers, and articles and pieces on progressive issues. They’re well put together and interesting sites I recommend to you all.
Best Related Work continues the theme of progressive, well-done projects being rewarded; Kameron Hurley’s We Have Always Fought essay is a slight entry on this section of the ballot, but it is undeniably a brilliantly researched and well-written historical argument about the genre and the marginalisation of female protagonists in it, and Queers Dig Time Lords, from the title onwards, highlights the role and existence of the similarly-marginalised queer community in its various permutations, especially in this strangely popular part of the fandom.
The final part of this ballot that I really want to celebrate is the Campbell awards; these are inherently awards for newcomers, but this year they are also an award for often-marginalised parts of our fandom. The ballot only has one white man, one white woman, two men of colour, and a woman of colour; all of these writers look at diversity and feature diverse cast, in fact often focusing on characters of colour, and look at larger progressive issues. This all demonstrates that the upwards trajectory of the genre is one that the next generation is going to consolidate.
There’s also the mediocre, unobjectionable work on the ballot. While I like some of Stross’ work, I’ve not managed to get through Neptune’s Brood (though it’ll be my next book now), and Mira Grant’s Parasite is an unobjectionable, fun read, very similar to the Newsflesh books; readable, but again, not the best of the year by any means. Across the rest of the novels on the ballot, only Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice strikes me as a really strong work pushing the genre forward and doing interesting, new things with space opera; especially as a debut novel, this is fantastic work. For the most part I’ve not read what’s on the rest of the fiction ballots, but it is here where the objectionable work is concentrated.
Splashed onto a fan ballot that is an absolutely beautiful example of some of the best and brightest the genre has, some of the most forward-thinking authors and commentators, are some truly toxic presences. First and foremost amongst these is the appalling Vox Day, real name Theodore Beale. VD has been published by, among others, WorldNetDaily, a fringe rightwing site, and has espoused the views that implies; he is an outspoken white supremacist, male supremacist, homophobe, transphobe and all-round bigot. That vile streak of hatred has been so violently, loudly and bluntly espoused by VD that the Science Fiction Writers of America expelled him, and his status as a tax exile from the United States is an interesting twist on his outspoken patriotism. He is well outside the genre mainstream, but he and the slate he promoted for the Hugos – Larry Correia, Brad Torgersen, Toni Weisskopf – received enough nominations to ensure that they made the ballot, self-admittedly in order to troll the rest of the fandom.
It’s become common on Twitter to decry those who accuse VD’s slate of ballot-stuffing. I’m just going to note how truly toxic these individuals are from the perspective of the rest of fandom, and that there was a 43% increase in nominations this year as compared to last year; while LonCon3 is one of the largest WorldCons ever, I don’t think that alone can account for this jump, especially with VD and his crowd out there actively campaigning for people to nominate a slate to troll the genre. The toxic underbelly of genre, that has cruelly attacked so much of fandom (and especially its already marginalised and vulnerable members), has managed to claim one of the highest profile parts of the genre for itself, and that cannot be overlooked.
On the other hand, Stephanie Saulter reminded me that she’d seen racism increasingly marginalised in her lifetime, and that sight had always been accompanied by the same thing fandom is seeing in VD (and among other writers). In her opinion, what we’re seeing here is the spasming rage of a dying breed of bigots. That the scale of those bigots has just been revealed only means we now know how many there are, though that’s an exact figure that will have to wait until after the award is announced and nomination figures are released.
I continue to think Saulter is, on this topic, overly optimistic, and that Scalzi’s advice that these people’s work should be treated on their merits are both wrong. The latter comes from a place of immense privilege; whilst VD has a longstanding feud with Scalzi, he remains a straight white middle class American male with a huge fanbase; that insulates him hugely from the damage and indeed fear that VD’s base can and has incited in others. The former has a lot more credibility with me; Saulter’s life experience and the changes she’s seen in her lifetime give her a historical insight into the present situation that honestly ought not to be overlooked. However, I think she’s wrong.
When 10% of SFWA want Theodore Beale as their president, when enough people are willing to pay the money to put Beale and his little cabal of racists onto the Hugo Award ballots, that’s not the dying gasps of racists. That’s the tip of the iceberg; fellow-travellers, those who don’t <em>quite</em> endorse how extreme he is but think he’s onto something, the UKIP members to VD’s BNP (to use a British political analogy) are all invisible to this harsh metric. I think (and I don’t know if Stephanie Saulter agrees) that this is something we need to actively, completely root out; our fandom cannot survive if it continues to nurture VD and his ilk, if it continues to provide him with a platform. The nice liberal-fandom bubble social media allows many of us to live in is not representative, or at a minimum not as representative as we would wish.
Let’s come clean, confront that fact… and throw these arseholes out.
NB: This isn’t the Hugo Awards Committee’s fault. Once VD &co got their nominations, there was nothing in the Hugo rules to allow them to exclude these bigots from the awards. That’s our fault as fandom. It’s our job, not the Committee’s, to no-platform and exclude those people, both by changing the rules (risky) and by getting more heavily involved rather than walking away. Things don’t get fixed when we leave them, they’re only allowed to decay more.