Excerpt from “The Chaplain’s Assistant”

Today’s excerpt is from my short story “The Chaplain’s Assistant.” This story first appeared in the September 2011 issue of Analog magazine, and is currently available in my collection of award-nominated and award-winning science fiction: Lights in the Deep. “The Chaplain’s Assistant” also forms the backbone (in concert with its sequel, the Hugo award nominated novella “The Chaplain’s Legacy”) for my forthcoming novel, The Chaplain’s War, from Baen Books.

• • •

I was putting fresh oil into clay lamps at the altar when the mantis glided into my foyer. The creature stopped for a moment, his antennae dancing in the air, sensing the few parishioners who sat on my roughly-hewn stone pews. I hadn’t seen a mantis in a long time—the aliens didn’t bother with humans much, now that we were shut safely behind their Wall. Like all the rest of his kind, this mantis’s lower thorax was submerged into the biomechanical “saddle” of his floating mobility disc. Only, this one’s disc didn’t appear to have any apertures for weapons—a true rarity on Purgatory.

Every human head in the building turned towards the visitor, each set of human eyes smoldering with a familiar, tired hate.

“I would speak to the Holy Man,” said the mantis through the speaker box on its disc. Its fearsome, segmented beak had not moved. The disc and all the machines within it were controlled directly by the alien’s brain.

When nobody got up to leave, the mantis began floating up my chapel’s central aisle, the mantis’s disc making a gentle humming sound. “Alone,” said the visitor, his vocoded voice approximating a commanding human tone.

Heads and eyes turned to me. I looked at the mantis, considered my options, then bowed to my flock, who reluctantly began to leave—each worshipper collecting handfuls of beads, crosses, stars, serviceman’s bibles, and various other religious items. They exited without saying a word. What else could they do? The mantes ruled Purgatory as surely as Lucifer ruled Hell.

I waited at the altar.

“You are the religious officer?” said the mantis.

“The Chaplain is dead. I am—was—his assistant.”

“We must speak, you and I.”

Again, I noted the mantis’s lack of armament.

“What can I do for you?” I said.

“I wish to understand this entity you call God.”

I stared at the alien, not quite sure if I should take him seriously.

“To understand God,” I said slowly, “is a skill that requires ongoing mastery.”

“Which is why the other humans come here, to this structure. To learn from you.”

I blushed slightly. In the year since I’d built the chapel—some two years after our failed invasion and subsequent capture—I’d not given so much as a single sermon. Preaching wasn’t my thing. I built the chapel because the Chaplain told me to before he died, and because it seemed obvious that many humans on Purgatory—men and women who had landed here, fought, been stranded and eventually imprisoned—needed it. With the fleets from Sol departed, and our homes many thousands of light-years away, there wasn’t much left for some of us to turn to—except Him.

“I don’t teach,” I said, measuring my words against the quiet fear in my heart, “but I do provide a space for those who come to listen.”
“You are being deliberately cryptic,” the mantis accused.

“I mean no offense,” I continued, hating the servile tinge in my own voice as I spoke to the beast, “it’s just that I was never trained as an instructor of worship. Like I said when you asked, I am only the assistant.”

“Then what do the humans here listen to, precisely?”

“The spirit,” I said.

The mantis’s beak yawned wide, its serrated tractor teeth vibrating with visible annoyance. I stared into that mouth of death—remembering how many troops had been slaughtered in jaws like those—and felt myself go cold. The Chaplain had often called the mantes soulless. At the time—before the landing—I’d thought he was speaking metaphorically. But looking at the monster in front of me I remembered the Chaplain’s declaration, and found it apt.

“Spirit,” said the mantis. “Twice before has my kind encountered this perplexing concept.”

“Oh?” I said.

“Two other sapients, one of them avian and the other amphibian.”

Other aliens . . . besides the mantes? “And what could they tell you about God?”

“Gods,” my visitor corrected me. “We destroyed both species before we could collect much data on their beliefs.”

“Destroyed,” I said, hoping the alien’s ears couldn’t detect the shaking dread in my voice.

“Yes. Hundreds of your years ago, during the Great Nest’s Third Expansion into the galaxy. We thought ourselves alone, then. We had no experience with alternative intelligence. The homeworld of the avians and the homeworld of the amphibians were pleasing to the Patriarchal Quorum, so those worlds were annexed, cleansed of competitive life forms, and have since become major population centers for my people.”

I took in this information as best as I could, unsure if any human ears had ever heard anything like it. I thought of the Military Intelligence guys—all dead—who would have given their years’ pay to gain the kind of information I had just gained, standing here in the drafty, ramshackle confines of my makeshift church.

I experienced a sudden leap of intuition.

“You’re not a soldier,” I said.

The mantis’s beak snapped shut.

“Certainly not.”

“What are you then, a scientist?”

The mantis seemed to contemplate this word—however it had translated for the alien’s mind—and he waved a spiked forelimb in my direction.

“The best human term is professor. I research and I teach.”

“I see,” I said, suddenly fascinated to be meeting the first mantis I’d ever seen who was not, explicitly, trained to kill. “So you’re here to research human religion.”

“Not just human religion,” said the mantis, hovering closer. “I want to know about this . . . this spirit that you speak of. Is it God?”

“I guess so, but also kind of not. The spirit is . . . what you feel inside you when you know God is paying attention.”

It was a clumsy explanation, one the Chaplain would have—no doubt—chastised me for. I’d never been much good at putting these kinds of concepts into words that helped me understand, much less helped other people understand too. And trying to explain God and the spirit to this insect felt a lot like explaining the beauty of orchestral music to a lawnmower.

The professor’s two serrated forelimbs stroked the front of his disc thoughtfully.

“What do the mantes believe?” I asked.

The professor’s forelimbs froze. “Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing?”

“We detect neither a spirit nor a God,” said the professor, who made a second jaw-gaped show of annoyance. “The avians and the amphibians, they each built palaces to their Gods. Whole continents and oceans mobilized in warfare, to determine which God was superior. Before we came and wiped them all out, down to the last chick and tadpole. Now, their flying Gods and their swimming Gods are recorded in the Quorum Archive, and I am left to wander here—to this desert of a planet—to quiz you, who are not even trained to give me the answers I seek.”

The professor’s body language showed that his annoyance verged on anger, and I felt myself pressing my calves and the backs of my thighs into the altar, ready for the lightning blow that would sever a carotid or split my stomach open. I’d seen so many die that way, their attackers reveling in the carnage. However technologically advanced the mantes were, they still retained a degree of predatory-hindbrain joy while engaged in combat.
Noticing my alarm, the professor floated backwards half a meter.

“Forgive me,” said the alien. “I came here today seeking answers from what I had hoped would be a somewhat reliable source. It is not your fault that the eldest of the Quorum destroy things before they can learn from them. My time with you is finite, and I am impatient to learn as much as possible before the end.”
“You have to leave . . . ?” I said, half-questioning.

The professor didn’t say anything for several seconds, letting the silence speak for him. My shoulders and back caved, if only a little.
“How many of the rest of us will die?” I asked, swallowing hard.

“All,” said the professor.

“All?” I said, at once sure of the answer, but still needing to ask again anyway.

“Yes, all,” said the professor. “When I got word that the Quorum had ordered this colony cleansed of competitive life forms—prior to the dispatching of the Fourth Expansion towards your other worlds—I knew that I had a very narrow window. I must study this faith that inhabits you humans. Before it is too late.”

“We’re no threat to you now,” I heard myself say with hollow shock, “all of us on Purgatory, we’ve all been disarmed and you’ve made it plain that we can’t hurt you. The Wall sees to that.”

“I will return tomorrow, to study your other visitors in their worship,” said the alien as his disc spun on its vertical axis, and he began to hover towards the exit.

“We’re not a threat—!”

But my shouting was for naught. The professor was gone.

• • •

You can read the rest of this story in the pages of:

Posted in Excerpts | 8 Comments

Unsafe at any speed

The very first time I ever saw the phrase “trigger warning” I immediately flashed back to White Phase in Basic Combat Training: keep your gawtdamned trigger finger out of the gawtdamned trigger well, crazies! That’s what the Drill Sergeants would yell at us if ever they saw us walking around Hollywood style — our index fingers curled ignorantly in places where our index fingers shouldn’t be curled. Because that’s not a gun, that’s a rifle, and carelessness with a rifle is Very Bad.

Come 2014, and people want us to issue trigger warnings for all kinds of things. What we see, what we hear, and what we read. Or rather, what we might hear or see or read, and how this might touch off all kinds of unfortunate psychological and emotional pyrotechnics. Because (apparently) everyone is a wounded warrior now. Even people who’ve never been in the military, nor experienced any appreciable adversity of any sort. We’re all half a step away from having an episode. So the world needs to be “safed” for us, lest we blunder into hearing or reading or seeing something from which our glass-fragile psyches might not recover.

And it’s not just happening in academia. It’s happening at science fiction conventions too. Guests and panelists being kicked out because of what they might say or they might do, and which will mortally wound the minds of the attendees. Safety’s the thing. All spaces must be kept safe from all hazards, both real and imagined. Our eyeball spaces. Our ear spaces. Our mind spaces. All safe, all the time.

I mean, seriously, come on people. Grownups don’t demand that the world be “safed” for them. Grownups don’t demand the creation of “safe spaces” wherein they won’t have to fear being exposed to uncomfortable ideas or words. Part of growing up means you learn to deal with the fact that the world was not manufactured exactly to your personal specs. It’s bumpy. And even sometimes (gasp) crude. And you just sort of have to shrug and say, “Oh well,” and go on about your business.

That’s what being an adult is.

Case in point. The generation that dropped on Normandy and assaulted the beaches of the Pacific didn’t demand that the world be safed. They were too busy getting torn up by bullets and grenades and cannon shells. Stuff that’ll do a bit more to a man than hurt his feelings.

The great fighters and builders and makers of civilization didn’t espouse this safety crap.

So what’s our freaking malfunction??

Perhaps if there had only been one or two instances of late, of this safety madness, I wouldn’t be so cranky about it. It would be an outlier. But after seeing people demand that Mark Twain be safed and college guest speakers getting booted from commencements and a British celebrity being kicked out of the World Science Fiction Convention, and now even fans are being kicked out or denied participation based purely on rumors that they’re going to “unsafe” the con . . . this is not how adults respond to the world. I am sorry, it’s just not.

Time for some tough love.

Never at any moment in history has anyone ever paraded through life without being rubbed wrong. Because the world is filled with a spectrum of ideas held by a spectrum of people, not all of which (nor all of whom) are going to agree with each other. Putting your big-boy or your big-girl pants on means going out into the world regardless of whether or not you think it’s safe, and seeing and hearing all that the world contains, and learning to filter that content (for yourself) so that you are in charge of how you feel and you are the master of your own psychological state. Not others. You.

Today I got back to Utah after spending two weeks doing what the Army calls Master Resilience Trainer training. Like virtually all sound psychological science of the last 20 years, MRT is designed to empower individuals to be their own best helpers, when dealing with adverse situations and the fallout that comes from living stressful, perhaps even dangerous lives. MRT is part of a comprehensive soldier fitness program being implemented to not only help soldiers with PTSD, but to also help people prepare themselves before they become victims of PTSD. It’s a bit like mental combatives: be ready to tackle your thoughts and your feelings hand-to-hand.

Guess what? Not once — during the entire MRT course — did anyone ever utter these words: do nothing to change yourself, because it’s always someone else’s fault.

When you make it the job of other people to protect your feelings for you, you are giving other people power that they should not be given. It’s never going to work. The moment you tell yourself that you will be hurt because the other person can’t or won’t stop hurting you — with words — you’ve put the other person in the driver’s seat. It doesn’t matter if (s)he is a truly despicable individual, or maybe just someone who is careless of the sensibilities of others, or (dare I say it?) maybe you personally just don’t have a thick skin. Once you’ve surrendered your control over your own thoughts and emotions, you’re a casualty waiting to happen. Life is going to run you down or run you over.

So, while all this safing may be well-intended, it’s ultimately fostering immaturity. Nerfing the universe doesn’t build solid adults. It builds adult children running around in oversized bodies. You can hang a thousand literary reflective belts on every potentially offensive book in the library, and all that’s going to do is immediately separate a) the actual adults who want to be exposed to new and different things, from the b) large children who insist that the intellectual landscape never disturb nor upset them in any way, shape, or form. Ditto for safing guests invited to speak at universities. Or people who go to science fiction conventions. You cannot nerf these arenas without destroying the intellectual vitality of same.

Psychological foam padding and ideological wet floor signs cannot protect you from the fact that you are the captain of your soul. Attempting to freight others with what you are responsible for, simply won’t work. All it’s going to do is retard your personal emotional and mental resilience. Because sooner or later all of us run into situations where reflective belts and wet floor signs get ripped away by the tornadoes of life. You can either own your reactions and your feelings, thereby owning your actions and destiny, or you can let the tornadoes of life own you.

Blaming the tornadoes of life for being the tornadoes of life, is foolish. Yet that seems to be the au cuorant thinking: we must wrap the tornadoes of life in caution tape so that they magically won’t touch us when they come roaring through. We will spray-paint all the Bad Words and Bad Thoughts with day-glo yellow traffic dye, lest some unwary traveler run afoul of them. Likewise we will banish all the Bad People — yellow day-glo road worker vests upon their chests — so that their dangerousness is broadcast to one and all. No more unsafes!

Sorry gang, but reality just does not work like this. No matter how much we want it to.

More to the point, insisting that reality must conform — that we will bend the world to suit our theory — is the proverbial road to hell. We’ll exchange actual ideas for the faux ideas of conformity. We’ll burn (in effigy) original thinkers at the ideological stakes, because they are “dangerous” to the status quo — and make us uncomfortable. A society ostensibly dedicated to free speech, will become obsessed with telling us what we cannot and must not say. We’re getting very close to that point already, with speech codes and other encroachments on the spirit of the First Amendment. It doesn’t matter what the law says, as much as it matters what society actually values.

Do we defend and uphold honest inquiry, and the freedom to think and speak as individuals with free minds?

Or do we “safe the space” — and put ourselves to bed for an interminable period of stifling ideological slumber?

Posted in Personal Thoughts, Tornadoes in Teacups | 18 Comments

New releases for 2014

I’m excited to announce (for the first time in the same space) my 2014 list of new releases: one new short fiction collection, my first novel, and my collaboration with none other than Larry Niven!

Racers of the Night will be my second short fiction collection from WordFire Press. As with my first WFP release, Lights in the Deep, the new collection will showcase some of my best and most recent short science fiction pieces. Including stories which have appeared previously in the pages of Analog magazine, Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Galaxy’s Edge magazine. Also included — by popular demand — will be two connected original novelettes in my Emancipated Worlds universe. You may remember that project from 2010? I’m getting it back on the road with these two stories: “The Ash Diggers” and “Seed of Liberty.” Both of which will be seeing print for the very first time in Racers of the Night.

The Chaplain’s War is my novel I built from the bones of two short stories which previously appeared in Analog magazine: “The Chaplain’s Assistant” and “The Chaplain’s Legacy.” Both stories also saw print in my first collection, Lights in the Deep, and “The Chaplain’s Legacy” not only won the Analog AnLab readers’ choice award, it was a 2014 Hugo award nominee for Best Novella. The Chaplain’s War is scheduled for an October 2014 release from Baen books, and is the story of a lonely prisoner of war (POW) marooned far behind enemy lines. A mere chaplain’s assistant, he despairs of ever seeing home again — and stumbles across something that may be the key to not only stopping the war, but stopping the wholesale extermination of mankind. Ostensibly military in flavor, The Chaplain’s War also dwells on the purpose and value of religion in a post-religious high-tech society. It’s also a tale of human/alien contact, wherein opposed minds come together to discover that both humanoid and insectoid have far more in common with each other than anyone ever suspected possible. Including the desire for redemption.

Red Tide is a three-way effort spearheaded by bestseller and Hugo award winner Larry Niven, with help from myself, and also Matthew Joseph Harrington. For those not familiar with Phoenix Pick, this imprint is an outgrowth of Arc Manor, and pairs up-and-coming science fiction and fantasy writers with established professionals. Larry is a personal hero of mine, and it was both an honor and a delight to work with him on this project, which revives one of his older universes focusing on a potentially revolutionary technology that might plausibly be just over the horizon. How this innovation changes society — the advantages, and especially the drawbacks — gets examined through the eyes of a newstaper: a man whose livelyhood depends on him being an eye witness to all the news that’s fit to record. Only, when events get bigger and meaner than our protagonist could ever imagine possible, he’s suddenly racing the clock to not only clear his name, but change the way America uses this new tool; lest future disasters strike.

Posted in Emancipated Worlds Saga, General Science Fiction & Fantasy, Now in print! | 18 Comments

Fear and loathing at the Awards Table 4

Following up from the last installment in this series, I wanted to talk about a few more things regarding the 2014 Hugo ballot.

But first, did you hear that the cast of Star Wars: Episode VII has been announced? A lot of old names, a lot of new ones, and some genuine surprises (Serkis! Sydow!) in the mix. I am therefore cautiously optimistic about the new movie and its chances with Star Wars fans. There are probably one billion of us at this point, give or take a hundred million. Some of us liked the prequels. Many of us (most of us?) felt the prequels were a letdown. Without launching into an unfair tirade against George Lucas, the magic (for me) simply wasn’t there. In fact, the magic was so not there I haven’t devoted any time to the prequels, beyond an initial screening, whereas I’ve seen the original three films (the middle chapters) hundreds of times each. Does JJA actually have the right touch — to restore the Star Wars franchise to its former place in the hearts of all of us who grew up on the middle chapters? I hope so!

Okay then. Back to the Hugos.

But, some of the stuff on the Hugo ballot is only there because a bunch of Larry Correia’s people blindly put it there!
Now that I can publicly talk about my story “The Chaplain’s Legacy” having won the Analog magazine Analytical Laboratory (AnLab) readers’ choice award for Best Novella, I want to point to the AnLab (and Analog readers) as an independent source of verifiability. See, Analog is the oldest and most widely circulated science fiction magazine in the English language. Its readers are both a social and political panoply. Not the kind of readers who pay a lot of attention to in-genre stunts or shenanigans. Yet they voted “The Chaplain’s Legacy” as their favorite, for its category. And at least some percentage of those readers also voted during the nomination period for the Hugo awards. So while it’s understandable that many plaintiffs will see Larry Correia’s suggested slate (and its uncanny replication on the Hugo ballot) as proof that the works in question didn’t earn a place on the Hugo ballot in an honest fashion, I think the AnLab is fairly bulletproof. In that it confirms that “The Chaplain’s Legacy” is not just good, it’s good by the standards of a shrewd and non-connected body of readers who vote explicitly for enjoyment, not name recognition, nor political affiliation, nor because of any kind of campaigning on the part of authors.

“The Chaplain’s Legacy” also forms (along with its partner, “The Chaplain’s Assistant”) the backbone to my forthcoming Baen Books novel The Chaplain’s War. When Toni Weisskopf at Baen decided to buy The Chaplain’s War in 2013 she didn’t know that one of the components of the novel would be an AnLab winner and a Hugo nominee. But she had seen some of the enthusiastic reader comments I’d been collecting since “The Chaplain’s Legacy” hit the streets this time last year. I felt strongly then (as I do now) that the entire project was representative of me operating on full thrusters; and I think both the AnLab win and the Hugo nomination are strong signs that I am right about that. Plus, it’s not even the first time I’ve been on either the AnLab list or the Hugo ballot. This is my second time winning the AnLab and my second go-round on the Hugos; the first time being 2012 (for Worldcon, when I was also a Nebula and Campbell award nominee) and the first AnLab came to me for my novelette “Outbound” which was my first ever Analog story, published in 2010.

But, the Hugos should be about art, and “fandom” gets to choose which kind of art it wants to see representing “fandom” to the world!
Art arguments are an eternal road to a destination that does not exist, because art arguments ultimately revolve around questions of taste. And as one of my mentors once told me rather sternly, taste cannot be wrong. Just because a given book or story isn’t to your (the reader’s) fancy, that doesn’t make it bad. It just means the book or story was not written to your taste. Which is perfectly understandable given the fact that no book or story can possibly be written to please all tastes, all eras, for all readers. I personally think I happen to suit the taste of the same readership that enjoys Orson Scott Card, Larry Niven, Robert A. Heinlein, and so forth. Generally, I am right about that. And this means my work won’t be to the taste of readers who prefer different authors — though I always invite any reader to at least give me a try, with my short fiction. A novel is an investment. But a short story or even a novelette is quick, and will generally give a prospective customer a decent idea about me and my work.

If “fandom” is as diverse as it prides itself on being, then I think it stands to reason that many different kinds of work and many different kinds of authors will be represented on the Hugo ballot, year in and year out. In point of fact both the Hard Magic and Wheel of Time readerships are a) very large and b) very loyal. Shouldn’t it be that they too get to have a voice in what’s chosen for the year’s supposed best works? Or do the Hugos only deserve to go to “literary” works which are not necessarily having impact on a consumer audience as much as they’re being advanced by academic circle(s) which believe they have a responsibility to advocate for what they believe is their standard of merit? My personal thought is that it’s readers (especially lay readers, not academic readers) who should count the most. But this is a personal bias on my part, since I am a lay reader who discovered authorial ambition in his teens, and worked his way up to pro-level craft.

But, popularity has nothing to do with what’s good! Good fiction is utterly unconnected to what people are buying! In fact, the more popular a thing is, the more likely that thing is to be bad!
Remember what I said, about how Star Wars has a billion fans? Once upon a time Star Wars was this little low-budget sci-fi picture from a little-known director/producer named George Lucas. The movie debuted at the tail end of the 1970s when “people pictures” were something of a rage at the box office, and outside of disaster movies (like the Airport franchise and The Towering Inferno) there wasn’t a lot of effort being put into spectacular filmmaking that was deliberatley science fictional in nature. Then comes Star Wars and an unexpected, monumental success is born. Three films over six years transformed the motion picture industry forever, and moved science fiction out of the proverbial parental basement and into the penthouse executive suite on Hollywood Blvd.

I think it’s safe to say that three generations of avid consumer support have verified that the original Star Wars films are good by most standards that count. Star Wars will therefore outlive its creator, just as Harry Potter will outlive its creator. There is something in these franchises that resonates (over and over again) with audiences. Whether those audiences enjoy the movies, the television spinoffs, the games, the tie-in books, the toys, or whatever. There is a lot of there there. And I think you could say the same about successful fiction juggernauts like the Wheel of Time. Past a certain saturation point, critical or academic acclaim isn’t necessary for a given story or book (or series) to be deemed timeless. And shouldn’t the Hugos be about recognizing the timeless (or potentially timeless?) as much as they are about recognizing literary and academic esteem? Can there not be room for both the literary and the commercial, from year to year? Why does the entry of a big thing onto the “small” Hugo ballot cause so much unhappiness for some people? I honestly don’t know.

What I do know is that I am proud to be sharing the Hugo ballot with my compatriots in the Utah SF/F scene, and I am proud to have delivered (for readers) a product that those readers find genuinely enjoyable. Worth their time. And worth their money.

Which lets me segue into a conclusion I’ve been hesitant to address directly, but which I think needs to be addressed — because clearly a lot of people are talking about it under their breath but not a lot of people are talking about it openly.

What is a Hugo award really good for? Bottom line?

Meaning: does having a Hugo win (or a Nebula win or a Campbell win, or nominations for same) make a substantial difference for you when you take your book manuscripts to the marketplace and attempt to interest an editor or an agent?

The answer is — so far as I’ve been able to discern, after asking this question around the industry — nope.

Oh, to be sure, any accolade which can boost PR will be welcome. But the difference between whether or not you get a good agent or a not-so-good agent, or a good contract or a not-so-good contract, won’t be decided by how many times you’ve been on the ballots or have taken home trophies. The most well-known awards in SF/F aren’t well known beyond the field. And even in the field, they’re not well known to most readers. These awards are therefore talismans of prestige among the “insider” group. And while it’s a gas to be nominated or even win, there are limits to how much good these awards can do for you when it comes time to do business, as a creative businessperson trying to make a living.

This reality came as a shock to me when I was still relatively new to the field. I’d always thought of the Hugos as being roughly equivalent to the Oscars, which do have significant punch in the motion picture industry. Alas, the venerable Hugo (and Nebula) cannot take a somewhat small book and make it into a big book, as the Oscars occasionally do for films. Nor will slapping the words HUGO WINNER (or NEBULA WINNER) on the cover of a book cause a significantly large number of prospective customers to pick up and buy the book; if they weren’t already going to buy it before.

Why is that?

Some have argued to me that writers tend to look at the Hugos all wrong — that the Hugos were never intended to be professional awards given out professionally the way the Oscars (and to a certain extent, the Emmies and the Grammies) are given out. And I think (in light of the fannish roots of Worldcon) this is an argument that makes a lot of sense. From a certain fannish point of view.

But I think it also has to be simultaneously argued that unless or until science fiction gets an award that is roughly equivalent to the Oscars (NOTE: my personal opinion is that the Writers of the Future award is the only thing that comes close; but this is an award for new pros, not for established veterans) then the Hugos (and to a lesser extent, the Nebulas) are what there is. And if we’re going to put these accolades forward as being meaningful to the field, then it’s worth it for the consumers and the practitioners to both think long and hard about how these awards are selected, and for what reasons.

Maybe if the Hugo (and Nebula) voters didn’t shun tie-in novelists and media fiction, consumers would pick up on the fact that things they like to read are being recognized by science fiction’s top awards, thus the awards would attain greater significance for those beyond the halls of the “inside” SF/F group?

Maybe if the Hugo voters did not react (as some of them have reacted this year) badly to an “outsider” such as Larry Correia, bringing his popular series and the fans of same, into the selection process, then the Hugos (and the Nebulas) would have a little more cachet — as awards that truly recognize not just literary achievement, but commercial achievement as well?

I know, I know: the Hugos (and the Nebulas) aren’t supposed to be the spec fic equivalent of Gold and Platinum albums. Raw sales all by themselves shouldn’t be the only thing that earns a work (or an artist) acclaim.

But it just seems uncanny to me that the Hugo (and the Nebula) are this field’s most sought-after prizes, and yet they transfer so little to their recipients (in the way of direct professional benefit) that I’ve struggled since 2012 to wrap my head around how or why these awards are still regarded with such overwhelming awe by those of us who work in the genre.

Which is not (I think) a sentiment (on my part) which is likely to endear me to that core demographic within “fandom” that prides itself on thumbing its nose at commercialism, the publishing industry, and authors, and simply wants to keep the Hugos an “insider” thing for insiders who care. I knew before I wrote this series that examining any of the genre awards with a critical eye was liable to cause some controversy. But as I said elsewhere, I didn’t get into the science fiction business to be a prestige man. I got into the business because I was a reader who discovered authorial ambition as a young adult, and when I bumped my chops up to professional level I decided that giving readers a good time and making money were the first and second best reasons to do this.

And no, I am not putting down the awards or the nominees or the winners. Nor am I trying to say the awards are worthless. I have not advanced that argument here and I am not saying anyone should advance that argument elsewhere. This is not a “let’s trash the awards” festival.

I just want to look critically at what the awards are, and at what they are not, and maybe spark a little introspection as to the nature, purpose, and ultimate destiny of these accolades. Because when we put them forward as signposts for what we (collectively) deem worthy in the genre, we are sending not only messages to ourselves, but the world at large. Right now I think I see a lot of mixed signals going on — fandom, to big audience, to arists, to publishers — and as long as those signals stay mixed, I suspect the Hugos (and the Nebulas) will remain both controversial and devalued on the larger playing field of consumer culture.

Posted in General Science Fiction & Fantasy, General Writing Stuff, Personal Thoughts, Tornadoes in Teacups | 82 Comments

Larry Correia deserves a break

If there’s anything I find more disheartening than seeing myself treated unfairly, it’s seeing friends or loved ones treated unfairly.

Right now one of my friends is getting picked apart by a certain sector of the internet, because he’s a) outspokenly conservative and he b) landed on the Hugo ballot in a deliberate fashion. Pretending for a moment that campaigning for awards isn’t done all the time anyway, by people who like to hide and deny the fact, I’d like to point out that Larry Correia is a person. He has skin, and bones, and muscle, and nerves, and blood, and he has a lovely wife whom he adores (and she adores him) and he has four wonderful children. Cut him, he bleeds. Tickle him, he laughs. Feed him ice cream, he smiles. He’s a God-fearing, church-going man. A hard-working man. A man of integrity. Loyal to his friends. And who has helped I can’t name how many people through his unending generosity and willingness to put his reputation on the line for those whom he believes he can help — because that’s just the kind of guy Larry Correia is.

Now, I get it that Larry Correia’s web site isn’t to all tastes, and I get it that Larry can and does ruffle feathers with his blog.

But really, there comes a time when I have to say that the invective wielded against Larry is so outlandish, so unrecognizable, so completely and obviously disconnected from the Larry Correia I am proud to call a friend, that I have to conclude one thing: everybody who is in a hurry to say bad stuff about Larry Correia knows nothing about Larry Correia the human being. They have a cheap cardboard cut-out of Larry, at which they throw rhetorical darts. Or a voodoo doll with a Larry Correia bobblehead on it, and through which they thrust hat pins.

Disagree with him, sure. Fine. Larry will never demand conformity, because Larry is a libertarian at heart; not an authoritarian. He’s not shy about disagreement. In fact, he loves it when people think for themselves.

But at least disagree with Larry honestly please? Make your complaints at least semi-coherent, and reflective of who Larry Correia actually is, instead of the ridiculous bogeyman parody that some people wish Larry would be.

Posted in Personal Thoughts, Tornadoes in Teacups | 106 Comments

Shunning and Radioactivity

NOTE: I got my invitations from Loncon 3 today. They’re including my novelette “The Exchange Officers” and my novella “The Chaplain’s War” in the traditional electronic Hugo voters packet. So I wanted to take this opportunity to thank the Loncon 3 concom (and everyone who has been working diligently on the 2014 Hugos) for their professionalism during what has been something of a turbulent time — between the fracas over Johnathan Ross having been invited (and disinvited) to be host, and now the fracas over the Hugo ballot itself. I am reminded of the adage: you can make all of the people happy some of the time, you can make some of the people happy all of the time, but you can’t make all of the people happy all of the time. Kudos, Loncon 3. Thusfar, you’ve treated me like a pro, and I appreciate it very much.

Something else: in the last 7 days I’ve had a number of people approach me both publicly and privately to ask, “How can you possibly associate yourself with that (insert bad words here) person, Vox Day? Don’t you know that he’s a raging (insert bad words here) and ought to be shunned?” Likewise, I’ve been accused of supporting Day; even of supporting the things he’s written about ethnicity, sexuality, and gender. To which I have to say (as I’ve said in each instance) my merely being on the ballot with Day, or engaging him in dialogue, does not automatically mean I agree with Day, nor does it automatically mean I agree with any of the stances he has taken on potentially controversial issues.

So, how come I don’t shun Vox and call him names, because shunning Vox and calling him names is (apparently) the only civilized thing to do?

Let me tell you a fable:

Once upon a time there was a young person named Wanda who believed that she had discovered a way for human beings to live, and a path for human beings to follow, which would lead to true happiness and everlasting life with spouses and family. She went across the land speaking her truth and gathering like-minded souls to her flag. Eventually they were given a name by the outside world, because the young woman had grown up and created a book containing her beliefs: the Book of Wanda, and she and her people became known as Wandians. Now, the Wandians were not well liked by ordinary folk. Wandians had odd ideas and odd beliefs and odd practices. They just weren’t right, according to good and decent standards. So the Wandians began to be persecuted. Their property was destroyed and they were driven off their lands. From region to region they traveled, enduring ever-greater forms of physical and legal abuse. Eventually one of the lords of the land issued an extermination order against Wandians, such that killing a Wandian was lawful. Poor Wanda herself was jailed and ultimately executed by a mob, and the Wandians fled into the wilderness to create their own civilization very distant from where all the trouble had started. Ultimately time passed, and the Wandians were grudgingly re-joined to the society which they had previously fled. But to this day, Wandians are regarded with suspicion, or even (in some instances) hatred. It’s not unusual for a Wandian to hear outlandish stories about his people. Wanda herself is derided in many circles for being a charlatan and a fraud. And Wandians struggle still for acceptance and understanding, despite being good, decent, and upstanding people (in the main) and despite living in a supposedly tolerant and open-minded era.

Now, let me also relate to you an encapsulation of an old Twilight Zone (revival) episode:

A man indicted for a crime is confronted by the police. His punishment is not jail. They apply a device to the criminal’s forehead which alters the shape of his forehead, leaving a grotesque mark. No matter how the man tries to cover the mark with clothing, the mark simply burns through, and anyone and everyone who sees the mark knows to shun the man. He cannot engage in business, talk to friends or loved ones or neighbors, work a job, or have any contact with humanity at all. Anyone caught interacting with the criminal or helping him will themselves become a criminal, thus also enduring the shunning and ostracising of the mark on their foreheads. Even medical help is off limits, as the man discovers when he becomes targeted by other criminals, and is injured badly. He ultimately limps through his term of punishment, scavenging what he can from the margins of civilization. And when the time comes, the police return and the mark on his forehead is removed. Relieved to have been freed from his prison without walls, the man re-enters society as an acceptable citizen. Except . . . one day he sees a woman who is marked as he was marked. She spots him and recognizes him from the days when he was still marked like she is. She pleads with him to not ignore her. He tries to pass by her without stopping, but her piteous cries for his mercy soften his heart, because he knows her pain and anguish, and he turns and embraces her while the robotic drones of enforcement surround them both and announce that they are engaging in criminal activity.

Observations:

All societies and eras have had Untouchables — those castes or peoples who are deemed out-of-bounds for polite or proper folk, and who are divorced from the world of acceptable social interactivity. Either for ethnic reasons, religious reasons, or fear of biological or even ideological contamination. Some societies have doomed their Untouchables to servitude and slavery. Others banish them, as the Soviet Union did with its Untouchables by sending them to die in the infamous gulags. Still others allow the Untouchables to be a part of society, but lurking in a kind of second class status, destined to never partake as full citizens. In each and every instance, the power brokers and enforcers of conformity have had what were (to them) perfectly sane and reasonable excuses to treat the Untouchables as Untouchable.

The thrust of American social progress in the 20th and 21st centuries has been to fully enfranchise practically every previously Untouchable segment of the population. Except, this progress has been haphazard and uneven. Not every demographic has achieved the same results, and mileage has definitely varied. The formerly Untouchable do not themselves always mingle well. More disturbing still, there is an emerging sentiment that says: in order to protect and defend those who were previously Untouchable, we must invent a new set of Untouchables who will become the repositories for societal scorn and ostracism. Ergo, the tables are turned, and the pendulum swings.

Go back and re-read my fable. Change the word Wandian to Mormon. I am a Mormon. That is the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. If you’re LDS and you’ve lived anywhere outside of Utah or the United States, you’ve encountered it: the suspicion, the strange reactions, the fear, and even the hatred. We are still an odd duck in the world pond. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but it’s bad enough that our missionaries still bring home stories of verbal and physical abuse from around America and across the globe. Businesspeople and politicians who happen to be Mormon and who achieve prominence cannot do their jobs without having their religious affiliation become a topic of discussion, as well as criticism. In some circles (depending on the politics and depending on the business) you cannot be a Mormon without earning the scorn of your compatriots; be it direct, or subtle.

Now, perhaps it’s because I am a Mormon that the Twilight Zone (revival) episode (“To See The Invisible Man”) continues to resonate with me. I rather suspect this old episode would and could resonate with any dozen other religious or ethnic or sexual demographics which have all experienced ostracism, shaming, or other societal tactics designed to drive us to the edges.

All I know is, the older I have gotten, the less I’ve felt any desire to be on the “right” side of things, and I am distinctly uncomfortable participating in shunnings. Especially if all we’re talking about is words. Not criminal activity. Words. Or ideas. Even ideas foreign to my own. Even people who speak ill of my church. Even things which I find morally or ethically reprehensible. I may desire to criticise the words or the ideas, but I am not eager to make the people themselves into unpersons in the manner of the old Stalinist/Leninist practices of the Marxist days of Russia. Because I myself have been unpersoned on more than one occasion, simply for who I am.

Philosophy:

When I was a teenager I fell in love with all things Star Trek. I was impressed by the series slogan: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. I became intrigued with the Starfleet ethic of the Prime Directive, which ostensibly sought to keep the society, social values, and laws of the United Federation of Planets from overruling or dominating the social values, laws, and societies of alien worlds. What a tough job, I thought then. And I still think now. As was evidenced by the Federation’s struggle with the fictional Klingon Empire. The Klingons were a manifestation of everything the Federation stood against. So much so, the Feds often doubted there could ever be peace or brotherhood between the two nations. The Klingons were so unlike the Federation at almost every level, they continually challenged almost everyone in Starfleet to live up to the Prime Directive and the quasi-canonical belief (in the series) that all peoples and cultures had an independent validity separate and apart from that which the Federation deemed (for itself) proper, ethical, and just.

I guess I’ve always carried a bit of Star Trek with me in the years since I was a teenager. As a Mormon moving outside of Utah for the first time, I felt very much like I was entering a strange new world. Returning to Utah 14 years later I again felt I was encountering new life, and a new civilization; since I could see my birth culture with fresh eyes. Going into the military was also an exercise in encountering new people, new ideas, and especially learning to work with and get along with those people; often under stressful or harsh conditions. And I’ve been in an interracial marriage for two decades to someone who did not grow up LDS, and with whom I do not share a large degree of political overlap. Talk about boldly going! In my house, every time my wife and I sit down to discuss a given issue, if she’s talking east, I am talking west, and where she talks north, I talk south. Yet we’ve managed to learn from and love and adore each other, despite coming from different experiences with different backgrounds — sometimes, very different.

Outlook:

My life has therefor molded me to be suspicious of shunning, unpersoning, ostracising, and the practice of making an individual radioactive. What do I mean by radioactive? Basically it’s the idea that any person worthy of being shunned is therefore poisonous (by touch or interaction) so that anyone caught associating with or dialoguing with the shunned individual, is also going to be shunned, because now the second party is poisonous by association.

I remember the Twilight Zone episode too well. The trick of the “justice” system in that episode was to make a person radioactive (socially) and I must admit, it seemed a far harsher punishment, and much more disturbing, than throwing somebody behind bars. Even more than exile, to be a face passing through society without earning so much as a single acknowledgment — to have one’s humanity utterly obliterated — is a fate I am not sure many of us could endure without going to some very dark places in our hearts and in our heads.

If all of this seems a rather roundabout way of addressing succinctly what’s happening with the Hugo awards this year, I apologize for bending your (proverbial) ear. This topic is something I struggle to address in a few words. Other than to repeat what I said earlier: I am not a shunner or an ostracizer, and I resist the personal politics of radioactivity. I am concerned (yes, you may label me a concern troll if you must) that the people who call themselves “fandom” are eager to practice radioactivity.

Summary:

Getting back to Star Trek, I feel I have a duty as a practioner of speculative fictioneering to not shun, to not turn my back, to not participate in radioactivity — however tempting it might be to do so, because I know this would be (in the short term) the far less controversial path. Perhaps if I was still 20 years old, I would choose the easier path. But at age 40 I have seen too much of this world (and too much of the human heart) to believe that shunning and radioactivity actually improve things. Because I do not believe that they do. I believe that they are . . . relics of our tribal beginnings as a human civilization. Natural and instinctual modes for dealing with the strange, the uncomfortable, the scandalous, and the bizarre.

Vox Day is deemed Untouchable. I get that. I also get that some of the things Vox Day has written have upset a lot of people. Some of the things he’s written are upsetting to me too. I think being upset by some of what Vox has written is valid. I just hope people can understand why I am not in a hurry to violate personal principles simply to go along with the zeitgeist, where Vox is concerned. I know that would be easier. I know it would also be the expected thing. Because everybody is doing it.

Sometimes, doing the expected thing isn’t always the best thing, though.

Posted in Personal Thoughts, Tornadoes in Teacups | 293 Comments

Fear and loathing at the Awards Table 3

It’s been two years since I was the triple nominee for the Hugo, the Campbell, and the Nebula awards. At the time, I thought it rather unusual that a relative newcomer should find himself on the short list for all three awards simultaneously. Something in which I took a measure of pride. Because I never set out to be an “award worthy” author as much as I set out to be the kind of author who could entertain. My authorial philosophy is pretty simple: give the reader a good time, not a hard time. So when my name popped up for the Nebulas, I was pleasantly shocked. When it popped up again for the Hugo and the Campbell, I was doubly shocked. I never styled myself as a prestige man. I just wanted to tell stories that people would find worthwhile, enjoyable, and (dare I say it?) uplifting.

Come April 2014, and I discover I am back on the Hugo short list again. This time with two pieces of short fiction which previously appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine:

Best Novelette — “The Exchange Officers” — Analog, Jan/Feb 2013
Best Novella — “The Chaplain’s Legacy” — Analog, Jul/Aug 2013

There’s a bit of exciting additional news I can share about “The Chaplain’s Legacy” in a later installment of this blog series, but I wanted to point out here (as I have on Facebook) that I think a big reason why these two stories made the Hugo ballot is because they were both included in my short fiction “best of” album titled Lights in the Deep. I was initially going to self-publish the collection (before it even had a name) but when Kevin J. Anderson and WordFire Press approached me, their contract and marketing and distribution were simply too good to pass up. And I am glad to be working with WordFire, not just for Lights, but also for a new collection coming out later this year, to be called Racers of the Night. What it would have taken a traditional small press at least 12 to 24 months to accomplish, WordFire did for me in a matter of weeks over a single summer. Thus I was able to get the book into the hands of readers months in advance of the 2014 awards season. Thus when the nomination period came around, a great many people had already read my work in both Analog and also Lights in the Deep.

But there is (obviously, to those paying attention to the Hugos this year) another reason I made the Hugo short list, and I want to write a few thoughts about that, and also about some of the controversy that has arisen as a result.

See, my friend Larry Correia put my stories on one of his blog posts where he listed his own voting preferences for the Hugo. Several of us who know Larry had our books and stories on that list, all of us accomplished authors to one degree or another. And since Larry has a substantial internet footprint, and an extremely loyal and energetic fan base, some of those fans (and I have to say, a goodly number of them had bought Lights in the Deep due to a generous book launch push Larry had given Lights in late 2013) mobilized to support Larry’s slate — because that’s just how the Monster Hunter Nation rolls.

After the 2014 Hugo award nominee short list was releast by Loncon 3 (the World Science Fiction Convention, or “Worldcon”) there was a substantial amount of consternation — social media hue and cry, one might call it.

As has often been the case when I observe these kinds of things, I remain puzzled that the group which dubs itself “fandom” (in the parlance of the original Worldcons of yore) and which is always self-analyzing so as to determine how it can bring in more young fans, more diverse fans, and more energetic fans, could react so poorly to Larry Correia bringing Monster Hunter Nation to the Hugo nominations — as if the state of New York were aghast that the state of Texas showed up for a national party caucus during the run-up to a major election.

Isn’t bringing new people into old-school fandom part of the point of Worldcon?

But it wasn’t just Monster Hunter Nation that had certain people in fandom riled up. Wheel of Time fans managed to get the entire series (Jordan/Sanderson) on the ballot too — for Best Novel Hugo. Which is not precisely against the rules of the nomination process, but Wheel of Time is a massive series that is almost 30 years old. Seeing it in the Best Novel category alongside the other books for 2014 is highly unusual to say the least. So unusual, in fact, that some people in fandom have chosen to get upset about it; to the same degree those individuals in fandom are upset about Monster Hunter Nation getting the third installment in Larry Correia’s Hard Magic series onto the ballot, with Warbound: Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles.

My response to the plaintiffs is: why not?

To paraphrase something Brandon Sanderson eloquently said on his blog, it’s head-scratching to see a group invite people in to join said group, then the group reacts badly to the new people.

In the case of Monster Hunter Nation, I think it’s safe to say the bulk of the unhapiness (from some individuals in fandom) is political in nature. In the case of Wheel of Time fans, the unhapiness (from some individuals in fandom) has been literary in nature. Ergo, works that are considered “too commercial” tend to get looked down upon by parts of fandom that have a particularly academic and literary taste.

But isn’t this the point of being fans? Shouldn’t anything that calls itself WORLDCON actually represent a widely diverse number of fans from many different echelons of the disparate world of genre enthusiasm?

“But, campaigning for awards and stuffing the ballot box is uncouth!”
I understand that for many fans steeped in the history of Worldcon, there is a somewhat old-school and gentlemanly attitude that campaigning for an award is uncouth. Crass. Simply not done. And in those instances where it was very plainly done in the daylight, there has generally been some harsh regard. But honestly, in the era of the internet, this philosophy is pretty much dead in the water. Because almost all authors have web footprints of varying sizes and instant interactivity with their readers, and the minute you even peep about consideration (you, your work, for the ballots) it’s basically a clarion call to your readers to go support you — whether you’re deliberately making the announcement with an intent to motivate your readers, or being discreet and simply mentioning the works you’ve published in the past calendar year, without actually doing a call to action. Plus, authors are clever. A call to action need not be worded baldly. There are 101 ways to deftly and subtly put up neon signs of varying design, encouraging readers and web followers to put you down for the ballots and the awards. Especially when so many of the ballots and awards are voted via web form. It’s easier than ever for an enthusiastic fan or reader or supporter to click, jump, vote, and submit. So, I think it can be reasonably said: nothing any of this year’s short-listed nominees did to announce themselves, can be deemed uncouth or against the spirit of the Hugos. Past winners (up to and including Best Novel) have happily flexed their web footprints in order to be nominated and win. I don’t think we can honestly ding anyone on this year’s ballot for doing the same thing.

“But, Wheel of Time is not even a book!”
True, it’s not a single book. And there is a strong argument for perhaps changing the rules of the award, for future Worldcons, so that a Best Series Hugo might be given. But since the present rules permit Wheel of Time fans to nominate what they love, the series is on the ballot through no fault of its own. It will now compete against the other works just like any other nominee. Perhaps it’s a little disheartening to see a series with such a substantial fan base go up against single books from authors who don’t have as much traction in the marketplace — from a glance, Wheel of Time seems likely to bury its competition. But again, I ask, why not? There’s nothing in the Hugo nomination process that says anything about taste, nor about sales numbers, being a disqualifier. If enough Worldcon members want Wheel of Time (or any other thing) on the ballot, then by golly that thing is going to be on the ballot. That’s not Brandon Sanderson’s fault, nor should Wheel of Time fans be talked down to because somehow their taste isn’t as relevant to the health and recognition of worthy works in the field as, say, fans of John Scalzi’s Red Shirts. Which did walk away with the Best Novel Hugo last year, and largely because of the fact that Scalzi’s fans simply chose to participate in the nomination and voting process.

“But, Monster Hunter Nation and Wheel of Time fans are not our kind of fans!”
Okay, here is where I put my grumpy face on and glower a little bit. Because this is something I’ve talked about before. This is also something Kristine Kathryn Rusch has talked about before, too. You can’t have a healthy fandom unless you run a big tent. And by big tent, I mean a fandom that doesn’t impose litmus tests. Fandom (that very-small piece of the consumer pie that keeps Worldcon alive) represents an increasingly monocultural segment of the overall fan market. The so-called TruFans work to marginalize and exclude the NeoFans. “Show us your cred!” the guards cry at the entry points to the science fiction “ghetto” that fandom jealously occupies — though Larry Niven once famously argued it’s not a ghetto, it’s actually a country club. Those with insufficient or bad cred (“You only like movies and games!” or “Your politics make you stinky!” or “Your favorite author is too commercial!”) are discouraged in both obvious and subtle ways. Go back to what Brandon Sanderson said: if you invite people in, it’s rather strange of you to then try to kick them back out simply because they’re not matching your taste and preferences 1-for-1. So while I am somewhat sympathetic to the notion of, “Well we liked science fiction before science fiction was popular,” I also think this is the slogan of a dying culture. And that makes me sad. Because as someone who came of age reading Larry Niven’s wonderful anecdotes about Worldcon, the picture he painted was not that of a dying culture. Worldcon fandom can’t be healthy if it imposes hard filters and actively shews away “interlopers” who haven’t been properly anointed or baptized into the field, per traditions of old.

“But one of Larry Correia’s friends, that Vox Day guy, is a (insert nasty words here)!!”
Perhaps Larry and Monster Hunter Nation wouldn’t be getting such a ration of grief if the authorial persona known as Vox Day had not had a story on Larry’s slate? But then, Larry didn’t put Vox on the Hugo ballot all by himself. Vox has a blog too. And it gets a ton of traffic. Vox ran his own slate. And the Vox fans came to the Hugos along with Monster Hunter Nation and Wheel of Time fans. Look, for the sake of the Vox Day critics, I get it. Vox (the persona) throws verbal bombs. He is challenging, opinionated, controversial, and makes no apologies. Even to the point of saying things and making statements that occasionally cause me to step back and say, “Whoa, man, that’s probably not called for!” But again, my refrain: why not? If fandom evicted every author or editor who ever shot his or her mouth off about politics or religion or some other thing, we’d be showing many dozens of authors — and more than a few editors — the door. In fact, some of the recent authorial and editorial winners have been very outspoken about their beliefs, up to and including being rude and insulting to those who don’t share the same beliefs, and I am not sure you can pull the ladder up on Vox without admitting (as a fandom culture) that it’s okay to be boorish, crass, insulting, or worse, just as long as said author or said editor is boorish and rude in the correct way. Think Vox is a hideous character? Fine. I get that too. As personas go, Vox Day is a significantly spicy jalapeno! Even I can’t always go where he goes, despite having a degree of ideological overlap on the Venn diagram. I do not agree with Vox on every single thing, nor does Larry Correia for that matter. But if science fiction is truly supposed to be the liberal literary art that it claims to be, then I challenge anyone upset at seeing Vox on the ballot to pry his novelette “Opera Vita Aeterna” away from the ill will Vox the persona has generated, and consider the story on its own merits. As all our parents once told us: how do you know you won’t like it if you don’t try it? Or as one plaintiff lamented, what if Vox’s work actually merits inclusion despite how much we don’t like him as a web personality?

If science fiction truly loves the different, the strange, the alien, or the disturbing, as it always claims to love these things . . . well, here’s science fiction’s big chance to put its money where its mouth is: Vox Day, literary rogue. I, for one, look forward to reading his novelette. To paraphrase a Commander Riker line from Star Trek: The Next Generation, nobody ever said this field was safe. In fact, Harlan Ellison once famously branded the genre as the so-called dangerous genre. Is Worldcon fandom ready to get dangerous, or does worldcon fandom want to be safe?

We’ll see.

Because, really, that’s what the fiction Hugos are supposed to be about: the prose on the page. Technically, when a guy like me gets nominated for “The Chaplain’s Legacy” it’s not me that’s getting nominated, it’s the story. But we all know the nominations aren’t that simple. Many voters don’t even read widely. When nomination time comes around and they are presented with the giant cereal aisle of choices offered at the science fiction grocery store, they will often (through no fault of their own) default to brand names they know and/or like. Thus some familiar name brand patterns tend to set in (and this is true for the Nebula awards too) and that’s perhaps inevitable, without being ideal. But again, according to the labels put on those categories, the author name attached to the story or the book is more or less irrelevant. We’re not giving out Best Novella Writer Hugo or Best Novel Writer Hugo, we’re giving out Best Novella Hugo and Best Novel Hugo. The name attached to the work is somewhat independent of the work proper. And this should be true across the board. And when people exclaim that someone ought to not be on the ballot for purely political or social squabbling reasons, they’re basically admitting that the categories are misleading. Votes are cast for people, not fiction.

Frankly, I think the best way to rectify the situation is not to impose any kind of taste or political test, but to merely read what’s been placed on the ballot, and vote according to enjoyment. No single story or book will please all readers, and it has ever been thus. But if you’re casting your votes because you truly did read what was offered, and you let these works of fiction rest on your literary palate, then I think you’re doing the Hugo process more dignity than if you simply rush down the ballot ranking solely because of the names attached to the products. Him, him, not him, her, not her, not her, not her, him, definitely him, her, not her. Maybe that’s as valid a manner of voting as any other, but it kind of cheats the Hugos out of a degree of their validity.

Which gets me to a point I want to make, about some of these awards overall, but I think I will wait to make it for the next installment in this series.

Thanks to everybody who read my stories over the last few months, and who nominated those stories for the 2014 Hugo!

Click here for the first installment in this series.

Click here for the second installment in this series.

Posted in Conferences & Conventions, General Science Fiction & Fantasy, Personal Thoughts, Tornadoes in Teacups | 72 Comments