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Draft Hugo Ballot 2014 – The Media Categories (Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form), Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form), Best Related, Best Graphic Story)

March 17, 2014

You can find my other nominations for the 2014 Hugo Awards here:

Reading through the various draft ballots and recommendation posts, I am struck by the extent to which engagement with the Hugo Awards has come to fixate upon administrative matters. Almost every post about the Hugos comes with an introduction or companion piece discussing how the awards might be ‘fixed’ by ditching some categories, adding others and redrafting those that remain. Are these administrative matters really more interesting than the works themselves? I find it interesting that aesthetic disagreement is now so impolitic that people are more comfortable discussing bureaucratic guidelines than they are works of science fiction and I include myself in that assessment.

I mention this as I don’t actually have a problem with any of the media categories. I do think that a ‘Best Film’ Hugo would look better than a ‘Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)’ Hugo but I’m happy with the neologism in so far as it does allow for genre mini-series and plays in a way that a ‘Best Film’ Hugo would not. Similarly, the ‘Best Graphic Story’ Hugo has been criticised for its failure to reflect the fact that comics come out as individual issues that form arcs which are then re-released as trade paperbacks thereby giving voters three confusing windows of nomination but (teething problems aside) I’m happy to let voters sort these types of problems out for themselves and I suspect the award will settle down into a Best Trade Paperback award given enough time and discussion. Nor do I have a problem with the fact that the winners of these awards neither show up to collect their awards nor seem to give that much of a shit about winning; popular awards are as much for the people doing the nominating as the people doing the winning and I think that having very visible awards for non-literary SF is a great way of reminding people that SF is no longer the sole-preserve of books and short fiction.

NB – As in my other nomination posts, I’ll be putting up links to other nomination posts. People should feel free to link to their posts in the comments but anyone putting themselves forward for ‘consideration’ will have their comments deleted.


My Nominations For Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)

Gravity – Hollywood made us wait six long years for Alfonso Cuaron’s follow-up to Children of Men but when it finally got here, man… did it deliver! Aside from the fact that Gravity engages with manned space exploration in a way that few films bother to do anymore, it is also one of the best action/adventure movies to come out of Hollywood in recent memory. Unencumbered by the need to pay endless po-faced homage to uninspiring media franchises dreamt up over fifty years ago, Gravity grabs you by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t let go till that final glorious scene in which Sandra Bullock crawls from the womblike ocean and begins her second chance at life. Technically as well as technologically impressive, Gravity is a timely reminder of what big budget Hollywood movies can achieve when they stop trying to sell Happy Meals.

Upstream Color – Best known for his intricately plotted ultra low-budget time travel film Primer, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is one of the most visually arresting and formally ambitious science fiction films in recent memory. The plot revolves around two people who are struggling to put their lives back together after being deliberately infected with a psychic parasite. Almost entirely devoid of verbal exposition, the film uses art house cinematic techniques to map the inner landscapes of profoundly damaged people. However, rather than remaining within the art house comfort zone of alienation and anomie, Carruth pushes outwards and uses those tried-and-tested cinematic tools to explore an upward psychological trajectory of unexpected empathy, psychotic empowerment and ultimately group solidarity. Not just a great science fiction film but also a great and important film full stop.

You’re Next – Cinemas have not been graced with an over-abundance of decent Horror in recent years. Between witless remakes and the increasingly unrewarding output of the Paranormal Activity industry, Horror fans have been forced to seek out specialist festivals and small DVD releases in order to satisfy their masochistic urges. Given this climate of ever-increasing commercial timidity, it was something of a delight to encounter Adam Wingard’s You’re Next. Ostensibly an ultra-violent home invasion picture filled with well-executed jump scares and oceans of tension, You’re Next is also a fantastic portrait of a family driven apart by wealth and memory with an absolutely sensational female protagonist. I know that Horror films never make it onto Hugo shortlists but I’m hoping that this film’s feminist credentials give it the edge it needs to make the final ballot.

A Field in England – Directed by Ben Wheatley, the man behind the cult horror film Kill List and next year’s much-anticipated adaptation of JG Ballard’s High-Rise, A Field in England is best described as what we might have got had Kenneth Anger been hired to direct such British Folk Horror classics as The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General. Set during the English civil war, the film concerns a weak and cowardly scholar who is sent out to find the Irishman who ran off with all his master’s occult tomes. Initially quite funny and earthy, the film soon acquires a drug-infused mystical quality as two men battle for control. Shot entirely in black and white and bolstered by a wonderfully folky sound-track, A Field in England is dark, weird and funny in a way that few works of cinematic fantasy ever bother to aspire to.

Tomb Raider – In the weeks running up to this game’s release, the developers made some statements that lead people to believe that its protagonist Lara Croft would be brutally raped in the opening moments of the game. In the first few months, credible positive reviews were few and far between as people held on to the pre-release anti-hype that this reboot of the iconic ‘00s videogame franchise would be a typically misogynistic catastrophe. However, as the game dropped in price and people began to chance their arm, a slow word of mouth began to form: Not only was this game not sexist, it was actually kinda awesome. No longer a wise cracking sex object, the new Lara owes a considerable debt to the fragile heroism of Jennifer Lawrence in the Hunger Games films. Initially, Lara is a headstrong and idealistic young woman whose intense loyalty to her friends is undercut by a naïve willingness to drag them into dangerous situations. Thrown into an incredibly violent and patriarchal environment, Lara is forced into acts of considerable violence in order to protect both herself and her friends. As the game moves us from area to area and Lara’s capacity for violence increases to meet the violence of the environment, we watch as the naïve but idealistic young woman transforms into a terrifyingly strong young woman whose unfettered idealism is finally complemented by a willingness to assume the risks and duties that such idealism demands. Brilliantly paced, gorgeous to look at and wonderfully written, Tomb Raider is more than deserving to be the first video game to make it onto the Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) shortlist.


Alternate Lists of Suggestions


Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

I don’t watch much genre TV for three distinct reasons:

1)   We don’t have cable or terrestrial TV.

2)   Our Internet connection is so slow that we cannot stream.

3)   It’s total gash made up of either Hobbity-tosh or hideous right-wing propaganda.

Having said that, I did manage to find something worth nominating:

Black Mirror “Be Right Back” – Written by the one-time TV critic Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror is marketed as something new and radical whereas in fact it’s just the latest airing of a format that once underpinned genre shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. I actually watched Black Mirror not long after working my way through a box set of plays that were made for TV by the now-veteran film director Mike Leigh. Leigh’s plays including “Nuts in May” and “Abigail’s Party” are extraordinary in so far as they stand or fall on the strength of individual ideas. Sharply written and brilliantly acted, these plays allow no room for error: You either get it right the first time, or the work you put into those characters and that story go completely to waste. Black Mirror works by the exact same unforgiving formula as Brooker gets precisely once chance to introduce a set of characters and themes before having to more on to the next entirely fresh episode. Once new and innovative, the character arc-based structure dominating contemporary TV now feels too much like insulation, hours of padding and soap operatic shenanigans allowing writers to endlessly eke out weak and ill-conceived ideas. The first series of Black Mirror was a stark reminder of what genre TV can achieve once it weans itself off the escapist tit and reconnects with the world at large: Dark, stylish and filled with incredibly pointed and insightful social commentary, the first series of Black Mirror was everything that Doctor Who is not and while the second series is noticeably weaker than the first (due to Brooker’s decision to write all the episodes himself despite working on other shows at the time), the first episode is still an incredibly clever and insightful piece of genre TV. Set in the immediate future, the story concerns a woman who loses her husband and cannot get over the grief. Worried about her mental health, a friend signs her up for a service that crawls through the dead man’s social media and reconstructs his personality and voice in an AI form to which the grieving woman becomes hopelessly addicted. A cynic might point out that this episode feels a lot like one of Asimov’s robot stories and I would agree with them, but that doesn’t mean that those stories can’t contain interesting truths about the nature of human emotions and how we relate to other ‘people’.

Alternate Lists of Suggestions



Best Related Work

Looking around other people’s nominations, I get the impression that people have taken to treating this category as a dumping ground for stuff that doesn’t fit into any of the other categories like professional podcasts and blog posts that recite popular opinions in a particularly moving and humane fashion. While I think that all interpretations of the rules are equally legitimate, I prefer to treat this category as a place to celebrate good criticism published in book form. This proved rather more difficult than I would have hoped…

I had high hopes for 2013. A number of works of book-length genre criticism had been released and some of them even had a decent amount of buzz around them. The market for written criticism is tiny at the best of times and the market for book-length criticism about science fiction is even smaller than that meaning that any work of genre criticism that does make it into publication is like a wheezy giraffe that managed to sneak past a gang of lions. Having said that, I’m genuinely disappointed by what I read; Womack’s Afrofuturism read like a series of disjointed blog posts that struggled to engage with a fascinating idea while Attebery and Hollinger’s Parabolas of Science Fiction was a series of plodding essays woven around what can only be described as hand-wavy bullshit. I recognise that the market for this type of stuff is tiny and that a lot of good work doubtless appears in books that are priced at a level affordable by academic libraries rather than individuals (and there was also some stuff I’m still working my way through like Clemens’ history of anime) but I was definitely disappointed by what I found.

Speculative Fiction 2012 edited by Justin Landon and Jared Shurin – An idea so simple, I can’t believe nobody came up with it sooner: Survey all of the criticism and fan writing published online, collect the stuff that kicked the most tires and lit the most fires, publish it in a book, change editors every year to stop the selection criteria getting stale. Not only is the content of this book fantastic, it’s also an important project as it will allow future-us to look back on the year 2012 and work out what it was that past-us were talking about. So much of online culture is disposable and fragile, Speculative Fiction 2012 is a way to make it last.

The Riddles of the Hobbit by Adam Roberts – Ostensibly a book about The Hobbit that provides new readings of Tolkien’s work and situates it in a broader tradition of riddle-filled English and Anglo-Saxon literature, The Riddles of the Hobbit is actually a sly and tricky little book that sets out to explore what it is we actually do when we read fiction and what it is that we get out of that interpretative process. Written with all the wit, clarity and erudition that we have come to expect from a critic of Roberts’ stature.

Benchmarks Revisited: F&SF “Books” Columns 1983-1986 by Algis Budrys – There’s a wonderful moment in Budrys’s novel Rogue Moon where the terrifyingly intelligent scientist meets the terrifyingly brave adventurer under the gaze of a beautiful woman and the two men rear up at each other like a pair of horny elephant seals. Written for tension in 1959 but read for laughs in 2013, the scene rings false as no modern person could ever feel as self-assured and confident as those two bull males. Once upon a time, we were encouraged to model ourselves on these types of characters but one-by-one the narratives and templates have fallen to a string of therapeutic clichés that encourage us to view ourselves as passive, helpless woodland creatures resigned to the fact that we will never understand the world well enough to merit a forcefully held opinion. We are creatures of caveat and collegiality; we seek out received wisdom and the safety of groups for to do anything else is to open oneself up to ridicule and banishment. Product of a time when the immature SF market was prone to the same callow boosterism that dominates book blogging today, Budrys dared to be authoritative. Beautifully written, his review columns are filled with bon mots as well as technical insights and pronouncements on the state of the culture and industry that make his criticism compelling even though the books it focused on may long since have been forgotten. Benchmarks Revisited: F&SF “Books” Columns 1983-1986 is the third collection of Budrys’s critical writings and one of two that were published in 2013. Given that I have wound up with available slots, I’ve decided to nominate the fourth collection as well: Benchmarks Concluded: F&SF “Books” Columns 1987-1993.

Summa Technologiae by Stanislaw Lem – One of the most bizarre things about science fiction is the way that the genre seems to have become obsessed with a very narrow spectrum of ideas about the future. I’m sure space exploration seemed like it was going to be a big deal back in the 1960s, but human society turned left when it could have turned right and the idea of a space-faring human civilisation now seems less likely than a future in which dogs reveal themselves to be the true masters of the planet. The question then is why the rump of science fiction publishing keeps putting out books with spaceships on the cover? It’s because science fiction has lost interest in the world and science fiction writers have lost interest in speculating about the future. It’s all too difficult and even if you do pull together a smart story about the future, you’re less likely to sell it than you are a story about a woman with a bear midriff who dates centaurs. Lem’s Summa Technologiae is a remnant of a time when things were very different: As well informed as he was intellectually ambitious, Lem wrote incredibly complex and profound novels that began with acts of speculation and ended with grand philosophy. Originally published in Polish in 1963, Summa Technologiae is ostensibly a collection of non-fiction essays about scientific ideas including virtual reality, artificial life and transhumanism and while Lem devotees will doubtless treat these essays as research notes for the fictional treatments that would follow, others will see them for what they truly are: Pure and undiluted science fiction which, stripped of all novelistic and narrative conceits, is free to pass directly through the blood/brain barrier.


Alternate Lists of Suggestions


Best Graphic Story

Launched in 2009, this is still something of a fledgling category as Hugo voters don’t pay enough attention to the world of comics to lend this category the kind of gravitas it requires. Indeed, the first four Best Graphic Story Hugos went to web comics and three of those were to Girl Genius. Last year saw something of a breakthrough when the award went to Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’ Saga. Despite slighting the Hugos by not bothering to have anyone pick their award, I can’t imagine Vaughn and Staples not winning this award for the second year in a row; not only is Saga really bloody good and definitely SFnal, it is also pleasingly right-on and much beloved of pretty much all SF fans who read comics. However, I don’t think it’s healthy for this award to go to the same comic two years in a row and so I’m not going to nominate Saga (though I may well vote for it).

The Massive “Black Pacific” by Brian Wood with art by Kristian Donaldson, Garry Brown and Dave Stewart – Between 2005 and 2012, Brian Wood worked on an extraordinary comic by the name of DMZ. Set in a civil war-ravaged New York City, the story took the many atrocities and tragedies of the Iraq war and transplanted them onto American soil. Though less effective towards the end of its run, DMZ remained a master-class in how to use science fictional conceits as a tool of social and political criticism. Similar in tone albeit rather less on the nose, Wood’s The Massive uses a similar box of tricks in a story about a group of environmental activists struggling to stay alive in the aftermath of a global ecological catastrophe. Effectively a series of more-or-less self-contained short stories, each individual issue of The Massive is a different image of collapse unveiling the mistakes and injustices that contribute to making the world a worse place than it could otherwise be. Beautifully researched and elegantly written, The Massive is perhaps a little bit cool and aloof for readers hooked on the heart and soul of Saga but I think it does precisely the kind of thing that SF aught to be doing: Engaging with the world.

Prophet “Brothers” by Brandon Graham, Giannis Milonogiannis, Simon Ray and Farel Dalrymple – I nominated the first volume of this mad, surreal SF comic last year but it sadly did not make the shortlist. Set in some distant future after the collapse of an unseen human empire, Prophet tells the story of a long-gestating plan to re-awaken the human empire using a cadre of long-hidden genetically engineered soldiers. The Prophet of the title is John Prophet, the most human of the soldiers and the one destined to be the general of Earth’s armies. Unlike the first volume, which followed John Prophet exclusively, “Brothers” moves from one gengineered soldier to another as they heed the call of their genes and seek out their fellow post-humans. All of this action takes place in a gloriously weird vision of the solar system where an array of disgustingly odd aliens have made the most of the collapsed human empire and begun de-terraforming our planet. Given the comic’s themes, it would have been easy for it to fall into lazy golden age triumphalism and a pornographic destruction of the universal Other. However, the comic completely undercuts this tendency by having the ‘human’ brothers appear just as weird as the aliens that surround them. This, in effect, elevates the comic into an unfettered orgasm of creativity where the concept of humanity is little more than a political convenience.

Vinland Saga “One” by Makoto Yukimura – Originally released in 2005 but only translated and released in English in 2013, this historical epic by the creator of legendary SF manga and anime Planetes begins with a portrait of obsession as a teenage boy pesters his Viking captain for the right to challenge him to a dual. Every time the captain wriggles out of the dual, the boy comes back and every time he comes back he does so with a hatred so intense it is downright terrifying. What the Viking captain did to deserve this enmity is then unpacked in a story that strips the obsessed teenager back to brass tacks and slowly rebuilds his personality one brick of hatred at a time. Brilliantly drawn, wonderfully written and better paced than any action-based comic I have ever read, this is one thoroughly splendid Viking story.

MIND MGMT “1” by Matt Kindt – One of the most interesting and least-commented upon aspects of superhero comics is the way that they will periodically reskin themselves in order to provide a different context for their characters’ actions. For example, while a character like Wonder Woman will take her cues from classical mythology and behave like a modern-day Hercules, other golden age characters such as Batman took their cues from the pulps and from society at large and positioned their heroes as adventurer dilettantes who interacted with society in a manner that recalled both wealthy do-gooders and the kinds of wealthy people who went on Safari. Since then, mainstream superheroes have reskinned themselves a number of times including as war heroes, spies, NGOs and (in the current iterations of the Avengers, Fantastic Four and Batman Inc) multinational corporations. Kindt’s MIND MGMT is ostensibly a conspiracy story about a flight whose crew and passengers have their memories mysteriously wiped but in reality it’s an attempt to move superheroes away from being the rubber-clad shock troops of neoliberalism that they have become and reinvent them as the kind of flawed and sympathetic individuals found amongst the CIA-trained hippies and oddball mystics of The Men Who Stare at Goats.


Alternate Lists of Suggestions

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