Quark Watch (January - June 2002)
June 17, 2002
To the best of my knowledge, the London gambling houses, where one can place bets not only on the World Cup but also on the Booker Prize, do not make book on the Hugo Awards. If they did, I suppose that action would be minimal in many categories. Who is going to put down money against Locus or David Langford or Gardner Dozois? And how many punters care about Best Fanzine? This year Best Dramatic Presentation, which once (that is, before the movies appeared) seemed likely to be a contest, has turned into a probable walkaway: If The Fellowship of the Ring gets less than two-thirds of the first place ballots, I’ll be surprised. If it loses, I’ll bet on Iraq against the United States.
Best Novel is, however, reasonably competitive. Let me, then, offer my version of the morning line:
Passage by Connie Willis (morning line 3-2) has to be the favorite on the strength of its jockey’s reputation and popularity. It is the first “big” Willis novel since To Say Nothing of the Dog but is a thoroughly different sort: like the “small” novel Bellwether, more fiction about science than science fiction. Without distorting the text extravagantly, one could view all of the supernatural events as subjective manifestations of experimental drugs, oxygen deprivation or actual death.
Since fantasy rarely wins the Best Novel Hugo (last year’s Harry Potter victory was over an unusually weak field) and “magic realism” has yet to compete seriously, Passage is running with a considerable handicap, possibly exacerbated by its subject matter. Aggressively secular voters may be outraged by speculation centered on post-death out-of-body experiences, just as some voted against Rob Sawyer’s Calculating God because it used “intelligent design” as a fictional premise. Offsetting those negatives are narrative drive, superb characterization and the expectedly frantic Willis humor. The large role played by the Titanic won’t hurt, though the mania for that unfortunate vessel has subsided from what it was a couple of years ago.
The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson (morning line 3-1) is a time travel novel told from the point of view of the puzzled and increasingly fearful observers of visitations from the future. The time paradox is stark and unresolved: A warlord memorializes his victories by sending destructive monuments back through time, and it is those monuments that create the conditions on which the victories rest. The point is not, however, to rationalize the paradox away but to use it as a starting point. Once the reader accepts the initial impossibility, the rest of the story follows logically, and the villain is defeated by exploiting the implications of his own actions. This book is not as strange and inventive as the author’s Darwinia and is weakened by intrusions of soap opera, but it clearly will be a strong contender.
Cosmonaut Keep by Kenneth MacLeod (morning line 4-1) is the only nominee with space travel, alien species and other such indicia of old-fashioned science fiction. Its narrative structure, on the other hand, is the least straightforward of all the candidates. The story alternates between the prelude to mankind’s first interstellar expedition and the adventures of some of the explorers’ descendants several generations later, after they have settled hundreds of light years from Earth and lost the knowledge of how to navigate between the stars. The two threads are so different that one would scarcely attribute them to the same writer. The near future segment, told in the first person, includes elements of cyberpunk, as well as mildly tiresome libertarian theological debates. The further future part is traditional SF told in the third person. Each half is good in itself, but the author could think of no better way to bring them together than to toss in an unforeshadowed, arbitrary immortality potion. Worse yet, the major plot conflict is resolved through an alienus ex machina. MacLeod’s enthusiastic following and the shortage of other “pure SF” candidates will keep this book in the running, but it has too few legs to have a great prospect of winning.
The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold (morning line 5-1) would have been lost in the sea of medievalesque fantasy had it been written by anybody other than one of the all-time champion Hugo winners. That statement is not meant as a criticism. It would not have deserved to be lost. After a too-leisurely start, this tale of a retired warrior turned unwilling saint, striving to undo an evil geas while timidly wooing a girl half his age, is well worked-out, with a deft interaction of fate and free will. The imaginary pagan religion almost has the ring of a real faith. The petty court politics possess verisimilitude, if not realism. The eponymous curse is more than a preternatual macguffin. On the other side of the ledger, there is not much here that is new, and the author occasionally makes things too easy for the hero. The crucial marriage negotiations, in particular, proceed with unnatural smoothness and in defiance of realpolitik. There is also slippage on the margins. When the hero’s friends urgently need wide distribution of a vital document, they resort to having it copied by hand; yet an earlier stratagem has established that Chalion knows the art of printing. Discrepancies of that sort are symptoms of an invented setting rather than a secondary creation. Nonetheless, the inventor displays an abundance of skill. In last year's field, this entry would have been among the favorites. This year it is likely to lag behind.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman (morning line 8-1) will undoubtedly run well in the World Fantasy Awards, but, like Tim Powers’ books, it is not the kind of work that appeals to most of the Hugo electorate, making it a distinct dark horse here. The idea that gods depend upon worshipers for their power is a fantasy cliché, one that is usually employed without a shred of serious intent (as in Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar series and Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods). Here it forms the basis for a mingling of urban fantasy with gritty travelogue. If you ever wondered what you would see if you Saw Rock City, the answer is here. The author plots a suspenseful progression toward a second Ragnarök, pitting the old gods - Norse, Slavic, Irish, African, Amerindian - brought to America by immigrants against the new ones - Television tries to seduce the protagonist with salacious I Love Lucy reruns - created by modern culture, though the Final Battle itself turns out to be a cheat. For years Gaiman has been among the most promising of fantasy talents, but he has never before produced a solo, full scale novel. This one shows that his promise was no illusion.
Perdido Street Station by China Miéville (morning line 20-1) will probably have a cult following long after this year's other nominees are just bibliographical data. It is one of those books that has the potential to accumulate fans the way that the dank streets of New Crobuzon accumulate - oops, let’s not get into that. The sprawling, variegated city that is the novel’s setting and hero is a magnified amalgam of, inter alia, Gorghemghast Castle, Raymond Chandler’s San Francisco and the less salubrious neighborhoods of a non-comic Ankh-Morpork. We are introduced first to what passes for normality in such a place: A freelance scientist faces the challenge of restoring flight to a sapient bird at the same time that his insectoid lover, a sculptress of rare talent haunted by alienation from her own species, receives a secret, lucrative commission from the grotesque capo di capi of a criminal empire. Thence follow a literally nightmarish menace, encounters with steam-powered artificial intelligence, transdimensional spiders . . . all leading up to a horrifying climactic battle and a disillusioning coda. Unfortunately, only a small minority of voters pick up an expensive 700 page second novel by an unknown author whose name sounds like a pseudonym. Mr. Miéville is extraordinary in both imagination and clarity, two qualities that are frequently antagonistic in young writers. If he continues as he has begun, his name will one day sound no odder than “Heinlein” or "Asimov".
May 11, 2002
Elayne and Bruce Pelz in Antarctica, February 2001
The Poisson Distribution has thrown up a bad period of horse kicks in the life of fandom. The past month has seen the deaths of fanart expert Jon Gustafson, writer George Alec Effinger (vide infra) and, now, all-around fan Bruce Pelz, who collapsed and died of a heart attack Thursday evening. The Bruce Pelz Memorial Message Board has details and commemorations from many fans.
According to Harry Warner's account - I never heard this from Bruce and will never have the opportunity to ask him - Bruce's first hobby was spelunking at the University of Florida. He and several of the other cave-delvers discovered a mutual interest in science fiction and formed a club, from which emerged (blinking in the sunlight, I suppose) a number of well-known fans of the late 50's and early 60's. Bruce himself broke into fanactivity with his first fanzine, Profanity, in March 1958, which he followed up with almost a zine a month for the next 2½ decades. I'm not sure whether the figures include the "Leslie Norris" fanzines, supposedly written in the early '50's, that he created, artificially aged and salted in cooperative fen's collections as part of one of fandom's most elaborate hoaxes.
Both of us have done
Recondite amusing things
Until others laughed.
Catastrophically I find
Even I don't want the last.
-- John Hertz
Bruce remained a writer for, and publisher and collector of, fanzines for the rest of his life. His most recent productions were travelogues of the trips that he and his wife Elayne took to exotic locales. I have a couple of these, acquired by chance, covering their journeys to Egypt (1995) and Antarctica (2001). In what a superstitious man would take for an omen, I tripped in my living room Thursday morning, and a geyser of hot tea sloshed over the Antarctic volume (the reason for the streaking on the accompanying photograph). On several occasions Bruce declared that he had "retired" from fandom and was going to concentrate on cruises. He and Elayne certainly embarked on some memorable ones, but he somehow found time to keep a hand in fanac. This year he was to have been chairman of Westercon.
Listing Bruce's fannish achievements would require greater knowledge and more space that I possess. Just to skim a few off the top: He co-chaired the World Science Fiction Convention ("L.A.Con I") in 1972, chaired several Westercons, Loscons and Worldcon business meetings (I had the honor of appointing him to the last post at MagiCon in 1992), was Worldcon Fan Guest of Honor at Noreascon Two in 1980, invented the Retro-Hugo Awards (introduced under his tutelage at L.A.Con III in 1996), and avidly promoted fannish acceptance of mah jongg and sweet wines. Slightly outside SF fandom, but not unrelated, was his lead role in founding Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, in 1970.
With Bruce's departure, fandom loses one of its true Elder Statesmen. "We shall not look upon his like again."
May 4, 2002
George Alec Effinger (January 10, 1947 - April 27, 2002) [Photo by Ross Pavlac, 1995]
Though George Alec Effinger and I were contemporaries at Yale, we moved in completely different circles and didn't meet until a couple of decades after graduation. Therefore I can't offer any revelatory anecdotes foreshadowing his brilliance as a science fiction writer, nor do I know whether he was already suffering from the gastrointestinal disorder that, after inflicting prolonged suffering, killed him at age 55. His life was not one to envy. Poor health and personal turmoil (three failed marriages, escalating and uninsurable medical expenses, addiction to the pain killers prescribed for his ulcers) prevented him from putting his talents to their fullest use. But no one who knew him ever thought of him as a tragic figure. He talked about science fiction, food, fine (and not so fine) restaurants, baseball, Barbie dolls, soap operas, New Orleans (where he spent most of his adult life, though he grew up in Cleveland and remained an Indians fan), with no hint of self-pity. The tragic tinge comes in his stories, whose protagonists struggle in a difficult, confusing, often-shifting universe, one in which choices have unanticipatable consequences.
After leaving Yale, George attended the Clarion East workshop (having met Damon Knight while browsing in a bookstore) and had three stories selected for Clarion's first anthology (1971). His first Hugo nomination came in 1972 (for the short story "All the Last Wars at Once"). In 1973 he was runner-up (to Jerry Pournelle) for the first John W. Campbell Award.
George's early work, ranging from his debut novel What Entropy Means to Me (1972) to his Hugo/Nebula/Seiun winning novelette "Schrödinger's Kitten" (1988), played with contingency, featuring characters whose lives followed multiplying paths stemming from different choices at crucial moments. From there the transition to cyberpunk, with which he is most closely identified, was perhaps a natural one. His incomplete Marîd Audran series (When Gravity Fails, A Fire in the Sun, The Exile Kiss) is set in a 21st century Middle East where high technology coexists with medieval Arab mores. Alongside these works, he wrote fine light comedy and satire, some of which is collected in Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson.
George had many connections to Chicago fandom. He was a frequent guest at Windycon and an enthusiastic supporter of Chicago Worldcon bids. The photo is from his Chicago in 2000 trading card. He volunteered to work on Chicon 2000 and was slated to serve as our SFWA liaison. Unhappily, deteriorating health prevented him from doing so. In the final few months of his life, ironically, he seemed to be recovering from his maladies. He had shaken off his dependency on pain killing medication, given up alcohol (a subsidiary problem, undoubtedly attributable to the stress of disease) and was hard at work writing. We will never know what he might have produced if death has spared him, but what he left behind, both as an author and as a human being, is memorable enough.
April 15 ,2002
So you think that humans are irrationally bellicose? Well, our current wars are trifling compared to the planet's most massive conflict, now going on in Europe between two nations of ants. As reported in the Daily Telegraph, "Billions of ants from Italy, France, Spain and Portugal have united to wage war against a smaller, separatist colony in eastern Spain that refuses to be assimilated into their supercolony." The Associated Press adds more details. The war is a consequence of the invasion of Europe 80 years ago by vicious Argentinian ants, who overwhelmed most of the native Western European species. Now the invaders have split into two hostile factions whose soldiers fight to the death whenever they encounter one another.
Perhaps it's time for European diplomats, so eager to barge into the affairs of the Middle East, to attend to matters closer to home.
April 2, 2002
Norwescon, more than almost any other SF convention, resembles the fictional character who leaps onto his horse and rides off madly in all directions. Norwescon 25 (the 26th Norwescon, as one was numbered 9.5) continued a slow drift toward coherence. The teen-aged "goths" were a less visible presence than in the recent past, and the program was shorn of many of its oddities: no 12-person panels and almost no potted history. Operations ran as smoothly as ever, save for a few hardware problems at registration, and the Sea-Tac Doubletree continues to be one of the best venues for a moderately large convention. Roughly 2,800 attendees fit without too much trouble, though parking and restaurants were tighter than ideal.
Buying a membership took three tries, the first aborted by problems with the phone line to the credit card company, the second by a small-scale power failure (apparently caused by a bad power drop), but those problems were quickly corrected. The only other noticeable operational snafu was a scrambled Sunday grid in the pocket program.
Well-run ops is no surprise at Norwescon. The glaring weakness has long been programming. This year was much improved over my last Norwescon (2000), but the differing reactions of two friends show that more needs to be done. One was enthusiastic about the quantity and quality of science programming and spent more hours at panels than ever before. The other, a more literary sort, found nothing at all to interest him. There were plenty of items with authors, but they overwhelmingly took the form of "how to write" seminars, which tend to be jejune, especially when writers are assigned to them more or less at random.
The most disappointing aspect of programming was the catering to the goth element, without which Norwescon would be better off. The fashion (as opposed to costuming) and sex panels added nothing positive to the con. "How to Get Laid at a Convention" might be fun as light-hearted satire, but it seems to have been meant with utter seriousness.
The hotel spreads out to resort-like dimensions, which is an obstacle to party givers. The concomm should do more to concentrate parties in the central tower. Like, I suspect, many other fen, didn't feel energetic enough to search for outliers. Happily, the "Dragon Lady's Bar & Grill", run by Elizabeth Warren, took care of most of my late night needs for conversation and munchies.
The Kansas City in 2006 bid threw two nights of parties. In light of Norwescon's reputation for a low density of Worldcon voters, it's surprising that the bidcomm chose to make a major effort here after skipping inter alia Windycon, Loscon and Boskone. Those cons are smaller in overall numbers but attract many more fans who are likely to join Torcon and cast votes in the 2006 race.
But maybe KC knew what it was doing in putting on a party where it wouldn't be much noticed and subjected to criticism. Bid Party Rule Number One is, make sure that people know that it's a bid party. Had it not been for the itty-bitty stickers handed out at the door, a passer-by could easily have spent a long time at the event without realizing that it had anything to do with a Worldcon.
Buzz about ConJosé was not too loud, notwithstanding the startling events of the past few weeks. I did hear a new monicker, ConJoké, but no more than the usual number of predictions of disaster. The biggest news, aside from the previously announced elevation of Kevin Standlee to the position of co-chairman with Tom Whitmore, was the appointment of veteran dealer Larry Smith to handle Fixed Functions. He replaced Michael Siladi, long-time Baycon honcho, who apparently was too dissatisfied with the direction of the con to be willing (or welcome) to continue.
In other news, Linda Ross-Mansfield announced that she and her husband John have just signed an option on the Calgary Westin for a 2005 Westercon bid, and John Lorentz told me that nominations for the Best Web Site Hugo were much heavier than anticipated, running close to those for Best Novel! Perhaps this Hugo experiment will turn out to have legs.
March 16, 2002
In the early part of its final year, every World Science Fiction Convention about which I have any inside information has faced a crisis of confidence, usually centering on budget projections that make bankruptcy a seeming certainty, with subsidiary fears about the inability of one or more divisions to carry out their tasks. I saw this phenomenon first hand in working on Chicon IV, MagiCon, Bucconeer and Chicon 2000 and have heard its emanations from every other Worldcon that I've known anything about.
Hence, when I received two very long e-mails from a pseudonymous "Worried SMOF", their substance didn't surprise me. ConJosé, this year's Worldcon, is pushing all of the traditional panic buttons. The principal difference between it and most of its predecessors is that the chairman seems to be aware of history and to be attempting to exude patience and calm. That attitude naturally makes some of his colleagues more panicky.
What is surprising is that "Worried SMOF" has decided to disseminate internal arguments to what is, I presume, a large number of fans. His e-mail consists of the minutes of a board meeting at which an attempt was made to oust the chairman. Included therein are detailed statements by dissident concomm members calling attention to problems with finances and planning. Statements for the defense are laconic, and one almost feels like one is reading the transcript of a show trial (except that the defendant was acquitted).
An outsider cannot evaluate the charges, though nothing falls outside the normal run of pre-Worldcon disarray. Even on a pessimistic reading, ConJosé is doing better than some other Worldcons were at the same point, and it apparently faces only ordinary operational problems, the kind that the concomm can grind down, not an extraordinary crisis (such as Bucconeer's hotel booking snafu) that demands brilliance in addition to hard work.
I imagine that controversy will arise over the identity of "Worried SMOF" and the propriety of his tactics. His intentions are probably benign: to arouse "fannish public opinion" to pressurize the concomm into taking a less casual approach to what he sees as alarming deficiencies. Others may darkly accuse him of trying to sabotage the convention by inspiring rumors that it is going to be a second Nolacon - without a Bourbon Street to which fans can flee for solace. Not knowing who he is (he need not be close to the center of things; ConJosé makes board minutes available to the fannish public upon request), I won't try to divine his motives. Nor am I going to fret overmuch about the specifics raised by the dissidents. Unless the facilities vanish or no one else shows up, I already know that I'll have a good time at ConJosé, because each member ultimately organizes and runs his own private Worldcon. The concomm can help or hinder, but, if one may apply Goldsmith's couplet out of its original context:
How small, of all that human hearts endure,
The part that laws or kings can cause or cure.
January 29, 2002
Until September 11th, the Challenger disaster was my mind's reference point for tragedy. Sixteen years later, it still horrifies. And it rankles, too, for it was unlike September 11th not just in its scope but in another crucial respect. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon spurred Americans to determination not to be defeated, no matter what the risks. Within a few weeks, as the President is recalling as I type these words, we dispatched an expeditionary force halfway around the globe to root out our enemies in their lairs. We expect more battles against more enemies, some of which will inevitably involve "blood, toil, tears and sweat". The American people seem ready to pay whatever price victory demands.
To Challenger the public and government reaction was almost exactly the opposite. The country grew timid. The manned space program was interrupted for two years. We were told - very likely correctly - that a single new fatality would lead to a permanent retreat of man (at least of Homo Americanus) from the exploration of the galaxy, leaving the field entirely to machines.
Science fiction writers had never pictured manned space flight as so fragile a venture. Robert Heinlein, in his classic "The Green Hills of Earth", imagined that the first spacefarers would be like the 16th and 17th century sailors who set out for the New World:
The crew signed releases for everything in those days; a Lloyd's associate would have laughed in your face at the notion of insuring a spaceman. The Space Precautionary Act had never been heard of, and the Company was responsible only for wages, if and when. Half the ships that went further than Luna City never came back. Spacemen did not care; by preference they signed for shares, and any one of them would have bet you that he could jump from the 200th floor of the Harriman Tower and ground safely, if you offered him three to two and allowed him rubber heels for the landing.
Heinlein's spacemen, having watched the Challenger explode, would have mourned the dead on January 30th, taken a day off, and launched the next shuttle on February 1st, just to show Mother Nature that they couldn't be cowed.
There is no virtue in foolish risks, but there is less in perpetual timidity. The universe outside our tiny cocoon is a vast and deadly place. If we continue to go out into it, explorers will die, just as did most of those who crossed the Atlantic during the first two centuries after Columbus. But if those ages had been afflicted with NASA-level fearfulness, Columbus' descendants would yet be sitting on the docks of Seville, waiting for a perfect wind and a guaranteed safe passage.
January 27, 2002
The first couple of Discworld novels were simple farces, aimed at eliciting laughter and not much else. As time and words went by, however, the Discworld lost its improvisational air and evolved into a genuine subcreation.The tales are still funny, but they are no longer funny and nothing more.
The Last Hero, published at the very end of 2001, departs from its predecessors in a couple of superficial ways. First, it is novella length. Second, it appears in a lavishly illustrated edition for which Paul Kidby ought by rights to earn a Best Professional Artist Hugo nomination.
New in a less superficial way are space travel, a visit to the home of the Discworld gods, a clever method of throwing "7" on a six-sided die and reproductions of Leonard of Quirm's scientific drawings (with the mirror handwriting thoughtfully reversed; to see what the originals looked like, the reader must furnish his own mirror).
Despite its relative brevity, the book manages to give major roles to a number of favorite personalities of the Disc, including the aforementioned Leonard, cowardly wizard Rincewind (the Luggage, alas, has no more than an - er - walk-on part), rocket wizard Ponder Stibbons, the Librarian, the Patrician, Captain Carrot Ironsfoundersson and, last but it's worth your life to say least, Cohen the Barbarian, the "last hero" of the title.
The mainspring of the plot is existential angst, an emotion strangely absent from most comic fantasy. Cohen, having come to the conclusion that heroism has no place in the modern world, has resolved to carry out one final, ever-memorable deed. The First Hero stole fire from the gods (and has suffered liver pains ever since); the Last Hero will return it. Unfortunately, barbarians are not detail-oriented (broadswords rather than rapiers, you know), and the detail that Cohen has overlooked in that his chosen method of giving fire back will have the side effect of destroying the Discworld. Knowing that might not concern him over much, but it is unpopular with the Unseen University and the ruler of Ankh-Morpork. Mr. Pratchett would find it unfortunate, too. Were the Discworld to disappear, he could be driven to writing school stories, just like a certain lesser British author.
At the risk of spoiling the suspense, I shall reveal that the Discworld escapes destruction this time around, though not by a substantial margin. Let me also reveal that the preceding paragraphs are not a review but a plug. Discworld novels have never had much luck in the Hugo Award balloting. "Best Novel" is a serious award, and I think that voters feel guilty about indicating a preference for a work that makes them laugh. But "Best Novella" can be lighter fare. (All right, saving the universe from inevitable cataclysm through a last minute feat of idiotic bravery may not be everybody's concept of "lighter fare", but you know what I mean.) The Last Hero is, IMHO, the best book that Pratchett has written since Pyramids, and I'll be very surprised if five other novellas published last year are worthier of nomination.
January 5, 2002
Perhaps you don't spend much time worrying about the fate of your descendants eight billion years from now. I don't either; having no descendants allows me not to feel guilty about this hard-heartedness. Nonetheless, it is strangely reassuring to learn, from the Daily Telegraph, that the latest analysis indicates that persons living today will be able to have descendants on Earth in A.D. 8,000,000,000.
The conventional view had been that the Sun's eventual expansion into a red giant star would engulf the Earth in about 7.5 billion years. New calculations by the Sussex University astrophysics department have, however, taken better account of the fact that expansion will result in a loss of solar mass and reduced gravitational attraction. Consequently, the Earth will spiral to a more distant orbit. Mercury and Venus are still goners, but Terra will escape the flames. After that, the Sun will collapse to a white dwarf, leaving any remaining inhabitants of our planet to end in ice rather than fire.