Hugo Awards 2018: my votes for the short stories

It’s Hugo Award voting time, and I’ve read and weighed the short stories. This year there are no incursions from Puppies of any kind, and while for aesthetic reasons I’m not fond of every nominee, they all deserve to be considered the year’s best. In fact, many of the Hugo short story nominations were also Nebula nominations.

In order from sixth to first place (the Hugo uses a ranked ballot), these are my votes for the short stories, but reasonable people might vote otherwise.

6. “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17)
A visitor is led through an exhibition of what might have once cruelly been called a freak show. Beautifully written, the story effectively evokes the bitter anger of those on display, and perhaps it’s meant as horror reflecting the way society treats those who are different, but I don’t think it quite fulfills the noble goals of horror. Horror stories are modern tragedies, and a tragedy requires the protagonists to suffer for some fault within themselves. The visitor is tortured apparently to avenge the general cruelty of society, but the visitor’s participation in this cruelty is never established. As Aristotle argued in Poetics, unmerited misfortune merely shocks us: it isn’t tragedy. I see this story as torture for torture’s sake, and there’s no merit in sadism. The quality of the writing, though, deserves to be ranked above “No Vote.”

5. “Carnival Nine,” Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/11/17)
A wind-up toy robot mother makes great sacrifices to care for her robot son who has mechanical problems. The tale is obviously a analogy to what happens in real life to families with children with disabilities — a bit too obvious an analogy, perhaps, almost a parable, and the story never explains who does the winding up or why some toys live in a closet. Heart-strings are tugged, but logic is stretched, and that weakened the overall effect for me. Also a Locus Award nominee.

4. “Moon, Sun, Dust,” by Ursula Vernon (Uncanny 5-6/17)
A farmer is bequeathed a magic sword by his grandmother on her deathbed. He has no use for a sword, magic or otherwise, however, and is quite content to go on growing potatoes. His humble candor carries the story, which is gently and delightfully charming. I rank it fourth only due to stiff competition. It’s well worth reading.

3. “The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata ( 7/19/17)
As Earth is dying from a long series of natural and human-made disasters, an old woman is directing robots on Mars to create a monument to outlast humanity. It may be a futile gesture, but there’s not much else to do — then something seems to be stirring on Mars. This quiet story depends on largely unstated emotions to carry it, and those emotions lurk like leviathans: sorrow, defeat, anger, pain, despair … and defiance. Despite its brevity, it made a long journey across my heart to do battle with dystopia. It won the 2018 Locus Award for Short Story.

2. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17)
An Indian guide for cyberspace tourists offers Native American “Vision Quests” that are as authentically Indian as the Lucky Charms leprechaun is authentically Irish, but white people seem fine with that. Then a customer wants too much. Unrelenting cynicism about commercialization and stereotypes underlies this story’s muted fury. It’s already won an Apex Reader’s Choice Award, a Locus Award nomination, and this year’s Nebula Award. Well deserved.

1. “Fandom for Robots,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny 9-10/17)
A sentient robot discovers an anime series about another sentient robot, Hyperwarp, and becomes a “hyper-big fan.” Then it discovers fanfiction and makes friends. This is as funny as it sounds but also touching as the robot, which has no emotions, responds in a pseudo-emotional way and becomes accepted as a human on the internet. Both fandom and technology are efficiently dissected with a loving, razor-sharp knife. It was a Locus Award nominee and got my vote for the Nebula Award.

Good luck and congratulations to all the authors!

— Sue Burke

The Clarion T-shirt: cold, cruel critiques

In 1996, when I was at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshop, each class traditionally made a commemorative T-shirt. (This may still be the case. I hope so.)

Ours featured a design on the front evoking a video game. The boy manikin in the illustration had certain sentimental significance.

The back, in keeping with tradition, listed remarks taken out of context from critiques. Critiquing stories was a main activity at the workshop, and we tried to be kind and helpful, but context is everything. One of these remarks was mine, by the way, and I’m not going to own up to it. One of them was about a story I wrote, and it was actually good advice.

• I would really like to say something nice about your story.

• You should use a lighter shade of foreshadowing.

• The story was dances with wolves, bears, deer, and thunderclouds.

• Spirals down into madness and incompetence in a lighthearted sort of way.

• This story is about Emily Dickinson’s pivotal role in the space program.

• What do we want? THE PRESENT! When do we want it? NOW!

• You have everything you need; it all just needs to be changed.

• I also like gratuitous incineration.

• This story is Waiting for Godot, but without all the action.

• I’m not sure that this story needs to have exactly what you want to say in there.

• What we need are some Zombie rules.

GameOverCloseup.jpg• This story is so well-written I bet you’ve written something I’d like.

— Sue Burke

How I sort of ate lunch with the FIFA World Cup trophy

In 1994, the United States hosted the World Cup soccer (football) competition, and before the games, the World Cup trophy went on tour across the country to try to whip up enthusiasm for the sport.

I was living in Milwaukee at the time, and a friend and I happened to go to a shopping mall where it was on display, so we paused to look at it. We weren’t big soccer fans, but how often would we get to see something that famous?

So we stood there admiring it on a stand near the central garden. A man in a suit who was obviously a security guard observed us impassively. I felt a little disappointed that we were the only shoppers who seemed interested. So much for whipping up enthusiasm. If it were on display in much of the world, a long line would be waiting just to get close. But back then Milwaukee wasn’t a big soccer town. Things might be different now.

The trophy itself is a big chunk of solid gold with a pair of green malachite rings around the bottom. I didn’t like the design much, which seemed a little knobby to me, but it was big and shiny – about 36 cm/14 inches tall, weighing 5 kilos/11 pounds. That much gold is worth around US$200,000.

To help with perspective, here’s a detail of a photo that shows the trophy being presented by then Vice President Al Gore to the Brazilian team, which won the 1994 World Cup. That’s what $200,000 looks like, to say nothing of the cost of everything else surrounding the tournament, which would be a number with a metric shit-load of zeros.

After we had stood enraptured for long enough, we went on to buy whatever it was that had brought us to the mall, and later stopped for lunch at a fast food restaurant. As we sat down, the trophy’s guard came in with a trophy-sized briefcase handcuffed to one of his wrists, and we guessed what was inside. He bought lunch and sat at a nearby table.

My friend and I speculated about the security. There couldn’t be just one guy protecting that much gold, right? Without a doubt, we decided, someone was guarding the guard, but we couldn’t figure out who.

And that’s as close as I’ll ever get to the World Cup trophy. I sort of ate lunch with it once.

— Sue Burke

Dad’s three rules for success

DadMany decades ago on a summer Friday evening when the fish didn’t seem to be biting, Dad decided we could spend our time better having a beer. We gathered up our fishing tackle and went to the little tavern in Green Lake Terrace, Wisconsin, where we had a summer home.

From the comfort of a bar stool, he told me three secrets to business success — and he’d had a variety of experience.

1. Always stay as polite as you can for as long as you can. If you start out mad, where can you go from there? Besides, if you’re polite, calm, and rational, the person you’re dealing with will feel obliged to act that way, too, and this is more likely to get you what you want.

My dad added that this can require calculated self-control, and the point might come when politeness doesn’t work. He earned the nickname “the bastard” at work for his ability to be impolitely assertive in a self-controlled, calculated way when he had to. For example, once a machine was delivered that didn’t work right, and in heavy manufacturing, operating errors can kill people. The supplier refused to fix the machine. Finally, my dad talked to the supplier and explained in simple Anglo-Saxon words why they had to fix their machine, or else — and they finally understood what would happen if they didn’t.

My father didn’t teach me how to swear, but he taught me when to swear.

2. Always remember that the people who work for you have it in their power to determine whether you’re a success or not. Treat them as well as you can. If your employees hate you, they have no incentive to work harder than they need to. In fact, they might even make things fail out of spite — this has actually happened.

If your employees know you’re trying your best to get them what they need, fighting on their behalf with the powers that be, and respecting them, they’ll go the extra mile. Experienced workers treasure a good boss. For some reason, my dad said, good bosses are rare.

This secret to success extends to all kinds of people who don’t work for you but who have a working relationship with you. If you appreciate them, they’ll return the favor in their area of expertise. Be on good terms with janitors, for example. They know more about the building than you ever will, and they can make things happen. Everyone is powerful in their own right.

3. Always tip bartenders. Bartenders remember regular customers who tip, and that means you’ll have a friend in the room.

For example, when my dad entertained clients, he could pre-arrange for his friendly bartender to quietly slip him non-alcoholic drinks while the others were getting what they ordered. It helped to be clandestinely sober during business discussions.

And if for some reason you have a problem, and women sometimes do, you’ll have a friend in the room who is important to that room.

In short: treat people not just fairly, treat them as well as you can and with respect. That’s the secret to success at work. Thanks, Dad. I wish you were still here.

WisCon 42 report

WisCon.jpgWisCon, the world’s leading feminist science fiction convention
May 25 to 28, 2018, Memorial Day weekend, Concourse Hotel, Madison, Wisconsin

Friday, May 25
Chicago to Madison

Since my husband needed our car to get to work, I hitched a ride with a friend to get from Chicago to Madison. At one point a detour for roadwork sent us on some gorgeous little country roads. We entertained ourselves by birdwatching, spotting lots of turkey vultures along with more elegant species.

We arrived a little after noon, and I checked in, got my credentials, and went to The Gathering, a fair-like welcoming event in the hotel’s Capitol Ballroom. It offered activities including a nail polish swap and hair braiding salon, but I mostly browsed through the clothing swap and found two sweaters, a dress, slacks, top, and scarf, at which point I decided to stop because my suitcase would be stuffed. Then I visited The Gathering’s Gadget Petting Zoo and marveled at the extensive variety of fidget spinners.

My only panel at the convention started at 2:30 p.m., Speculative Fiction in Translation, which I was also on last year at WisCon. We discussed the joys and obstacles (mostly financial) to translation, and some tricky cultural and linguistic challenges. I moderated, and the panel included Rachel Cordasco, who runs the Speculative Fiction in Translation website. She passed out a 14-page catalog of works recently translated into English from around the world; the information is available at her website. We also gave away chocolate and books, as we did last year.

Next stop: a Neopronouns workshop – words like “they,” “zhe,” “ze,” “xe,” “e” and “per.” As we discovered, even people who favor such pronouns sometimes find them awkward, and the grammar cases can be troublesome, but they serve an important purpose.

After dinner in the Con Suite, greeting old and new friends, I cruised through the Meet the Artists event in the Art Show and indeed met some artists. Then I attended “What Does It Mean to Be a Good Fandom Citizen?” which was about fanfic and creating an environment to support an attitude of “live and let live” (or “ship and let ship”; “to ship” refers to initiating a romantic relationship).

The hotel bar was well-stocked with Fantasy Factory, a beer by a local brewery, Karben4. The label depicts a fire-breathing unicorn being ridden by a ninja cat. I enjoyed it as I spent the rest of the evening at parties, laughing and getting a hug from a dragon, and was in bed by 1 a.m.

Saturday, May 26
Madison Concourse Hotel

Feeling better than I had a right to, I bought a coffee and a breakfast pastry as I toured the Farmer’s Market at Capitol Square near the hotel. Asparagus, morel mushrooms, and seedling flats served as proof of springtime. I bought some fine cheddar as a gift for my husband, who was stuck at home doing homework for his master’s degree.

I arrived a little late to “Alternatives to Patreon: Direct Support to Creators.” The discussion concluded that despite its flaws, there are few alternatives to Patreon, unfortunately.

I left the convention briefly to go to A Room of One’s Own bookshop to sign some of my books. I came back and bought some art, specifically a matted photo by Katie Clapham, whom I’d met the night before. Then I bought a book and trinkets in the Dealer’s Room, and finally I ate some tasty salads for lunch at the Con Suite.

“Subtle Dangers of AI” considered the biases in machine learning and algorithms, which are compounded by the tendency to use them to make money rather than practice any sort of ethics. At “Arab-American Fantasy,” guest of honor Saladin Ahmed told how he incorporated the importance of older people in Arab culture into his novel Throne of the Crescent Moon. “Female Friendships in Our Stories” compared the differences between friendships, romantic relationships, and familial ties, and discussed female friendships in specific works.

After dinner at a Peruvian restaurant with an old friend where we argued over familial ties in novels, I was back for the Tiptree Auction. Auctioneer Sumana “brainwane” Harihareswara, a stand-up comedian among other career choices, was surprised by some of the bidding. A red plastic inflatable fish skeleton was sold for $145. “I’m exceedingly aware that this is ridiculous,” she said as bidding escalated “for a thing you never needed … this goddam fish … that I got helping a friend move” because the friend was going to discard it. The winning bidder received a standing ovation.

Next, to Sumana’s greater amazement, a 2002 O’Reilly manual, Essential Blogging, Cory Doctorow’s first book, sold for even more, $355, despite its discussion of highly out-of-date technology. Perhaps the proximity to the temporary bar in the hallway had something to do with all this.

After that, I wandered through parties, including the Haiku Earring Party, where you select a pair of earrings, then the hostess, Elise Matthesen, gives you a topic, and you write a haiku. My earrings were made of large gray and black beads, and my topic was “mixing up the night.” After overcoming writer’s block, I produced: “about to ignite / hydrogen coalescing / into primal stars.”

That night, I conscientiously went to bed before midnight.

Sunday, May 27
Madison Concourse Hotel

Wearing my new earrings, which matched my outfit perfectly, I snatched some coffee and Racine kringle pastry at the Con Suite, then attended various panels. “How Writers, Editors, Teachers, and Publishers Can Encourage Positive Social Action” talked about “changing the shape of the box rather than the shape of the writer” and how to subvert narratives. “Epigenetics Book Club: What It Is and How It Will Affect SF Plotting” dealt with themes I am plotting about in my current writing project.

After lunch with a friend at a breakfast-all-day restaurant, the panel on “Uncommodifying Culture” pondered whether speculative fiction might be more branded and commodified than other genres. The panel “Biology Breaks Binaries: More Wild Alien Sex” was cancelled, so instead I went to “Constellations of This and Other Worlds.” The presenters couldn’t get the AV equipment to work, so we used our smart phones to access the star charts on their Google Drive document.

Next I went to a nearby coffee shop for “The Alchemy of Diversity: Poetry Open Mic,” where the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association celebrated its 40th anniversary; I am a member. We entertained ourselves with round-robin readings.

At the Dessert Salon, held immediately prior to the guest of honor speeches, we all got a choice of two desserts, and I went for maximum chocolate. As the event began, we were saddened to learn that Gardner Dozois had died. Saladin Ahmed said how much he’d miss him, and then read his speech: “I hope we can feel like guests in each others stories…. How we mythologize matters.” The other guest of honor, Tananarive Due, told how Gardner had published her early works, and then described how science fiction, in particular Afro-futurism, can “weave the future today…. We need to help young readers imagine a better world.”

The Tiptree Award ceremony presented chocolate and other gifts to Virginia Bergin, author of the winning work, a British young adult novel Who Runs the World? which will be published in the US as The XY.

Then I attended some parties, but none of them had alcohol, so eventually I gravitated to the bar, met old and new friends, and suddenly it was 1 a.m.

Monday, May 27
Madison to Chicago

I got up, packed, checked my luggage with the front desk, got coffee and a sweet roll in the Con Suite, and went to panels.

“You Are (Probably) Not As Progressive As You Think” discouraged would-be allies from getting angry or confrontational on behalf of marginalized groups because that makes the marginalized group members seem angry and confrontational, even if they aren’t. “Future of Fiction Formats” considered works such as 17776 by Jon Bois, as well as the question that the “Alternatives to Patreon” panel also pondered: how to get paid. “There’s no magic way to get paid through crowdfunding,” panelist Alexandra Erin said, “but there’s no magic way to get paid for anything.”

The convention ended with The Signout in the Capitol Ballroom, where about thirty authors signed their books. I was one of them. The guests of honor got a lot of attention. I chatted with friends, had Naomi Kritzer sign a book for me, enjoyed snacks elegantly provided to authors by the convention (thank you!), but I only signed three books, two of which were not my own.

And having said goodbye, I got my suitcase from consignment, walked to the nearby University of Wisconsin campus, and soon caught a bus back to Chicago, reading the latest issue of Asimov’s magazine on the way.

Next year’s WisCon guests of honor will be G. Willow Wilson, author of the Hugo-winning Ms. Marvel comic, and Charlie Jane Anders, author of the Nebula-winning novel All the Birds in the Sky.