Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

In the Afterword to Stone Mattress, Nine Wicked Tales, Margaret Atwood explains that she chose the word “tales” deliberately, to differentiate from stories. A story can be a telling of an actual occurrence; a “tale” is always made up and often fantastical. Atwood visits the fantastical in several of these tales; she also mocks it pretty cruelly and she often does both at the same time. Her sense of humor is both wicked and pointed. At the same time, she touches both our minds and our hearts, reminding us again why she is one of the best English-language writers working now.

The first three stories are linked by theme and characters. Atwood studies the power of a “tale,” specifically, a series of fantasy stories set in a place called Alphinland. In “Alphinland” we meet Constance, the creator of the alternate world. Constance has been widowed a little over a year and doesn’t like to admit to family and friends that she still hears the voice of her head husband Ewan. When the story opens we see Constance preparing the townhouse where they lived for the first ice storm of the season. Ewan’s voice gives her guidance along the way. In the early pages, Atwood captures several things with uncanny precision; the stages of bereavement, the early conditions of living alone after several decades in tandem. Constance knows, for instance, that her grown children were shocked to find unwashed dishes, an empty refrigerator and cups filled with moldy tea when they came after Ewan died. They didn’t understand that while she tended him during his illness, a “meal” for her was often a spoonful of peanut butter from the jar.

The story soon moves to a contemplation of Alphinland, Constance’s creation, the source of her financial success, and her refuge. She thinks back to her first serious love, a poet named Gavin. She and Gavin lived together in the early 1960s. Constance worked at a restaurant. As well as paying the rent, she brought home free food, because Gavin was busy drinking beer with his friends and writing poetry, and couldn’t be expected to work. Atwood nails the attitudes of the early 60s, the explosion of creativity, the sexual permissiveness and the view of women as handmaidens and second-class citizens. During this time, Constance wrote and sold the first Alphinland stores. Gavin and his friends mocked them. Constance mocked them. They were silly, they meant nothing – but they had legs, and they support Constance the rest of her life. And they make her famous.

The last third of the story circles back around to her years with Ewan, and Constance’s grief undergoes a transmutation, although it does not necessarily lessen.

“Revenant” is the second story in the trio and it focuses on Gavin. This is a vengeance story to me, but there is no character who is the instrument of vengeance. Instead the author, or maybe more accurately, the story itself shreds Gavin with surgical precision. The title is well-chosen; Gavin, once a famous poet and successful womanizer is now creatively barren, bitter and completely dependent on his younger wife. He is a physical wreck and his best poetry is years behind him. A young graduate student comes to interview him, and his wife has let him believe that the student is writing about his work. Gavin’s sexual innuendos toward the student are so dated she doesn’t even understand most of them. Then she yanks the rug out from under him by her explanation that she is writing her thesis, not about him, but about Constance and the “world-building fantasy series” Alphinland.

“Dark Lady” is the third tale, and the reference to Shakespeare’s possible mistress is completely intentional. At a memorial service, three women meet for the first time. While I was engaged by the aging fraternal twins Jorrie and Tin, I felt that even they were more like actors on a stage than real people. The ending of the story is clever but I wasn’t caught up by it.

Together these three stories comprise 116 pages and it would not surprise me to see them published separately as a standalone work at some point.

“Lusus Naturae” is Atwood’s elegant take on a classic horror story.

“The Freeze Dried Groom” introduces us to Sam, who is having a bad day. His wife is divorcing him and asked him to leave. His dramatic exit is spoiled by the fact that his car has a dead battery. I felt some sympathy for Sam, but as I got to know him better it ebbed away, replaced by that disbelieving, sneaking sense of admiration best characterized by the phrase, “what a piece of work!” Sam is a low-level criminal, a confidence man, someone who, as he says, even surprises himself with what he “gets up to.” At a storage unit auction Sam is finally surprised by something outside himself. In the second unit he buys, he finds items that update, and finally top, Miss Havisham’s wedding room in Great Expectations. It’s all there; a wedding dress, table decorations, a cake and a… well, I refer you back to the title. What happens after that is completely in character for Sam, but I almost didn’t care – my mind was trapped back that gloriously bizarre storage unit.

“I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth” follows three long-time friends who are concerned about the man one of them has let back into her life. This distrust of the man is shared by the woman’s dog. I loved the voices of these three old friends.

“The Dead Hand Loves You” plays with popular fiction the same way “Alphinland” does. This time, it’s a bitter male writer whose one horror novel, The Dead Hand Loves You spawned a movie, a remake (nobody likes the remake) and a cottage industry. Again, Atwood flips between the cynical present and the free-wheeling 60s. I loved every humorous bit about the book. The sentimental ending left me surprised and a little disbelieving. I think this is probably mildly metafictional, since the end mirrors the sentimental happy ending of Jack’s book. As he says,“Maybe 1964 was the last moment when you could get away with that. Try such a thing now and people would only laugh.”

“Stone Mattress” is, on one level, an exercise in The Perfect Murder. Verna says she is taking a break from men. She has outlived four husbands, and has plenty of money for now. On an Alaskan cruise filled with men called Bob, Verna spots a particular Bob, someone from her youth. He doesn’t recognize her or remember what he did to her. Verna’s bottled-up rage fuels the story. The flashbacks to the small-town childhood and the cruelty of that small town is searing. While I had trouble completely accepting the how of what happened to Verna, I never doubted that it did happen. This is a perfect murder story and a perfect vengeance tale.

In “Torching the Dusties” there’s a lot going on – too much for me. Wilma lives in an assisted living facility. She is losing her sight and the loss creates visual hallucinations. Tiny people and animals promenade across her window sill and her nightstand. She knows that they aren’t real. We meet several of the residents, including Wilma’s dear friend Tobias. Outside the gates of the expensive facility, something is starting to happen, something a bit unsettling that Wilma, distracted by Tobias and her macular degeneration, doesn’t pay attention to at first. Atwood clearly surfs the internet, and the sentiment expressed by the group that has gathered at the gates is as realistic as it is frightening. The story progresses to a strangely, scarily beautiful ending, and could easily be the “prequel” for either The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake. I admire Atwood’s virtuosity, but was overwhelmed by the parade of character and elements here. It was just a little too much.

Stone Mattress showcases Atwood considerable skills, and her acerbic view of humanity. When Ursula LeGuin reviewed it, she called the tales, “icily refreshing arsenic Popsicles,” and I think that’s accurate. Well worth reading.

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The Eclipse

Moonrise occurred at 7:14 PST, and the moon rose already in the penumbra of the earth’s shadow, so it looked like a cloudy pink smear. I walked over to the nearby park about 7:30. In the early stages, the color was remarkably pink. It darkened to orange-red as the event continued.

At roughly 7:30:

9/27/14 7:30ish PT

I thought the September full moon was called the Corn Moon. I didn’t know what all the hoopla about “blood moon” was. It’s from a modern book of biblical prophecy, based on a line from the Book of Revelation… of course. And it was a “supermoon,” a point in the moon’s orbit when, because the orbit isn’t a perfect circle, the moon is closest to earth. No one could ask the internet to resist the idea of “super-blood-moon eclipse.”  Basically, “blood moon” means nothing except that some guy who wrote a book made some money.

At roughly 8:15:

9/27/15 8:15ish PT


9/27/15 8:15 ish PT

9/27/15 8:16ish PT

I was shooting with a Canon T3i with a Tamron 18-270mm zoom, a 1.8X zoom extender, and a tripod. I still got a bit of blur, because if I was slow to get my fingers off the camera, my heartbeat would provide enough jiggle to affect the photo. (Note to self; get a remote shutter release.)

At roughly 8:30

The park’s sprinklers came on. I was safe since I was in the parking lot. A young Belgian couple was not so lucky. They had brought a picnic, some wine and a blanket, and settled out on the soccer fields to watch the eclipse. The sound of water rushing through the pipes gave them a little warning, but they got pretty damp, they told me, racing for the walkway as water droplets jetted out of the sprinkler heads.

At roughly 8:45

9/27/15 8:45 ish PT

I love the pearl like glow of the returning light 9/27/15 8:45ish PT

9/27/15 8:46ish PT

I’m a material, earthbound kind of person, but lunar eclipses take me out of myself, if only for an hour of so. For that hour, I really do begin to understand that there is a star surrounded by whirling chunks of rock — and we’re one of those chunks. And that the chunk of rock that whirls around us reflects that star’s light. And that maybe it’s not all just about my little life.

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The Hugos, 2016: Persona by Genevieve Valentine

Here is a must-read 2015 novel by the author of Mechanique; Tales of the Circus Tresaulti, and The Girls of the Kingfisher Club. In Persona, Valentine attempts a full-throttle near-future science fiction novel, and nails it.

In Persona, global politics is handled through the International Assembly (think super United Nations) and the diplomats who attend conferences, summits, and symposia are known as Faces. They are chosen for appearance and poise. Their talking points are developed by Handlers, and ultimately by the IA’s central committee. As you might expect, behind the façade (play on words intended) of the IA, a group of rich and powerful countries called the Big Nine make all the real decisions.

Suyana is the Face for a newly formed country, the Amazon Rainforest Confederation. Her country struggles to fend off the rapacious grasp of the USA, and Suyana has fallen from grace after there was an attack on an American installation in her country. She has a new handler, and hopes to make a comeback in Paris, but within hours she is the victim of an assassination attempt.

Persona’s political world is dynamic, untrustworthy, and layered with veils and masks, as the title indicates. It’s not amazing that Valentine was able to create a world this complex. It’s amazing that she was able to do it in just over 300 pages. Persona doesn’t waste the reader’s time with long expositional passages of the history or the background, how the IA came about or other details. We are in Suyana’s skin and, like her, we hit the ground running. This, combined with the way Valentine uses new-tech, reminds me of William Gibson’s novels. You stick close to the character and you pick it up as you go — and you will pick it up, because Valentine does an expert job of seeding in the details you need to understand what’s happening.

In this world of masks, performances and veils it might have been tempting to portray Suyana as a naïf, an innocent, but she has veils of her own, and so does Daniel, the paparazzo or “snap” who helps her as she is running from the unknown assassin. We are as baffled as Suyana and Daniel about who to trust, and certainly they shouldn’t even trust each other, but Suyana’s background makes her an intriguing character, especially if it’s true that she might have brought the assassination attempt on herself.

The story runs on a tight time-frame, taking place in just two days. There is an awkward time-jump at the end where several weeks pass in white space (at least three; enough time for one of Suyana’s wounds to heal and leave a prominent scar). This leap, after such a tight clock throughout the story, gives the impression of a rushed ending, and that’s not exactly the case.

The sequel, Icon, is due out next year. I certainly want a sequel, but Persona is a complete story with a satisfying conclusion, innovative prose, and great descriptions. Valentine successfully melds our sense of current politics as Kabuki Theater, the proliferation of Celebrities for Their Own Sakes, colonialism, reality television and even our fixation with selfies into a plausible and different world. In high relief against that intricate background, two characters we care about struggle to both survive and find their place. This, people, is storytelling. Persona is one of 2015’s best.


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Reading Suggestions; Hugo-Eligible in 2016

So far, the best fantasy novel of 2015 is Scott Hawkins’s The Library at Mount Char. Against the backdrop of a town that looks like Anywhere, USA — at least ’til you get up close — Hawkins unleashes an original premise and a wild story about reality, realities, gods and humanity.

Caroline, like each of her foster siblings, all raised by Father in the library, has a catalogue to study. Hers is languages — all languages (not just human). Her brother David studies War and a sister studies healing. The stern, cruel taskmaster Father has one rule; you never study another person’s catalogue. Clearly, Father is not exactly human… but now he’s gone, the library is closed to Caroline and her siblings, and Father’s rivals are on their way. Controlling the library means, simply, controlling this reality.

I’m linking to Jana Nyman’s and Terry Weyna’s review of The Library at Mount Char, and, as a bonus, Jana’s interview with Scott Hawkins. This is a must-read book of 2015.

(Shameless plug:  if you go the Fantasy Literature to read the reviews and decide you want the book, you can order the book from Amazon directly by clicking on the picture of the book. The site gets a few cents per sale, and it helps with operating expenses.)

(So no doubt it’s confusing that my links go to Powell’s. I’m just not a big fan of Amazon.)

Rather than talk much here about Naomi Novik’s Uprooted I’m just going to refer you to my FanLit review where I gush about it self-indulgently. I love the mix of folk-tale and woman-coming-into-her-power story that Novik pulls off here; I thought the world-building was great and the voice was perfect. Oh, wait, I wasn’t going to say very much here.

Terry Weyna included Dan Wells’s book The Devil’s Only Friend, as Hugo-worthy for 2016. Terry has been following Wells’s work for a while. (She also interviewed him.)

More to come… and I will have some information on novellas and novelettes coming up as well.

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The Hugos, 2016: Chapter One

I can hear you already. “Oh, noooo! She’s at it again! Not more Hugo stuff, please!” Well, yes, more Hugo stuff, but this is completely different. This is Hugo 2016.

Okay, well, not completely different. It’s a little bit different. Remember how I said if we don’t want to have a slate foisted on us, we’d better nominate? Well, if you decide you are interested in nominating, I’m going to help you by pointing you to books and stories I think are Hugo-2016 worthy.

Here are the eligibility requirements: It has to have been published for the first time in 2015, and it has to be excellent work.

Here are my expectations:  This is a Suggested Reading list. I’m not asking anyone to nominate a book because I said it was good (because that’s a slate). I’m suggesting you read it and decide for yourself.

I will have read most of the works I post about. In some cases, I will not have read them myself (for example, I still haven’t read Cixin Liu), but I’ve read good reviews. I will point you to those reviews.

I will try to be clear what category I think the piece I’m discussing would fit.

I might also link to other sites who are doing the same type of thing. The pro-slate group that calls itself Sad Puppies  4 is already hard at work, and here’s their link. There are a couple of mega-fans who have set up sites. Here’s one, by Ken Marable. As I find others  I’ll provide those too.

Let’s get out those nominations!





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The Conference, Day One

mcwc sign

UPDATE: I found this sitting in Drafts — I thought I’d published it. Anyway, better late than never, I guess.

August 6, 2015

Karen Lewis is the new executive director of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, but Maureen Epstein, “Director Emeritus” was there to step in should any spinning plates start to wobble. I took one picture of Karen during the first day and I started to post it, but it was so bad and so unflattering I deleted it.

The conference seemed a bit smaller this year. I knew that including myself, 75% of the Benicia Crew would be there, but some longtime writing friends didn’t make it this year. I didn’t know how many other familiar faces I would see.

As I walked across the dried grass, a slender man fell in ron moritaalongside me. “How are you?” he said. I was surprised to see Ron Morita, from the Atlas Coffee group. Ron has finalized his move from the east coast, to the SF bay area, to the Anderson Valley, which is where he is now. He was in the short fiction workshop.

I also ran into Susan Hensley, who was in a MCWC workshop with me years and years ago, and who I had also seen at the Nebula weekend and FogCON. Susan is writing YA fantasy. I’m looking forward to seeing some of it!

We had a great collection of excerpts for the master class. David Corbett was the instructor. David’s love is of character and he has written a non-fiction book called The Art of Character. David lectured about the first hour of the first workshop, which meant we were a bit behind on manuscript review. It turned out we were not alone; I found out from my own personal grapevine that in one workshop, they reviewed no manuscripts at all the first day.

We all want our manuscripts reviewed, but David is a great teacher, and I would not have minded a little more lecture. If only the conference could go on for four days! Or five! Or two weeks or…

In our group, we had:

A chapter about a girl with a very strange mother, in 1956 Missouri; a brilliant opening of a story called “Bearded Lady” about a teenaged girl with a condition and a strange family; a philosophical science fiction novel; a techno-thriller; magical realism; a love story from 1973; a story about a woman trying to find a place when her daughter in law has no place for her; a fascinating historical novel set in California; a police procedural with father-son cops; a poetic, impressionistic bad boyfriend tale;  a fictionalized account of a young girl institutionalized during the 1970s, and my story, set during Prohibition, with magic.

The “master class” is a juried class, so I had an expectation of good writing and I wasn’t disappointed. It isn’t just the ability to write, though, you need to tell a story that’s interesting and compelling and every one of my workshop mates knew how to do that.

After lunch, I listened to the faculty readings. The memoir instructor read a sad piece about visiting her chronically ill father and realizing it is probably for the last time. David read the eerie opening of The Mercy of the Night.Indigo Moor, the poetry instructor, read a number of poems. Now I will have to find and purchase his poetry books. When I read them I hope it’s his voice I’ll hear in my head.

lunch with blue balloon

Lunch in the courtyard. Maureen is second on the left at the first table; Indigo Moor is standing at the back in the blue shirt.



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Greenwood/Elk Village

Elk is a hamlet on Highway One, between Point Arena and Mendocino. For several years when I’d driven through the hamlet on a weekday, the visitors center had been closed. This trip, it was open, because the State Parks Department has stationed a park employee there during the week. Before, volunteer  docents covered the center, and were mostly available on weekends.

Greenwood/Elk Visitor Center

The staffer was friendly and well versed on the history of Elk, or Greenwood/Elk as it’s sometimes known. The center is on the ocean side of the highway, in the former mill  building, next to the historic post office. The active post office is across the street.

Elk was founded in the 1890s and was a thriving lumber mill town. In 1916 the White Goodyear Company built the mill and the office, which included a vault and a safe (it’s still there, on display), shipping lumber to Seattle and San Francisco; until the 1930s when the Depression took its toll. Mills farther inland, like Willits and Ukiah, fared better because of access to transportation.

The museum has some family items from the Ross family, the last family to run the mill, a Boy Scout display and some groovy artifacts from the time the building hosted a commune in the 1970s.

The narrative of the Pomo display.

The center has located a display about the area’s first human settlers, the Pomo, right by the door. The Pomo were there before the redwoods grew.

The town has two names, Greenwood/Elk. One of the founding families had come from El Dorado County, which had a town named Greenwood. They brought the name with them. When it came time to formally name the town, the US Postal Service had an opinion; they did not want two towns with the same name in the state. The townsfolk chose Elk, but many of them still called in Greenwood, or Greenwood Elk.

The vault and the old safe.

The town has a gallery, a deli-diner, a general store and a post office. The fancy Greenwood Pier Inn, part of a refurbished Victorian, has a trendy boutique and a cool garden shop. There are two paths out to the ocean; one to a beach and one out to the great wharf rock.

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John Scalzi, Alexandra Erin and That Guy Who Hates John Scalzi

That Guy Who Hates John Scalzi had a diabolically clever plan to use the Great Hugo Kerfluffle of 2015 as a launching pad for a book he wrote about how Social Justice Warriors Always Lie. His book is about 200 pages long. I’m sure he spent a couple of weeks, in his spare time, working on it, and it seems to be selling nicely. It did have two chapters labeled Chapter Five. Apparently That Guy, who was nominated for Best Editor on the Hugo shortlist by the splinter groups, didn’t edit the book very well. I’ve heard that you should never edit your own work. Maybe he needs to consider that.

SF writer Alexandra Erin decided to write a parody of That Guy’s book. She is also very busy, but she wrote hers in a one day. It’s also not 200 pages (more like 20) but I think she captured the gist. Having read That Guy’s blog and various pronouncements in various comment streams, I can tell you she captured That Guy’s style flawlessly. Of special interest, I think, are the appendices.

Clearly, to write the parody, Erin had to read the source material, so… you know. condolences.

You can find John Scalzi is Not a Very Popular Author While I Myself am Very Popular on Amazon and also on Sellfy, which is where I got it as a pdf. It’s only an e-book (and the source material is also only available as an e-book).

In a desperate attempt to drum up attention for himself, the not-very popular writer and blogger of the title is currently running a fundraiser. If people donate to Con or Bust, an organization that helps people of color attend science fiction conventions and events, he’ll create an audio book of Erin’s book read by him. That goal has already been met and in fact, he’s into stretch goals now. It seems odd that he could have raised nearly $10,000 in the first 48 hours, since he isn’t very popular, but, well, life is strange.

There seems to be a legitimate question about Con of Bust’s 501(c)3 status, which means that your donation might not be tax deductable, if that matters to you. If you don’t want to donate until that’s cleared up you can always wait and donate later.

Other than the writing itself, this work is only going to be really funny to people who have followed That Guy’s obsession with Scalzi, but I know you’re out there.

Not only is this hilarious, but thanks to the fundraiser, I discovered Alexandra Erin’s blog, which I will be visiting more frequently.

That Guy Who Hates John Scalzi’s hatred and vitriol has now been channeled to help raise over $5,000 for RAINN, a non-profit that offers protection and advocacy for victims of domestic abuse, and over $10,000 to send people of color and ethnic non-whites to event in the science fiction field. I call that good work. I’d like to act all virtuous, but really, Erin’s book is just funny.




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The Conference, Day Three; But So…

A rainbow smile

Corbett is clear that a work of fiction needs tension to rise until the climax, and that “tension” is not necessarily action. Again, it’s not the dump truck. Stories and novels that have characters reacting to one random event after another have a scattered feel rather than a unifying one, and usually they just don’t grab the reader. The exception is the picaresque novel, which is a sub-genre itself. The picaresque is a collection of episodes as the main character drifts from one event to another. Usually, though, we want that rising tension, the feeling of the stakes getting higher and higher for our Main Character, before we reach the climax and denouement.

We talk about raising stakes, but they don’t have to be global stakes for a book to hold our interest or be suspenseful. A successful presentation at work, a dinner party coming off, a first date, can be major stakes if we know what is driving the character who wants those things.

Rising tension doesn’t only occur across the work as a whole, Corbett says. Each scene should follow the same pattern of rising tension; the MC needs something, there is an obstacle, and the outcome raises the stakes for the MC in some way, even if the MC succeeds in meeting the need.

Corbett credited Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park and Book of Mormon fame with this handy test for how well you are matching the graph of rising tension. (I’ve seen it other places as well.) He mentioned using a ‘beat board,” a cartoonists’ tool a little like a storyboard, but the mechanism isn’t important. List out each scene (one or two sentences) of your story. Then decide which of these three words best fits between the ending of each scene and leads into the next one:

  • So,
  • But,
  • Then.

“But, so… “

“So,” means that action is flowing organically out of the previous scene. “But” implies another obstacle, an obstacle created in the previous scene. Since we have an MC who is dealing with a flaw, lack or wound, probably the obstacle is created by the MC’s desire not to face something she has to face. Or the obstacle can be external; the MC’s rival has the information the MC needs.

“Then” tells you that there is no rising tension. The story is becoming episodic; the following scene is merely a thing that happens with no connection to the previous one.

In Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon, Spade and Archer think Miss Wonderly has money, so they accept her case. Archer offers to protect her, but he ends up dead in an alley, so Spade begins to investigate. (In fact, speaking of MCs, Spade has to investigate, even though he didn’t like Archer and didn’t trust him. It’s part of his code. Spade is an anti-hero; he is no knight in shining armor and the book makes it clear he’s skated pretty close to the edge of the law more than once, but he does have rules and “you avenge your partner” is one of them.)

I cheated and added the word “meanwhile” to the mix, because some of us write in multiple points of view, and “meanwhile” represents what’s happening in other parts of the story. I think I need to be careful that “meanwhile” doesn’t become a stand-in for “then.”


(A science fiction novel called The Dark Between the Stars gives an example. The book has about twenty-seven viewpoint characters. For the first two-thirds, every connecting word would be “meanwhile.” Tension? Non-existent.)

I would like to hear Corbett fine-tune this model a bit; I think scenes can exist solely to provide information (although I think they can be short) and I’d like a discussion of passages versus scenes.

Still, it’s a good technique. Employing it helps spot the places where the tension flattens, and opens up opportunities to gain greater depth with your characters.

(Once again, the pictures have nothing to do with the column. I just like them.)

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The Hugos, Chapter 8: Well, Someone Learned a Lesson, and I Hope It’s Us

The Hugo awards were presented Saturday, August 22, in Spokane, Washington. After four months of hyperbole and uproar the splinter groups achieved very little. They did not take a single award for original work. One thing they nominated, the film Guardians of the Galaxy, did win best dramatic form. Since nearly everyone loved Guardians of the Galaxy, that was no surprise, but I think we could put that down as a splinter group “win.”

In five categories, the fans voted No Award. This is an option that the Hugos have that most awards do not – so that fans aren’t forced to vote a meaningless “best” of a collection of bad choices.

The categories that received No Award were: Novella, Short Story, Related Works, Best Editor Short Form (stories/story collections) and Best Editor Long Form.

Xichin Cixin Liu’s hard science fiction novel The Three Body Problem won for best novel. This is a work translated from Chinese by Ken Liu (no relation). The other work of fiction that won, a novelette by Thomas Olde Heuvelt called “The Day the World Turned Upside Down,” was also a translated work. Before we all go haring off crying “trend! Trend!” let’s remember that there were relatively few (two) awards given for fiction this year.

Let me provide a bit more background to the outcome. To vote for a Hugo, you must become a member of the World Science Fiction Convention, the loose affiliation of fan groups which puts on WorldCon each year (skip this paragraph if you know this or you’re just bored). There are two memberships; Supporting and Participating. A Supporting membership costs $40 US. A Participating membership is your registration for that year’s WorldCon and gets you in the door. It’s quite a bit more, closer to $200-ish. Either type of member can vote (and nominate, that’s important).

This year’s membership broke all previous records. 11,330 people signed up. More than 6,000 of them chose to be Supporting members, like me.

5,950 members voted, the largest voter turnout in the history of the award.

Back in January thru March, 2015 the counts of people nominated looked somewhat different. The Sasquan committee got 2,122 valid nominating ballots. Only about 20% of the people who became the voting pool actually nominated work. Think of the difference in turnouts between a primary election and a general one.

Oh, but that’s not it! They saw the short list, they were appalled, and immediately registered so they could stop the splinter groups! Right? Maybe. And all of them can nominate work in 2016.

Let me take a moment to review the purpose of the Hugos, from the FAQs on the Hugos website:

“The Hugo Awards, to give them their full title, are awards for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy. They were first awarded in 1953, and have been awarded every year since 1955. The awards are run by and voted on by fans.”

The word in there is excellence, defined as containing the trait of being excellent: “outstanding quality or superior merit; remarkably good.” (Thanks,

What happened this year is that a small group of people, knowing the usual process of nominating versus voting, put together a list of work and got friends and like-minded people to nominate it. This pushed out all the other works. When some writers who were on the list withdrew their work, those vacanies let other works to move up onto the ballot. The winning novel was one of those.

The splinter groups counted on ignorance and apathy to let them pad the nominations, and they were right.

Where they miscalculated, I think, was in what they chose to nominate. If they had created a list of works that demonstrated excellence, they would not have seen the shut-out they got on Saturday night. One of the splinter group leaders has been yelling about the people he doesn’t like taking a “scorched earth policy to the Hugos,” which, he says, somehow, just proves his point. It wasn’t a scorched earth policy operating on Saturday. It was much simpler.

If you looked at categories like Best Novella, and asked yourself, “Is one of these the best novella I read in 2014?” the answer was no. If you asked yourself, “Do these novellas demonstrate outstanding quality? Are they remarkably good?” the answer was still no. One novella was good. Since the Hugos allow for No Award, voters actually tried to apply the principles of Hugo voting to the process, and the process worked correctly.

In the Best Short Story category, there was at least one good story. Again, it was good. It had a real character and was emotionally touching. The premise wasn’t necessarily new, but the writing was good. Was it excellent? Was it the best short story you read in 2014? Honestly, probably not. Hence, No Award.

So, I hoped someone learned a valuable lesson here. It won’t be the splinter groups. They aren’t interested in learning. I’m not sure what they’re interested in. It seems like some of them are really interested in acquiring a Hugo by any means possible. It seems like some of them have different desires. (“‘I wanted to leave a big smoking hole where the Hugo Awards were,’” he told me before the winners were announced.”)

If they had swept the awards on Saturday, they would double-down next year, slating up another list of poor work. Since they were shut out, they will… double-down next year, slating up another list of poor work.

No, it’s the rest of us, the people who just love to read fiction, talk about fiction, debate fiction, compare fiction, geek out about how well something is done, nitpick when things aren’t quite right… just, basically, us, who have learned a lesson. And that lesson is; if you want the works you loved in 2015 to have a shot at the ballot in 2016, you damn well better nominate them.

You do not have to nominate in every category. If you feel that you didn’t read enough short fiction in 2015, you don’t have to nominate in the short story category. But if you loved a couple of novels, and there’s a great podcast you like, or there’s a fanzine or review site, you can nominate in those categories. You can nominate your favorite science fiction or fantasy movie.

A couple of math geeks have already come up with “conclusive proof” that 6,000 people nominating is not a guaranteed vaccination against slateitis. Okay, but it’s got to help. The Hugo website provides lots of data about the nominations and the votes. Look at the nomination page and see what books you could have been voting for in 2015.

Some other things would be nice too; I think more and more novellas are becoming available in ways other than in the periodical that first publishes them. I know that Lightspeed has shared some. If you blog or have a podcast, share the ones you love, so other people can nominate them too. I think one of the good things that will come out of the Great Hugo Debate of 2015 is that the marketplace will be more conscious, more thoughtful and more talky about good work.

Start a “best of” list for yourself now! Look back (the year’s nearly over) and write down what stood out for you. Then add to it through the fall, so you’re set when January comes around.

Purchase a membership if you haven’t already.

The splinter groups will not change their tactics or moderate their yelling, because they are getting what they want; attention. Set them aside for a moment. What do we want? Well, probably, we want good fiction and related works of the Hugo shortlist. We can’t count on some nameless “other” to nominate the works we want to vote for. Speaking only for myself, I don’t want a minority of poor losers shaping my choices for me.

So get out the vote, but before that, get out the nominations!

Posted in Thoughts about Writing, Uncategorized | 6 Comments