HUGO REVIEW: Short Story Finalists

written by David Steffen

It’s award season again, and these are the nominees for the Hugo Award, voted by supporting members of this year’s WorldCon. This category covers fiction of less than 7500 words. I love to use the Hugo Awards as a recommended reading list, and I hope you enjoy the stories as much as I do!

1.“STET,” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018)
Written as a heavily-annotated synopsis for a research paper about the life-or-death choices of self-driving cars. I love stories that are written as documents, and this has three levels: the synopsis, the annotations by the editor suggesting changes, and the responses from the author responding to the editor’s suggestions. (“STET” means “let it stand” when responding to editorial suggestions). This hits a lot of my favorite things, between an emotional story, a document-style format, several layers of storytelling, and very concise format. There is a very emotional story here, but much of it is inferred from the tone and the atypical wording for a research paper and the responses to that. Loved it.

2. “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine 23, July-August 2018)
Fairy tale about a trio of velociraptors and the prince who is too foolish to ignore all of the warnings. Hilarious and fun spin on fairy tales with a non-human point of view and follows through on its exemplary title.

3. “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
A group of fairy folk are pining over Rose MacGregor, the one who got away. They are so accustomed to being the ones to be pined over, they’re not sure what to do with themselves when it happens in reverse! This is an entertaining reversal that has the feel of tall tales from the fey about this unconquerable person unique in a world of otherwise entirely conquerable people.

4. “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018)
Based on apparently true piece of documentation showing that George Washington purchased “nine negro teeth”, this tells the stories of the nine people whose teeth became part of George Washington’s dentures, and what made each of them who they were and how their tooth’s presence affected Washington. With the format this is a small collection of flash fiction with a common theme, interesting and compelling and each one very brief and to the point.

5. “The Court Magician,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)
This is the story of the boy who will become the court magician, always hungry to learn the secrets of the tricks, who will keep on no matter the cost. This is a story of power and the power behind the power, where there is always a trick behind everything.

6. “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)
This is a story about witches and librarians and kids desparate for escape, and how a witch librarian would try to help them. Portal fantasies have always been one of my favorites, so this is up my alley

Hugo Review: My Favorite Thing is Monsters (Graphic Story)

written by David Steffen

I’m afraid I’ve gotten behind on my reading and so I’ve only read one complete entry and one partial entry in the Graphic Story category for the Hugo Awards.  I haven’t even finished a single one of the graphic stories this year all the way through, but I’ve gotten about halfway through My Favorite Thing is Monsters, written and illustrated by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics)

Written as the illustrated journal of 10-year old Karen Reyes in 1960s Chicago, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a beautifully illustrated mystery story with horror flair as Karen imagines herself as a werewolf and sees everything around her as a sort of a horror flick as she investigate the death of her mysterious upstairs neighbor Anka.

The drawings are in a gorgeous line-shading style which I’m sure has a more specific artsy name, but reminded me of the drawings in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, but with a story with a much darker tone.  While Karen’s perspective on monsters lends her own fun flair to parts of the story, the story itself is very dark, and despite the young protagonist, is what I’d give to a child or even a teen.  I haven’t finished reading it yet, but I love the illustrations and Karen makes a great protagonist–I’ve just been reading it as a PDF, but I might buy it in print because it would look so much better in that layout, drawn as it is to look like it was drawn in a lined notebook where pages pair together sometimes for bigger pictures.

I can’t comment yet on whether the end follows through with the rest of it, but I’ve read enough that I feel comfortable recommending it.


BOOK REVIEW: Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

written by David Steffen

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty is a science fiction mystery, one of the finalists for the Hugo Award for the Best Novel category of 2017.

In the future, cloning is commonplace, but its use is strictly limited by law to ensure that it’s only used for longevity of a person rather than multiplication.  Every clone makes regular mindmaps of their memories and after they die, a new youthful body is cloned from their DNA and the mindmap copied into it.  Many clones have hundreds of years worth of memories they carry with them as though they have lived a single long life.  The practice of cloning is not accepted by everyone, especially religious groups, many of which consider clones to be soulless abominations, and there have been violent conflicts about cloning practices.

And what better use for clones than to crew a starship?  Equip the ship with a cloning bay and mindmapper, and a crew of six can staff a starship that would require a generation ship with much heavier infrastructure with an uncloned human crew.  Not many clones would be interested in such a long dull trip, but criminal clones granted a pardon for their crimes as payment can be convinced, watched over by an AI to make sure things don’t get out of control, and a cargo of humans and clone mindmaps to colonize the planet at the end of the trip.

But, something has gone terribly wrong.  Maria Arena and the other six crew members wake up simultaneously in newly cloned bodies, to their own murder scene.  They have been in transit for twenty-five years but have lost all of the memories of their journey, the gravity is off, the food replicator is only manufacturing poison, the AI is offline, the cloning bay has been sabotaged, and presumably one or more of them was the murderer but even they don’t remember that they did it.  Their previous crimes are strictly off the record as part of the pardon deal, so no one knows if any of the others had a history of murder.

This was an enjoyable SF mystery, an amped-up locked room type of mystery, where this crew of six is set to investigate their own murders, and it could’ve been any of them since they lost the memories of the journey.  As they go they have numerous other obstacles they have to deal with just to keep going, as well as searching for clues to who committed the murders.  Scenes from the present are interspersed with scenes from each person’s pasts so the interplay between the characters makes more and more sense as we understand their histories.  I don’t read a lot in the mystery genre, but I liked how this novel took familiar tropes like the locked room mystery and by changing the setting and technology level gave them interesting new angles to explore.  The book flowed easily from beginning to end and I was satisfied with the resolution.  I don’t know how well it will stand up to avid mystery readers, but I enjoyed it and would recommend it.

HUGO REVIEW: Novelette Finalists

written by David Steffen

Science fiction award season is here again, and the Hugo final ballot was announced for WorldCon 76 in San Jose.

On to the novelette category, my favorite category of all the Hugo categories, covering stories between 7500 and 17500 words.  This review covers all six finalists.

1. “Wind Will Rove,” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s, September/October 2017)

This story is told by a musician several generations into a trip on a generation ship.  The pristinely preserved historic records of entertainment media have been erased by a hacker a long time ago, and people are divided about whether to try to reproduce exactly the art from memory or to try to make something wholly original.

This story took a little bit to really reel me in–I was interested, but not fully invested until I picked up what it was doing with the discussion of generations of adapted music.  The story shows how the new and the old are not necessarily as disparate ideas as they might seem in live music, where new trends are the gradual course of change from old trends as musicians put something new into the familiar.  Much like the setting with the futuristic setting and the instruments that haven’t changed in a long time.

2.  “A Series of Steaks,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld, January 2017)

“All known forgeries are tales of failure”, the story begins.  Helena of Splendid Beef Enterprises is a forger, not of money, not of art, but of beef, writing patterns for 3-D printers to print beef from raw materials that can’t be told from the real thing–getting the marbling just right, the red of the meat, the white of the fat and bone.  If the government catches wind of what she’s doing, she’ll be in a lot of trouble, but she has a good business going with her established clients.  But when a new prospect calls to arrange her services on a much larger scale than usual with threats, she’s not sure she can afford to refuse.

Riveting story, between the part of the story about the forgery itself and the attempts to make it look real in all its detail, and the other part dealing with the conflict with the anonymous coercing client.  Great use of near-future SF ideas and extrapolating from current trends and technology.

3.  “The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, September 2017)

The bot is woken by the Ship and assigned maintenance task 944 in the queue, which is to deal with an “Incidental”, an unspecified biological pest that has gotten loose aboard the ship.  The task turns out to be a much bigger ordeal than it first sounds like; this isn’t just a rat or a cockroach, this one threatens the very integrity of the ship and if it’s going to have any chance at succeeding it has to use all of the resources at hand.

Action-packed fun story, not a dull moment as this bot that’s really not designed for the task at hand does its darnedest to do it anyway.  Interesting discussion on the strength of intuition vs logic.

4.  “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny, May/June 2017)

Finley, a trans man, is attacked by a vampire while taking a piss in an alley, even though vampires are supposed to go to blood banks instead of attacking people unless those people have applied to become vampires.  Finley couldn’t apply to become a vampire even if he wanted to, because one of the restrictions is that “people who have taken steps to medically transition” are not allowed.  He can’t register because of that, and unregistered vampires, if discovered, are hunted and killed.  So he is stuck with this situation and will be the first to enter the unknown territory of what happens to a trans body as it changes from human to vampire body.

Vampires can be a hard sell for me, but this one at least took a new angle in that I don’t think I’ve seen another story with a trans vampire.  The logical consequences of stereotypical vampire traits extended to Finley’s body made for some new revelations in this area.  I appreciated how the vampire that turned him, after the initial act, was actually generally supportive in helping Finley figure out how to cope and even thrive in this new and unprecedented life beginning for him.

5.  “Children of Thorns, Children of Water,” by Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny, July-August 2017)

Thuan and Kim Cuc are descendants of dragons who live beneath the Seine, whose mission is to infiltrate the house of a Fallen angel who claims to rule over much of Paris by applying for entrance into the house, posing as a poor unfortunate houseless.  Hawthorn house has shown an unusual interest in the Seine lately and the dragons want to know why, so they need eyes in the house.  They don’t know what the test is going to be, and they’ll need to avoid revealing their dragon magic in any way that might be noticed.  But something else is going on here besides just the test itself.

This was a very interesting setting, and the mission of infiltration set it up for a lot of tension, especially with the nature of the test unknown and new oddities appearing alongside the test.  This was my first exposure to de Bodard’s world here, and I felt like I was playing catch-up–a magical ability would be revealed at a crucial moment and I hadn’t known that was possible.  This isn’t necessarily bad, but I felt like I had to revise my understanding of the situation pretty often–this might be because de Bodard has released a couple novels in this world already and the story might be written with readers of the books in mind?

6.  “Extracurricular Activities,” by Yoon Ha Lee (, February 15, 2017)

Shuos Jedao, a heptarchate commando, is sent on a secret mission to infiltrate Du Station in the Gwa Reality to find out what happened to their former classmate and captain of a warmoth whose last distress call came from there.  To enact this plan, Jedao is put in command of a merchant troop.

I’m not sure why, but I didn’t end up feeling particularly invested in the outcome of Jedao’s mission–I didn’t have anything against Jedao, but I didn’t feel the tension of the mission outcome–I’m not sure if these are characters from novels and so I might be missing background information?  It could also be that I never really felt like the outcome was in question–I felt like Jedao had everything under control from pretty much start to finish; I never felt like there was a point where the outcome hung in the balance.


HUGO REVIEW: Short Story Finalists

written by David Steffen

Science fiction award season is here again, and the Hugo final ballot was announced for WorldCon 76 in San Jose.

On to the short story category, my favorite category of all the Hugo categories, covering stories less than 7500 words.  This review covers all six finalists.


1. “Carnival Nine,” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)

In a clockwork world, each person only gets as many turns as the Maker gives them each day, but never more than their mainspring can handle.  Every action you take winds down your spring and that will be all you get to do until the Maker winds you again the next day.  Zee is lucky enough to have an extra capable mainspring, so she has the ability on an especially good day to see more and do more.  Her parents always tell her to do her work first so she has turns left to play.  One day a carnival train comes nearby the closet where their town is located, and Zee decides to sneak off to see it, and everything changes.

This is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story with so many powerful moments and themes, but especially in terms of the effort of being a caretaker, and also in terms of how we choose to spend our time.  I take the view that time is the most universal currency, we spend our time no matter what we do but what we spend our time doing defines us and our connection to those around us, the turns of clockwork people was a great metaphor for that.  This was my top nomination pick for this year of the hundreds of stories that I read, and I am absolutely delighted to see it on the final ballot for both the Nebula and Hugo.

2.  “The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata (, July 19, 2017)

Susannah lives in what seem to be the waning days of human civilization, a time when the consequences of generations of short-sighted decisions come to their consequences for the survival of humanity.  An attempted Mars colony has failed catastrophically, so humanity’s only attempt to find somewhere else didn’t fare any better.  But instead of dwelling on the gloom and doom of the dismal future, she is determined to remotely build an obelisk on Mars that will serve as a monument to humanity that will survive for thousands of years, long after she expects humanity to be dead and gone.  AI-driven equipment constructs tiles from local materials and use them to construct an impressive tower for any future visitors to our solar system to find.  But when a transport is spotted approaching the obelisk, she has to decide how to direct her AIs, and then wait for the significant communication delay in both directions to find out how it turned out.  Did someone survive the failed colony?  Is the transpot being driven by AI?  Is this a petty attempt to sabotage the obelisk project?

I really enjoyed this story both for the interesting and novel construction project which was ambitious in the face of apparently certain doom of humanity, something that would stand the test of time when Earth has scoured its surface of evidence of human existence.  The arrival of the transport tests Susannah’s resolve–is the monument the only goal she has left, or is there still something else to strive for?

3.  “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon, (Uncanny, May/June 2017)

Allpa inherits a magical sword from his dying grandmother that carries three warrior spirits in it named Sun, Moon, and Dust.  The sword is the inheritance of a hero, and the spirits want Allpa to go out and do heroic things, but there is no war to fight and Allpa has his potatoes to grow.

I tend to enjoy the Chosen One trope, and never more so when it’s turned on its head.  Allpa is arguably the Chosen One here, but he is lucky enough to live in a generation where nothing more is needed of him than to grow crops to feed people.  This subverted Chosen One story is fun and enjoyable.

4.  “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, August 2017)

Jesse Turnblatt works for Sedona Sweats with other Native Americans providing virtual Authentic Indian Experiences, virtual reality tours of the general public’s stereotypes of Indians.  His girlfriend thinks the job is demeaning, but Jesse doesn’t think it’s too bad.  Most of the tourists just want the same thing, a vision quest, usually having to do with a wolf, and they’re happy as anything.  But a man comes in who’s different, who asks thoughtful questions and doesn’t seem impressed by Jesse’s usual theatrics.  The two become friends, and things take a darker turn.

This story was solid, based around the incredibly creepy commoditization of an oppressed culture for marketing purposes that was all the more cringeworthy knowing that it is just the logical science fiction extension of how it actually works.  Despite the irony in the title with the trademark in it and everything, it felt real.  I’m not sure I understood what was intended by the ending, or maybe it was meant to be ambiguous?

5.  “Fandom for Robots,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, September/October 2017)

Computron is decades old, the only known sentient robot, a fluke experiment no one else has been able to reproduce.  It resides in the Simak Robotics Museum where it hosts Q&A sessions with the general public.  One day, a teenager  asks about an anime show titled Hyperdimension Warp Record which has a robotic character that she suggests Computron might relate to.  Before the next session, Computron watches episodes of the show and discovers fandom, begins contributing to fanfiction on online forums dedicated to the show.

This was cute, sort of a love note to fandom from a sentient robot.

6.  “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, September 2017)

This is an sideshow of dark and curious things.  There’s something odd about the host of the tour, but curiosity wins out over caution, as it must.

This is quite a short one, so it’s hard to give it in-depth discussion without spoiling it.  I’m afraid I don’t think I understood this one.  I think it’s an analogy for medical facilities?  I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it, it had a dark and haunting lyrical quality to it, I’m just not sure I understood it.

Hugo Review: Graphic Story Finalists

written by David Steffen

The final category I’m reviewing in the Hugo Award review series for this year, this is for the graphic story category.  I like graphic stories, but I tend to not do a very good job keeping up with them, so I use this category as a chance to get a sampling from some popular stories.

Also on the ballot in this category is Paper Girls Volume 1 by Image, which I simply didn’t find the time to read.

1. The Vision, Volume 1: Little Worse Than A Man, written by Tom King, illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta (Marvel)

The Vision is a synthezoid, a sort of android that is constructed of human flesh and human memories, created by Ultron but ultimately turning on his creator and eventually joining the Avengers team.  He has various powers, including the ability to control his own body density to either phase through objects or become a dense weapon, he also has a laser in his forehead, and the computing capacity of a machine.  Before the start of this comic, in a manner which is never really explained as far as I could tell in this comic, the Vision has died and resurrected, and in the aftermath of trying to work through his own death he has created several offshoots of himself to act as a wife, a son, and a daughter, and the four of them have moved into a house in the suburbs.  Vision is trying to understand what it is to be human by filling the role here, (while simultaneously acting as a member of the Avengers).

I loved this comic, had a lot of the sort of appeal that Spock or Data have in analyzing what makes humans human, but with an extra unpredictable element–Vision’s various selves are not always mentally stable, especially under the stress of trying to fit in to suburban life where they are obviously different.  This comic has a lot of interesting things to say about the human condition, while being both very dark at times and very funny, particularly when the Vision is mansplaining how to be human to Virginia who generally comes across as more human than he is.  I rarely keep up with ongoing comics, but I’d like to keep up with this one.

2. Ms. Marvel, Volume 5: Super Famous, written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Takeshi Miyazawa (Marvel)

Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel is struggling to keep up with school, family, and being a member of the Avengers team all simultaneously.  She wants it all, and she’s sure she can manage it somehow.  She is experiencing a rough patch with her best friend and love interest Bruno, who has started dating someone else, and a new real estate developer is moving into Jersey City and is using the Ms. Marvel image without her permission to promote their company.

I still really love this Ms. Marvel comic.  It doesn’t take itself too seriously even while it has major stakes.  Lots of weird, fun action, often caused by her inventor friend Bruno who is often more clever than he knows what to do with.  Lots of fun, and it makes me want to catch up on the backlog of what I missed between Volume 1 and Volume 5.

3. Black Panther, Volume 1: A Nation Under Our Feet, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze (Marvel)

T’Challa is the king of Wakanda, a super-technologically advanced African nation.  T’Challa is the Black Panther, who dons a panther suit to protect his country.  But unrest is stirring in Wakanda, not everyone feels that T’Challa is doing the best for their people.

I don’t know if this new revamping of Black Panther is typical of the past iterations of the comic, but this felt more like a science fictional political drama rather than a fun actiony romp (not that there’s not action, but it’s more mixed than other comics).  So I had to adjust my expectations as I headed into this one, as well as getting familiar with characters I’d never read before.  Good story, solid political and personal stories in a time of rising civil war.

4. Saga, Volume 6, illustrated by Fiona Staples, written by Brian K. Vaughan, lettered by Fonografiks (Image)

Continuing the action space opera story of previous sagas:  before this story star-crossed wife and husband Alana and Marko on the run from those who want to kill them, have been separated from their daughter Hazel (if you read previous volumes she started out the series as a baby but she’s early school age now).  Her parents are criminals and Hazel manages to hide her tiny wings that mark her as an outcast, a half-breed that would be shunned by both sides of the war her parents originated from.  Alana and Marko must rescue Hazel.

I think I’ve missed about half of the volumes in the series so far, so that made it hard to keep track of who all the characters are and what their relationships are with each other.  I like the atypical story of parenting a small child in a space opera world, and if nothing else I enjoy the weird design of the creatures that are often mixtures of humanoid and not-humanoid.  Overall I’d say… it’s not the easiest series to skip half the volumes of.  Also, there are unexpected and rather random nudity (including full frontal), so just keep that in mind if you read them on your phone at lunch at work like I do.

5. Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening, written by Marjorie Liu, illustrated by Sana Takeda (Image)

The story takes place in a matriarchal continent torn by war between the arcanics (magical creatures that sometimes can pass for human but often have differences like extra limbs or tails or eyes), and the Cumea who butcher the arcanics to fuel their own powers.  Maika Halfwolf is a one-armed arcanic who passes for a human who is a mission of revenge, who has a power dwelling inside her that even she doesn’t understand.

There’s some heavy lifting here to get a grasp of the world, though there are occasional “tutorial” sections that give some more detailed background.  I liked the conflict between Maika and the power inside her that she struggles to control, but some of the broader political stuff I had trouble following at times.  Creepy and horrific imagery at times, and I think it will be a good story, though I seem to be a little slow on picking it up.






REVIEW: Hugo Novelette Finalists

written by David Steffen

Another category in the Hugo Award review series for this year, this is for the novelette category which covers fiction between 7500 words and 17,500 words.

As mentioned before, this year marked several rule changes–including that there will be six nominees in every category, and the nomination tallying rules are different to discourage voting collusion that had been dominant in the couple years prior.  This (and perhaps other factors) seems to have had the intended effect.

1. “The Jewel and Her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde ( Publishing, May 2016)
The gems that live beneath in the kingdom in the Valley can talk, and they can exert a powerful influence on those who can hear them.  In centuries past the great deaf king found that he could bind the dangerous jewels mined from the earth so that they could be bent to the people’s will, and since then the country has been protected and ruled by a combination of Jewels and Lapidaries.  Jewels are the ruling class, those most influenced by the gems.  Lapidaries are their faithful servants, able to talk the jewels into speaking echoes of their own intent, though the gems will only obey those who are faithful to their oaths, the more powerful the oaths the more the gems may obey them.  The country is now in shambles, betrayed by the King’s Lapidary, and it is up to the one remaining Jewel (Lin) and the one remaining Lapidary (Sima) to thwart this hostile takeover.

Powerful story with very interesting and novel magical system.  I’m not entirely sure I understood all the details of the magic system by the end of the story, and so was never entirely sure what a Lapidary was capable of until it happened.  The switching points of view between the two main characters probably didn’t help because I didn’t always seem to notice when the point of view switches and took some time to realize and re-orient.  But I think this was only my own failure as a reader and not a problem with the story as such, and the story was very well done.

2. “The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon (Apex Magazine, January 2016)

Grandma Harken lives outside of town, partly because she is a witch, but mostly because she just wants to be left alone most of the time.  When someone steals her prize tomatoes just before she has a chance to pick them for herself, Grandma Harken sets out to find the thief and show them the error of their ways.  No mundane gardener, neither is her tomato thief a mundane animal.

Grandma Harken reminds me (in a good way) of one of my favorite characters in fantasy stories–Granny Weatherwax of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett.  No-nonsense, grouchy but compassionate and unwilling to admit that last bit.  Vernon is very good at writing this sort of character (her “Pocosin” of the previous year is another great example), and I very much enjoyed this and the imaginative turns it took with its practical no-nonsense protagonist and this twisted desert mythology.

3. “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong (Uncanny Magazine, May 2016)

In this Weird West tale, Ellis is a young man in a small town trying to come to a handle on his necromantic powers.  Strangers come to town looking to make use of his uncanny abilities.

Alyssa Wong is one of those authors whose work I always look forward to.  Her stories are amazingly imaginative, with powerful and relatable characters and she seems to have a particular knack for writing very dark characters that are nonetheless very easy to root for.  This is another excellent one from an author who consistently hits them out of the park.

4. “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld Magazine, April 2016)

Because Avery has a security clearance, she gets recruited for a top secret job showing an alien and its human liaison around the USA in a tour bus.  At least, she’s told there’s an alien… is it in one of the crates?  Left only with the alien-raised human, who is strange enough.

This has the feel of a classic SF story with an inexplicable alien and the exploration of what it means to be human and how a lifeform that did not come from the same evolutionary environment as us–thought-provoking and interesting.

5. “The Art of Space Travel” by Nina Allan (, July 2016)

Thirty years after the first manned Mars mission, a second mission is preparing to launch. Emily works as a housekeeper at a hotel that will be housing some of the astronauts before the launch and so she is kept plenty busy with her preparations for the highly publicized visit to come.  Her mother, Moolie, mentions something that suggests that Moolie may have known some of the original crew, and may have been more than just acquaintances.  But Moolie’s mind is slipping–is she just confused, or is she talking about something that really happened?

I’m afraid I found this one quite hard to get into.  I didn’t find the Moolie’s vague claims all that compelling, and they did just seem to me like flights of fancy and it didn’t seem like there was enough substance to drive the whole thing to me.  Your mileage may vary, as ever.

6. Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex by Stix Hiscock (self-published)

The story is exactly what it says on the tin.  The protagonist is a three-breasted green alien who shoots lasers out of her nipples when highly aroused.  When she meets a dinosaur who seems so different from the rest of her clientele… well, it’s not a spoiler if it’s in the title, right?

Yes, this one is conspicuous on the ballot for its title, the author name, the cover art, and for being erotica.  Like Chuck Tingle’s story last year, there is a reason that you can find out if you dig into it.  Like last year it didn’t seem to be the author’s doing, so I wanted to give it a shot.

I’m afraid that speculative erotica might just not be my kind of thing.  It seemed like it was trying to be erotic and also trying to be funny, and for me it failed to inspire either response.  I think the cover art could use some serious work, and the quality of writing was not impressive, and the entire premise was pretty much contained in the title.


Hugo Novel Review (First Look): Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

written by David Steffen

Seveneves is a science fiction novel, written by Neal Stephenson, published in May 2015 by William Morrow, and was one of the novels nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel this year.  The story begins with a bang as something inexplicable happens to the moon.  Something punches a hole through it, fragmenting earth’s only natural satellite into seven fragments.  No one knows how this could be possible, or what caused it to happen, but soon they realize that these aren’t the most important questions: the most important question is “How can humanity survive this?”  The moon is going to break up into smaller and smaller fragments and start a catastrophic meteor shower in only about two years.

I’ve been reading material from the Hugo Packet as fast as I can, and I am up against the deadline as I’m reading this one.  I’ve only made it about 40 pages into this 867-page book, so it is by any measure still very early in the book.  We have met who I’m guessing to be the main characters:  “Doc” Dubois Harris is the American astronomer who first predicts the catastrophic after-effects of the breaking of the moon, and is involved in trying to plan for survival plans thereafter.  The other main characters are Ivy and Dinah, astronauts aboard the ISS, which will serve as the basis for preserving as much of earth culture in space as they can.

This is an interesting premise for a book but, despite the breaking of the moon happening on page one, it feels like it’s been off to a fairly slow start.  At page 40 they’ve only just started coming to the conclusion that there are bigger consequences coming, after Doc had noted that earth life seemed to be generally unaffected.  Presumably things will pick up pace from here, since there is a pretty short time limit on getting as many people and archives and resources either below ground or in orbit to avoid the death zone that the surface will be.  I’m interested in seeing where this goes, and I hope it gets going at a faster pace soon, or at least give me some more reason to empathize with the characters.   I think it’s an interesting premise, but so far there hasn’t really been anything that would make me feel compelled to buy the book to find out more.


Hugo Graphic Story Review 2016

written by David Steffen

The Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story covers graphic novels and comic book series (including web comics).   Five graphic stories were on the final Hugo ballot, but Sandman: Overture (written by Neil Gaiman with art by J.H. Williams III) appeared to be only a partial of the book in the Hugo Packet, so I haven’t reviewed that here.


1.  Erin Dies Alone written by Grey Carter, art by Cory Rydell (

“Erin Dies Alone is an ongoing comic strip about isolation, mental illness and videogames. It’s a lot more cheerful than that description makes it sound.” — that is the description on the webcomic for Erin Dies Alone.  Erin lives alone, and in constant solitude, unemployed (I think?) and doing not much of anything but sitting around the house watching bad TV and smoking pot.  In the first issue of the strip she contemplates a bottle of pills in her medicine cabinet but is interrupted by a visit from Rad her childhood imaginary friend, who digs out her old box of video games.  Much of the comics take place in those video games, as Erin and Rad take the role of those characters in the game worlds.

This is an interesting one, and like the description said, more fun than it sounds.  I found most of the humor a little flat, but it seems like my opinion is not a good gauge for judging the humor of geek comics because most of the time I understand the basis of the jokes but they don’t do much for me.  A lot of the entries are just fun, usually not dipping too far into the dark side (though it is implicit in the setup of the comic).  The games in the strip are based on real games, so gamers will likely enjoy the references and in-jokes more than anyone.

Since the nomination didn’t list a specific plotline or date range, I am guessing that it’s supposed to simply cover all of the episodes from its inception in mid-2015 to the end of 2015 with episode #75, which isn’t of any particular importance.  I’m interested in seeing where the comic is going, and there have been some backstory and some character development, but so far not enough has changed for it to have much of an arc.

2.  Full Frontal Nerdity by Aaron Williams (

“Join four guys, usually around a gaming table, as they celebrate and dissect everything geekdom has to offer. From video games to movies to the latest version of D&D, Frank, Shawn, Lewis and Nelson find fault, find joy, and find that you really shouldn’t let Lewis roll for anything if a 1 spells disaster.”

It is what it says on the tin.  Much of the series takes place around D&D gaming table exploring D&D adventures with amusing results (i.e. a battle against a god of puns), but also covers some movies and other other geek culture stuff.  It’s fun, though as I mentioned in #1 I seem to be a poor gauge for judging geek humor because I usually see what the source of the humor is supposed to be without really feeling it, if that makes sense–I haven’t spent a lot of time playing tabletop games, so maybe that is part of the lack in this case.

Since the nomination didn’t list a specific plotline or date range, I’m guessing it’s supposed to cover whatever they published in 2015?  Which begin at an arbitrary point and end at an arbitrary point, and make no effort to really be a “story” in any cohesive sense, so “Best Graphic Story” seems like a bit of a misnomer in this case.

3.  Invisible Republic Vol 1 written by Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman, art by Gabriel Hardman (Image Comics)

“Breaking Bad meets Blade Runner. Arthur McBride’s planetary regime has fallen. His story is over. That is until reporter Croger Babb discovers the journal of Arthur’s cousin, Maia. Inside is the violent, audacious hidden history of the legendary freedom fighter. Erased from the official record, Maia alone knows how dangerous her cousin really is… ”

This description sums it up well.  The story is told in two different time periods.  One through the eyes of Babb as he finds the journal and reads it, and tries to do something with the contents of the journal.  The other one through the eyes of Maia, who is not a part of the official histories but saw many of the events of the rise of McBride’s regime firsthand.

The comic was well-drawn and the plot moves forward without slacking in both of the timelines.  But, for me, I didn’t really get emotionally invested in either timeline.  I felt empathy for Maia, but since we already know how the regime turned out I didn’t feel that her account really mattered in any substantive way.  And in the future timeline, I didn’t really care about what Babb did with the journal either–he needs it as a way to make a living, because it’s a breaking story that’s actually new, but it wasn’t clear to me why the journal was actually important as anything other than a meal ticket, especially since the regime has already fallen (it might be different if McBride were still in power).  To be fair, this is only volume 1, and the story has been ongoing since then.

4.  The Divine written by Boaz Lavie, art by Asaf Hanuka and Tomer Hanuka (First Second)

Mark, an explosives expert, signs on to freelance job with his old Army buddy Jason in the (fictional) civil-war-torn southeastern Asian country of Quanlom.  Mark is captured by a group of child-soldiers led by a pair of 9-year-old children with magical powers known as The Divine, bent on forcing a confrontation between an ancient dragon and modern technology.

This story has a gritty feel of accounts of real war that I’ve heard, and the story doesn’t pull any punches.  The biggest issue I had with the story is… why in the world did Mark take the job?  Mark’s wife is pregnant, and he lies to her about where he’s going to take a job from his borderline psychotic ex-military friend in a country where the U.S. isn’t supposed to have a military presence.  I didn’t feel like the story justified that decision at all, and without that decision, the rest of the story wouldn’t happen (at least not from Mark’s point of view).  The  confrontation between magic and technology is a cool premise, but without some clearer character motivation, it falls apart for me.  The Divine are closely based on actual leaders of a child army who were rumored to have mystal powers, to the point that their namesake’s images in the graphic story are recognizable in a photograph of the people.  I don’t know how I feel about those two being turned into characters in a graphic story, even though they’re mentioned at the end as the inspiration.




Review of Hugo Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form 2016

written by David Steffen

This is the “movies-ish” Hugo category, a fan-voted award.  I say “ish” because it’s any presentation over 90 minutes, which sometimes includes things that aren’t movies, such as a season of a TV show or something like that.

Most of the nominees this year were also nominees for the Ray Bradbury Award, which I reviewed previously.  So, for expediency’s sake, I have just copied over the pertinent reviews of repeat nominees.  The one new review in the bunch is of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

1. Max Max: Fury Road

Humanity has wrecked the world.  Nuclear war has left much of the earth as a barren wasteland.  Humanity still survives, but only in conclaves where those in control lord their power over the common people.  Those in power hoard water, gasoline, and bullets, the most important resources in this world, and guard them jealously.  Immortan Joe is the leader of one of those conclaves, with a vast store of clean water pumped from deep beneath the earth, and guarded by squads of warboys who are trained to be killers from a young age.  Despite these relative riches, what Immortan Joe wants more than anything is healthy offspring, his other children all born with deformities.  He keeps a harem of beautiful wives in pursuit of this goal.  When his general Imperator Furiosa goes rogue and escapes with his wives in tow, Immortan Joe takes a war party in pursuit, and calls in reinforcements from Gas-Town and Bullet Farm to join in the fight.  Mad Max of the title is captured at the beginning of the story and strapped to the front of a pursuit vehicle to act as a blood donor for a sick warboy, to give him the strength to fight.

I am only a bit aware of the original Mad Max franchise.  When the previews for this movie came out, I thought it looked completely unappealing.  I honestly didn’t understand what other people were raving about when they were so excited about it as the movie’s release date approached, and after they saw it in theaters.  I wasn’t expecting to see it at any point, so I read some reactions and found them interesting but still didn’t feel compelled to see it.  I finally decided I would see it when I heard some reviewers giving the movie a bad review because they thought it was awesome and action-filled but that this concealed a feminist agenda and they were angry that they had been tricked into liking a movie that had a feminist message.

I finally rented the movie, expecting it to be pretty much just okay, but really quite enjoyed it.

Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa was badass, and I hope there are more movies with her in this role.  Tom Hardy as the eponymous Mad Max was also solid.  Really, great casting all around, and it was really cool to see a woman in one of the lead roles of an action movie where she is an essential part of the action.

Probably one of the coolest things about the movie are the vehicle designs.  Since most of the movie takes place on the road in pursuit, there is plenty of opportunity for these vehicles to be showcased.  They are so much fun just to look at, that I more than once laughed in delight at the absurdity of a design.  My particular favorite was the sports car with tank treads driven by the leader of Bullet-Farm.

Similarly, costume design and other character design were incredible.  It’s… hard to play a flame-throwing electric guitar as serious, but it’s just one example of the over-the-top design that should be stupid, but somehow it all works and ends up being both exciting and hilarious.

It had a lot of striking images, sounds, moments.  In this bleak, most desperate of landscapes you see the most depraved of the depraved of the most heroic of the heroic.  There were heroes to root for, but even those heroes are no pristine blameless creatures, because no such people have survived so long.  Rather the heroes are those who want to try to make some small change for the better in the world around them.  The movie is basically one long chase scene, full of action, full of surprising and epic and violent moments.  I wouldn’t say it’s for everyone, by any means.  But I thought it was a really incredible film, despite coming into the movie with reservations.

2.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(this review copied verbatim from my review of the movie posted in January)

The movie picks up about as many years after the original trilogy as have passed in real life, I suppose.  The First Order, the still active remnants of the Empire, is still opposing the New Republic that replaced it.  A group of storm troopers of the First Order raids a Resistance camp on the desert planet Jakku, looking for information.  Resistance fighter Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hides the vital information in the droid BB-8 and sends it away from the camp before he is captured. One of the stormtroopers known only as FN-2187 (who is later nicknamed Finn) (played by John Boyega) chooses to turn his back on a lifetime of training and chooses not to kill anyone in the raid.  Finn helps Poe Dameron escape.  Together they meet Rey (Daisy Ridley), a Jakku scavenger and they join forces to get BB-8’s information to the people in the Resistance who need it.

I enjoyed this movie.  It wasn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen but I enjoyed it from beginning to end and I am glad to see someone has been able to turn around the series after the mess Lucas made of the second trilogy.  The special effects were good, and not the fakey CG-looking stuff that was in the second trilogy.  The casting of the new characters was solid and it was great to see old faces again.  To have a woman and a black man be the main heroes of the story is great to see from a franchise that hasn’t historically had a ton of diversity.    It was easy to root for the heroes and easy to boo at the villains.  The worldbuilding, set design, costume design all reminded me of the great work of the original.  I particularly liked the design of BB-8 whose design is much more broadly practical than R2D2’s.  Kylo Ren made a good villain who was sufficiently different than the past villains to not just be a copy but evil enough to be a worthy bad guy.

Are there things I could pick apart?  Sure.  Some of it felt a little over-familiar, but that might have been part of an attempt by the moviemakers to recapture the old audience again.  I hope the next movie can perhaps plot its own course a little bit more.  And maybe I’ll have some followup spoilery articles where I do so.  I don’t see a lot of movies in theater twice, but I might do so for this one so I can watch some scenes more closely.  I think, all in all, the franchise was rescued by leaving the hands of Lucas whose artistic tastes have cheapened greatly over the years.  I know some people knock Abrams, and I didn’t particularly like his Star Trek reboot, but Star Wars has always been more of an Abrams kind of feel than Star Trek ever was anyway.

I enjoyed it, and I think most fans of the franchise will.

(You also might want to read Maria Isabelle’s reaction to the movie, posted here in February)

3. The Martian

During an American manned mission on Mars, a fierce storm strikes the base camp of the astronauts.  One of the astronauts, Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is left behind and presumed dead as the rest of the crew aborts the mission and leaves the planet to escape the storm.  But Mark is not dead.  He is alone on the planet with only enough food to last for a year when the soonest he can expect rescue (if anyone realizes he’s alive to attempt a rescue) won’t be for several years.  Determined to live, he sets about the task of survival–cultivating enough food and water to live, and contacting NASA so they can send help.

I can see why this movie got so much critical acclaim.  Usually my tastes don’t align with the Oscar Awards much, but I can see why this one did.  There was a lot to love about the movie–soundtrack, solid casting and acting, great writing, a cast of characters that support each other and succeed through cooperation.  Most of all it managed to capture that sense of wonder that surrounded the exploration of the moon decades ago.  As real manned trips to Mars come closer and closer to reality, it’s easy to imagine this all happening.  (Note that I don’t have enough background to know to what extent the science in the movie was authentic or not, but it felt pretty plausible at least, which is good enough for me)

4.  Avengers: Age of Ultron

The second in Marvel’s Avengers series of movies, that are mega-blockbusters tying together individual comic franchises together in a super-series of movies, this movie starts with the same set of Avengers as The Avengers had:  Iron Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk,  Black Widow, Thor, and Hawkeye.  The movie starts out in the middle of the action as the Avengers raid a Hydra compound in the Eastern European country of Sokova.  They capture Baron Von Strucker and acquire Loki’s scepter from the compound.  Tony Stark (Iron Man) discovers an artificial intelligence contained in the gem of the scepter, and he and Bruce Banner (Hulk) try to use it to complete a global defense program that they have been working on–meant to keep the earth safe from attacking alien forces and the like.  But, Ultron (the AI) goes rogue almost immediately, destroying JARVIS (Stark’s helper program) and escaping with the scepter, soon working to upgrade his body and build an army of drones to fight for him, as well as recruiting Pietro and Wanda Maximoff to his cause, two supers with a grudge against Stark.  To save the world they have to find a way to take Ultron down.

This movie was fun action, and I’d happily see it again.  Again it has a cast of big stars who each have their own Marvel movie franchises and it has been a lot of fun seeing that all come together.  Even more so than your average Avenger movie, you can expect an Avengers movie to be even more so because every threat has to be big enough to justify bringing together a whole team of superheroes and trying to get them all to work together.

This was fun, and I quite enjoyed James Spader as the voice of Ultron, as well as the Maximoffs both in character and in seeing their abilities.  But, overall, this movie was not as appealing as the first Avengers movie.  I’m sure part of that is that it doesn’t have the same novelty, starring mostly the same hero cast.  And, personally, I didn’t Ultron as interesting of a villain as Loki from the previous film, or many of the other Marvel villains–he seemed just very much just a default rogue killer bot kind of villain rather than someone with more interesting and nuanced motivations.   So, it was all fine and I am neither disappointed nor amazed at it, but it kind of felt like they were trying to just ride the momentum from the first movie rather than making something that was spectacular in its own right.  On the bright side, (minor spoiler in this last sentence), they left off the movie making it clear there was a third one being planned with a bunch of new members swapping in for the Avengers team–I found I was much more interested in that because then we can find out more about some characters who have not played lead roles, find out how they interact with each other, and build the team anew.

5.  Ex Machina

Software engineer Caleb Smith wins a week-long getaway to the home of Nathan Bateman, the reclusive CEO of the tech company where Caleb works.  Bateman reveals that he has been working privately on the development of AI and the contest was arranged to get Caleb to his private lab in isolation.  The AI is housed in a human-like body with realistic hands and face but with a visibly artificial rest of her body, and she goes by the name Ava.  After agreeing to extreme secrecy, Bateman reveals that Caleb has been brought there to determine if she passes the Turing Test, a theoretical experiment in which one examines an AI personality to determine if it can pass for human.

I was skeptical of this from the first reveal that it was going to be based around the Turing Test.  I am skeptical of the Turing Test as more than a momentary discussionary point because it claims to be a test of intelligence, but it’s really a test of humanity-mimicry.  For an artificial intelligence to appear to be truly human would probably mean that it would have to feign irrationality, which is a poor requirement for a testing of an intelligence.  I thought the movie worked pretty well with the flaws in the concept of the test by moving beyond the basic theoretical Turing Test and starting with a later development of the same concept in which the tester already knows the  AI is artificially created, but wants to see if the tester can still be convinced emotionally of the being’s humanity despite knowing its humanity is manufactured.  This still has the flaw that the thing being tested is human-mimicry and not actual intelligence, but it seemed like the movie was aware of this continued flaw and in the end I thought that by the end I was satisfied that the AI had not just been treated as a human-analog but a separate entity in its own right, which made the movie much more satisfying than I had thought it would be.