The overwhelming of the vote of the World Science Fiction Society to send the 2023 convention to China created controversy and not for the first time. They had a similar problem with the Hugo award nomination process which is even easier to overwhelm with a much smaller concerted group. They solved this problem by making the nomination rules much more complex, with an algorithm to attempt to de-rank candidates that appear in "slates" on many ballots.
I used to be a lot more involved in the annual science fiction Worldcon and the Hugo awards, but have drifted away of late. One of the reasons is that, even more than before, they have become more about politics than science fiction or community. There was a huge controversy over an attempt at bloc voting to change the Hugo awards, which both succeeded and failed, and had somewhat faded into the past. But the intrigues continue.
Last year, I wrote a few posts on the attack on Science Fiction's Hugo awards, concluding in the end that only human defence can counter human attack. A large fraction of the SF community felt that one could design an algorithm to reduce the effect of collusion, which in 2015 dominated the nomination system.
Since 1992 I have had a long association with the Hugo Awards for SF & Fantasy given by the World Science Fiction Society/Convention. In 1993 I published the Hugo and Nebula Anthology which was for some time the largest anthology of current fiction every published, and one of the earliest major e-book projects. While I did it as a commercial venture, in the years to come it became the norm for the award organizers to publish an electronic anthology of willing nominees for free to the voters.
This year, things are highly controversial, because a group of fans/editors/writers calling themselves the "Sad Puppies," had great success with a campaign to dominate the nominations for the awards. They published a slate of recommended nominations and a sufficient number of people sent in nominating ballots with that slate so that it dominated most of the award categories. Some categories are entirely the slate, only one was not affected. It's important to understand the nominating and voting on the Hugos is done by members of the World SF Society, which is to say people who attend the World SF Convention (Worldcon) or who purchase special "supporting" memberships which don't let you go but give you voting rights. This is a self-selected group, but in spite of that, it has mostly manged to run a reasonably independent vote to select the greatest works of the year. The group is not large, and in many categories, it can take only a score or two of nominations to make the ballot, and victory margins are often small. As such, it's always been possible, and not even particularly hard, to subvert the process with any concerted effort. It's even possible to do it with money, because you can just buy memberships which can nominate or vote, so long as a real unique person is behind each ballot.
The nominating group is self-selected, but it's mostly a group that joins because they care about SF and its fandom, and as such, this keeps the award voting more independent than you would expect for a self-selected group. But this has changed.
The reasoning behind the Sad Puppy effort is complex and there is much contentious debate you can find on the web, and I'm about to get into some inside baseball, so if you don't care about the Hugos, or the social dynamics of awards and conventions, you may want to skip this post.
In August, I attended the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) in London. I did it while in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho by means of a remote Telepresence Robot(*). The WorldCon is half conference, half party, and I was fully involved -- telepresent there for around 10 hours a day for 3 days, attending sessions, asking questions, going to parties. Back in Idaho I was speaking at a local robotics conference, but I also attended a meeting back at the office using an identical device while I was there.
I follow the Hugo awards closely, and 20 years ago published the 1993 Hugo and Nebula Anthology which was probably the largest anthology of currently released fiction ever published at the time.
The Hugo awards are voted by around 1,000 fans who attend the World SF Convention, so they have their biases, but over time almost all the greats have been recognized. In addition, until the year 2000, in the best novel Hugo, considered the most important, the winner was always science fiction, not fantasy even though both and more were eligible. That shifted, and from 2001 to 2012, there have been 6 Fantasy winners, one Alternate History, and 5+1 SF. (2010 featured a tie between bad-science SF in the Windup Girl and genre-bending political science fiction in The City & The City.)
That's not the only change to concern me. A few times my own pick for the best has not even been nominated. While that obviously shows a shift between my taste and the rest of the fans, I think I can point to reasons why it's not just that.
The 2013 nominees I find not particularly inspiring. And to me, that's not a good sign. I believe that the Hugo award winning novel should say to history, "This is an example of the best that our era could produce." If it's not such an example, I think "No Award" should win. (No Award is a candidate on each ballot, but it never comes remotely close to winning, and hasn't ever for novels. In the 70s, it deservedly won a few times for movies. SF movies in the mid and early 70s were largely dreck.)
What is great SF? I've written on it before, but here's an improvement of my definition. Great SF should change how you see the future/science/technology. Indeed, perhaps all great literature should change how you view the thing that is the subject matter of the literature, be it love, suffering, politics or anything else. That's one reason why I have the preference for SF over Fantasy in this award. Fantasy has a much harder time attaining that goal.
I should note that I consider these books below as worth reading. My criticism is around whether they meet the standard for greatness that a Hugo candidate should have.
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
This is the best of the bunch, and it does an interesting exploration into the relationship of human and AI, and as in all of Stan's fiction, the environment. His rolling city on Mercury is a wonder. The setup is great but the pace is as glacial as the slowly rolling city and the result is good, but not at the level of greatness I require here.
Last month, I invited Gregory Benford and Larry Niven, two of the most respected writers of hard SF, to come and give a talk at Google about their new book "Bowl of Heaven." Here's a Youtube video of my session. They did a review of the history of SF about "big dumb objects" -- stories like Niven's Ringworld, where a huge construct is a central part of the story.
Vernor Vinge is perhaps the greatest writer of hard SF and computer-related SF today. He has won 5 Hugo awards, including 3 in a row for best novel (nobody has done 4 in a row) and his novels have inspired many real technologies in cyberspace, augmented reality and more.
Caprica’s first half-season is almost over, but I started watching late due to travel and the Olympics. Here’s my commentary on the show to this point. I already commented last week on the lack of protagonists we can identify with. Now onto bigger issues.
As some readers may know, I maintained a sub-blog last year for analysis of Battlestar Galactica. BSG was very good for a while, but sadly had an extremely disappointing ending. Postings in the Battlestar Galactica Analysis Blog did not usually show up in the front page of the main blog, you had to read or subscribe to it independently.
There is a new prequel spin-off series on called Caprica, which has had 6 episodes, and just has 2 more before going on a mid-season hiatus. I will use the old battlestar blog for more limited commentary on that show, which for now I am watching. (However, not too many people are, so it's hard to say how long it will be on.)
My first commentary is not very science-fiction related, though I will be getting to that later -- since the reason I am watching Caprica is my strong interest in fiction about mind uploading and artificial intelligence, and that is a strong focus of the show.
Instead, I will ask a question that may explain the poor audiences the show is getting. Who is the hero of Caprica? The character the audience is supposed to identify with? The one we care about, the one we tune in so we can see what happens to them? This is an important question, since while a novel or movie can be great without a traditional protagonist or even an anti-hero, it's harder for a TV series to pull that off.
Everybody has an Avatar review. Indeed, Avatar is a monument of moviemaking in terms of the quality of its animation and 3-D. Its most interesting message for Hollywood may be "soon actors will no longer need to look pretty." Once the generation of human forms passes through the famous uncanny valley there will be many movies made with human characters where you never see their real faces. That means the actors can be hired based strictly on their ability to act, and their bankability, not necessarily their looks, or more to the point their age. Old actors will be able to play their young selves before too long, and be romantic leading men and women again. Fat actors will play thin, supernaturally beautiful leads.
And our images of what a good looking person looks like will get even more bizarre. We'll probably get past the age thing, with software to make old star look like young star, before we break through the rest of the uncanny valley. If old star keeps him or herself in shape, the skin, hair and shapes of things like the nose and earlobes can be fixed, perhaps even today.
But this is not what I want to speak about. What I do want to speak about involves Avatar spoilers.
Last week saw the DVD release of what may be the final Battlestar Galactica movie/episode, a flashback movie called "The Plan." It was written by Jane Espenson and is the story of the attack and early chase from the point of view of the Cylons, most particularly Number One (Cavil.) (Review first, spoilers after the break.)
I've been highly down on BSG since the poor ending, but this lowered my expectations, giving me a better chance of enjoying The Plan. However, sadly it fell short even of lowered expectations. Critics have savaged it as a clip show, and while it does contain about 20% re-used footage (but not including some actors who refused to participate) it is not a clip show. Sadly, it is mostly a "deleted scenes" show.
You've all seen DVDs with "deleted scenes." I stopped watching these on DVDs because it often was quite apparent why they were deleted. The scene didn't really add anything the audience could not figure out on its own, or anything the story truly needed. Of course in The Plan we are seeing not deleted material but retroactive continuity. Once the story of Cavil as the mastermind of the attack was written in season 4, and that he did it to impress his creators (who themselves were not written as Cylons until season three) most of the things you will see become obvious. You learn very little more about them that you could not imagine.
There is some worthwhile material. The more detailed nuking of the colonies is chilling, particularly with the Cylon models smiling at the explosions -- the same models the audience came to forgive later. Many like the backstory given to a hidden "Simon" model on board the fleet never seen in the show. He turns out (in a retcon) to be one of the first to become more loving and human, since we see him at the opening having secretly married a human woman, but we also don't forget the other Simon models we saw, who were happy to run medical experiments on humans, smile at nukes, and lobotomize their fellow Cylons to meet Cavil's needs.
We learn the answers to a few mysteries that fans asked about -- who did Six meet after leaving Baltar on Caprica? The shown meeting is anticlimactic. How did Shelley Godfrey disappear after accusing Baltar? The answer is entirely mundane, and better left as a mystery. (Though it does put to rest speculation that she was actually a physical appearance of the Angel in Baltar's head, who mysteriously was not present during Godfrey's scenes.)
We get more evidence that Cavil is cold and heartless. Stockwell enjoys playing him that way. But I can't say it told me much new about his character.
More disappointing is what we don't get. We don't learn what was going on in the first episode, 33 and what was really on the Olympic Carrier, a source of much angst for Apollo and Starbuck during the series. We don't learn how the Cylons managed to be close enough to resurrect those tossed out airlocks, but not to catch the fleet. We don't learn how Cavil convinced the other Cylons to kill all the humans, or their thoughts on it. We don't learn how that decision got reversed. We learn more about what made Boomer do her sabotages and shooting of Adama, but we don't learn anything about why she was greeted above Kobol by 100 naked #8s who then let her nuke their valuable base star. Now that the big secret of the god of Galactica is revealed, we learn nothing more about that god, and the angels don't even appear.
In short, we learn almost nothing, which is odd for a flashback show aired after the big secrets have been revealed. Normally that is the chance to show things without having to hide the big secrets. Of course, they didn't know most of these big secrets in the first season.
Overall verdict: You won't miss a lot if you miss this, feel free to wait for it to air on TV.
Some minor spoiler items after the break.
Tonight I watched the debut of FlashForward, which is based on the novel of the same name by Rob Sawyer, an SF writer from my hometown whom I have known for many years. However, "based on" is the correct phrase because the TV show features Hollywood's standard inability to write a decent time travel story. Oddly, just last week I watched the fairly old movie "Deja Vu" with Denzel Washington, which is also a time travel story.
Hollywood absolutely loves time travel. It's hard to find a Hollywood F/SF TV show that hasn't fallen to the temptation to have a time travel episode. Battlestar Galactica's producer avowed he would never have time travel, and he didn't, but he did have a god who delivered prophecies of the future which is a very close cousin of that. Time travel stories seem easy, and they are fun. They are often used to explore alternate possibilities for characters, which writers and viewers love to see.
But it's very hard to do it consistently. In fact, it's almost never done consistently, except perhaps in shows devoted to time travel (where it gets more thought) and not often even then. Time travel stories must deal with the question of whether a trip to the past (by people or information) changes the future, how it changes it, who it changes it for, and how "fast" it changes it. I have an article in the works on a taxonomy of time travel fiction, but some rough categories from it are:
- Calvinist: Everything is cast, nothing changes. When you go back into the past it turns out you always did, and it results in the same present you came from.
- Alternate world: Going into the past creates a new reality, and the old reality vanishes (at varying speeds) or becomes a different, co-existing fork. Sometimes only the TT (time traveler) is aware of this, sometimes not even she is.
- Be careful not to change the past: If you change it, you might erase yourself. If you break it, you may get a chance to fix it in some limited amount of time.
- Go ahead and change the past: You won't get erased, but your world might be erased when you return to it.
- Try to change the past and you can't: Some magic force keeps pushing things back the way they are meant to be. You kill Hitler and somebody else rises to do the same thing.
Inherent in several of these is the idea of a second time dimension, in which there is a "before" the past was changed and an "after" the past was changed. In this second time dimension, it takes time (or rather time-2) for the changes to propagate. This is mainly there to give protagonists a chance to undo changes. We see Marty Mcfly slowly fade away until he gets his parents back together, and then instantly he's OK again.
In a time travel story, it is likely we will see cause follow effect, reversing normal causality. However, many writers take this as an excuse to throw all logic out the window. And almost all Hollywood SF inconsistently mixes up the various modes I describe above in one way or another.
Spoilers below for the first episode of FlashForward, and later for Deja Vu.
Update note: The fine folks at io9 asked FlashForward's producers about the flaw I raise but they are not as bothered by it.
The Worldcon (World Science Fiction Convention) in Montreal was enjoyable. Like all worldcons, which are run by fans rather than professional convention staff, it had its issues, but nothing too drastic. Our worst experience actually came from the Delta hotel, which I'll describe below.
For the past few decades, Worldcons have been held in convention centers. They attract from 4,000 to 7,000 people and are generally felt to not fit in any ordinary hotel outside Las Vegas. (They don't go to Las Vegas both because there is no large fan base there to run it, and the Las Vegas Hotels, unlike those in most towns, have no incentive to offer a cut-rate deal on a summer weekend.)
Because they are always held where deals are to be had on hotels and convention space, it is not uncommon for them to get the entire convention center or a large portion of it. This turns out to be a temptation which most cons succumb to, but should not. The Montreal convention was huge and cavernous. It had little of the intimacy a mostly social event should have. Use of the entire convention center meant long walks and robbed the convention of a social center -- a single place through which you could expect people to flow, so you would see your friends, join up for hallway conversations and gather people to go for meals.
This is one of those cases where less can be more. You should not take more space than you need. The convention should be as initimate as it can be without becoming crowded. That may mean deliberately not taking function space.
A social center is vital to a good convention. Unfortunately when there are hotels in multiple directions from the convention center so that people use different exits, it is hard for the crowd to figure one out. At the Montreal convention (Anticipation) the closest thing to such a center was near the registration desk, but it never really worked. At other conventions, anywhere on the path to the primary entrance works. Sometimes it is the lobby and bar of the HQ hotel, but this was not the case here.
When the social center will not be obvious, the convention should try to find the best one, and put up a sign saying it is the congregation point. In some convention centers, meeting rooms will be on a different floor from other function space, and so it may be necessary to have two meeting points, one for in-between sessions, and the other for general time.
The social center/meeting point is the one thing it can make sense to use some space on. Expect a good fraction of the con to congregate there in break times. Let them form groups of conversation (there should be sound absorbing walls) but still be able to see and find other people in the space.
A good thing to make a meeting point work is to put up the schedule there, ideally in a dynamic way. This can be computer screens showing the titles of the upcoming sessions, or even human changed cards saying this. Anticipation used a giant schedule on the wall, which is also OK. The other methods allow descriptions to go up with the names. Anticipation did a roundly disliked "pocket" program printed on tabloid sized paper, with two pages usually needed to cover a whole day. Nobody had a pocket it could fit in. In addition, there were many changes to the schedule and the online version was not updated. Again, this is a volunteer effort, so I expect some glitches like this to happen, they are par for the course.
On Saturday I attended the Battlestar Galactica Postmortem panel at the World Science Fiction convention in Montreal. The "worldcon" is the top convention for serious fans of SF, with typically 4,000 to 6,000 attendees from around the world. There are larger (much larger) "media" conventions like ComicCon an DragonCon, but the Worlcon is considered "it" for written SF. It gives out the Hugo award. While the fans at a worldcon do put an emphasis on written SF, they also are voracious consumers of media SF, and so there are many panels on it, and two Hugo awards for it.
Battlestar Galactica attracted a lot of fans and a lot of kudos during its run, and engendered this sub blog about it. Here, in my final post on the ending, I present the case that its final hour was the worst ending in the history of science fiction on the screen. This is a condemnation of course, but also praise, because my message is not simply that the ending was poor, but that the show rose so high that it was able to fall so very far. I mean it was the most disappointing ending ever.
(There are, of course, major spoilers in this essay.)
Other SF shows have ended very badly, to be sure. This is particularly true of TV SF. Indeed, it is in the nature of TV SF to end badly. First of all, it's written in episodic form. Most great endings are planned from the start. TV endings rarely are. To make things worse, TV shows are usually ended when the show is in the middle of a decline. They are often the result of a cancellation, or sometimes a producer who realizes a cancellation is imminent. Quite frequently, the decline that led to cancellation can be the result of a creative failure on the show -- either the original visionaries have gone, or they are burned out. In such situations, a poor ending is to be expected.
Sadly, I'm hard pressed to think of a TV SF series that had a truly great ending. That's the sort of ending you might find in a great book or movie, the ending that caps the work perfectly, which solidifies things in a cohesive whole. Great endings will sometimes finally make sense out of everything, or reveal a surprise that, in retrospect, should have been obvious all along. I'm convinced that many of the world's best endings came about when the writer actually worked out the ending first, then then wrote a story leading to that ending.
There have been endings that were better than the show. Star Trek: Voyager sunk to dreadful depths in the middle of its run, and its mediocre ending was thus a step up. Among good SF/Fantasy shows, Quantum Leap, Buffy and the Prisoner stand out as having had decent endings. Babylon 5's endings (plural) were good but, just as I praise Battlestar Galactica (BSG) by saying its ending sucked, Babylon 5's endings were not up to the high quality of the show. (What is commonly believed to be B5's original planned ending, written before the show began, might well have made the grade.)
Ron Moore's goals
To understand the fall of BSG, one must examine it both in terms of more general goals for good SF, and the stated goals of the head writer and executive producer, Ronald D. Moore. The ending failed by both my standards (which you may or may not care about) but also his.
Moore began the journey by laying out a manifesto of how he wanted to change TV SF. He wrote an essay about Naturalistic science fiction where he outlined some great goals and promises, which I will summarize here, in a slightly different order
- Avoiding SF clichés like time travel, mind control, god-like powers, and technobabble.
- Keeping the science real.
- Strong, real characters, avoiding the stereotypes of older TV SF. The show should be about them, not the hardware.
- A new visual and editing style unlike what has come before, with a focus on realism.
Over time he expanded, modified and sometimes intentionally broke these rules. He allowed the ships to make sound in space after vowing they would not. He eschewed aliens in general. He increased his focus on characters, saying that his mantra in concluding the show was "it's the characters, stupid."
The link to reality
In addition, his other goal for the end was to make a connection to our real world. To let the audience see how the story of the characters related to our story. Indeed, the writers toyed with not destroying Galactica, and leaving it buried on Earth, and ending the show with the discovery of the ship in Central America. They rejected this ending because they felt it would violate our contemporary reality too quickly, and make it clear this was an alternate history. Moore felt an alternative universe was not sufficient.
The successes, and then failures
During its run, BSG offered much that was great, in several cases groundbreaking elements never seen before in TV SF:
- Artificial minds in humanoid bodies who were emotional, sexual and religious.
- Getting a general audience to undertand the "humanity" of these machines.
- Stirring space battles with much better concepts of space than typically found on TV. Bullets and missiles, not force-rays.
- No bumpy-head aliens, no planet of the week, no cute time travel or alternate-reality-where-everybody-is-evil episodes.
- Dark stories of interesting characters.
- Multiple copies of the same being, beings programmed to think they were human, beings able to transfer their mind to a new body at the moment of death.
- A mystery about the origins of the society and its legends, and a mystery about a lost planet named Earth.
- A mystery about the origin of the Cylons and their reasons for their genocide.
- Daring use of concepts like suicide bombing and terrorism by the protagonists.
- Kick-ass leadership characters in Adama and Roslin who were complex, but neither over the top nor understated.
- Starbuck as a woman. Before she became a toy of god, at least.
- Baltar: One of the best TV villains ever, a self-centered slightly mad scientist who does evil without wishing to, manipulated by a strange vision in his head.
- Other superb characters, notably Tigh, Tyrol, Gaeta and Zarek.
But it all came to a far lesser end due to the following failures I will outline in too much detail:
- The confirmation/revelation of an intervening god as the driving force behind events
- The use of that god to resolve large numbers of major plot points
- A number of significant scientific mistakes on major plot points, including:
- Twisting the whole story to fit a completely wrong idea of what Mitochondrial Eve is
- To support that concept, an impossible-to-credit political shift among the characters
- The use of concepts from Intelligent Design to resolve plot issues.
- The introduction of the nonsense idea of "collective unconscious" to explain cultural similarities.
- The use of "big secrets" to dominate what was supposed to be a character-driven story
- Removing all connection to our reality by trying to build a poorly constructed one
- Mistakes, one of them major and never corrected, which misled the audience
And then I'll explain the reason why the fall was so great -- how, until the last moments, a few minor differences could have fixed most of the problems.
I won't deny that some of my distaste for the religious ending comes from my own preference for a realistic SF story, where everything that happens has a natural, rather than supernatural explanation, and that this comes in part from my non-religious worldview.
Nonetheless, I believe there are many valid reasons why you don't want to have interventionist gods in your fiction. God should not be a character in your story, unless you are trying to write religious fiction like Left Behind or Touched by an Angel.
The posts will come fast and furious in the next two days.
First I want to cover a little more about why this ending is of so much concern to many viewers. While many will accept that it is unscientific, and just say that they never cared that much about such things, the particular errors and issues of the final plot are rather special. What we saw was not merely spacecraft making sound in space or FTL drives or some other random scientific error.