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The Alienated Critic
by D. Douglas Fratz

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other The Alienated Critic columns.

Wherein the columnist endeavors to make restitution for his most recent profound dearth of productivity and steps into the fray on Puppygate

Most readers of SF Site have probably not noticed my lack of reviews over the past year. I have always worked best on some semblance of a deadline, and although my reading has proceeded apace, it's been almost a year since my last column. Much time was spent in 2014 rediscovering (after a 25-year hiatus) my limited musical abilities to allow me to make a surprise appearance playing bass guitar at my daughter's gala wedding, and to write a special rock song for my son's 30th birthday. My guitars are now put back down, and I have no more excuses; I am ready to talk literature again.

The Land Across I. The Lone Wolfe

Lest any of you have any doubts, I will reiterate that Gene Wolfe has been a singular treasure for the science fiction and fantasy genre for many decades, and his range and productivity remains astounding. His 2008 novel, An Evil Guest (Tor, $25.95) was a superb supernatural horror pulp story. 2009 saw publication of not only The Best of Gene Wolfe (Tor, $25.95) but also The Very Best of Gene Wolfe (PS Publishing, 49.99, signed and limited), collecting his unparalleled body of short fiction. His 2010 novel, The Sorcerer's House (Tor, $24.99) was a compelling contemporary fantasy about a haunted house. His 2011 novel, Home Fires (Tor, $24.99) -- which I meant to review for SF Site, but sadly did not -- was the consummate near-future espionage thriller.

And his 2013 novel, The Land Across (Tor, $25.99), was another singular achievement. It is the story of a travel writer who visits an obscure and almost inaccessible fictional eastern European country where he encounters a bureaucratic society that is both malicious and incompetent, various mysteries both political and supernatural, and even a strange sort of romance. It is written with a first person narrator and viewpoint character that one soon realizes is somewhat distanced, opaque and unreliable, as he evolves from passive to active man of action. Wolfe creates a strange world and society, and an unpredictable and continuously engaging narrative, with (literarily speaking) both hands tied behind his back. No other author could have written this book and made it all work so well.

An Evil Guest The Best of Gene Wolfe The Very Best of Gene Wolfe The Sorcerer's House Home Fires

Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe Which brings us to the book published later in 2013, Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe (Tor, $25.99) edited by J. E. Mooney and Bill Fawcett. Tribute anthologies have been a common occurrence over the past decade or so, but Wolfe provides a challenging target for participating authors in terms of literary quality, but a broad one in terms of the diversity of his work. Eighteen authors contribute seventeen stories to this one, and almost all utilize the settings, characters, narratives, style, and/or themes of famous Wolfe stories. Perhaps the best is "The She-Wolf's Hidden Grin" by Michael Swanwick (based on Wolfe's "The Fifth Head of Cerberus"), but there are also superior stories by Neil Gaiman, Joe Haldeman, Nancy Kress, Jack Dann, David Brin, and others (including Aaron Allston, an author with whom I am unfamiliar). As with any anthology, there are some decidedly minor stories, but the best make the volume must reading for Wolfe fans, and all lovers of high-quality, ambitious SF. The volume opens with Wolfe's first published story, and ends with a new Wolfe story. If you have not yet read this book, it is high time you did so.

Did I mention that Gene Wolfe became a SFWA Grand Master in 2012? It was a well-deserved honor.

II. One More Visit to My Misspent Youth

As you may remember, I was one of the original participants in comics fandom in the 1960s, with Marvel Comics super-heroes my primary teenage interest. When I reviewed Stan Lee's book, How to Draw Comics, a few years ago, I opined that I would like to have seen a good, insightful book from Lee on how to write comics, and would love to read cogent advice on how to create effective characterization, plotting, world-building and themes in writing comic books, and what styles of writing are most effective, from the writer and creator of my favorite childhood heroes. I have Stan Lee's How to Write Comics since discovered that a sequel to that book did indeed exist. Stan Lee's How to Write Comics (Watson-Guptill Publications, $24.99 paperback/$45.00 hardcover) actually appeared in 2011. Mea culpa.

Maybe my expectations were too high, but this is still not the book I was hoping to see. It is a hodgepodge ranging from puerile advice of value only to teenage fanboy wannabees ("neatness counts" in writing scripts and "be polite" in face-to-face meetings) to randomly complex technical advice ("Marvel-style vs. full script" and "three-act structure"), but what is lacking is any Stan Lee's How to Draw Superheroes substantial insights on what makes a character interesting and a story compelling. It appears that Stan Lee has not spent much time since his heights as a comic book story writer in any deep introspective thought on how he did what he did.

But the worst part is that it is clear than Stan Lee did not write all, or even very much, of this book. It was apparently "co-written" by comics writer Bob Greenberger, and I would surmise that what happened was that Greenberger took notes provided by Stan -- there are various paragraphs that have a strong stylistic resemblance to the Marvel Bullpen polemics of the 1960s that I enjoyed so much at age 14 -- and added various text by other comics writers, but he stopped far short of actually assimilating it all into a coherent whole. There are a number of fine insights here, but dispersed among over 200 pages of illustrated uneven prose.

Since reading that book, I have learned that there is now a third book in the series, Stan Lee's How to Draw Superheroes. Is this the book I am actually seeking? Stay tuned -- I'll give Stan one last chance to enlighten me.

Entering comics fandom at virtually the same time as me in 1967 was a fan named Dwight R. Decker. He was a year older than me, a much better writer, and -- most distinctively -- he was capable of writing fiction as well as commentary, in the form of stories about comics fans. I loved Decker's 1960s fan fiction. In his fanzine, True Fan Adventure Theatre, he captured the zeitgeist of being a teenaged comics fan of that time better than anyone then or since. Some of those stories were reprinted in the 1970s, and (unbeknownst to me until recently) Decker returned to fan fiction in the 1980s with work collected as a series of fanzines entitled The Prime Movers and Tales of Fandom Past, but both his early and later stories remain almost impossible to find and read today.

But Decker has now decided to bring some of his later fan fiction back into print in a trade paperback entitled Dancing with the Squirrels: Tales of Comics Fandom and Beyond (Vesper Press). The volume contains five stories, ranging in length from short story to novella. "Dancing with the Squirrels" is the touching story of a comics artist who hopes to find a publisher for his work at a large comics convention. "Weekend in Hollywood" tells the story of a teenage Midwestern fan's visit to Los Angeles where he meets local fans and gets involved in a time-traveling adventure. "TV Comics" is a long missive involving teenage fan characters whom I remember from the 1960s, Ernie Volney, Bob Trent, and Pam Collins, as they try to survive as high school comics nerds in a small Midwestern town, and find the comics they crave on a limited budget. In "The Old Abandoned Warehouse" Ernie, Bob and Pam continue their exploits, almost obtaining the ultimate treasure trove of old comics, in a tragic story for any comics fan. In "Letters to the Future" Pam Collins meets an obscure fantasy author and learns her touching, heartbreaking story. Dwight Decker is no Stephen King, but he knows how to write about fans, and these are all well-done stories. Dwight also provides an introduction, a brief history of comics fandom, and a long missive on perhaps the only greater author of fan fiction, the great John E. Stockman and his aptly named Tales of Torment.

True Fan Adventure Theatre The Prime Movers Dancing with the Squirrels: Tales of Comics Fandom and Beyond

I strongly recommend Decker's book to anyone who has spent time in comics, science fiction and related collector fandoms. I hope that future fan fiction volumes are in the works. I know that Decker is probably embarrassed by his youthful work in the 1960s and 1970s, but I even hope that he will fix them up a bit and reprint those as well.

III. Awarding Thoughts, or Sometimes You Can't Paper Train a Puppy

I have been noticing a curious evolution in the Hugo and Nebula Award nominations (especially the latter) in the past decade, with more nominees being young writers with whose work I was not yet familiar. I have attributed this to my traditional tastes in SF, and the speed at which new writers can appear and be recognized in electronic formats, while I am still reading my SF on dead trees. When I get around to reading these award-nominated new authors, I usually find that I can see their superior skills and appreciate their diversity of new approaches. The Hugo Awards has stayed slightly more conservative, recognizing a wide diversity of fine works of fiction and nonfiction.

But as soon as I took a look at the latest Hugo Award Nominations in early April, I knew something was very wrong. First, I realized was that although I had prepared to vote, I had missed the deadline to do so. Second, almost across the board, the works nominated were not the best works of fiction and nonfiction that I remembered reading or hearing about in 2014. Not even close. The novel nominees included a superior SF novel by Ann Leckie and well-reviewed fantasy by Katherine Addison, but how did unnoticed novels by Kevin J. Anderson and Jim Butcher get nominated, and who is Marko Kloos? In a year that superior SF novels were published by Baxter, Bear, Benford, Cory, Haldeman, Liu, Rajaniemi, Scalzi, Okorafor, Park, Varley, Walton, Watts, and others, how could all have been overlooked?

The short fiction nominations were even more puzzling. For novella, an unsung Andrews from Analog, plus four others by Kratman and Wright all from somewhere called Castalia House, a publisher of which I have never heard. For novelette, three more unsung Analog stories, plus one from Orson Scott Card's web site and another Wright from Castalia. For short story, another Wright from Castalia, and four authors of whom I have never heard. It seemed very unlikely to me that John C. Wright slipped beneath my notice to product five of the best 15 short works of 2014. It was a year featuring superior novellas by Kress, Morrow and Valentine, among others, and excellent shorter works by de Boddard, Di Filippo, Goonan, Kiernan, Le Guin, Link, McDonald, Reed, Reynolds, Roberts, Schroeder, Swanwick, Bacigalupi, Fowler, Hopkinson, Kelly, Lake, Lee, Parker, Rosenbaum and Tidhar, just to name a few. I knew something had gone terribly wrong. I was not that out of touch with the field.

The nominees in other categories also had strange anomalies. None of the ten best nonfiction books were nominated under Best Related. I read no graphic novels in 2014, but under Dramatic Presentation, The Lego Movie? Really? In the editor categories, there was Mike Resnick, Sheila Gilbert, Toni Weisskopf, and six people of whom I had never heard -- Vox Day did not even sound like an actual person. (Many now wish that was true.) For Best Professional Artist, Julie Dixon and four who-is-thats. It went on and on. At least Best Fan Artist featured Brad Foster and Steve Stiles -- that was comforting.

I soon learned what had happened, in great detail: Puppygate! The Rabid Puppies has teamed with the Sad Puppies to stuff the ballot box with cookie-cutter ballots. A terrorist strike at the liberal literati that they fanaticized was preventing everyman fiction writers from the honors they so richly deserve. I guess we always know that if a few hundred people pay for Worldcon supporting memberships and block vote, it would outnumber all of the voters selecting their favorites among the dozens of worthy candidates in any given category. It had been done before, in isolated instances, but absolutely never this broadly or successfully. Since the original results were announced, several ethical unwitting victims of the Puppy ballots withdrew their works or names from nomination -- good for them. They are forgiven.

As a result of all this, the Hugo Awards are now famous outside the field for all the wrong reasons. The New Republic even covered Puppygate, and sensible blogs were written by top authors -- most notably serial blogs by George R. R. Martin -- that made sure all of broader fandom knew what had happened. Connie Willis, Robert Silverberg, David Gerrold, and other deans of SF have all weighed in with level-headed views. The big losers here, of course, are the many fine authors who produced superior works in 2014 that should have been nominated, including many mentioned above, and we will know who they were when the full voting is announced.

But we all lost here. In the past, I would estimate that 90 percent of those nominated on the Hugo ballot are among the top 10 percent of candidates, making it a reliable index of quality. Everyone who relies on the Hugo Nominations and results to help choose future reading lost something this year. (Also everyone who wishes that those hours Martin, Willis, Silverberg, and others spent addressing the issue were used to write new fiction!) Thank goodness there are still other awards, including the Locus Awards and even the sometimes quirky Nebula awards, for this purpose. I hope that the Worldcon administrators will find a way to prevent future block voting, but there is some chance that (like our own government's counter-terrorism policies) the solutions will simply make things slightly worse for all. Which is, in the end, just what terrorists seek to have happen.

I will make sure that I do not miss the Hugo voting deadline, even though most of the works for which I had hoped to vote are not on the ballot. I will not vote totally Puppy-free -- there are some worthy nominees on their ballots -- but I will use No Award to seek to block unworthy candidates. I encourage you all to vote as well for your own personal favorites.

Copyright © 2015 D. Douglas Fratz

D. Douglas Fratz has more than forty years experience as editor and publisher of literary review magazines in the science fiction and fantasy field, and author of commentary and critiques on science fiction and fantasy literature and media.

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