How Extraordinarily Subtle Online Self-Promotion Is Done

Two days into Tor.com’s 2011 Readers’ Choice Awards voting, and my novel Fuzzy Nation is doing just fine — it’s number nine in the Best Novel listings at the moment, so thanks. But I gotta tell you, the Tor.com 2011 Readers’ Choice Award I’m coveting — we’re talking 10th Commandment level coveting — is the Short Story Tor.com 2011 Readers’ Choice Award, for which my story “Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City: Prologue” is totally eligible. Totally.

Now, I’m not saying that you should stop whatever it is you are doing right this instant and nominate “Shadow War” over at the Tor.com 2011 Readers’ Choice Awards. I know that wouldn’t work; you are all too smart, and independent-minded, and attractive, and smell too much of warm, fresh baked bread and victory, to be swayed by such a crass and transparent exhortation by me. I would ashamed to even suggest such a thing. What I will say is that I have strong evidence that every time someone nominates “Shadow War” in the Tor.com 2011 Readers’ Choice Awards, a small, wee starving kitten is fed a bowl of fresh cream.

Not that this should sway you in any way, mind you.

I’m not even sure why I brought it up.

So, if you just happen to nominate “Shadow War” in the Tor.com 2011 Readers’ Choice Awards, after serious thought and consideration for its artistic merits, I would be grateful. And so would the kittens. Those poor starving little kittens, just hoping against hope for a fresh bowl of cream.

Thank you for thinking of the kittens.

(Oh, and if while you were there you wanted to vote for other short stories — and novels, and art — by other people, that’s cool too, because the rules of the Tor.com 2011 Readers’ Choice Awards allow you to nominate as many stories, novels and art as you want. It won’t do anything for the kittens, mind you. But you might make the story authors happy. And I guess that’s okay.)

The 2012 Award Pimpage Post

It’s early January, which means that it’s time for people to start thinking about what they might want to nominate for various literary awards. You might be one of those people! And if you are: Hello, sexy. Let me make you aware of the writings I have writinated with my writinosity over the last the year, for you to considerate upon. Here what I have for you to consider for the 2012 nomination season:

Best Novel:

Fuzzy Nation, Tor Books, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editor, May 2011 (Amazon|excerpt)

Best Short Story:

The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City: Prologue,” Tor.com, April 1, 2011

The Other Large Thing,” Whatever, August 5, 2011

Notes on the above:

* On the subject of Fuzzy Nation, allow me to recommend Kekai Kotaki for whatever Best Professional Artist nominations you might make. He did a fine, fine job on the cover.

* As a matter of trivia, were Fuzzy Nation to get a Best Novel Hugo nomination, it would become the first Hugo-nominated book to be a “reboot” of a Hugo-nominated book, in this case, H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy, which was nominated for a Hugo in 1963. I’m not gonna lie: I think that would be cool.

* I’m also not gonna lie when I note to you that I think that even though it was written as an April Fool’s prank, “Shadow War of the Night Dragons” deserves some serious consideration for short story. One, in itself it’s a pretty amusing piece, which is never bad. Two, as a piece tailor-made to do a specific thing (i.e., pose as writing that could be legitimately seen as a “prologue” to a non-existent larger work while still being a largely self-contained short story), there’s a lot of interesting structural stuff going on. Three, it’s farce, which I assure you is not as easy as it looks. Four, it has a 153-word first sentence that uses various constructions of the word “black” eleven times, and I’m pretty sure that’s a first in all of science fiction and fantasy, and damn, am I ever proud of it.

So, for serious: “Shadow War of the Night Dragons”: Not a bad piece of story craft. Give it some thought, please.

And that’s my award pimping for the year.

Other authors: Last year I opened up a thread for all y’all to pimp your own stuff, and it seemed to go over well, so I’ll do it again this year too. Probably tomorrow or Thursday.

Mary Anne Mohanraj Gets You Up to Speed, Part II

In her last guest entry, Mary Anne Mohanraj introduced herself and began speaking about race and science fiction and fantasy, concentrating specifically on points useful to everyone. Today, she’s talking on points useful to writers.

——

MARY ANNE MOHANRAJ:

Part II: For Writers

  1. You get to write whatever you want, including CoC (characters of color).
  2. You may worry about being criticized for your handling of race.
  3. PoC don’t have an obligation to teach you how to write CoC well and avoid criticism.
  4. Nonetheless, here are some suggestions on how to write CoC well.
  5. You will get it wrong. This is what you should do.

*****

When I was a little girl, my father brought me fairy tales from the library. I devoured those stories of little blonde princesses, wishing the whole time that my hair was long, and blonde, and bone-straight. It eventually grew long, but without a lot of expensive chemical help, it’s never going to be blonde and straight. But I pretended it would, that some day I would wake up with flowing blonde locks. Because what choice did I have? When I was a little girl, princesses were blonde. That was just the way it was. For a long time, that’s all I had.

Then I found Star Trek. Classic Trek is an early attempt at fictional diversity, with its black female communications officer, its Asian navigator, its Russian pilot, and its Scottish engineer. It’s easy to critique Star Trek now for clumsy tokenism that was pretty far from a reflection of real society, relying as it did on stereotypes and caricatures. But in truth, Star Trek was a ground-breaking forerunner, ahead of its time in many ways. Kirk and Uhura’s kiss was the first interracial kiss on television, and Whoopi Goldberg tells a wonderful story about watching Star Trek as a young girl and running into the kitchen yelling, “Mommy, mommy! There’s a black woman on television and she isn’t a maid!”

Much as I liked Uhura, Spock was the one I truly loved, the character I identified with. Yes, he was male, and green-blooded, and alien. But he was like me — caught between two worlds, never quite at home in either. As a child, there were so few characters in the genre I loved that weren’t white, that I latched on to anyone I had a hope of identifying with.

Is it important to have diverse characters in your fiction? I say yes. For the sake of your readers, of any color, who want to occasionally take a break from the straight white male protagonists of so many many books. So often we’re offered a generic version of that protagonist too — just vaguely a white guy, instead of being a Polish-American second-generation teenage boy whose restaurant-owning father died in the Nazi camps and who now works as a line cook in a grimy diner on the north side of Chicago. It is the specificity, the detail of our lives that makes our characters live and breathe, creating the illusion that the people we write about are real. We live in a complex world of varied and specific identities; if literature is meant to expose the truths of the human heart, we should portray humanity is all its diverse glory.

Sometimes writers worry that if they start explicitly noting characters’ races in their stories, then the stories will become about race, which isn’t what they want to write. Personally, I find stories about race fascinating, and wish people would write more of them, which is what the Carl Brandon Kindred Award was designed to encourage, but that’s really a side note. Because letting one of your characters be black doesn’t immediately make the story be about blackness.

A classic example is Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, which I absolutely love. I found those books as a child, and I’m not sure I noticed then that the main characters are brown-skinned. It’s possible I skipped right over that, because I was so caught up in her incredible story. But as an adult, re-reading these much beloved books, I was so pleased to realized that these people were brown. (Ged is actually red-brown; his friend Vetch is black.) The books aren’t about race at all, but they handle race beautifully. And when they finally made a tv miniseries about these books, I was so excited — and then utterly crushed when I found out they’d made all the brown characters white. It made me want to cry. Le Guin wasn’t happy about it either.

Another common argument writers put forward for not including race in their science fiction is the idea that ‘in the future, race won’t exist anymore.’ There are two big problems with that idea. One is a simple plausibility issue. If you’re writing near-future SF/F, set in, say, the next two hundred years, then the idea that all of the current Earth-based racial divisions will just disappear is just implausible. It’s not going to happen that fast, if it happens at all. (And in fact, when two or more groups mix, quite often, new groups arise out of that mixture, sometimes more individual groups than you started with. This is where the ‘mosaic, not melting pot’ analogy comes in.)

If you really want to write a future without ethnic division, I’d argue that you have to earn it. You can’t just wish for it or assume it. Figure out how it happens, and convince us. Is a homogeneous world really what you believe in, or are you just being lazy? And what makes you so sure a homogeneous world is desirable?

The other problem is that even if everyone intermarries like crazy in the next few generations and creates little beige babies (like I did), I’d be surprised if race disappears — it’s so deeply tied to culture, and people have incredibly strong emotional ties to their cultural heritage. My daughter Kavya can easily ‘pass’ for white. But I’m going to be exposing her to her Sri Lankan heritage too — I’ll take her there, if the damn war ever ends. Ask her if she wants to learn bharata natyam dance, like her aunt does so beautifully. I hope she’ll decide to learn Tamil, which is a beautiful language with an incredibly rich two thousand year literary history. It’s a language that I can barely speak, and I deeply regret that loss. (I’m working on learning it again. Hard.) I’d also like her to travel to Scotland (her father’s middle name is McLeod). Maybe she’ll adopt the clan tartan, or develop a taste for haggis. These cultural details add so much richness to life (infinite diversity in infinite combination) that I would be very surprised and saddened if they’re all gone, a few hundred years down the line.

As an editor, I value diversity for another reason — because it provides variety of reading experience. When I’m putting together a magazine or an anthology, I’m usually looking for variety in story length, in mood, in subject matter — and definitely variety in character and setting. It becomes monotonous to only read about one particular group of people, over and over and over again — especially if they’re portrayed as being very similar. In real life, even in a small, close-knit community, there are always many different types of people. I want the books and magazines I edit to reflect that, simply to keep my readers entertained and engaged. So I’m always excited when a writer sends me a story that steps outside the typical boundaries.

People criticize Classic Trek for its clumsy tokenism, but sometimes clumsy tokenism is a necessary first step on the road to diversity. If you haven’t tried writing about diverse characters before, a simple first step is to just change one aspect of a character’s identity to be other. Common types of diversity include race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, disability, and age; you could vary any one of those elements — or more than one — to start creating a more varied palette of characters in your prose.

*****

1. You get to write whatever you want, including CoC (characters of color).

Let me start by saying that writing characters of color is entirely optional. Really it is. If you want to write about Quakers in space, and can do so as brilliantly and beautifully as Molly Gloss does in her novel, The Dazzle of Day (the entire novel is essentially one long Quaker meeting on a generation starship, and it’s totally gripping), then more power to you. (Okay, now that I’ve used this example, I can’t actually remember if all the Quakers in her book were ethnically white. Just in case they’re not, please feel free to substitute in some other great book that only has beautifully-drawn and fully-realized white characters. There are many.) If you want to write primarily about white people, all I ask is that you do it well.

Ethnic today is often used as a code-word for people of color — or, to be even more specific, brown-skinned, yellow-skinned, black-skinned people. Not white. As if white people didn’t possess their own complex ethnic and cultural heritages. It’s a strange blind spot in the cultural dialogue, and it’s misleading and damaging to erase white peoples’ ethnic background. When you do that, it makes it a lot easier to see ethnic issues as people of color issues, something white folks don’t have to pay as much attention to. It leaves the challenge (and delight) of being aware of and engaging with ethnicity on the people of color, when really, that challenge belongs to every human being.

When I’m editing an anthology, I’m always startled by how many characters in submitted stories are generic white. The generic part is important there — they’re not just white, but some vague version of white that lends no interest to the character or the story. As a first stage in creating more vivid characters, I ask simply that you give your white characters some specificity in their whiteness. They could be immigrants from Ireland, or third-generation Polish-American, or in this country so long that they’re not sure exactly what all of their ethnicities are, but they do know that their great-grandmother left Germany when Hitler came to power, because she didn’t approve of his politics. And she took a few Jewish friends with her, and eventually married one of them. That’s a lot more interesting and more specific a character than the generic white one. Whatever the color of your own skin, you as a writer can take on the job of giving your white characters an ethnic background — or more than one.

So the first step is to make your white characters as real and specific as you can. The second step, if it interests you as a writer and/or you feel that it’s important to the field, is to include some explicitly non-white characters.

But wait — I hear many readers say — I don’t notice ethnicity in my fiction. When I read a story, I get caught up in the story, and I don’t care what the characters’ race is. They could be brown or black or red. I’d argue, gently, that that’s a misleading position to take. If the characters could be any color — they default to white.

Samuel Delany, a brilliant SF/F writer, one of my favorites, who has also written wonderfully about race in the genre, talks about the ‘unmarked state.’ Audre Lorde referred to this as the ‘mythical norm.’ If you open a book and start reading, and the main character has no markings of gender, of race, of ethnicity, of sexual orientation, then the default picture (however sketchy) in the readers’ mind is likely to be straight white male. (This sometimes get overridden if the reader knows what the author looks like, but not always even then.) Go on, test this. Pick up your favorite older science fiction and fantasy off the shelves, with those unmarked main characters, and re-read the first chapter — did you actually picture any of them as a bisexual Asian woman? I’d be very surprised.

So here are two (entirely optional) rules for you to test yourself on, from this point forward in your writing:

a) If you’re writing a white character, make sure they aren’t generic white. My partner Kevin is white; but specifically, he’s of mixed German/English/Scottish descent, whose ancestors came over many generations ago, and he was raised Episcopalian. Give your white characters an ethnic and cultural history, even if it ends up barely mentioned in your story. But be sure you do indicate it somehow — it’s not enough for you, the author, to know their history. Unless the reader gets an intimation of it as well, that character might as well be generic white. Names, clothes, hair, foods, diction, holidays, memories, can all signal ethnicity to the reader without a blinking neon sign over their heads saying “fifth-generation Irish-Croat”.

b) If you’re writing a white character, and if there’s no good reason for them to be white, change their ethnicity. This one’s harder than it looks, because it’s surprisingly easy to come up with reasons that seem good on the surface. But really poke at those reasons, and try to figure out if it’s possible to change the ethnicity without compromising the story you’re trying to tell. Who knows? It might make your story more complex, more interesting — it might make that story better.

2. You may worry about being criticized for your handling of race.

A lot of writers are hesitant to take race on — white writers are worried about writing people of color, and even people of color become hesitant about writing other people of color. I feel some of this too — in particular, I worry about writing black American characters. I worry about getting it wrong, being offensive, contributing to damaging cultural stereotypes, making people mad at me. I worry about this so much that I don’t think I’ve written a single black character yet. Coward. Yes.

Even within my own ethnic background, I worry — when I wrote Bodies in Motion, which starts in 1939 Sri Lanka, I was worried about how much I would get wrong, as someone born in 1971, raised almost entirely in America. I was worried that the locals would feel that I’d appropriated a culture I didn’t belong to — and worse, that I’d gotten it wrong, misrepresented them to the outside world. If I did, that would be not only bad politics, but bad art. I want my fiction to reflect the world and its people as they actually are.

If you start thinking about all the ways in which you can get things wrong, it’s easy to be paralyzed by that fear, to retreat back to only writing characters who are just like you, or so vague that they can’t possibly be mistaken for anyone real. But again — that makes for bad fiction. If you’re going to write well, you have to get past those fears. Your library of characters contains the whole human race, and you have both the right and the responsibility to portray any member of it in your work. You just do your best to get it right.

3. PoC don’t have an obligation to teach you how to write CoC well and avoid criticism.

Look, this one is really a practical issue more than anything else. Most PoC writers and fans I know are quite desperate to see well-written characters of color in the literature. They would love to be able to help you do a good job with this. But they just don’t have the energy or the time! Remember that ratio I talked about in the last essay? In fifteen years of working in SF/F, I have met less than thirty writers of color. I have met several hundred white writers. Imagine — if all of those white writers started writing characters of color (which would be fabulous!), and then turned to the nearest writer of color and asked politely for help with those characters — the PoC would just be besieged.

And the further along you get in your career, the less time you have for your own writing, much less helping other people with their writing — the business of writing takes over. (Not to mention, as we get older, many of us have more demanding day jobs, or partners, or children that need tending.) At this point in my life, I would love to be able to advise every writer who wanted me to look at their story and talk about how they did writing characters of color. But I just don’t have the time — so I reserve those conversations for close friends, and for my students, who have paid for a portion of my time. Most writers of color are in a similar position.

Even if PoC do happen to have time to help you, they may not be inclined to do so. Some people are natural critics, able to notice problems, but without any idea how to fix them. Or maybe they’ve just run into one particular thing that seems clearly racist to them, and so they call it out. Often the response from white folks is, “Tell me how to fix it!” It’s good to remind yourself that that’s not actually their job. Just repeat quietly to yourself: No one owes me help with my story. Well, unless you’re in a workshop. Maybe you should join a workshop?

If you’re not in a workshop, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck and have to flounder in this morass all on your own.

4. Here are some suggestions on how to write CoC well.

This is what I’d do, if I were writing, say, a Sri Lankan character from the 1960s. Some writers start with research, but I am a painfully lazy writer and research as little as possible. I’d draft the story first, doing my best to make that character as real and interesting and non-stereotyped as I could. I’d use my imagination, and my experience, and whatever empathy I could draw on to try to paint a whole person. I’d think about contemporary Sri Lankan-Americans I know, and try to remember what my grandparents were like, and do my best to extrapolate backwards. I’d write the story.

If you are less lazy than me, you can also do preliminary research — a lot of writers swear by it. Read books set in that locale, ideally written by local writers. Watch movies. If by some chance you can travel to where your story is set, do so! (We offer an $800 travel grant at the SLF specifically to help writers with that, mostly because when I was a poor grad student writing Bodies in Motion, I couldn’t afford to go to Sri Lanka to do research, and it drove me crazy. Not being able to go back also resulted in a few minor errors in the book, despite all my research and cross-checking, which I am still quite bitter about.)

If your story has black folks, and you don’t know any — well, go out and make some friends. It’s easier than it used to be, now that we have the internet. There really are a lot of fans of color out there, and while they shouldn’t feel obliged to read your story and give you feedback (sadly, no one feels obliged to do that for writers), if they become friends, they might well be willing.

You may also want to check out Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s book, Writing the Other. It’s a good starting point for practice incorporating the other into your writing. Some argue that it doesn’t go far enough, and Deepad’s wonderful essay, I didn’t dream of dragons should also be required reading on this subject.

Once I finished drafting my story, I’d take a deep breath, and send it out. I know some writers prefer to keep their work close to their chests — me, I want as much feedback as possible before something goes into print. So I have a readers’ list, which is pretty much anyone who has ever said they might be willing to look at my work and give me feedback. Over time, that’s grown to be a pretty diverse bunch of people. I send the story out, sometimes asking for specific feedback on an issue — i.e., I might say, “Hey, so if anyone here can check whether my Sri Lankan 1960s guy seems realistic and plausible, that’d be a huge help.” Or, “Folks, there’s a gay male sex scene in this story. Obviously, I have no idea if I got this right. Help!” (In that particular case, two gay men wrote back, and both of them said the scene was a little too ‘girly’. I put my head down and revised.) You draft, and get feedback, and revise, and send it out again. Repeat until you think you’ve got it right. Then submit the work, and hopefully someone will buy it and publish it.

5. You will get it wrong. This is what you should do.

After all this — after your research and honest effort and cross-checking and passing the story by members of the community — odds are, you’ll still get it wrong. That’s okay.

Sure, it sucks when someone points out that that some minor character of yours feeds directly into a massive racial stereotype. God, that stings. Maybe you just weren’t aware of that stereotype at all, so it’s pure ignorance on your part. More likely, you were familiar with it on some deep unconscious level, inherited from the sea of racism we’re all swimming in, and it shaped your character-building without your even realizing it. Ouch.

But when this happens, and it will, the key is in how you respond to it. It’s not helpful to immediately go into denial mode. If you honestly don’t understand the criticism, ask for clarification. If, after careful consideration, you disagree with the criticism, that’s fine too. Say so, if you want, and move on. Or, better yet, don’t say so — it’s often better when authors don’t try to defend their work, although sometimes I have a hard time remembering that. Maybe your reader is just having a personal, idiosyncratic response to your story — you can’t define ‘getting it right’ as ‘satisfying every single person of that ethnicity / skin color / affiliation with that identity’. Sometimes you just need to let them have their response to your story, and not take it too much to heart.

If you, on reflection, agree with the criticism, then it’s good to note that publicly. Apologize, if you feel the need, although I’m often not sure that’s actually necessary. I’ve found that it’s generally enough to say, “Wow, I totally didn’t see that. Thanks for pointing it out.” And then move on, resolving to do better next time. You will almost certainly get better at creating character of color, with practice. You will mess up less often. (Or perhaps you will simply make different mistakes, and that’s all right too. Writing is in large part about the journey, not the destination.) Sometimes, if you work hard, with the grace of whatever gods help poor writers and fools (in Hinduism, I think that’s Ganesha), you may get everything exactly, perfectly, right.

*****

One final note. Let’s say you, the white writer, are now deeply interested in Sri Lanka and would like to incorporate Sri Lankan characters into your fiction. I think that’s great, and give you full permission to go ahead and do so. (Not that you need my permission. You don’t!) You write some Sri Lankan characters, and do a great job, and everyone pats you on the back for doing it so well. There’s still one small problem.

I’ve encouraged white writers here to write about other cultures, other ethnicities. But sometimes we run into the problem that most, or all, the representations of a culture are coming from outside the culture. It’s so much easier for you or I to get published in America than it is for local Sri Lankan writers to get published, I can’t tell you. The difference of scale between the American publishing industry and Sri Lankan publishing is enormous. There’s only one major Sri Lankan press that I know of, and when they applied for the rights to publish my book in Sri Lanka, they couldn’t afford the $600 HarperCollins asked, because that translated to effectively $6000 in Sri Lanka, which would have destroyed their annual budget. If I’d realized that was the issue at the time (I didn’t figure this all out until much later), I would have paid the damn $600 myself. But that’s a side issue.

The point is, given this discrepancy, I feel that it behooves me, as an American author who benefits from Sri Lankan material, to do everything I can to promote Sri Lankan authors. Primarily, that means buying and reading their books, posting reviews, spreading the word. I also try to help bring the good ones to America to give readings, and put them in touch with my agent, in the hopes that it might help them get published here.

I wouldn’t say that any writer has to do any of this. As a writer, your main obligation is to write your truth, as honestly and well as you can. If you’ve fallen in love with another culture and want to write about it, please do. But if, in addition, you can do something to help writers from within the culture get their voices heard — well, I think that’s a good thing. And I thank you.

*****

I want to acknowledge the very helpful comments I received on both this piece and the previous one from Kate Bachus, Jed Hartman, Nalo Hopkinson, David Moles, Debbie Notkin, Nnedi Okorafor, and Ben Rosenbaum. I didn’t agree with or take all of their suggestions, and the final version is entirely my own, but both of these pieces are far better for their thoughts and insights.

A Month of Writers, Day Twenty: Chris Roberson

Chris Roberson is a triple threat: He’s a writer, he’s an editor and he’s a publisher — and he’s good enough at each that he’s been nominated for a World Fantasy Award for each of these talent. He’s also been nominated for the Campbell and Sidewise awards, twice each, and won the latter in 2004. And he’s also a hell of a nice guy. Rumor is, he’s kind to babies and kittens, too.

He’s also a huge comics geek, as you’ll find out in today’s Month of Writers entry (and which you might know if you’re a fan of the X-Men novels, since he wrote one earlier this year). His most recent novel is Set the Seas on Fire, which is lots of swashbuckling fun, but for pimping purposes, Chris asked me to direct you to the nifty online serial novel he’s doing, called Three Unbroken, which is summarized thusly: “Three Unbroken is the story of a war between the Chinese and the Aztecs on the red planet, Fire Star.” Seriously, if your head hasn’t gone kablooey from that description alone, you’re doing it wrong. And it’s a free read! You can’t lose.

And now, without further ado, Chris introduces you to  his candidate for the title of “father of modern superhero comics.”

CHRIS ROBERSON: Mark Gruenwald, the father of modern superhero comics

The folks at RevolutionSF asked me to write a few words about Squadron Supreme for their ongoing Comics of 1986 series, having previously done a bit about Miracleman. I set aside a few hours before starting work on The Dragon’s Nine Sons to reread a few issues of the series and then type out my thoughts on the book and its creator, Mark Gruenwald. Well, it turns out I had more to say about Gruenwald than I thought I did. Too much, as it happens, as RevolutionSF had to cut the piece down to size a bit before posting it here.

What got left out? If you’re interested in just the meaty bits, read the RevSF article linked above, but if you want the director’s cut with all of the fat still in, read on…

Squadron Supreme

Mark Gruenwald was the father of modern superhero comics, and I can prove it.

I know, I know. You’re probably thinking that it’s Alan Moore, right? Or Frank Miller? Or maybe you’re a bit more old school and point to Denny O’Neil, or maybe even Stan Lee or Jack Kirby. Heck, you might be such a neophile that you look to Geoff Johns and Brian Michael Bendis. But whatever you’re thinking, if it isn’t that Mark Gruenwald was the father of modern superhero comics, it’s wrong.

Mark Gruenwald was the ultimate fanboy-made-good success story. With a degree in Art and Literature from the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, Gruenwald moved to New York in the hopes of getting a job in comics. Working a day job at a bank, in his spare time Gruenwald clearly spent a lot of time thinking about comic books. He wrote “A Treatise on Reality in Comic Literature,” and with his father Myron Gruenwald cowrote “A Primer on Reality in Comic Books,” both of which attempted to systematize parallel dimensions and time travel in comic books. It was in these that Gruenwald introduced the concept of the “Omniverse,” which he described as the sum total of all universes. DC Comics had their Multiverse, Gruenwald said, and Marvel Comics had one of their own, but both were just subsets of the same overarching Omniverse (along with every other fictional reality). A short while later Gruenwald and Dean Mullaney (who later founded Eclipse Comics) copublished a fanzine entitled OMNIVERSE: The Journal of Fictional Reality, with contributions by notables such as Robert Rodi, Kim Thompson, Pete Gillis, and Rich Morrisey, and art by Pete Poplaski, Neal Pozner, and Jerry Ordway. In its brief run, OMNIVERSE examined weighty topics like where the dividing line between Earth-1 and Earth-2 could be divided (the simple answer was that there was no simple answer, and instead of a dividing line a whole separate reality was invented, Earth-E, in which all of the confusing stories that didn’t fit nicely into either world were consigned), whether Howard the Duck was from the same world as Donald Duck (or whether Howard’s reality was a parallel of Earth-Marvel or a Primary System of its own), and just how Doctor Doom, Rama-Tut, Kang the Conqueror, the Scarlet Centurion, and Immortus fit together, anyway (the answer: confusingly).

Gruenwald’s fan treatises and fanzines show the same level of ruthless attention to detail and desire for rationalization that were hallmarks of his later professional work. In the late seventies, it seemed that his fan writing had gained him some attention, as Gruenwald went to work for Marvel Comics, where he worked in one capacity or another for the rest of his tragically short life, starting as Assistant Editor to new Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter. In 1982, Gruenwald was involved in the launch of two projects which prefigured most of the current state of superhero comics: Contest of Champions and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. The former, Contest of Champions, which Gruenwald helped plot with Steven Grant and Bill Mantlo (who provided the final scripts) was the first company-wide limited series crossover, the now-familiar beast. Everything from Secret Wars to Crisis on Infinite Earths, from Civil War to 52, owes its genesis to the success of Contest of Champions.

But it was nothing compared to The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. In TOHOTMU, as it’s sometimes called, editor Gruenwald brought the fan’s obsessive eye for detail and rationalization to the forefront, provided detailed schematics of secret bases and flying cars and jetpacks and trick arrows; rating the relative strength and speeds of heroes and villains, gods and monsters; and slowly working out an entire detailed history of a fictional universe that included everything from Norse gods to teleporting dogs to blue-skinned mermaids to mutants to dark dimensions to WWII super-soldiers. For the obsessive fan, it isn’t enough for stories to be good; they have to make sense. And so when confronted with the question of how Scott Summers optiblasts work, it isn’t enough to say that his eyes shoot lasers; after all, they are concussive blasts, but don’t generate any heat. Naturally, then, his eyes are really miniature portals to another dimension. (Likewise anyone whose powers involve projecting darkness—since darkness is the absence of light, after all, and not a physical thing, involves tapping into another dimension. Likewise anyone who shrinks shunts their extra mass into another dimension, which may or may not be the same dimension from which anyone who grows pulls the extra mass to do so.) The tenor of both the DC and Marvel universes in recent years is owed in extremely large measure to the obsessive rationalization of TOHOTMU, and to editor Gruenwald. (And it can be argued that the Ultimate Marvel universe is the finest realization of this kind of rationalization to date, but more on that later.)

But what does any of this have to do with Squadron Supreme, anyway?

Well, in addition to editing and co-plotting while at Marvel, Gruenwald turned his hand at writing, as well. In addition to a long run as scripter on Captain America, he wrote Spider-Woman, Marvel Two-in-One, DP7, Hawkeye, and Quasar, among others. And while Quasar was probably the clearest example of Gruenwald’s notions of superheroics and fictional realities (including the titular hero traveling to other worlds of the Omniverse, even going so far as to encounter a hero from another company entirely in an unacknowledged crossover with DC Comics Flash), it was in his Squadron Supreme that Gruenwald had the biggest influence on later superhero comics.

The Squadron Supreme was a thinly-veiled Justice League of America homage/pastiche/parody that was introduced by Roy Thomas in the pages of The Avengers in the early seventies, and who turned up a time or two over the years in the pages of The Might Thor, The Defenders, and others. Instead of Superman, the last son of Krypton, the Squadron Supreme had Hyperion, explorer from the sub-atomic world of Yttrium. Instead of Batman, the dark knight detective, they had Nighthawk. Instead of Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Flash, they had Doctor Spectrum, Power Princess, and the Whizzer (yes, the Whizzer). The Squadron Supreme lived in an essentially Marvelized version of the DC Universe, with their own villains and supporting casts. Hyperion was secretly cartoonist Mark Milton, who was constantly bedeviled by his arch-nemesis the hirsute Emil Burbank, who hated Hyperion for accidentally causing his hormones to run wild, so that his hair would never stay cut. (Get it? Lex Luthor hated Superman for making him bald, and Burbank hated Hyperion for making him hairy. Isn’t that funny? Well, not really, I’ll admit, but you can see where they were coming from.)

In short, up until they fell into Gruenwald’s hands, not much interesting had been done with the Squadron Supreme. They were most often used to poke gentle fun at the Distinguished Competition, or to allow the creators to play with a new set of toys for a short while. When Gruenwald took over the characters in 1985, though, that was all set to change.

Gruenwald had always been a fan of the Justice League of America, apparently, but the fact that he was an editor at Marvel Comics meant that he wasn’t likely to get the chance to write them. In Squadron Supreme he was given the opportunity to write the JLA, or near enough to count; but better still, he was able to write them in a way that DC Comics would never allow. He was allowed to change them, and more than that, allow them to change the world around them.

A conceit of superhero comics, from the Golden Age onwards, is that the presence of beings with superpowers just doesn’t change the world all that much. Superman may have been flying in the skies over the DC Universe in the 1940s, but he wasn’t able to prevent World War II in that fictional reality anymore than the Flash was able to stop Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet. The fictional worlds of the DC and Marvel universes map to the real world, the one that the readers inhabit, too closely for the worlds to diverge too much to be recognizable.

Which is the first way that Squadron Supreme differed.

In the characters last appearance before Gruenwald took over, the world of the Squadron Supreme had just been liberated from the mental control of the Overmind. The world was in sad shape, and the Squadron, who had been the unwitting tools of the Overmind’s control, were distrusted by the populace.

In the first issue of the twelve-issue Squadron Supreme limited series, Gruenwald establishes the tone of the book right off the bat. The superheroes of the Squadron (all except Nighthawk, who had by this point retired in order to run for, and be elected to, the office of President) unmask at a press conference on the steps of the nation’s capital, and announce their intention to eliminate hunger, poverty, crime, disease, pollution, and oppression in exactly one year.

Nighthawk, of course, can already see where this will go terribly wrong, and only barely avoiding assassinating Hyperion on the spot with an argonite bullet (argonite being Hyperion’s, well, kryptonite).

The second issue picks up the baton and runs with it, and introduces the second way in which Squadron Supreme differed from other books. A month had passed since the first issue appeared on newsstands, out here in the real world, and exactly a month had passed in the fictional reality of the book, as well.

Squadron Supreme played out in real time. Twelve issues over twelve months, with a month gap in the story between each monthly issue. Readers of DC Comics’ recently concluded 52 weekly series will recognize this gimmick. And though it had been used in other media before (Gasoline Alley, most notably), this was the first time the trick had been employed in the pages of a superhero comic book.

As the series progresses, it becomes clear that the status quo had been left far behind. The characters’ aggressive campaign to end the world’s ills almost immediately brings them into conflict with segments of the population, when they round up all firearms in the world and destroyed them. Then, when one of the characters creates a behavior modification device that could brainwash a villain into abandoning their evil ways, it is immediately perverted by a lovelorn hero who uses it to make a fellow hero fall in love with him. Heroes die, heroes kill, and heroes compromise their principles. Meanwhile, as the Squadron increasingly sets itself up as the dictatorial rules of Earth (albeit with the best of intentions), their former colleague Nighthawk begins assembling a team of dissident heroes and villains to act as a counterrevolutionary force.

In the final issue, the dissidents led by Nighthawk face off against the heroes led by Hyperion (the thinly-veiled Batman waging war on the thinly-veiled Superman), and in the end neither side truly wins as both sides lose. With most of their colleagues dead, the heroes are forced to admit that their tactic of saving the world through domination is doomed to failure.

Until recently, the worlds of superhero comics were virtually identical to the real world, with the exception of the brightly-clad heroes and villains flying overhead. If Superman met the president, it would be the president readers could see on the evening news. And even if Captain America learned that the president was secretly the head of the Secret Empire, for all intents and purposes he was unmasking Nixon (though thinly veiled). But in the world of Squadron Supreme, the former Nighthawk is elected president, and then has to stand by as his fellow superheroes successfully take over the world.

In recent years, the United States of the DC Universe has elected Lex Luthor to the presidency, while in the Marvel Universe Tony Stark has abandoned superheroics to take command of SHIELD in the interest of identifying and controlling all of the world’s superheroes. Each year DC and Marvel restructure their fictional worlds in line-wide crossovers that owe their format to Contest of Champions, and in at least one case their structure to Squadron Supreme. And the sweeping changes to the status quo, which push these fictional realities farther and farther away from the real world familiar to the readers, resembles nothing so much as Gruenwald’s masterpiece, Squadron Supreme.

Mark Gruenwald passed away in 1996 at the tragically young age of 43. He left the request that his body be cremated and the ashes mixed in with the ink of a trade paperback collection of his landmark work, Squadron Supreme. The first edition of the trade, published in 1997, fulfilled this request.

The current state of superhero comics, with its obsessive attention to continuity and rationalization, line-wide crossovers, multiple realities, and increasing divergence from the real world, resembles nothing so much as a Mark Gruenwald comic writ large. Everything that Gruenwald pioneered, from the late seventies through the mid-nineties, has now become industry standard. And the mainstream superhero comics of today resemble Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme more than they resemble the mainstream comics of the day.

And that is why Mark Gruenwald is the father of modern superhero comics.

(original entry, plus comments, is here)

A Month of Writers, Day Seven: Brandon Sanderson

Not only is Brandon Sanderson a best-selling fantasy writer and a two-time Campbell Award nominee, the man is also the first (and, likely, only) winner of The Scalzi Award, which of course makes it one of the most exclusive awards in science fiction and fantasy, like, ever. So bow down to the man, why don’t you. Brandon is now stretching his authorial legs and stepping into the Young Adult field, and his debut there, Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, is a bunch of fun and garnered a coveted starred review in Publishers Weekly (“Readers whose sense of humor runs toward the subversive will be instantly captivated”). And, you know, look: it’s got evil librarians. Which are the best kind of librarians there are, after the sexy ones that look like Lisa Loeb.

For this Month of Writers installment, Brandon turns his eye to look at another writer for young adults, Philip Pullman, and some of the controversy surrounding his books. Given that the movie version of The Golden Compass opens today, this essay of Brandon’s is all the more timely. Enjoy.

BRANDON SANDERSON: On Pullman and Censorship

To whom it may concern,

INTRODUCTION

Let me introduce myself. My name is Brandon Sanderson. I have a Master’s Degree in English from BYU, where I now teach creative writing. I’m a practicing member of the LDS church, and am a best-selling fantasy novelist.

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email regarding the movie “The Golden Compass,” a movie which is being released this Christmas. The email was very critical of the movie and the books it is based on, warning people NOT to go see the movie or read the books because of their anti-religious content. They explained that Philip Pullman, the author of these books, is an atheist, and–with these books–is trying to convert our children away from the worship of God. At the same time, I’ve heard of local libraries and schools being asked to remove these books from their shelves.

When I got that email, it bothered me quite a bit, though at first I couldn’t decide why. I’ve read the Pullman books, and–indeed–there are some philosophies expressed in the books which deal with atheism and the dangers of religious totalitarianism. The later books go so far as to be rather anti-religion. So, the email is correct on that point. I also don’t mind if parents are warned about this content, as it may influence how they react to the movie or how they respond to questions their children might have. It may even make them decide not to let their children see the movie, which is their right. I have no problem with the email being sent in any of these regards

What bothered me, then, was the tone of the email. It didn’t seem informative–but COUNTER-informative. It didn’t try to explain ideas, but instead tried to get people to avoid listening to those ideas. In short, it didn’t seek to promote understanding or learning, but instead promoted exclusivist and censorship. There is a difference between 1) acknowledging and arguing against content you might disagree with and 2) attempting to suppress that content.

THE POWER OF FICTION

As an author, I think one of the greatest things that fiction can do is let us see through the eyes of other people. When you read a book–particularly, in my opinion, a fantasy book–it allows you to experience things you’d never otherwise be able to experience. Part of that is the ability to see through the eyes of characters who are radically different from yourself. One of the benefits of this is that, in my opinion, you become more understanding of those around you. Perhaps, to use a Christian term, you more charitable toward others, since you’ve experienced life through the eyes of a variety of people struggling with a variety of problems you haven’t encountered.

I had this experience. When I read DRAGONSBANE by Barbara Hambly as a teenage boy, I had very little experience with the fantasy genre. At that point in my life, actually, I didn’t enjoy reading. A wise teacher handed me this book, and I read it. It filled me with wonder at the epic scope and fantastical worlds. At the same time, it presented a main character who was a middle-aged woman. She had chosen to raise a family instead of studying her magical powers in their fullest.

Through the course of the book, she struggled with her decision, feeling guilty for giving up on her magical potential–which she could never truly realize, since she’d devoted herself to her children. Yet, at the same time, she loved her family, and didn’t regret the time she’d invested in them.

At that time in my life, I knew that my mother had given up a very valuable scholarship which would have trained her to become a CPA. She had instead moved with my father to Nebraska and had chosen to bear and raise me, her eldest child. She still worked part-time as an accountant, but would speak wistfully of the career opportunities she has let pass her by.

After reading this book, I was stunned to realized that I understood my mother better. I felt like I KNEW what it was like to be a middle-aged woman struggling to balance family and career. And it all happened in the framework of a story that was exciting, fun, and imaginative.

This is what fiction does. How much better was it for me to read a story about someone DIFFERENT from myself? That is not to downplay stories which star teenagers like I was, but I feel that if every book we read is about people exactly like ourselves–and who believe exactly like we do–then we’re missing out on one of the great humanizing powers of fiction.

THE GOLDEN COMPASS

And so, this brings me to the works of Mr. Pullman. No, I don’t agree with his philosophy on life. However, I read these books and enjoyed them, and think that he was sincere in his beliefs. The religious themes are only a small part of the first book, and overall seemed less like a point that was being driven into my brain, and more like a ‘What if’ aspect to the world. The God he is trying to kill is not, by his own words, the creator–but a creature who represents all that is bad and evil in organized religion. (And, I’ll quickly admit that there is a lot to point a finger at. I place the blame for these atrocities in a different place, but the problems are there.)

I was intrigued by the ideas presented–not because they made me want to change my own beliefs, but because I felt I came to understand what it was like to go through life believing as he does about religion. The books are beautifully crafted, and deal with real and important issues–such as religious tyranny and Machiavellian thinking. They do not include mature content or anything else I would want to steer children away from.

I believe that Truth is eternal, and that sincere arguments against that Truth from well-meaning people are not a threat to us. It would be different if I saw a pernicious or two-faced attempt at spreading lies in these books. However, I see sincerity–misplaced sincerity, true, but that is beside the point.

Either way, I do not believe the correct response to different ideas is to censor or boycott them. This makes it seem like the ideas are a threat to our own ideas. Are your beliefs so weak that they cannot stand to listen to someone offering a different opinion? Are you afraid they might be right? If not, why are you so afraid–or angry–about these books?

I would find it a shame if people were to boycott and remove my books from schools because I speak of worlds where it’s implied that there IS a deity. My goal would be to let my books and his books sit on the shelves beside one another, and allow the people who read them to see both opinions and make their own decisions.

You may not want your children to read the books. That’s your right. (Personally, I think our children are not as stupid as you imply that they are. They will no sooner read these books and become atheists than they’ll read Harry Potter and become wizards.)

If you are worried about them reading these books, talk to them about the books. And, again, if you want to forbid your children from reading them, that is certainly your right as a parent. However, I have a problem with you trying to remove them from libraries or schools. That is where you stray into attempting to censor and ban ideas, suppressing them, instead of arguing against them.

I’m not trying to say that you should go see these movies or read these books. I’m not even trying to endorse them. I just believe that people should make their own decisions on this, and I respect the decisions you make–and, if your decision is to not see the movie, then I can understand why and part of me agrees with your moral stand. However, to imply that others shouldn’t see or read the books is, in my opinion, an attempt to foster ignorance.

As always, the best way to promote your ideas is to argue for them in an intelligent, respectful way–as opposed to trying to stamp out the other person’s ideas before others can hear them.

Sincerely, Brandon Sanderson

(Note: For background on why I wrote this, please read this blog post. Thanks.)

Read the original entry here.

Hugos and Campbells

The Hugo and Campbell nominations are out, and it appears that Old Man’s War has been nominated for Best Novel, and I’ve been nominated for the Campbell. Here’s the entire slate of nominees:

Best Novel
Learning the World, Ken MacLeod (Orbit; Tor)
A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin (Voyager; Bantam Spectra)
Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (Tor)
Accelerando, Charles Stross (Ace; Orbit)
Spin, Robert Charles Wilson (Tor)

Best Novella
Burn, James Patrick Kelly (Tachyon)
“Magic for Beginners”, Kelly Link (Magic for Beginners, Small Beer Press; F&SF September 2005)
“The Little Goddess”, Ian McDonald (Asimov’s June 2005)
“Identity Theft”, Robert J. Sawyer (Down These Dark Spaceways, SFBC)
“Inside Job”, Connie Willis (Asimov’s January 2005)

Best Novelette
“The Calorie Man”, Paolo Bacigalupi (F&SF October/November 2005)
“Two Hearts”, Peter S. Beagle (F&SF October/November 2005)
“TelePresence”, Michael A. Burstein (Analog July/August 2005)
“I, Robot”, Cory Doctorow (The Infinite Matrix February 15, 2005)
“The King of Where-I-Go”, Howard Waldrop (SCI FICTION December 7, 2005)

Best Short Story
“Seventy-Five Years”, Michael A. Burstein (Analog January/February 2005)
“The Clockwork Atom Bomb”, Dominic Green (Interzone May/June 2005)
“Singing My Sister Down”, Margo Lanagan (Black Juice, Allen & Unwin; Eos)
“Tk’tk’tk”, David D. Levine (Asimov’s March 2005)
“Down Memory Lane”, Mike Resnick (Asimov’s April/May 2005)

Best RelatedBook
Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970, Mike Ashley (Liverpool)
The SEX Column and Other Misprints, David Langford (Cosmos)
Science Fiction Quotations edited, Gary Westfahl (Yale)
Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, Kate Wilhelm (Small Beer Press)
Soundings: Reviews 1992_1996, Gary K. Wolfe (Beccon)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
Batman Begins Story, David S. Goyer. Screenplay, Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer. Based on the character created, Bob Kane. Directed, Christopher Nolan. (Warner Bros.)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Screenplay, Ann Peacock and Andrew Adamson and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely. Based on the novel, C.S. Lewis. Directed, Andrew Adamson. (Walt Disney Pictures/Walden Media)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Screenplay, Steven Kloves. Based on the novel, J.K. Rowling. Directed, Mike Newell. (Warner Bros.)
Serenity Written & Directed, Joss Whedon. (Universal Pictures/Mutant Enemy, Inc.)
Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were_Rabbit Screenplay, Steve Box & Nick Park and Bob Baker and Mark Burton. Directed, Nick Park & Steve Box. (Dreamworks Animation/Aardman Animation).

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
Battlestar Galactica “Pegasus” Written, Anne Cofell Saunders. Directed, Michael Rymer. (NBC Universal/British Sky Broadcasting)
Doctor Who “Dalek” Written, Robert Shearman. Directed, Joe Ahearne. (BBC Wales/BBC1)
Doctor Who “The Empty Child” & “The Doctor Dances” Written, Steven Moffat. Directed, James Hawes. (BBC Wales/BBC1)
Doctor Who “Father’s Day” Written, Paul Cornell. Directed, Joe Ahearne. (BBC Wales/BBC1)
Jack-Jack Attack Written & Directed, Brad Bird. (Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation)
Lucas Back in Anger Written, Phil Raines and Ian Sorensen. Directed, Phil Raines. (Reductio Ad Absurdum Productions)
Prix Victor Hugo Awards Ceremony (Opening Speech and Framing Sequences). Written and performed, Paul McAuley and Kim Newman. Directed, Mike & Debby Moir. (Interaction Events)
(There are seven nominees due to a tie for fifth place)

Best Professional Editor
Ellen Datlow (SCI FICTION and anthologies)
David G. Hartwell (Tor Books; Year’s Best SF)
Stanley Schmidt (Analog)
Gordon Van Gelder (F&SF)
Sheila Williams (Asimov’s)

Best Professional Artist
Jim Burns
Bob Eggleton
Donato Giancola
Stephan Martiniere
John Picacio
Michael Whelan
(There are six nominees due to a tie for fifth place)

Best Semiprozine
Ansible edited, Dave Langford
Emerald City edited, Cheryl Morgan
Interzone edited, Andy Cox
Locus edited, Charles N. Brown, Kirsten Gong_Wong, & Liza Groen Trombi
The New York Review of Science Fiction edited, Kathryn Cramer, David G. Hartwell & Kevin J. Maroney

Best Fanzine
Banana Wings edited, Claire Brialey & Mark Plummer
Challenger edited, Guy H. Lillian III
Chunga edited, Andy Hooper, Randy Byers & carl juarez
File 770 edited, Mike Glyer
Plokta edited, Alison Scott, Steve Davies & Mike Scott

Best Fan Writer
Claire Brialey
John Hertz
Dave Langford
Cheryl Morgan
Steven H Silver

Best Fan Artist
Brad Foster
Teddy Harvia
Sue Mason
Steve Stiles
Frank Wu

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer of 2004 or 2005
[Not a Hugo, Sponsored by Dell Magazines]
K.J. Bishop (2nd year of eligibility)
Sarah Monette (2nd year of eligibility)
Chris Roberson (2nd year of eligibility)
Brandon Sanderson (1st year of eligibility)
John Scalzi (1st year of eligibility)
Steph Swainston (2nd year of eligibility)
(There are six nominees due to a tie for fifth place)

Naturally, I’m very happy about my nominations, and it’s neat to be nominated for both the Campbell and Best Novel in the same year. I figured that was not the usual thing, so I went back to see how many times it’s happened before. The answer: once, legitimately, in 1984, when R.A. MacAvoy did it with her novel Tea With the Black Dragon. It also happened in 1989 but as I understand it there was some issue with ballot stuffing, and the book in question was withdrawn from consideration. I didn’t stuff any ballots. I swear. Anyway, it’s a fun bit of trivia. I’m the Buzz Aldrin of Hugo/Campbell whammies!

I’m also chuffed about the company I’m keeping, both with the Campbell and with the Hugo. In the Campbells, I know Chris and Sarah personally and couldn’t be happier for them, and will now hie myself to the bookstore to catch up with Bishop, Swainston and Sanderson. As for the Hugos — well, you know. I’ve been pushing Accelerando on people all year, so I can’t say I’m surprised to see Charlie there. He’s earned this, and so has Accelerando. GRRM and I had an autographing session together at Boskone which was a lot of fun (it’ll be no surprise for y’all to learn he signed more books than I). And both Ken MacLeod and Robert Charles Wilson did me a mitzvah by providing wonderful quotes for Old Man’s War which went on the cover; I’m delighted and genuinely humbled to be in their company.

(The third SF writer who provided a quote for OMW, Cory Doctorow, is also nominated for a Hugo, in the Novelette category; Donato Giancola, who gave OMW its hardcover art, is up for the Hugo in the Professional Artist category. Coincidence?!???!???!? Well, yes. But a lovely coincidence it is.)

Aside from the nominees mentioned above I’m chuffed to see other friends and acquaintances up for awards this year, particularly James Patrick Kelly, Kelly Link, David Hartwell and Bob Eggleton. I’m disappointed to see that Patrick Nielsen Hayden is not nominated for Best Professional Editor; he only edited two of this year’s Best Novel nominees, after all. But what are you going to do.

Again, I’m delighted and humbled, and I thank those of you who nominated me for these awards. I’m going to have fun with this. And, of course, congratulations to all the other nominees. I hope you guys have fun with this, too.

Early Oscar Thoughts, 2006 Edition

There are a lot of things to say about this year’s Oscar picks. First, among the best picture contenders, this is the most worthy, challenging, intellectually satisfying field in years. Second, this year’s Oscar show may be the lowest-rated in the history of forever, because to date not a one of these worthy, challenging and intellectually satisfying films has done any sort of business in the theaters.

Numbers: At this moment, the three highest-grossing Best Picture nominees (Crash, Brokeback Mountain, Munich) have done less business in aggregate than the single Adam Sandler film The Longest Yard, and only barely edge out the terrible Superhero film Fantastic Four. All five combined made less than Madagascar — or the 2000 Best Picture, Gladiator. The average domestic gross of the Best Picture films this year at the time of their nomination is $37.1 million; adjusted for inflation, I suspect strongly this is the lowest-grossing class of Best Picture nominees in the entire eight-decade history of the Academy Awards. Whichever film eventually wins is very likely to be the first Best Picture in a decade not to crack the $100 million mark  — the last Best Picture to fail that was The English Patient.

Just how uncommercial is this crop of nominees? Consider this: a nominee for Best Documentary — March of the Penguins — has made more money than any of the Best Picture nominees. I guarantee you that has never happened before, ever. When Hollywood’s best films can’t compete with chilled, aquatic birds, there’s something going on.

This is not to say that box office should be a factor in deciding which films should be most honored. The money isn’t actually the point. The point is that the “best” movies of the year are profoundly alienated from what Hollywood is actually selling at the moment. When the highest grossing Best Picture nominee (Crash) is only 48th in terms of yearly grosses, what you’re saying is that the film industry is failing at the task of marrying art and commerce — or, at the very least, failing at the task of convincing moviegoers that art is worth seeing. Among the top ten domestically-grossing films of 2005, there’s not a single acting, directing or screenwriting nomination; the most significant Oscar nomination among that pack is Cinematography (for Batman Begins). You have to go into technical and wardrobe awards before the films in the top ten show up in any appreciable quantity.

Maybe film companies don’t care — but on the other hand remember that the film industry (rightly or wrongly) perceived itself in a slump last year; the $8.8 billion total gross was the lowest since 2001, and 2005 was the first year since 1991 that there was a shinkage rather than an expansion of total grosses. The general chatter on the ground was that in 2005, Hollywood wasn’t making films that people wanted to see; based on the Best Picture nominees, you could additionally say that Hollywood also recognizes that the best work of the film industry was not what it was actually busy selling to all of us. This damn well ought to be a teachable moment for someone.

Enough ranting. Here’s a quick take on the nominees and front-runners.

Best Picture: “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote,” “Crash,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Munich.”

In my opinion the Oscar race is pretty much already decided: barring a freakish mishap, it’s a Brokeback year. Aside from the film’s inherent quality, it’s also got Hollywood social momentum going for it, as the relatively liberal Academy will consider it a fine poke in the eye of the folks who freak out about men loving men, particularly when those men are cowboys. However, I see two chances for wild card situations: Crash takes place in LA and is socially conscious, and its cast won the Best Ensemble award at the SAG awards the other night. Actors are the largest branch of the Academy, so that might mean something. I suspect it won’t, actually, because the dynamic for a Best Ensemble award is not the same for a Best Picture award, but you never know. The other dark horse is Good Night, if the actors line up for George Clooney for Best Director and the rest of the Academy decides it’s more important to send a message about government intrusiveness than about the right of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal to openly kiss. But I think that’s a dark horse indeed. Capote and Munich are just there as filler — very good filler, mind you. But filler.
Early Pick: Brokeback Mountain

Director: Ang Lee, “Brokeback Mountain”; Bennett Miller, “Capote”; Paul Haggis, “Crash”; George Clooney, “Good Night, and Good Luck.”; Steven Spielberg, “Munich.”

This is one of the very few years where all the Best Picture and Best Director nominations line up; usually there’s an odd man out. I think Ang Lee will nab this, both as part of a larger sweep for Brokeback and also because he’s due; he really ought to have won in 2001 for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in my opinion. His only real competition comes from George Clooney, who aside from his fine work in Good Night is also primarily an actor, and the Actor’s branch of the Academy is notorious for dropping director Oscars into the lap of its brethren, often at expense of more deserving directors (ask Martin Scorsese about this: He lost out to both Robert Redford and Kevin Costner this way, not to mention Clint Eastwood). Nevertheless I expect it to come Lee’s way. Miller, Haggis and Spielberg are not actually in consideration this time around; even if Crash were to somehow come away with Best Picture, I would expect Director to go with Ang or Clooney.
Early Pick: Lee

Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Capote”; Terrence Howard, “Hustle & Flow”; Heath Ledger, “Brokeback Mountain”; Joaquin Phoenix, “Walk the Line”; David Strathairn, “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

This is the hardest category to handicap. The only person I’ll immediately vote off the island is Terrence Howard, with the notation that I’m surprised and pleased he got the nomination at all — he truly deserves it. Hopefully he’ll be happy with it as his reward. But after that things get iffy. I’d toss out Phoenix next, but since Reese Witherspoon is a genuine contender in Best Actress, and their performances are a matching set, I’m hesitant to discount him entirely. If David Strathairn gets the Oscar it’ll blow up any predictions about Brokeback and suddently Good Night will look like a real contender. But in the end I think it’s between Ledger and Hoffman, and I’ll give Hoffman the slightest of edges because he’s an actor other actors have admired for a while now. On the other hand, Ledger has achieved his ambition not to be seen just as a pretty boy, painfully biting back his emotions through Brokeback, and it’s hard to ignore a great performance no one was really expecting. It could go either way; I’m with Hoffman now, but I reserve the right to change my mind later.
Early Pick: Hoffman

Actress: Judi Dench, “Mrs. Henderson Presents”; Felicity Huffman, “Transamerica”; Keira Knightley, “Pride & Prejudice”; Charlize Theron, “North Country”; Reese Witherspoon, “Walk the Line.”

I bet you Keira Knightley is surprised as all hell this morning. Enjoy it, Ms. Knightley, because your big moment will be on the red carpet. Judi Dench: Not a chance, not in the least because six people saw Henderson in the theater. Theron’s performance in North is Norma Rae all over again, and she’s got that ill-advised Aeon Flux flick out there at the moment. It’s down to Huffman and Witherspoon, really, and while Huffman’s got the transsexual thing going for her, I’m really having a hard time imagining a universe in which the pretty, successful and driven Ms. Witherspoon doesn’t get this statuette.
Early Pick: Witherspoon

Supporting Actor: George Clooney, “Syriana”; Matt Dillon, “Crash”; Paul Giamatti, “Cinderella Man”; Jake Gyllenhaal, “Brokeback Mountain”; William Hurt, “A History of Violence.”

Interesting category. I’d throw out Hurt early, but it’s nice to see him taken seriously again. If either Dillon or Gyllenhaal win you can take that as an early indicator of their films’ fortunes, although the reverse is not true. It’s possible Clooney could get this if the pals in the Actor’s branch decide not to gang up on Ang Lee in the director category. Giamatti’s presence is very interesting; I suspect he’s here more because he was flagrantly ignored last year for Sideways than for his performance in Cinderella (which, to be clear, was very good), and if he wins it’ll be one of those “we’re sorry for not giving this to you when we should have” moments. I’d say for now Giamatti’s in the lead, followed narrowly by Gyllenhaal and Clooney.
Early Pick: Giamatti

Supporting Actress: Amy Adams, “Junebug”; Catherine Keener, “Capote”; Frances McDormand, “North Country”; Rachel Weisz, “The Constant Gardener”; Michelle Williams, “Brokeback Mountain.”

Good category — nice to see Amy Adams getting a nod, although I find it unlikely she’ll get a win; McDormand I think is out of it completely. Catherine Keener, I think, deserves an Oscar on general principals, but ultimately the real competition will be between Weisz and Williams. Between the two of them I’m leaning more toward Weisz at the moment, but this is definitely one of the categories where it’ll need to be revisited closer to the date to see how the wind blows. And don’t count Keener out completely; anyone who can make an actual human character in a film like The 40-Year-Old Virgin deserves your love.
Early Pick: Weisz

Other thoughts: I’ll be very surprised if Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana don’t get Oscars for Brokeback’s script and it’s very possible that George Clooney & Grant Heslov will get script awards from Good Night as well, not just for the script itself but because Clooney and Heslov are both better known as actors, and I’ve already impressed upon you the mightiness of the Actor’s branch — in fact, let me go on the record with them as front-runners for Best Original Screenplay. I expect Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit to get Best Animated Film. Best Original Song will go to “Travelin’ Thru” by Dolly Parton, because everyone loves Dolly. March of the Penguins is a no-brainer for Best Documentary, but Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room has a chance for political reasons, and Murderball has a shot because it’s cool to see paraplegics who can kick your ass.

Your thoughts?