The Disclosure Behind the 2020 Hugo Awards

A lot can happen in a week. Politics and COVID-19 aside, it seems like “everyone” wants to return to a time when “things were the way they used to be.” Out of all of the prejudices that’s been going around, it seems that ageism continues to be accepted widely due to the notion that “the new will replace the old.” Unfortunately, it seems that “the old” keeps finding ways to hold out for a bit longer, which is equivalent to years. Not only have Americans been forced to admit the issues surrounding race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, sexuality and domestic violence, but also delve into several generational gaps and the beliefs that come from a particular age group. “Trumpeters” aside, it seems that many older White men have nothing better to do than to whine about how modern society is uprooting “the morals and the structure of ‘their youth’.” Yes, because White men have had it so bad, they get to complain about what they no longer have as opposed to other groups of people who are still denied the basic rights and privileges they continue to take for granted. And, it seems that the microcosms are reflecting the macrocosm as certain in-groups continue to find ways to make themselves exclusive as they express their desires to omit other groups of people and to keep them from participating alongside them. In recent years, we all witnessed this happening more and more in Hollywood and film, and in the video game industry. Not to mention, it’s happening within the literary community and the fandom are familiar with the ongoings within speculative fiction.

            One week after Tom Shippey’s comments about fantasy novels in The Wall Street Journal, the 2020 Hugo Awards was livestreamed during Worldcon, which would have been held in New Zealand if it wasn’t for the global pandemic. The good news was, many fans were able to watch the Award Ceremony; the bad news was, those same fans were reminded that those who write speculative fiction are not as open-minded as their stories make them out to be. More people were able to witness the blatant sexism and racism that is whispered about in the publishing industry. Obnoxious doesn’t even begin to describe the behavior of those grown men. 

            First, let me address George R.R. Martin’s mispronunciation of the names of several of the nominees and the presenters. As someone who has worked within education for over a decade, yes there were times when I mispronounced A LOT of names; and, I’m not limiting that list of names to “minority” ones. One, there are some European names a lot of people cannot pronounce. Two, your name maybe unusual and/or hard to say for someone else. Three, names do not always equate to your concept of gender (think of unisex names). So, why were so many people upset with GRRM? It was because many of the nominees saw the name butchering as unprofessional, which it was. Some authors are friends with each other, and they all often attend the same events (I’m assuming here), so it is understandable when after a while the mispronunciation comes off as rude. I understand how those authors felt, and it did ruin the Hugo Award experience for several people, especially the nominees (and the winners). Then again, there are several authors—whose works I’m a fan of—whose names and book titles I cannot pronounce to save my life (audiobooks have been a huge help). I know GRRM issued an apology, but that is neither for myself nor for the fandom to accept because it is for the authors and the creators who were nominated to decide. Whether or not they want to accept it is NOT up to us, it is their choice.

            There was another thing GRRM mentioned that night that has me upset, and it was his statement regarding all of the Finalists for the “Best Novel” category being women. Maybe he was trying to be funny when he said, “maybe we’ll see some men nominated next year,” but the context of that statement—especially after Robert Silverberg’s rant about John W. Campbell’s “legacy”—remains to be open to interpretation. 

            Robert Silverberg is an award-winning author of over 1,000 sci-fi and fantasy stories, some of which won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Locus Awards. In addition, he was the Toastmaster of several Hugo Award Ceremonies throughout the years. Silverberg’s publishing career started in 1954 and he retired around the early 1990s. As he mentioned in his rant—which was prerecorded—he is a fan (and I want to say a friend) of John W. Campbell’s stories—he is considered to be “the father of modern science fiction”—which he wrote and published during the 1930s, and he talked about the sort of “person” Campbell was when he met up with other authors, including those who were influenced by him. In fact, Silverberg was so defensive of his “idol” that he decided to insult the author who “insulted” Campbell after winning the award that was renamed once it was rediscovered that he was a bigot. Did anyone else notice how many viewers “left” once it became obvious what Silverberg was saying a loud? No one is denying the contribution Campbell made to science fiction, but the truth of the matter remains in tandem with his legacy, which is that Campbell was a racist and a sexist. Like many other (fantasy) readers of my generation, I enjoyed and I’ve been influenced by the Harry Potter series. However, J.K. Rowling has some disturbing views about transgenders (which, she has voiced more than once). Neither the fantasy community nor the fandom—myself included—cannot deny the contribution Harry Potter has had. Yet, while we are able to separate the art from its creator, we must know when to say, “that’s not right.” 

            Let’s face it, everything is changing whether or not we want them to change. I grew up during the 1990s during a time when the Internet was becoming communal tool. Yes, I have my moments of nostalgia, but I don’t wish for things to revert backwards! There are a lot of things that must change and there are some things that we all look forward to happening. Halting progress or returning to the past brings about chaotic results, something we are all witnessing firsthand on a global scale!

            Now, I’m going to sound like the English teacher/instructor I used to be: did you all even bother to read (or, to watch or to play) any of the works that were nominated for the Hugo Awards?! I was under the impression that members of the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) got to vote for the Hugo Award nominees and winners. Don’t get me wrong, it is NOT easy to attempt to read ALL of the books that get nominated for awards (my Shortlist Award Reading Challenge is a challenge), but to act as though these works aren’t worth reading because it didn’t suit your “preferences” or “expectations” of the genre? Or, were you worried that you wouldn’t be as familiar with the context of works written and created by females, BIPOC/BAME, and/or LGBTQIA+ individuals as you are with those of yourself and your peers?! No one is denying that the authors of the past (and the present) contributed to the genre, but there shouldn’t be a “shared model” for a genre that is dependent on the imaginations and the creativity of each individual. No genre is supposed to remain the same overtime. This is because stagnation kills progress of any kind! If science fiction, fantasy, horror and all the other genres, and the subgenres, within speculative fiction have changed over the course of the last century, then why should it remain constant in order for the genre to befit YOUR preferences? As John Scalzi mentioned on his blog, “’The canon’ didn’t just somehow ‘happen.’ It is a result of choices…” The genre was different before I was born, it has branched out and evolved since my childhood, and it will go beyond our expectations and imaginations with posterity. However, we get to decide on what we read based on what is available, which is A LOT!

            Here is my first of many proposals (hopefully). There are books about the history of fantasy, the encyclopedia of literature, the companion to science fiction, etc. In literature and in poetry, there are “schools” and “literary movements” and “periods” that categorizes the evolution of that “form” of literature based on the era in addition to literary form and genre. We are all familiar with the general history, the definitions, the genres and the subgenres of speculative fiction. However, if the influences and the changes of the genre are going to keep getting mentioned by the “elder” generation, then we should at least consider compiling “schools” and “periods” of the genre so that there is more comprehension than saying, “this author was a contributor of this subgenre due to the works which reflected the genre,” or “this author’s stories cemented this movement within the genre, etc.” For example, one of the most familiar eras of fantasy are “The Inklings.” When that group is mentioned, many know it refers to J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and other Oxford professors of literature who were also fans of folklore, and wrote stories based on those tales. We need more groups and/or eras like that so that there is recognized clarity within the community. Is this similar to canonization? Yes. However, if time frames and eras are going to keep being brought up, then we can find ways to make it all easy to understand.

            This could be the opportunity the genre needs in order to progress further. I’m not saying that this will resolve any of the issues that have been and continue to be brought up within the speculative fiction community, but it with academic scholars, numerous awards, and an ever-growing fandom, we should consider a plan and/or a project that will involve everyone; especially, if we want the genre to continue to be taken seriously without all of the attention focusing on “elder White heterosexual males” who won’t stop bringing up the past. Think about it because the Hugo Awards are a celebration of the best of the (current) year, and not just the past. All of the groups within this in-group should start working together more in order to include all who participate in the speculative fiction community. For that to happen, we have to acknowledge (and perhaps learn) of all of the eras and the communities within the genre. 

Why You Need to Read: “The Bear and the Nightingale”

Winternight Trilogy, #1: The Bear and the Nightingale

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 10, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Folklore/Magic Realism/Coming-of-Age

            Vasya’s head hurt with thinking. If the domovoi wasn’t real, then what about the others? The vodyanoy in the river, the twig-man in the trees? The rusalka, the polevik, the dvorovoi? Had she imagined them all? Was she mad? (11: Domovoi).

            Have you ever wondered how or what got you into reading a book or a book series? Oftentimes, we read books due to their popularity or recommendations from other readers. Then, there are times when our curiosity drives us to read a book. For example, the first edition of the U.S. print has a woman standing in front of a cabin in the woods on a snowy night. Add the book’s description and the fact that the ebook was on sale, and you have the short version of how I got into reading The Bear and the Nightingale, the first book in the Winternight Trilogy, and the debut novel by Katherine Arden. 

            The story begins before the protagonist, Vasya, is born. Marina Ivanovna is the wife of Pyotr Vladimirovich, a great lord or a boyar, and they live in the North (of Russia) at the edge of the forest in a town called Lesnaya Zemlya. Marina is the daughter of the last Grand Prince of Moscow, and her mother was rumored to be a swan-maiden who captured the prince’s attention. Yet, due to the fear of the Church, Marina married off to a boyar away from Moscow, where she bore her husband many children. When her youngest, Vasilisa was born, she died, but Marina always knew that Vasya would have the same “Gift” her mother had. Vasya, the youngest of five children, is raised by her father, her nurse—Dunya—and, her siblings: Alyosha, Olga, Sasha and Kolya. Vasya grows into a willful child to the distress of her family. When Vasya is about 5 or 6 years-old, her father travels to Moscow in search of a new wife and he brings his sons with him. By the time the family returns, Anna Ivanovna is with them. Later on, Sasha and Olga will leave Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow in order to fulfill their duties. Meanwhile, both Vasya and Anna are able to see beings, or chyerti, who occupy the house, the lake, the forest, etc. Anna believes them to be demons, while Vasya talks to them, follows their instructions, and learns from them. At the same time, Father Konstantin Nikonovich—a young and beautiful priest whose talent for painting icons has led to him having a huge following of worshippers—has been sent to Lesnaya Zemlya to replace the priest there that died. As young as she is, Vasya’s antagonists are adults: her stepmother and the new priest, adults who envy and admire Vasya. All of the characters are people who watch Vasya grow from child to adolescent in Russia during a time when Christianity was becoming the dominant religion and when women—especially high-born ones—were expected to follow strict societal guidelines. Vasya, unknowingly, fights these societal expectations and maneuvers her way through them as she approaches adolescence (which, was considered to be adulthood at that time). This puts her at odds with her stepmother and the priest, while becoming allies with the chyerti, fae folk from Russian folklore. 

            The plot in this book sees the upbringing of Vasya and her life in the Russian countryside. Given the circumstances of her existence and her birth, Vasya always had the attention of her family, even if it were for the wrong reasons. Vasya’s father, nurse and siblings see Vasya as a reminder of her mother and her grandmother (based on rumors and gossip). Both Anna and Father Konstantin see Vasya as an individual who goes against the “Rites of the Church,” and seek to “save her soul.” Vasya is an independent girl who communicates with the chyerti (of the old religion) and becomes their ally. Vasya learns the old magic away from the capital, which allows her to carry on without scrutiny. Yet, it seems only Dunya knows how special Vasya is to the chyerti. There are three subplots in this novel. The first is the animosity Anna and Father Konstantin have towards Vasya. Vasya is the willful and carefree daughter of a boyar who listens to the old magic of the chyerti, while her stepmother and the priest try and fail to bring her to heel. The second subplot involves the struggle Russia is dealing with involving pagan versus Christianity amongst the rulers. War is coming, but it is difficult to say who Russia’s adversaries will be. The third subplot follows Vasya’s “Gifts” and what that means for her. Everyone else—her family, the chyerti, her nurse, the priest—seem to know how important Vasya is to the world and their survival, except for Vasya. And, there are powerful beings who are interested in her as well. 

            The narrative in The Bear and the Nightingale is one of an erziehungsroman, or a novel of upbringing. This is different from an entwicklungsroman (“a novel of—a child’s—character development”) or a bildungsroman (“a coming of age” story) in that the narration follows the protagonist from childhood and focuses on their early life and upbringing. Thus, the sequence of the novel is set in the time of Vasya’s birth to childhood to early adolescence while learning of her family and her upbringing. There are multiple points-of-view and that’s because of the 3rd-person omniscient P.O.V., which allows the reader(s) to know what all of the characters—including the protagonist—are thinking and what their motivations are throughout the story. In addition, the streams-of-consciousness of the characters match the present time sequence of the story. So, not only are all the narrators/characters reliable narrators, but also are understandable because readers are aware of their emotions and their motivations. All of these elements of the narrative make it easy to follow. 

            The style Katherine Arden uses for her debut novel blends folklore and history to present a historical fantasy with elements of Russian folklore. The Bear and the Nightingale is the first book in a trilogy based on the story of Vasilisa the Beautiful. At the same time, the historical context allows for the story to be “more believable,” so that terminology and the word choice used throughout the narrative embellishes the story and presents the reality within the fiction and demonstrates the culture of Russia’s past. The mood in this novel is dominance. Who has control of whom? Who is the dominant one in a household, in a region, in a kingdom? Is there a dominant religion? The tone in the novel is rebellion. Vasya is not the only character who rebels against societal expectations set upon her. Then again, the other characters and the reader(s) witness what happens to those who allow others to make choices for them. Please note: the glossary will help with understanding the context of the words and the terms used throughout the novel. 

            The appeal for The Bear and the Nightingale have been positive. It’s hard to believe that this is the author’s debut novel. Katherine Arden was even nominated for the John W. Campbell Award—now called, the Astounding Award for Best New Writer—which is announced during the Hugo Awards. The popularity of this book will have readers thinking of authors such as Madeline Miller and Marion Zimmer Bradley for retelling stories of myths, legends and fairy tales. This book does have lasting appeal and it is a great addition to the speculative fiction canon. Fans of Spinning Silver, Gods of Jade and Shadow, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, The Poppy War, Empire of Sand, and The City of Brass will enjoy this book the most. The rest of the trilogy—The Girl in the Tower and The Winter of the Witch—are worth reading as well. 

            The Bear and the Nightingale is a brilliant debut novel that introduces many readers to Russian folklore through the historical world-building and the rounded characters. The story is the beginning of Vasya’s life and her adventures, and all of the elements of fairy tales of older variants (i.e. “the price of deals”) are found within this book as well. This book will make readers crave winter and snow, and will know the beauty and the magic found in one’s backyard. The old magic has not been forgotten. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!