WorldCon Grab Bag

Greetings from Dublin! I’m here for the annual World Science Fiction Convention, or WorldCon. (I can’t help but think of this particular con as DubCon, but since that’s inappropriate, I’ll just use the regular name.) I’ve been in Dublin since yesterday afternoon, and before that I was in London hanging out with my best friend from college. Alli is an amazing person and I don’t think she’d mind me saying so; she’s worked incredibly hard to get the kind of life she’s always wanted and I had a lovely three days hanging out with her in her fabulous flat, drinking gavi and watching Jeeves & Wooster. 

It’s funny how, when you have been to a place several times, the pressure to Be A Tourist is taken off somewhat - I’ve been to London three times now, and I’ve seen all the big sights and some of the random small ones. This time was just about seeing my friend, who I get to talk to every few weeks or so because of our competing busy schedules. She heals sick animals, I read books. Our jobs are very similar. 

I don’t feel the same sense of calm about this trip. This is partly because there is always a challenge trying to be a tourist while also trying to be a person working at a convention. I have back to back meetings scheduled most days this weekend and won’t have any real downtime until Monday, and there’s so much I’d like to see here that I’m worried about fitting it all in. I’m taking advantage of some downtime before meetings to write this newsletter. 

Anyway, in the run up to this trip I was running around like mad, so there wasn’t a newsletter last week. I thought this week I could do a little bit of a grab bag of interesting publishing news, as well as talk about my two favorites off the nominee list for Best Novel at the Hugo awards on Sunday night. 

Welcome to Linktown

What Writers Need To Know About Morality Clauses 
An informative look at one of the most insidious clauses present in the modern publishing contract, the morality clause, which has come back into vogue lately as a result of both the Milo Yiannopolous S&S cancelation and the #MeToo movement.

“For authors who are concerned about abuse within the publishing industry—which is unquestionably real and underaddressed—this can initially seem like a proactive move. The #MeToo movement has made clear that we are dealing with a culture of doubting women and pardoning men—a culture that morality clauses are trying, however ineptly, to correct. Yes, they’re vague and overly broad and point down a slippery slope, but when has our culture ever been in danger of believing female accusers too easily or punishing male abusers too much?”

We Have Always Been Plagued By Literary Scammers at LitHub 
A fun, short read about the OG literary scammer, Alexander Jessup 

“Jessup also posed as a literary agent—and pitched manuscripts to unsavory publishers. One writer said that he paid Jessup $100 to edit and pitch his manuscript to a publisher that never released the book. Jessup, it seems, was an especially hands-off editor: “It took [Jessup] over a year to do the editing which, I found later, consisted chiefly in retouching with his pen several letters which my typewriter had failed to print distinctly.”

Quit Lion Around at Gothamist
Did you know that the iconic lions out front of the 5th Avenue branch of the New York Public Library are called Patience and Fortitude? And that after 100 years they’re getting a bath? With LASERS? I didn’t! But you can read this article at Gothamist and find out more, including that when they first appeared, New Yorkers didn’t care for them. (And also that a laser bath for two gigantic stone lions costs $250,000.) 

The Road to Oliver Sacks at LitHub
This excerpt from Lawrence Weschler’s forthcoming “biographical memoir” of Oliver Sacks is an interesting look at 1970s intellectual life, and is definitely more about the author than about Oliver Sacks, but it’s a lovely snapshot of a career and a friendship and makes me want to read the book when it comes out. 

“Harry, cannily bemused, let me go on at some length before mercifully intervening, “But the thing of it is, Ren: Plato is a genius and you are a freshman.”  He waited for a moment as the well-deserved laughter eddied, before continuing, “And he’s playing you like a piano. Why don’t you shut up for a moment and listen to the music?  Does it occur to you that maybe, as far as Plato was concerned, Socrates’s very tragedy was that he had never been able to find any proper interlocutors during his lifetime, and that in a sense, Plato was sending these dialogs out into the future in the hope of one day maybe being able to find him one? That each of us, reading the dialog, are granted the opportunity to become that sort of interlocutor. But that first we have to learn how to read, to set aside all our prior self-certainties and actively engage with the text.”

Best Novel

This year the slate of nominees for Best Novel is a very strong one:

Spinning Siler by Naomi Novik
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

I’ve read all but Record of a Spaceborn Few on this list and enjoyed them all. Like I said, it’s a really strong list this year, but I had a really hard time choosing which to put as number one between Space Opera and Spinning Silver. For those reading who don’t know, the voting is done by a ranking system - it’s all weighted and I don’t really understand the math, but you rank books 1-5 (with an extra category of “no award,” which is a story for another time.) Space Opera and Spinning Silver were two of my favorite reads of the last year, so it was especially hard to pick which one to rank first. 

This is partly down to them being such different books. Space Opera can be briefly described as “Eurovision in space.” Imagine an intergalactic United Nations - a United Federation of Planets, if you will, that after the ravages of a violent and long-running war, decide that the only way to foster communication in peacetime is to host an annual competition for artistic presentation. Here’s the plot description: 

In order to join galactic civilization — rather than be declared non-sentient, and subsequently eradicated — humanity must participate in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, an interspecies music contest. Winning is not necessary, as long as the participants are not ranked last. However, when the alien emissaries supply a list of suggested musicians, the only entry on the list to not be dead or otherwise physically incapable of performing is Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, a washed-up, burnt-out glam rock trio with only two surviving members.

It’s a wild, hallucinogenic, roller coaster of a book, filled with beauty and strangeness. It’s a quick read, clocking in at 304 pages, and can be a bit confusing at first. Valente is a wizard at wordplay. Space Opera reminds me of Pratchett and Adams at their best. It’s very difficult,inmy opinion, to pull off humorous science fiction. Things can come off as just kind of stupid, rather than funny. What Valente does is to lean into the weirdness of the premise, taking the readers on dizzying flights of long-running sentences and painitng a world far stranger and more beautiful than the one we currently inhabit. Here is the opening line: 

Once upon a time on a small, watery, excitable planet called Earth, in a small, watery, excitable country called Italy, a soft-spoken, rather nice-looking gentleman by the name of Enrico Fermi was born into a family so overprotective that he felt compelled to invent the atom bomb. 

Isn’t that just wonderful? 

My other favorite from this list is Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver. This is technically the second of this kind of book that she’s written: the first was Uprooted, which was also nominated for the Hugo. These books are standalones and loosely inspired by fairy tales. I bounced off of Uprooted; I read it a second time and liked it more, but for some reason it didn’t really cohere for me. Spinning Silver, however, worked for me on every single level. There is a lot going on in this book to summarize, and the official copy only addresses one aspect:

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty—until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold. When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk—grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh—Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. She will face an impossible challenge and, along with two unlikely allies, uncover a secret that threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike.

It’s nominally a look at the Rumplestiltskin fairy tale, but it’s also about painful stereotypes surrounding moneylending and Judaism in what is essentially a fantasy Europe. Miryem is a wonderful character - cold because she has to be, not because she wants to be, determined to do what she has to for her family to survive. The other characters in the novel are richly drawn as well, and the whole book as a whole is concerned with the actions of everyday people in the face of extraordinary situations. It isn’t magic that lets Miryem spin silver into gold, it’s resourcefulness, but it’s this resourcefulness that brings the magic closer to her, putting her and her whole family in danger. 

I lose my mind when I try to talk about how much I loved this book, so I’ll just let Choire Sicha’s review from the New York Times do it for me: “What else should we teach young people but that bad things happen and that it’s awfully hard work to fix them? Evil regimes come. People are held captive. Sometimes good people do nothing. Fairy tales are about moral intentions, about the perils of adulthood and desire.” 

At any rate, please do check out either of these books, or any of the other fabulous nominees. I can’t wait to see who wins.