As I’ve written about at length, Japanese video games have been a huge part of my life since I was a kid playing Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. Alongside those experiences, I was obsessed with Sailor Moon in seventh grade, Dragon Ball Z by ninth grade, and the films of Hayao Miyazaki as a high school grad. Japanese art and pop culture has had a tremendous influence on my life as a fan and a creator, second only to western epic fantasy.
Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World from Matt Alt is an exhaustive and entertaining look at my history—about how a generation of kids and teenagers were influenced as much by Hello Kitty and Gundam as Barbies and G.I. Joe. It’s the story of Japan’s rise to cultural dominance in the post-war era, and paints a chillingly direct line from the creation of anonymous message boards in Japan to modern day political unrest in the United States.
A couple of years ago, Wizards of the Coast made a gamble by bringing on popular fantasy authors like Brandon Sanderson, Kate Elliott, and Martha Wells to pen tie-in fiction for their mega-popular trading card game Magic: The Gathering. For years before that, Magic’s fiction was handled by in-house writers and the results were dubious at best. While there has been some disappointment among fans for the major novel releases from Gargoyles-creator Greg Weisman, by and large these efforts have produced some of the best tie-in fiction the franchise has ever seen.
Among those brought on board was Django Wexler, whose military fantasy series The Shadow Campaigns earned critical acclaim for its masterful battles, political intrigue, and its genre-defying prominence of nuanced and well-written women. The Shadow Campaigns is “a masterclass on how writing a sexist culture – and sexist men, even – doesn’t have to restrict the significance and range of your female characters,” said reviewer Foz Meadows. For all its faults and hiccups from a storytelling perspective, Magic has made a valiant effort to increase its number of female characters over the years, and in addition to bringing on women like Elliott, Wells, and Cassandra Khaw to handle the story, Wexler is another excellent fit to help Magic transition into a better and more inclusive storytelling style.
But, they’re good thoughts! I’ve left my hot takes at home this year. (They were mainly about raisins in cookies, and, well, seemed off topic…)
I gained a reputation in past years for fiery hot takes about the Hugo ballots, but, to be honest, over recent years, I think we’ve seen a push toward an incredibly deep and diverse ballot full of varied creators and works. This list feels like it represents the tone and tenor of SFF in 2019. And that’s the highest compliment I can pay a ballot.
I’m going to skip around the ballot this year and comment on the categories that I have strong opinions about. I didn’t read much short fiction this year, for instance, so I’ll move past those. I always enjoy this time of year, however, when I get to go back and enjoy the best short fiction from the year before, and I’ll be doing that again this year.
The major trend I see here (and one I accept with open arms) is that there are a lot of new names on the ballot, and the first signs of change in the fan categories as we see fan writers and publications from new mediums (like BookTube) begin to appear on the ballot. It’s a wonderful sign of health for the awards. Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe how much the Hugos have changed and evolved over the past decade as more and more fans from online SFF fandom have become involved.
Before my wife gifted me a copy of her book Life in Code for Christmas, I’d never heard of Ellen Ullman despite her long, impressive career as a programmer, software engineer, and author. Turns out, I’ve been missing out on one our the sharpest and most insightful writers on tech, culture, and feminism. Ullman is witty and broadly experienced, and has a terrific voice that flits between amusing and professionally rich without batting an eye. I know who Ullman is now, and, boy am I sorry it took me so long to find her.
(And major thanks to my wife for putting in work and research to find an absolute GEM of a book.)
Life in Code is a collection of Ullman’s essays ranging from the late ’90s to days after the 2017 US presidential inauguration. Posited as an auto-biographical account of her experience as a woman in a male-dominated industry and culture, Life is Code is also a biography of technology and web culture over the past 20 years. It’s a detailed, real-time look at all the mistakes we’ve made as we’ve chased the ghost in the machine and the allure of fast, endless capital at the expense of privacy and social safety nets.
As 2019 tipped into 2020, readers started compiling their lists of the best books of the decade. I thought long and hard, but the only book I had any certainty about was the decade’s best: a debut novel from Erin Morgenstern called The Night Circus. With a tenacity matched by few other books, The Night Circus has not left me since I first read it years ago.
The Night Circus is a classic novel that will sit on the highest shelf of my bookshelf, right next to The Hobbit and The Shadow of the Wind. … There’s magic in this novel and it deserves to be read by anyone wanting to be reminded that there is more to life than meets the eye.
Usually when I liken a book to two all-time classic, the comparison begins to show its age as the days, weeks, and years pass?—but not so with The Night Circus. If anything, the comparison seems more fair to me now than it did then, especially after having read Morgenstern’s much awaited follow-up, The Starless Sea. Like Tolkien and Zafon’s novels, The Night Circus is a book for the ages.
This was a lighter year of fiction for me as I focus on completing the first draft of my novel project, The Thousand Shattered Gods, with just one piece eligible for “Best Short Story.” I am also personally eligible for “Best Fan Writer” for the reviews, essays, commentary, news coverage, and other non-fiction work I produced for Tor.com, Barnes & Noble SFF Blog, Uncanny Magazine, here on my blog, and via Twitter. I also had notable (but ineligible for “Best Fan Writer”) work in Kotaku and EGMNOW.
Rewind 26 years, and you’ll find me and my best friend bundled up in our jackets sitting on our school playground about an hour before the bell rings. Breath is fogging in front of our faces. We don’t notice. The tips of our fingers are cold. We don’t care. Our eyes are glued to the boxy grey devices in our hands. Through a tiny 4.5″ screen, we’ve been transported wholly to Koholint Island.
We’re playing The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening on the Gameboy. It’s an adventure I’ve never forgotten.
It feels like hype for Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel about necromantic lesbians, bone citadels, rockin’ adventures, tantalizing mysteries, wicked sword fights, and many, many reanimated corpses has been building for YEARS. It was earlier this year, however, when it really started to catch my attention. Isabel Yap, who’s been championing the book since its earliest days, popped onto Twitter and blew my socks off by callingGideon the Ninth “the closest thing to a JRPG in novel form.”
As an older millennial, I grew up in a post-Chernobyl world. I’ve been aware of the incident for my entire life, without ever knowing the truth of it. I knew Pripyat from a few video games I’d played—its mystique as a ghost town overshadowing the reality that tens of thousands of people had their lives uprooted and never truly destroyed because of the disaster at the nearby nuclear power platn. An equal number of people have died (and continue to die) because of the accident. This happened in my life time, while I was toddling about my home, searching for crumbs and toys, but it always had the feeling of a far-off myth or something out of a storybook. Living in Canada, I had the privilege to know about it, but not know about it.
HBO’s Chernobyl was released earlier this year to rave reviews. I thought I knew about the Chernobyl incident because I was vaguely aware of how nuclear reactors operated (thanks to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011) and how government bureaucracy led to the disaster being worse than it should have been. I thought back to Call of Duty. I had no idea what I was in for when I sat down for watch Chernobyl—written by the guy who wrote Scary Movie 3 and The Hangover Part II, no less—but I walked away from the absolutely pitch perfect first episode reeling, unable to fall asleep. It was dark and bleak, angry, hopeless, terrifying.