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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Best Related Work nominations reviewed & discussed - Hugo Awards Voting

This year's Hugo nominations in the "Best Related Work" category are as follows (in alphabetical order):

1. Lou Antonelli, Letters from Gardner.

2. Ken Burnside, "The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF".

3. Ted Roberts, "Why Science is Never Settled".

4. Michael Z. Williamson, Wisdom from My Internet.

5. John C. Wright, Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth.

At this stage, I have not broached the items by Burnside and Williamson. They'll have to wait for another occasion - perhaps soon. However, I've read the Roberts and Wright items, plus a large chunk of Antonelli's book. Unfortunately, I cannot support any of these three for the award.

As I've previously stated, I intend to vote in the Hugo Awards on the basis of what I take to be the merits of the nominated works. Despite the unprecedentedly politicized nature of the nomination process in 2015, I will not be adopting any strategy such as automatically voting for "No Award" across all categories as some kind of protest or deterrent to the use of politicized slates of potential nominees. Nor will I be seeking to punish any author whose work was included in such a slate.

On the other hand, heavy voting along political lines can produce an outcome where some works are appearing on the nominations list because they were favoured by people drawing up a slate, rather than because of their merit. There may be some categories with weak sets of nominations, and from what I've read so far this looks like being one of them. If none of the nominations in a category look strong enough to deserve the relevant award, I will, indeed, vote for "No Award".

Antonelli's Letters from Gardner seems, from what I've read, to be about the author's development, at a relatively late stage of life, as a well-published author of (mainly) short stories. It includes a considerable amount of Antonelli's fiction, with much commentary and reflection, and amongst it some perfectly sound advice on the craft of writing. If it were up for a lesser (perhaps regional) award, I'd have no difficulty in voting for it. From what I've read, however, I just don't think the book is good, distinguished, or interesting enough to be worth a Hugo Award. It does not stand up well against past winners. Your mileage may vary. It's not a bad book, and I'd have happily read the whole thing if it had been provided in the Hugo Voters Packet.

"Why Science is Never Settled", by Tedd Roberts, is a well-written and thoughtful discussion of its subject matter. It popularises certain ideas in the history and philosophy of science, and does a workmanlike job of it. It was aimed at an SF-reading audience, and it was doubtless of interest to many people within that audience, but it does not seem to me to be sufficiently distinguished or relevant to deserve this award. There is some relationship to science fiction - enough that it would interest many readers who are also SF readers - but it's a rather tenuous one.

Wright's book is the most interesting case of the three works I've read in whole or part. It is a selection of essays, all of which are fairly closely related to science fiction and/or fantasy - indeed, most are directly on aspects of these genres.

Wright has a worldview that is antithetical to mine: he is a traditional, conservative Roman Catholic with all that this involves. He supports traditional gender roles and evidently has a very low view of gay men and lesbians. That might be enough for many readers to decide that they cannot vote for Transhuman and Subhuman, but it's not the worst problem with the book.

Note, in particular, that my mere disagreement with Wright's worldview would not lead me to try to silence him or punish him, or to characterise his views and attitudes in ways that go beyond the evidence. For example, he makes clear that he has a traditionally sexist approach to gender relations and roles. He would not characterise it as "sexist", of course, but he spells out his views quite clearly, and the approach he describes is, viewed from outside, a paradigmatically sexist one. I would not, however, go further and call him a misogynist in an attempt to discredit or punish him. He shows no sign of actually hating, or even disliking or despising, women, and it's sufficient to be accurate about wrongheaded and socially destructive views, rather than engaging in hyperbole and misrepresentation. (That said, Wright does appear to be an outright homophobe. The standard Roman Catholic position on homosexuality is homophobic enough to merit the label.)

At the same time, Wright is verbally talented. Better, he really does know a great deal about the history and techniques of science fiction/fantasy writing. As long as he focuses closely on these topics, he provides valuable information and insights. I venture to think that if he could discipline himself for the task he could produce a useful book on the subject, and even this one contains enough worthwhile material to be worth reading - if you can stomach the rest if it.

What ruins the book is that a very large proportion of the text consists of self-indulgent, abusive attacks on opponents. Once he starts writing about hot-button cultural or political controversies - and he does so for much of the book - Wright does not explain or analyse, at least not with any charity or fairness. He does not seek detachment, or critical distance, from the views that he is inclined to. There is no hint of an effort to persuade his opponents through reason and argument. Instead, he propounds, declaims, rants, speculates irresponsibly about others' motivations, and wildly attributes viciousness of character to people who disagree with his view of the world. Some of it - a lot of it - couldn't be much more extreme.

Does this material contain any grain of truth of truth at all? Perhaps. Almost any position developed by an intelligent person contains some grain of truth, and I freely admit at least one point. There have been many excesses of political correctness on the Left, with some dire results. See the recent abuse received by Joss Whedon over aspects of Avengers: Age of Ultron as just one example among many. For another example, see the farcical persecution of Laura Kipnis by her employing university.

But Wright's own style is as unfair and vitriolic as any of this, leading to a book that is full to bursting with moralistic, bad-tempered nonsense. Despite some intelligent and useful content when its author focuses on what he knows a lot about - again, the history and techniques of the SF and fantasy genres - this is nowhere near a book that merits my vote for a Hugo Award.

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