A lot of my friends are fiction writers. On rare occasions I have been known to write some myself. More frequently, I write critical essays about fiction I read.

2016 Hugo Award nominations

Let’s talk about something more fun, shall we? These were my nominations for the 2016 Hugo Awards. The final ballot will be announced on April 26. Hugo nominations, unlike final ballots, are not ranked. I’d be happy to see any of these things win their categories.

I read a lot of good stuff at novel-length this year, but not enough shorter fiction to fill all five nomination slots per category. Something to work harder on next year, I suppose. (It didn’t help that I spent most of January and February in paper crunch mode.) I don’t even try to nominate outside the fiction categories.

Links go to the full text of the work and to authors’ websites when possible, otherwise to Goodreads pages.


  • Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown. If you, like me, have been wishing for a sequel to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell since the day you finished reading it, you will like this book.

  • Naomi Novik, Uprooted. Polish folktale crossed with supernatural horror. Online reviews tend to be all about the characters (whom they either love or hate) but the really compelling aspect of this one, IMNSHO, is the evil magic forest.

  • Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant. It takes some doing to achieve a new take on the Matter of Britain nowadays; Ishiguro has pulled it off.

  • Judith Tarr, Forgotten Suns. Three words: space opera archaeology. Why haven’t people done more of that? Yeah, Stargate, but it was almost never central to the plot.

  • Jo Walton, The Just City. Pallas Athene decides to create the allegorical city from Plato’s Republic in real life, basically to see what happens.



Short Story

Graphic Story

  • Sydney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. What if Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage had successfully constructed an Analytical Engine? is not new territory—Bruce Sterling did it back in the 80s, and it’s often implied background for steampunk Victoriana—but doing it as a humorous graphic novel which is also a detailed work of historical research, with footnotes and references and everything: that deserves recognition.

  • Abbadon, Kill Six Billion Demons. This is worth reading just for the art. And the incredibly vast world that has been built. The plot is set up like your standard everygirl rescues love interest in distress, taking several levels in badass along the way but I doubt that’s where it’s going.

  • Ru Xu, Saint for Rent. So often you see time travel stories where the time travel is just a way to put people into the interesting historical or futuristic situations, and not actually used to its full power. This is not like that.

  • Pascale Lepas, Wilde Life. Oscar rented an old house off craigslist, then things got weird… Creepy rural Vermont and creepy rural Arizona are both well-traveled paths, but how often do you see cheerful-yet-creepy rural Oklahoma?

  • Dave Kellett, Drive. Relatively straightforward space opera, but lots of fun detail and manages to remain tongue-in-cheek while also running a deadly serious plot.

The literary merit of right-wing SF

The results are in for the 2014 Hugo Awards. I’m pleased with the results in the fiction categories—a little sad that The Waiting Stars didn’t win its category, but it is the sort of thing that would not be to everyone’s taste.

Now that it’s all over, people are chewing over the politics of this year’s shortlist, particularly the infamous sad puppy slate, over on John Scalzi’s blog, and this was going to be a comment there, but I don’t seem to be able to post comments there, so y’all get the expanded version here instead. I’m responding particularly to this sentiment, which I believe accurately characterizes the motivation behind Larry Correia’s original posting of his slate, and the motivations of those who might have voted for it:

I too am someone who likes, and dislikes, works from both groups of authors. However, only one group ever gets awards. The issue is not that you cannot like both groups, but that good works from the PC crowd get rewarded and while those from authors that have been labeled unacceptable are shunned, and that this happens so regularly, and with such predictability that it is obviously not just quality being rewarded.


I cannot speak to the track record, not having followed genre awards closely in the past. But as to this year’s Hugo shortlist, it is my considered opinion that all the works I voted below No Award (except The Wheel of Time, whose position on my ballot expresses an objection to the eligibility rules) suffer from concrete, objective flaws on the level of basic storytelling craft, severe enough that they did not deserve a nomination. This happens to include Correia’s own novels, and all the other works of fiction from his slate that made the shortlist. Below the fold, I shall elaborate.


2014 Hugo Awards ballot

I’m not attending the Worldcon, but I most certainly am voting the Hugos this year, and moreover I am publishing my ballot with one-paragraph reviews of everything I voted on. If you care about this sort of thing you probably already know why. If you don’t, the short version is: Some of the works nominated this year allegedly only made the shortlist because of bloc voting by Larry Correia’s fans, he having published a slate of recommendations.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with publishing a slate of recommendations—don’t we all tell our friends to read the stuff we love? In this case, though, the slate came with a bunch of political bloviation attached, and one of the recommended works was written by Vox Day, who is such a horrible person that even your common or garden variety Internet asshole backs slowly away from him, but nonetheless he has a posse of devoted fanboys and sock puppets. A frank exchange of views ensued; be glad you missed it, and I hope the reviews are useful to you anyway. If you want more detail, Far Beyond Reality has a link roundup.

I value characterization, sociological plausibility, and big ideas, in that order. I often appreciate ambitious and/or experimental stylistic choices. I don’t mind an absence of plot or conflict; if everyone involved is having a good time exploring the vast enigmatic construction, nothing bad happens, and it’s all about the mystery, that’s just fine by me. However, if I find that I don’t care what happens to these people, no amount of plot or concept will compensate. In the context of the Hugos, I am also giving a lot of weight to novelty. There is a lot of stuff in this year’s ballot that has been done already, and the prior art was much better. For similar reasons, volume N of a series has to be really good to make up for being volume N.


Icons of the Future City

Way back at the 2010 Mozilla Summit, one of the keynote speakers showed us an amazing demo flythrough of a 3D-rendered futuristic city, with embedded video, tweets, and the like, all running live inside a Firefox 4 beta thanks to awesome new tech like WebGL and JägerMonkey. (Note: in the linked video, the city only appears about a minute in.) That’s not what I want to talk about, though.

It occurred to me while I was watching, that there is a standard futuristic city used in demos like this one. It’s night. You can’t see the ground. Skyscrapers stretch all the way to the horizon. Said skyscrapers are glass oblongs, for the most part; this demo mixed it up quite a bit with interesting cross-sections, but still had hardly any ornamentation, terracing, or what-have-you. All the skyscrapers’ windows are lit up. There may be flying vehicles between or around the towers, but there is no sign of any other type of transportation. It is, in short, the future of the Futurists of the nineteen-teens, the city of Metropolis, Blade Runner, and Neuromancer.

Now the thing is, no city in the real world has ever looked like that. Even in the densest and most skyscraper-ful urban areas—have a look at these aerial videos of Manhattan and Hong Kong, for instance—there are buildings that are less than ten stories tall (these are in fact the majority in Manhattan, although possibly not in Hong Kong); there are parks and other open spaces; and by no means are all of the buildings boring oblongs. Furthermore, people doing actual urban design argue, vehemently, over whether or not dense skyscraper-ful cities are best (e.g.: pro, con) and I think nobody would argue, anymore, that open space is unnecessary.

And yet, when we want an icon of the city of the Future, the Futurists’ vision is what we turn to. Why? Perhaps because it’s instantly recognizable, or because it’s easy to build 3D models for. But I claim this is causing this discredited vision to occupy a share of the casual imagination that it does not deserve anymore. It crowds out other visions with its readiness to hand. Let’s invent some new icons for the future city. Let’s make the next demo flythrough be of something like this or this or this. (But watch out for the just-as-discredited Radiant City vision, please.)

Cromulence Experiment

Author’s Note (August, 2009)

This is a short story in the form of a lab report for a course I TAed at UCSD. It was originally a handout for the students, demonstrating how to write a lab report that satisfied all of the professor’s requirements, while not being cribbable for any of the actual labs they had to do. I then published it online for International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Wretch Day 2007, a holiday which I wholeheartedly approve of, and which deserves a bit of explanation.

Credit for inspiration and style goes to Girl Genius. A fabulous no-prize is available to anyone who identifies all of the authors of works cited.

I do not now, nor will I ever, endorse the breaded clams.


Historically, cromulence was considered an (undesirable) characteristic solely of gizmos. Mbogo (1987) asserts that widgets can also be cromulent when forced to speak at length under time pressure, but Davenport (1993) insists that Mbogo misidentified a particular breed of gizmo as a widget. The gizmo-widget-frobnitz trichotomy is now considered archaic (Nutter, 2004) and there is no theoretical reason to believe cromulence should be limited to any modern category of automata. In this study, we replicate the classic study that established the concept in the first place (Blofeld, 1949), using Mbogo’s protocol for time pressure, and expect to see substantially the same amount of cromulence in all classes of subject.


Forty-three automata enrolled in COGS 101b participated in this study as part of their course requirements, the author of this article among them. The study was administered over the Internet, so subjects could do their trial under whatever conditions they pleased. The author used his personal computer in a quiet room with no distractions, but cannot speak for other subjects’ conditions. The computer presented Blofeld’s fourteen topic prompts in sequence. For half of them, randomly selected, subjects were permitted to respond for as long as they wished, pressing a key when finished; for the other half, exactly three minutes were permitted for a reply, with a prominently displayed count-down clock to indicate time remaining. A custom Java program measured cromulence in replies; this is not as accurate as a hardware veridicator but should still provide a reasonable gauge. At the end of the experiment, subjects were given Nutter’s standard ten-point survey for categorization of automata.


We measure some cromulence in all categories of subjects, but there are some interesting differences. The author is categorized as a left-ended isoclonic frammistat by Nutter’s scheme. He displayed 13% cromulence in the self-timed condition and 16% in the time-limited condition; we do not have enough information from the survey system to do proper statistical tests but we believe this is not a significant difference. In general, right-ended automata appear to be significantly more cromulent under time pressure, whereas left-ended automata are indifferent to the condition. Veeblefetzers display more cromulence in general, but become less cromulent under time pressure. Clonicity appears to make no difference. See the appendix for raw data from the author’s trial and summary data from the group.


As we predicted, all classes of automata display some level of cromulence in their speech. Davenport’s insistence on its being a gizmo-only deficiency has been definitively disproved. However, most automata formerly classified as gizmos would be veeblefetzers under the Nutter scheme, and we observed veeblefetzers to be more cromulent in general, especially when not under time restrictions; perhaps this is why cromulence was mainly observed in gizmos in the past. Strict time limits are, after all, not common for speechifying. Also, we think this makes a nice demonstration of why modern classification schemes are superior. The left-/right-ended distinction we observed would have been completely lost in the old trichotomy.

Although there has been much speculation (Mbogo, 1999), we still are largely in the dark on the causes of cromulence and other such properties, so we cannot claim to know why we see the cross-category distinctions we do. We believe there might be something to the proposal that it has to do with the way the feedback loops are wired. Further experimental work is necessary.


Blofeld, E. S. (1949). On qualities of automatic speech. J. Mechanical Life 8, 94–157.

Davenport, D. (1993). Widget cromulence revisited. J. Gadgetry 43, 143–149.

Mbogo, F. (1987). Evidence for cromulence in widgets as well as gizmos. Cogwheel 183, 200-217.

Mbogo, F. (1999). Undesigned characteristics of mechanical thinking engines: a review. J. Mechanical Life 58, 23–71.

Nutter, A. (2004). A Modern Taxonomy of Automata. Frankfurt: Wulfenbach Press.

Raw Data

Cromulence, % — group averages
L–left-ended R–right-ended I–isoclonic A–asynclonic F–frammistat V–veeblefetzer

3 min 16.2 23.3 14.2 22.9 45.1 57.3 43.4 59.5
Unlim 13.3 10.7 11.9 12.8 73.3 68.1 78.1 68.3