Monday, March 13, 2017

2017 Hugo Nominations

With the Hugo nominating deadlines just around the corner, I'm sharing my ballot (incomplete in plenty of areas), though while I hope you'll consider the various fancasts and related works I'm nominating, I'd otherwise recommend the Hugo Spreadsheet of Doom, Abigail Nussbaum's nominations, and ForestOfGlory's short fiction recommendations at LadyBusiness, since they're all more useful than mine, especially if you're looking for excellent short fiction to read.

Best Novel -
Underground Railroad, Everfair.

I have 2 Best Novel nominations.  Underground Railroad is fantastic, deserves to win any awards it's eligible for, and while it's marketed as a mainstream novel, is also very comfortably a genre novel.  Don't believe the nonsense that "the speculative element is the literalized Underground Railroad".  This book takes various approaches that White America has attempted towards African Americans (genocide, scientific exploitation, etc), and imagines their implementation on grand scales, solidly in the tradition of many science fiction novels.  Everfair is ambitious, made me cry in places, and does an excellent job of differentiating between the narrative perspective and the various sensibilities of characters in the novel.  I'd recommend this review from Strange Horizons as well as Abigail Nussbaum's quick review which notes some of the weaknesses of the scattershot approach the novel takes to covering its grand scale.

The next-best 2016 books I read were Obelisk Gate, Wall of Storms, and Ninefox Gambit.  I don't want to nominate book 2 of a series which I didn't think was as good as book 1 (which describes both Obelisk Gate and Wall of Storms), and I think Ninefox Gambit is a good Space Opera, but that was the extent of my reaction to it, and again I don't want to nominate "a good Space Opera".  I bounced hard off the narrative voice in All the Birds in the Sky, but if you're engaged by the first few chapters, I've heard good things.  I wish I'd made it to Cixin Liu's Death's End, Indra Das's The Devourers, The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar, and Lavie Tidhar's Central Station, but I didn't.  (If you're looking for good novels, I'd also recommend checking out the Shadow Clarke Award discussions and reviews)

Best Novella -
Ballad of Black Tom, The Taste of Honey, Bethany.

I didn't read many novellas this year, but Victor LaValle's response to Lovecraft's Horror at Red Hook, Kai Ashante Wilson's heartbreaking The Taste of Honey (jeebus, I'm gonna read everything by Wilson ever), and Adam Roberts' Bethany were all excellent.

I didn't read any memorable Novelettes last year, sorry.

Best Short Story
(Again, go see ForestOfGlory's recommendations, and Abigail Nussbaum's, and check the Hugo Awards eligibility spreadsheet)
One Way Out (Ethan Robinson), Can't Beat Em (Nalo Hopkinson), Congruence (Jehanzeb Dar), The Banshee Behind Beamon's Bakery (Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali)

I really liked Ethan's self-published blog post, reviewed Congruence as part of my review of Islamicates vol 1 at Strange Horizons, and the other two just keep sticking in my head.  All worth a read.

Best Related Work -
#BlackSpecFic: the Fireside Fiction Report, Speculative Blackness, Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Octavia E Butler, Food and Horror, Dragonlance Reread

The #BlackSpecFic report from Fireside is an essential read and look at how our short story ecosystem is failing black authors.  Andre Carrington's Speculative Blackness was incredibly thought-provoking, and Gerry Canavan's book about Octavia E Butler gave great insight into both the author and her works.  I really enjoyed OJ Cade's Food and Horror series at BookSmugglers - whenever it dropped, I set aside time to read each post, and I'm waiting for a good opportunity to reread and savor the whole series.  I also quite liked Mahvesh & Jared's Dragonlance reread, which threaded the needle of both celebrating why this was such a beloved and essential series while also acknowledging it's weaknesses.

I'm nominating Clippng's Splendor and Misery for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, because it's a really fascinating album with a good story about space travel, but otherwise I have no opinions on dramatic presentations, editors, artists or graphic novels.  Sorry.
Edit - I'm nominating Olalekan Jeyifous based on Cecily Kane's recommendation, because my goodness those cityscapes :)

Best Semiprozine -
Strange Horizons.
Yes, I'm a Strange Horizons fanboy who enjoys their reviews too much.  They're pointed at my (fascinated by academia, without being well-read or formally trained), sorry.

Best Fanzine -
Nerds of a Feather, Lady Business
I'm of the opinion that a fanzine should be a group effort, and these are the two group efforts I really enjoy.

Best Fancast -
Cabbages & Kings, Fangirl Happy Hour, Storyological, Flash Forward, Midnight in Karachi.
I overanalyzed fancast a while ago.

Best Fan Writer -
Abigail Nussbaum, Megan AM, Vajra Chandresekara, Charles Payseur
Again, I'm pretty sure I overanalyzed these a while back.
Edit: Filling this out with O. Westin of @Microsff

It seems odd to me that Jennifer Brissett is eligible for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, but I do not understand Hugo eligibility rules.  I dare you to check out her bibliography & tell me she's not deserving of an award.

I'm mostly not nominating in Best Series because a) I haven't been following many eligible series, and b) I think that Best Series is a silly category that may track the market but is really hard to participate in beyond nominating your favorite series if you're already following one.  But Kate Elliott's Court of Fives series is in the same world as her Crossroads trilogy and ongoing Black Wolves series, so I'm nominating it because I've loved many of those.  And because this is one of many examples of why the series category is dumb.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy

There was a moment near the end of reading Tressie McMillan Cottom's Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges In The New Economy where I had to stop and adjust my thinking.  I went into this book expecting to learn, but I also went in looking for good guys and bad guys.  It's easy enough to find bad guys in the for-profit infrastructure, and Lower Ed has stories (and data! The stories in this book carefully illustrate real data!) of aggressive marketing techniques, and references the financialization of the for-profit industry, so I'd been able to find villains, but Lower Ed wasn't leaving me with the sense of righteous vindication I'd hoped for.  Most of the people working for for-profit colleges profiled in Lower Ed are well-intentioned, and the students in Lower Ed are not simply low-information attendees who've been bilked by a system.  I cried at some of the stories, but Lower Ed rigorously insists that the students at for-profit colleges are making reasonable decisions while constrained by their circumstances (the intersections of race, class and gender are thoroughly explored throughout this book).  I'd fallen into a trap that Tressie points out in the book - my narrative of for-profit colleges was that "for-profit colleges designed and executed the biggest con (on a few million people) seen in quite some time."  It took me a while to come to the conclusion spelled out in the epilogue that this narrative takes agency away from the very real people who attend for-profit colleges, which prepared me for the story actually spelled out at the end of Lower Ed.

What's wonderful about Lower Ed is that almost immediately after realizing that the narrative I was expecting had some problems, the book began drawing out the connections between inequality, lack of employer development, and the fetishization of credentials and higher education degrees that trapped many of the millions of people who attended for-profit colleges.  At a structural level, the data in Lower Ed led me to a specific set of questions, then answered them, directing me to another set of questions, and finally to the account spelled out at the end of the book, that a whole series of economic, political, and ideological factors led to increasing inequality, "especially for women, minorities, and minority women".  That in the past we have responded to massive shifts in labor and economic prospects with political and social solutions, but in this case we have instead abdicated any responsibility to the market, which filled in gaps with for-profit colleges.  The colleges here are "more complicated than big, evil con artists.  They are an indicator of social and economic inequalities, and at the same time, are perpetuators of those inequalities."  To the extent that there are bad actors in this story, our collective inability to grapple with widening inequality and its predictable consequences and traditional colleges unwilling to adapt to students who need different educational support are implicated as much as the for-profit colleges that developed aggressive marketing techniques to enroll increasing numbers of students in an attempt to meet the insatiable demands of shareholders.

I storified a bunch of my early reactions to Lower Ed, which you can check here, or embedded at the bottom of this post.  If you're considering Lower Ed, I'd highly recommend it.  Three great strengths of the book are how well it situates the story of for-profit colleges in the broader events of the last decades - this is not a story told in the abstract, but embedded in our recent history.  Secondly, the analytic framework needed to follow along is clearly spelled out, as when the theory of credentialism is defined in order to illuminate "the arguably counterintuitive decisions people make."  Finally, the data and theories in Lower Ed are illustrated with the stories of individuals, sometimes heartbreaking but always illuminating, and (to borrow from Roxane Gay's blurb) "In Lower Ed, McMillan Cottom is at her very best - rigorous, incisive, empathetic, and witty".  It's impossible to read Lower Ed without remembering that for-profit colleges are attended by real people - the book is at it's best when humanizing the "poor and minority students disproportionately enrolled in for-profit colleges", and the choices that they have found themselves presented with in a time of widening inequality, reduced support from employers, increased emphasis on higher education credentials, and a lack of any coherent political or social response to these trends.

This not-a-review isn't particularly coherent, unlike Lower Ed, which is always carefully written at the level of sentences, chapters, and through the entire book.  If you're considering Lower Ed, or if you're at all interested in education, inequality, or the intersections of race, class and gender please go and read it.  I think I'm writing this as a reminder to myself (and any other potential readers), that if, like me, you approach the book wondering "why do people go to 'those' schools", you should be aware that the question is "so clunky, so laden with embedded assumptions, anxieties, and projections".  There are simple stories to be told about for-profit colleges and the students that attend them, and politicians can get themselves elected by offering solutions to those stories, while Wall Street executives keep making money.  But there's also a more nuanced story, one with more complicated solutions (though solutions that we all can, and probably must, participate in!), and understanding that story is a lot more likely to help the people trapped in the social, economic, and political trends spelled out in Lower Ed.  I'm incredibly grateful to Tressie McMillan Cottom for this book, the reminder that a simple story is more likely to serve someone's agenda than actually solve problems, and the reminder that the sometimes abstract numbers cited when making public policy represent real people and real stories.