2022: A Hugo Odyssey

As you probably know, I won a Hugo. However, because Worldcon was in Chicago this year, the trophy was also in Chicago, while I was in Germany.

Based on observations from previous years, I expected that it would take a while for the Hugo trophy to arrive at my doorstep. Therefore, I was both surprised and thrilled to receive a shipping notification for my Hugo trophy one day after Worldcon ended. The estimated arrival time was Tuesday, September 13.

Because this was one package I was really excited about, I clicked the FedEx shiptrack link daily and followed Hugo’s progress from Chicago to Memphis, Tennessee, site of a (now defunct) Worldcon bid, which led to some jokes of Hugo visiting all the Worldcon bid sites first.

On Monday, September 12, Hugo arrived by plane in Cologne (at least, I assume he travelled by plane and did not teleport). Now experience has shown that once an overseas package has reached German soil, it usually takes a day or two at most for it to get to me. And Cologne is only 312 kilometres or roughly three to four hours by car, depending on traffic conditions, away. So I fully expected my Hugo Award to arrive at my doorstep on Tuesday, September 13, as originally announced.

I made sure to be at home all day, but Hugo did not arrive. And according to the tracking link, the package was still in Cologne. I wasn’t worried at this point, because delays can happen and FedEx doesn’t have as dense a network in Germany as DHL or Hermes. I even made some jokes about Hugo first taking in the sights in Cologne and maybe enjoying the famous local beer Kölsch.

So I waited. I waited Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, while checking the tracking link daily. But no change. Hugo was still in Cologne, 312 kilometres away, and would not budge. Originally, they had updated the arrival time to Friday, but once Friday had passed the tracking link just said, “Delayed”.

By now, “Waiting for Hugo” was gradually turning into Waiting for Godot. Even if FedEx had decided to go green and only deliver packages by bicycle, the package should arrived at that point.

When there was still no change on Monday and Hugo was still in Cologne and there was still no estimated delivery date, I e-mailed FedEx Germany support to ask where my package was. By Tuesday, there was still no change and no answer to my e-mail either, so I called FedEx Germany customer service and explained my problem.

“Did you order this?” the lady at the other end of the line asked me.

I said, “No, I did not order it, I won it.”

“Are you aware this might be a scam?” the lady asked.

I explained to her that no, it’s not a scam, that the Hugo is a legitimate award and that I won it, that she can google it, if she doesn’t believe me and that I’d really like my trophy now.

The lady was still sceptical, so I told her Kat Jones, the sender, was the 2022 Hugo admin, that the reason the package was mailed from Chicago, even though Kat lives in Texas, was because Worldcon was in Chicago this year and the trophies were mailed right after the con. I also told her that Kat (who has been a huge help BTW) would surely be happy to answer any further questions they might have.

The FedEx lady then told me that the Hugo trophy had triggered some kind of fraud alert, probably because of a combination of a very heavy package, unusual contents and the fact that it was mailed at a different place than the sender’s address. Poor Hugo had not gone on a drunken bender in Cologne, he was in jail.

The FedEx lady also asked me to forward Kat’s e-mail announcing that the trophy had been shipped to FexEx Germany, which I did, explaining again what the package was, what a Hugo was and even including a link to the official Hugo website, where my name was listed as a winner.

I figured that would resolve the issue, though I also emailed Kat to explain that the Hugo package had triggered some kind of fraud alert and that FedEx might contact her with questions.

So Kat contacted FedEx herself and learned that first of all, my Hugo wasn’t the only one affected by the issue. The other Hugo that was shipped overseas, Rovina Cai’s Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist, had also been held back for the same reason. Only that Rovina lives in Australia, so she did not expect her Hugo to arrive yet and didn’t notice the issue.

FedEx US also claimed that I had told FedEx Germany that I neither ordered nor wanted the package (which is not true, cause I explained to them in detail what the package was and that I wanted it very much) and threatened to send it and possibly Rovina’s Hugo, too, back. So poor Hugo was not only in jail, but at risk of deportation.

When Kat informed me about this, it was evening and way past the official office hours of FedEx Germany, so I had to wait until morning to call them. So I sent FedEx another e-mail and explained again what a Hugo Award was, that I won it and that I really want my trophy now.  In the meantime, I also had to postpone a newspaper interview, because of course they want a photo of the trophy and there was no trophy.

Mind you, FedEx never contacted me nor Kat with questions regarding the package, which would have cleared up things much quicker. Instead, they only responded when I contacted them, asking where my package was. If I hadn’t contacted them, they might well have returned my Hugo and Rovina Cai’s to Kat without even letting us know. Frankly, this is pretty crappy behaviour from a shipping company, especially since not everybody tracks their shipment as closely as I did, since not every shipment is a Hugo trophy. Never mind that there are companies (looking at you, Mattel Creations) who don’t even provide a shiptracking number, unless you beg them for it and sometimes not even then. Which means that you have no way of knowing if a package is being held or returned.

The next morning, I called the local Bremen office of FedEx, because I had been told to call them instead of customer service, and explained the whole situation again. The gentleman of the Bremen FedEx office and explained that not only was the Hugo held back in Cologne, but that the Bremen office had also been explicitly advised not to deliver that package. I also learned that apparently, the Hugo had not just triggered a fraud alert, but an actual security alert, probably because of the fact that it looks like a rocket and can easily be mistaken for a weapon, when the package was x-rayed. So Hugo was actually in jail on suspicion of weapon smuggling rather than mail fraud.

However, the guy from the Bremen FedEx office also told me that the situation had been resolved to everybody’s satisfaction and that Hugo would be released sent on his way and that he should arrive within one or two days. The FedEx guy also promised to call me once the package arrived in Bremen. So far, so good.

I e-mailed Kat Jones that Hugo was on his way and received notice that Hugo had left Cologne at around 11 PM, which meant that he should theoretically make the 312 kilometres to Bremen overnight. And indeed, the next morning at 8 AM, the guy from the Bremen FedEx office called me to let me know that my package had arrived in Bremen overnight and that he would make sure it was delivered today, i.e. Thursday, September 22, more than two weeks after Hugo was mailed in Chicago.

I was of course on edge and dashed to the door, whenever the bell rang. The first ring was someone asking a question, the second ring was a mail person with a package for me. However, it was not FedEx and not Hugo, but a package containing three brand-new Masters of the Universe Origins figures for my collection. Which is a great thing to receive (there will be more photos of them in another post), but not a Hugo trophy.

200X Skeletor and He-Man and Mantenna

New arrivals: Skeletor and He-Man in the style of the 2002 Masters of the Universe cartoon as well as Mantenna of the Evil Horde.

Then, at 2 PM finally the FedEx truck arrived and the driver handed me a package. A very battered package. Poor Hugo had apparently taken a beating, while in jail.

I signed for the package and remarked, “Wow, that looks badly battered.” The driver assured me it was all right and that the box might be battered, but the package itself hadn’t been damaged.

Battered package

The package, when it arrived at my doorstep.

I very carefully took my very battered package inside and began opening it up. I quickly realised that someone had opened the package, which was not unexpected – after all, I knew that Hugo had a security alert, so it made sense that someone opened the package to inspect the contents. They might have properly taped it shut again, though.

Inside the package, there was bubblewrap and Hugo. However, my poor Hugo had been badly banged up. The base was dented and scratched all over, the rocket was loose and – worst of all – the backing piece had broken off. My poor Hugo looked as if someone had used it as a murder weapon. Which is kind of appropriate, considering that two (faux) Hugo Award trophies can be seen in the background in Knives Out!.

This is what the 2022 Hugo trophy is supposed to look like.

And this is what came out of the box:

Broken Hugo trophy

Hugo unboxed and in pieces. Even in this pic, you can see how battered and scratched the base looks. Mind you, this is a sturdy wooden base. You have to work to bang it up like that.

To say I was disappointed and angry would be an understatement. After all, I had been waiting for more than two weeks for the trophy to arrive and was looking forward to showing it off. And then I get a battered and broken one.

I immediately called FedEx Germany – the regular customer service hotline, not the Bremen station, because a) the Bremen FedEx people were great, and b) the damage had very likely happened long before the package reached Bremen – to report the damaged shipment and ask how to proceed. I was told to e-mail FedEx, report the damage and send them the photos I had taken to document the damage. So I did that and also included a link to what the trophy was supposed to look like, so they could see that what came out of the box was not what was supposed to come out.

I also e-mailed Kat Jones to let her know that the Hugo finally arrived, but was damaged and sent her the photos as well, so she could contact FedEx on her end to get the damage reimbursed. Kat also forwarded the photos to base designer Brian Keith Ellison (who did an amazing job with the base BTW) to check if there was any way to repair the damage.

I strongly suspected that the base could not be repaired, since the backing piece had broken off, and Brian Keith Ellison confirmed this, so I will receive a replacement base and nameplate. The rocket itself is thankfully unharmed.

Meanwhile, I put my battered and broken Hugo togther and placed it in its designated space on the shelf next to the 2021 Space Cowboy Award. It looks all right on the shelf, but if you as much as sneeze on it, the backing piece will come off again.

Space Cowboy Award and Hugo Award on the shelf

The 2021 Space Cowboy Award and the 2022 Hugo Award on the shelf. The books behind the Space Cowboy are anthologies and magazines to which I have contributed. The friendly Matryoshka dolls used to live on this shelf, before I gradually took it over, and I didn’t want to evict them.

Even in its battered stage, the 2022 Hugo base is gorgeous. Designer Brian Keith Ellison has said that the base was inspired by Chicago’s stunning Art Deco architecture and I can absolutely see it. The design reminds me of Art Deco furniture and particularly of wooden Art Deco radios from the 1920s and 1930s. Since I’m a big Art Deco fan, this was really the perfect Hugo trophy for me to win and might be one of my all-time favourite Hugo bases. Though I wish it wouldn’t have arrived looking like a trophy from the 1930s, which has spent twenty years in someone’s attic.

Other observations: Hugo trophies are huge, both with regard to height and footprint. There is no way the trophy would have fit into a regular shelf (and those are large shelves, which can hold coffee table art books), if not for that protruding shelf, which is actually the top of a cabinet intended to house a TV-set, though it hasn’t contained a TV-set in ages and wouldn’t fit a modern TV anyway.  And the Hugo trophy barely fits the protruding shelf. Furthermore, this is far from the biggest or tallest Hugo base ever.

Anyway, Hugo is finally home, though badly battered and in need of a replacement base.

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She-Hulk: Attorney at Law Lays Down the “Superhuman Law”

After a pause for Worldcon and winning a Hugo, I return to my episode by episode reviews of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. For my takes on previous episodes (well, just one so far) go here.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut! Continue reading

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Non-Fiction Spotlight: Bridging Worlds: Global Conversations On Creating Pan-African Speculative Literature In a Pandemic, edited by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki

After the Hugos is before the next Hugos, so I’m continuing my Non-Fiction Spotlight project, where I interview the authors/editors of SFF-related non-fiction books that come out in 2022 and are eligible for the 2023 Hugo Awards. For more about the Non-Fiction Spotlight project, go here. To check out the spotlights I already posted, go here.

For more recommendations for SFF-related non-fiction, also check out this Facebook group set up by the always excellent Farah Mendlesohn, who is a champion (and author) of SFF-related non-fiction.

Speculative fiction from beyond the US/UK is a cause that is close to my heart. Therefore I’m thrilled to welcome my fellow 2022 Hugo finalist Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, editor of Bridging Worlds: Global Conversations On Creating Pan-African Speculative Literature In a Pandemic to my blog.

Bridging Worlds, edited by Oghenechovwe Donald EkpekiTell us about your book.

The Bridging Worlds anthology is a Pan-African, pandemic non-fiction anthology. It aims to chronicle and document the experience of Black people and Africans creating speculative fiction during the first year of the covid 19 pandemic. It was a harrowing year for all and those in publishing, with whole economies shutting down. There were riots and political upheavals in Nigeria where I am. And Black people and Africans caught the brunt of it, with vaccine hoarding policies, being the most vulnerable demographics even in advanced countries and economic shutdowns hitting developing African countries the hardest. So this is the story of how we lived, survived and thrived, what it cost, what we gained and lost, from all the amazing individuals we could capture their experiences.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m an African speculative fiction writer, editor, publisher, conrunner, slush reader, award administrator, founder and a bunch else. I am currently a resident of Nigeria but travelling the US, unshackled and ungrounded by the rocket, my words and the voices of all who oppose discrimination in society.

What prompted you to write/edit this book?

It just seemed like often we were shouting into the void, and not being heard. The works we create were received with narry a thought for where they came from or the work that went into them. It might seem like a seperate issue, the origin of the work. But a creator’s identity is very valid to their creation. And you cannot properly value a body of work without knowing it’s history or it’s creator. I witnessed a lot of struggle during the pandemic year, from my perch in Nigeria. And interacted with a lot of writers and creatives of African descent. And I just knew that these experiences needed to be documented, seen and heard.

Why should SFF fans in general and Hugo voters in particular read this book?

It should be a must read by true genre fans and Hugo voters because it’s an integral part of genre history. A chronicle of one of its most turbulent times, by some of the most enduring and resilient people.

Do you have any cool facts or tidbits that you unearthed during your research, but that did not make it into the final book?

A lot actually. My own experiences with both editing and publishing this book, depredations by Amazon and Smashwords-Draft2Digital, who wrongfully suspended my books and confiscated my funds, some of which they still hold. All this backed by their racist policies. There just might be a volume 2 of this book since there still happens to be a lot to the story that needs to be told.

SFF-related non-fiction is somewhat sidelined by the big genre awards, since the Nebulas have no non-fiction category and the Best Related Work Hugo category has become something of a grab bag of anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere. So why do you think SFF-related non-fiction is important?

I think sff related non-fiction is important because it tells the very integral and real story of fiction. The things that need to be said directly, not disguised, hidden behind anecdotes and in strange worlds. Where fiction is the shiny, metal exterior of the vehicle, non-fiction is the engine, the inner workings that drive it’s movement.

Are there any other great SFF-related non-fiction works or indeed anything else (books, stories, essays, writers, magazines, films, TV shows, etc…) you’d like to recommend?

Well, there’s Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s newsletter on the craft of writing.

My own non-fiction piece ‘Too Dystopian For Whom, A Marginalized Nigerian Writer’s Perspective’ in the latest issue of Uncanny magazine.

Kristy Anne Cox’s series on disability in Strange Horizons.

Where can people get your book?

Following the depredations of the publishing giants, which I mentioned above, the book is now free to download in all formats here

https://ekpeki.wordpress.com/2022/09/10/bridging-worlds-global-conversations-on-creating-pan-african-speculative-literature-in-a-pandemic/

[Since Bridging Worlds is a free download, just include that link]

https://ekpeki.wordpress.com/2022/09/10/bridging-worlds-global-conversations-on-creating-pan-african-speculative-literature-in-a-pandemic/

Where can people find you?

On Twitter: https://twitter.com/penprince_

Instagram: https://instagram.com/penprince

Facebook: https://facebook.com/penprince

Website: https://odekpeki.com

Thank you, Oghenechovwe, for stopping by and answering my questions. Do check out Bridging Worlds: Global Conversations On Creating Pan-African Speculative Literature In a Pandemic, because it’s a great anthology. Besides, it’s free, so you really have no excuse not to.

About  Bridging Worlds: Global Conversations On Creating Pan-African Speculative Literature In a Pandemic:

The Bridging Worlds non-fiction anthology examines the difficulties Black people and African writers faced in the 2020 pandemic-lockdown breakout year and how they navigated them. Bridging Worlds seeks to explore the threads and lines that connect us as we navigated this singular yet multifaceted experience, and show that connection in the various non-fiction pieces written in the diverse styles and forms the authors chose.

Bridging Worlds contains 18 pieces of speculative non-fiction, by 19 creatives aimed at documenting the experiences we had as speculative creators during that very challenging year.

It contains essays, interviews, narrative non-fiction pieces, whatever styles the creatives chose to tell their stories in. Stories that touch on their hopes, difficulties, losses, successes and further plans. It is meant to be an integral contribution to the speculative fiction canon and shed much needed light on the marginalized and scarcely represented Black and African experience

About Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki:

Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki is an African speculative fiction writer and editor in Nigeria. He won the Nebula award and is a multiple Hugo finalist. He also won the Otherwise, Nommo, BFA and is a finalist in the WFA, Locus, BSFA, & Sturgeon awards. His short story Destiny Delayed appeared in the May/June issue of Asimov’s. His other fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Strange Horizons, Galaxy’s Edge, Apex, Tor.com, and more. He edited and published the Bridging Worlds anthology, the first ever Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction anthology, and co-edited the Dominion and Africa Risen anthologies. He founded Jembefola Press and the Emeka Walter Dinjos Memorial Award For Disability In Speculative Fiction. He’s a 2022 Can*Con guest of honour and 2023 ICFA guest of honour

***

Are you publishing a work of SFF-related longform non-fiction in 2022 and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.

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Non-Fiction Spotlight: Story Matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural Baggage in Science Fiction and Fantasy by Gillian Polack

After the Hugos is before the next Hugos, so I’m continuing my Non-Fiction Spotlight project, where I interview the authors/editors of SFF-related non-fiction books that come out in 2022 and are eligible for the 2023 Hugo Awards. For more about the Non-Fiction Spotlight project, go here. To check out the spotlights I already posted, go here.

For more recommendations for SFF-related non-fiction, also check out this Facebook group set up by the always excellent Farah Mendlesohn, who is a champion (and author) of SFF-related non-fiction.

Today’s featured non-fiction book is a fascinating study of how culture and the baggage it carries influence storytelling in general and speculative fiction in particular. Therefore, I am thrilled to welcome Gillian Polack, author of Story Matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural Baggage in Science Fiction and Fantasy to my blog today.

Story Matrices by Gillian Polack

Tell us about your book.

What do we carry with us into our reading? What do we share with writers?

I’ve been exploring how we use fiction to transmit culture for a very long time. I wanted to explain where my explorations had led me, and find a way for writers and editors to think about fiction and for readers to get new insights. Story Matrices is that explanation.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Like many writers, I’m addicted to learning. I’m an historian, and a fiction writer, and someone who always tries to understand how the world works. My family focused on scientific explanations: I like the human side of things. It’s complicated and ever-changing.

What prompted you to write/edit this book?

Because I’m addicted to story, I wondered just how much of our invisible culture we carried in in the way we tell stories. I began to look at the world building we do and the paths we take when we tell stories and read them. What is the difference between story space for the reader and story space for the writer and, indeed, story space for the editor? As I addressed these questions, I discovered how very powerful genre literature is in our lives. Even those who have never read a science fiction novel have experienced the narratives we tell and the cultural material we embed into our stories.

I wanted to explain this: that genre literature is a powerful, powerful force, that culture is transmitted through story, that we can all think about story and through that thought have more control over what we accept from story. We can, in short, choose not to be bigots.

Why should SFF fans in general and Hugo voters in particular read this book?

Because it takes speculative fiction seriously. Story Matrices is useful for understanding any story, but it’s described by focusing on our stories, on SFF.

It shows some of the stuff we’re all beginning to realise about the way people from various parts of politics translate the worlds in our stories to meet their own needs. It provides tools for thinking about these things, and it helps us discover how we share our world, as SFF fans. It also gives some thoughts on how we can work through the discovery that our favourite author is problematic – what parts of the worlds we read about do we actually share with these people we suddenly distrust? In simple form: do Harry Potter fans have to give everything up, because they do not want to meet JK Rowling? And how do fans interpret those aspects of the novels that hurt?

We need tools and methods for handling these things, and Story Matrices uses SFF to provide them.

Do you have any cool facts or tidbits that you unearthed during your research, but that did not make it into the final book?

When I dreamed of this study, years ago, I used to call it “A Universal Theory of Story.” It’s the opposite to that, but I still dream of writing a universal theory.

My favourite tidbit, however, is that you can interpret recipes using my tools. Every story is set in its own world, or, in the case of recipes, its own kitchen. I can prove this, in my kitchen. Maybe one day I shall…

SFF-related non-fiction is somewhat sidelined by the big genre awards, since the Nebulas have no non-fiction category and the Best Related Work Hugo category has become something of a grab bag of anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere. So why do you think SFF-related non-fiction is important?

Stories don’t stand alone. They’re part of a vast and complex narrative. Non-fiction is part of our discourse about that narrative. Some of this discourse is clear and obvious: if we know what the most fascinating works are in any given year, we can read them first. This alone is a good reason to have that category – so that we can find out about fabulous work we’d otherwise miss. Non-fiction very seldom gets the public airing that the most popular fiction gets, and it can be equally important.

There is, however, another reason for it. The category helps us understand who we are as SFF fans, and enables us to see the wood, and not focus only on certain trees in that wood.

For example, so many of us talk incessantly about bias towards white men in publishing. It’s easy enough to compare the wide numbers of male and female authors. It’s much harder to look at the number of writers who are non-binary.

Then we look at who we talk about and how visible they are. Male writers are more likely to get reviews, for instance, especially in the most notable review places. US writers also have certain privileges. Australian writers have fewer, but compared with writers from, say Malaysia or Zimbabwe, we do well. The hierarchy of publishing and what that means about works that are available to readers is never boring, though often frustrating.

When we look at which writers are written about by experts ie have studies of their work, get mentioned in academic studies and general non-fiction, we can see how this works. We can discover what underpins what we hear about and what we can find in bookshops. These are the studies that help us work through the fog of too many books, and give us a means of interpreting them. (Some of the white male bias comes from this discourse, which is another story. There are always other stories.)

When we talk about story, we influence what stories are seen. The Hugo category helps us make decisions about what is important to us, as SFFians. Me, I examine at the category every year and note who is visible and why, and what that visibility adds to our understanding of ourselves. This is as well as reading the cool books, never instead of reading them!

Are there any other great SFF-related non-fiction works or indeed anything else (books, stories, essays, writers, magazines, films, TV shows, etc…) you’d like to recommend?

I want to recommend a set of communities. There are whole worlds of academic research that illumine SFF. German universities are looking at Australian speculative fiction, for instance, and the big Medieval Studies conferences always have a section just for people like us. I blog about them from time to time, when I attend a conference, or find a book that I want to share. My work as a medieval historian led me to the Tales after Tolkien people, and to fairy tale studies and ethnography and folk studies experts. There’s an amazing amount of very exciting work in all these areas right now, and so much of it is relevant to SFF. This is a golden decade for research that’s of interest to SFF fans.

Find me, tell me your interests, and I’ll introduce you to this side of my world.

Where can people buy your book?

Most online bookshops have it. Most brick-and-mortar shops can get it in. This sounds like an evasion, but it’s hard to know what shops on the other side of the world stock my books! (And, from Australia, most of the world is the other side.)

The easiest way to find a copy near you is through online tools such as this (the UK site given, but it’s international): https://booko.info/9781913387914/Story-Matrices-Cultural-Encoding-and-Cultural-Baggage-in-Science-Fiction-and-Fantasy

or, for those of you in the US, this: https://bookshop.org/a/1838/9781913387914

Where can people find you?

My website is: https://gillianpolack.com/ but I also blog every Monday at a favourite haunt (a treehouse for writers – a few of us set this up during the big COVID lockdown and have never left it) https://treehousewriters.com/wp53 . I write essays for Aurealis (the magazine) and elsewhere. I usually report the most interesting pieces on Twitter (https://twitter.com/GillianPolack) and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/gillian.polack

Thank you, Gillian, for stopping by and answering my questions. Do check out Story Matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural Baggage in Science Fiction and Fantasy if you’re interested in storytelling, culture and speculative fiction.

About Story Matrices: Cultural Encoding and Cultural Baggage in Science Fiction and Fantasy:

The culture we live in shapes us. We also shape the culture we live in. Stories we tell play critical roles in this shaping.
The heart of cultural transmission is how stories and the way we shape knowledge come together and make a novel work. How do they combine within the novel? Genre writing plays a critical role in demonstrating how this transmission functions.

Science fiction and fantasy illustrate this through shared traditions and understanding, colonialism, diasporic experiences, own voices, ethics, selective forgetting and silencing. They illuminate ways in which speculative fiction is important for cultural transmission.

This study uses cultural encoding and baggage within speculative fiction to decode critical elements of modern English-language culture.

About Gillian Polack:

I am Gillian Polack. I answer mainly to Gillian, but also to Dr Polack, Ms Polack, Miss Polack and “Hey, you”. I sometimes answer to “Gillian Pollack” because people simply can’t seem to get my name right. ‘Polack’ is not an insult in Australia and it is most definitely the correct spelling of my surname. I live in the centre of the known universe (Canberra, ACT, Australia).

I write, I think, I serve on committees, I teach. I am passionate about people, about books, about history.

I talk a lot. I dream a lot. The Middle Ages sneaks into my dreaming, and so does speculative fiction. Cooking sneaks onto my waistline.

***

Are you publishing a work of SFF-related longform non-fiction in 2022 and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.

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Some Comments on the 2022 Hugo Award Winners and the Hugo Ceremony in General

Now that I have somewhat recovered from the excitement of the past few days, here is the detailed Hugo commentary I promised you. The full list of 2022 Hugo winners may be found here and the detailed voting and nomination statistics breakdown here.

Hugo commentary is somewhat muted this year – and what there is often focusses solely on the Dramatic Presentation and Best Novel winners – but you can find more comments and analysis by fellow Hugo finalist Camestros Felapton (with bonus stats analysis here), my other fellow finalist Chris M. Barkley, my pal Steve J. Wright, Doris V. Sutherland, Kristenelle of the SFF Reader BookTube channel and deputy Hugo administrator Nicholas Whyte as well as some strongly worded comments from Peculiar Monster (really strongly worded, so if you’re a finalist/winner and don’t want your moment spoiled, don’t click) here.

ETA: I don’t necessarily agree with everything everybody says in the commentaries linked above.

The local free paper Weser Report wrote a nice article about my Hugo win. You can read it on page 5 of their electronic flip edition or check out the screenshots below:

Hugo article

The actual article from the Weser Report

Weser Report front page

And here is the front page of the “Huchting Stuhr Brinkum” regional edition of the Weser Report with me featured in the top right-hand corner. Looking at the other editions, I knocked the local football team Werder Bremen off the front page, which is huge. Okay, so I won and Werder lost, but it’s still huge.

Furthermore, I was also the top news item in last week’s edition of the Thews You Can Use sword & sorcery newsletter. Considering how many articles about the Hugos only focus on the Dramatic Presentation or Best Novel and often can’t even be bothered to list all the winners (which I accept in a print mag or paper, where space is limited, but not online), it’s nice to be the headline news item for once.

But before we get to the detailed discussion of the winners, I want to say a few words about the ceremony itself. You can watch the entire ceremony on YouTube BTW. I’m up at the 30 minute mark.

All in all, it was a very good – and most importantly, fairly brisk (the YouTube video is two hours and four minutes long) – Hugo ceremony. I particularly appreciate the latter, considering I survived the neverending Hugo ceremony from hell of 2020. We should probably put that on a badge ribbon. Toastmasters Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders were charming and funny hosts. There were also some fine guest presenters, including 2022 TAFF winner Fia Karlsson and Mary Anne Mohanraj. Finally, there was also a land acknowledgement read out by representatives of an indigenous youth group from Chicago. According to them, there are 75000 indigenous people living in Chicago, which I for one did not know.

Unlike previous years, there also was very little in the way of controversy. There was no controversial sponsor this year, unlike the Raytheon debacle of 2021. Google did provide the automatic captioning again, which has improved a lot since the Dublin Hugo ceremony, though unintentionally hilarious gaffes still happened. For example, when the staff of Best Semiprozine winner Uncanny thanked their supporters, the Space Unicorns, the auto captioning software turned that into “space urine corns”, which sounds like spilled pee droplets you might find floating around the ISS. I should probably check the auto-captioning of my acceptance speech to see what the software made of He-Man and Man-e-Faces.

There were also no names mispronounced that I noticed – and mine was pronounced correctly, so thank you to Annalee and Charlie Jane – though the hosts forgot to read out Marguerite Kenner, editor of Best Fanzine finalist The Full Lid. There was also some unpleasantness involving Best Semiprozine finalist Strange Horizons, who have a large staff and have long fought for all of them to be listed. The hosts did not read out the entire long list of names, which was agreed upon with Strange Horizons beforehand, but the dramatic pause before “…by the Strange Horizons editorial collective” generated laughter in the auditorium, which may not even have been ill intended, but which nonetheless hurt the Strange Horizons people, especially given the crap they’ve gotten over the years, e.g. last year when many people blamed Strange Horizons for complaining about the (eventually repealed) “only four people plus ones at the Hugo ceremony and reception rule”, even though it was a completely different team that complained. Finally – speaking as someone who’s been there three times now – it is a thrilling feeling to hear your name read out at the Hugo ceremony. Having that thrilling feeling marred by having your name mispronounced, omitted or people laughing about it is not cool. I was still in the finalist Zoom green room with Sonia Sulaiman of Strange Horizons, when Best Semiprozine was announced, and I could tell she was hurt. That said, Annalee and Charlie Jane have apologised by now.

Last year, the virtual finalists who couldn’t attend were “beamed” into the Hugo reception and after-party via Zoom and a mobile tablet. This was nice, because it allowed virtual and on-site finalists to interact, admire each other’s gowns, etc… Sadly, this was not repeated this year, so the virtual finalists were very isolated in the Zoom green room with hardly any contact to the in person finalists. Come to think of it, I don’t even know if there was a Hugo after-party this year, since I haven’t seen any photos.

Warning: I will be discussing the winners, finalists, placements and also the nomination statistics, so if this sort of thing bothers you – e.g. I know that there are finalists who do not want to know the rankings – you may want to stop reading now. Continue reading

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I Won a Hugo Award!

You’ll have to wait a bit longer for the 2022 Hugo Winner commentary, because it turns out that I’m one of the winners.

That was a huge surprise, because I honestly didn’t think I’d win this year, considering how strong the Fan Writer ballot was.

I had finished typing up the Dragon Award winner post with about twenty minutes to go. Since I couldn’t attend in person, I was in the virtual finalist Zoom chat in my full Hugo get-up, which you can see below, photographed earlier yesterday in the garden.

In my Hugo gown in the garden.

Hugo gown with sundial

We could watch a livestream of the Hugo ceremony in the virtual Zoom green room, but when your category comes up, you are sent to a breakout room, so they can bring you on stage, if necessary. In this breakout room, you don’t get the ceremony livestream, so you don’t hear the winner announcement. This is why Astounding winner Shelley Parker-Chan was so confused, because they hadn’t heard the announcement. After Shelley won, I told the ceremony Zoom moderator, “You should tell us who won, if we can’t hear it.”

The Lodestar and Fan Artist were awarded and then Best Fan Writer was up and fellow finalist Alex Brown and I were sent into the breakout room. The moderator typed into the chat, “The winner is Cora Buhlert,” and that’s how I learned I won, via Zoom chat. So I delivered my speech – with some action figure assistance – and my own Zoom screen was all I could see.

Though according to photos online, this is what it looked like on the big screen in the Hyatt Regency ballroom in Chicago.

Cora on screen

Cora on screen

The second photo is courtesy of my wonderful fellow finalist Olav Rokne. I don’t know who took the first one. Love the little dog in the front row.

ETA: You can rewatch the entire ceremony on YouTube, which is how I finally saw what happened after I was sent to the Zoom breakout room. Best Fan Writer is announced at the thirty minute mark.

After I’d finished my speech, I was sent back to the regular finalist Zoom green room. By that time, a lady whose name I did not catch [ETA: it was Mary Anne Mohanraj] was introducing Best Fancast. I waited for Fancast and Fanzine to be announced, because I have friends in both categories, though I switched off the camera to take off my gown and tiara. When Fanzine was announced, I got back to the computer to wish fellow virtual finalist Charley Payseur good luck. Unfortunately, typing into the chat switched the camera back on, so I accidentally managed to flash my fellow finalists. Though I don’t think anybody saw anything, because the camera doesn’t go that far down.

I wished the semiprozine and editor finalists good luck and switched off the camera. My parents had given me permission to wake them up in case I won, so that’s what I did. Because you should know that it was almost 4 AM German time by that point. My parents were very happy for me.

I had champagne in the fridge and some really fancy Belgian chocolate in the cellar, so I got that out to celebrate.

Cora celebrating with champagne

Brand-new Hugo winner celebrating with champagne.

And since He-Man and Man-e-Faces assisted with the speech, they got to celebrate with champagne, too.

He-Man and Man-a-Faces celebrate with champagne

Having stopped Skeletor, He-Man and Man-e-Faces celebrate with champagne.

Finally, here is my acceptance speech, complete with stage directions to myself:

Acceptance Speech Best Fan Writer 2022

Thank you very much.

September 4th is “Take Man-e-Faces to Work Day”. And yes, this is a real thing.

Now I happen to have a Man-e-Faces, but since I work from home, I don’t really have a workplace I could take him to. But then I realised that September 4th is actually Hugo Night, so I thought, “Why not take Man-e-Faces to the Hugos?” So here he is:

[Bring Manny on stage]

Say hello to the audience, Manny!

“People of Eternia, I am absolutely thrilled to win the Greatest Actor of the Universe Award…”

“Ahem, Manny, this is actually Chicago and the Hugo Awards.”

“All right then, people of Chicago, I am absolutely thrilled to win…”

“Ahem, Manny, actually I won the award.”

“So what am I doing here then?”

“Well today is “Take Man-e-Faces to Work” day and this is the closest thing to work I could take you to.”

[Bring He-Man on stage]

“Manny, come quick. Skeletor is attacking Castle Grayskull and we need your help!”

“Sorry, got to go!”

[Exit stage right]

Well, looks like Manny and He-Man will be busy for a while, so let’s talk about fandom.

Science fiction fandom was born shortly after the genre itself, in the letter pages of the science fiction magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. Via these letter columns, fans found each other and went on to publish fanzines, found clubs and organise conventions.

From these beginnings, fandom has grown by leaps and bounds into directions the letter writers of the 1930s could never have imagined. Over the past ninety years, thousands of people of all genders and races and from all over the world have written articles and reviews, letters and blogposts, essays and parodies, filk songs, poetry and fanfiction. They published fanzines, created fan art, made fanvids, sewed costumes, started blogs and podcasts, organised cons, all for the love of the genre. And so they all contributed to the great and colourful tapestry we call fandom, a tapestry that is wrapped around the entire world by now.

In the past 83 years, Worldcons have been held on four continents and in ten different countries. Next year, we will add Chengdu in China to the list and in 2024 we are going to Glasgow in Scotland. We also have active bids from Uganda, Egypt, Israel, Australia, Ireland and the US to make it truly a WORLDcon. Cause if there is one thing Worldcon has proven it’s that in spite of our many differences, we all have one thing in common: our love of science fiction, fantasy and horror.

I’m honoured that tonight, the threads I added to the great and glorious tapestry that is fandom have been recognised by you. Thank you very much.

I particularly want to thank Gideon Marcus and the crew at Galactic Journey, Jessica Rydill, my co-conspirator at the Speculative Fiction Showcase, Mike Glyer and everybody at File 770, Jo Van Ekeren, Camestros Felapton, Jason Ray Carney and everybody at the Whetstone Discord, Dr. Ian Watson of the University of Bremen, my parents and of course my wonderful fellow finalists Paul, Jason, Chris, Alex and Bitter. You’re all amazing and as far as I’m concerned, we’re all winners here tonight.

Thank you very much.

[Man-e-Faces and He-Man wave good-bye]

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Some Comments on the 2022 Dragon Award Winners

In a feat of terrible scheduling, not only do Chicon 8, the 2022 Worldcon, and DragonCon, the big media con in Atlanta, Georgia, happen on the exact same weekend, no, both Hugos and the Dragon Awards were also handed out on the same day.

Luckily, the Dragons were awarded earlier than the Hugos, which means that I could get a headstart on this post, before I have to get ready for the Hugos. The full list of winners is here.

So let’s dive right in:

The winner of the 2022 Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel is Leviathan Falls by James S.A. Corey. No big surprise here, because it is a popular novel and the final volume of the hugely popular series.

The 2022 Dragon Award for Best Fantasy Novel goes to Book of Night by Holly Black. This one surprised me a little, because Book of Night was the finalist in this category I was least familiar with. That said, Holly Black is a very popular writer, though better known for her YA work.

The winner of the 2022 Dragon Award for Best Young Adult/Middle Grade Novel is A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell. This one is another surprise to me, because this was the only book in  this category I hadn’t heard of. But then, I’m not much of a YA reader.

The 2022 Dragon Award for Best Military SFF novel goes to A Call to Insurrection by David Weber, Timothy Zahn and Thomas Pope. Once again, this isn’t much of a surprise, because David Weber and Timothy Zahn are hugely popular, plus this novel is apparently tied in to Weber’s Honor Harrington series. Though I do wish that the voters in this category would look beyond David Weber and Honor Harrington once in a while.

The winner of the 2022 Dragon Award for Best Alternate History Novel is The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley by Mercedes Lackey. The Alternate History category was uncommonly strong this year, so pretty much any of the finalists would have been a credible winner. That said, Mercedes Lackey is very popular, though I haven’t read this particular novel. Alas, Vondy McIntyre did not get to take home a posthumous Dragon Award three years after her death for a twenty-five-year-old novel.

The 2022 Dragon Award for Best Media Tie-In Novel goes to Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil by Timothy Zahn. Again, there is no real surprise here. I mean, the winner is a Star Wars novel by Timothy Zahn, most popular of the Star Wars tie-in writers, and the novel is about Grand Admiral Thrawn, one of the most popular characters in two continuities of Star Wars novels.

The winner of the 2022 Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel is The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig. I have to admit that this win surprised me a little, because I assumed Stephen Grahma Jones or Grady Hendrix would take it. That said, Chuck Wendig is a fine writer and his win will piss off the puppies so very much.

The 2022 Dragon Award for Best Comic Book goes to Immortal X-Men by Kieron Gillen and Mark Brooks. I’m surprised that the X-Men are still/again so popular, because it was my impression that their popularity had faded while Marvel focussed more on the Avengers and related heroes. Besides, I have to admit that I don’t care for this new Krakoa era of the X-Men at all. I preferred the X-Men when they were still underdogs, hated and feared by the very world they’re trying to protect.

The winner of the 2022 Dragon Award for Best Graphic Novel is Dune: House Atreides Volume 2 by Brian Herbert, Kevin J. Anderson and Dev Pramanik. This very much wouldn’t have been my choice – I voted for Saga – but I guess it got a boost from the Dune movie.

The 2022 Dragon Award for Best SFF TV series goes to Stranger Things, which is not only very popular, but also got a boost from airing fairly close to the nomination deadline.

The winner of the 2022 Dragon Award for Best SFF movie is Dune. Again, no real surprise here. I also strongly suspect that Dune will take the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation Long this year.

I still can’t offer any comment on the four game categories except that I have heard of the winners, which means they must be popular.

Furthermore, the 2022 Julie Award was awarded to Jim Starlin, creator of Thanos, Adam Warlock and many other memorable Marvel characters. The Hank Reinhardt Fandom Award went to John Carrol.

In general, the Dragon Awards continue the trend we have observed in recent years and now finally do what they were designed to do, namely award broadly popular works in a variety of genres and subgenres. There is no truly unexpected  winner here nor is there a single winner this year that will make future historians of the Dragon Awards go WTF?

So in short, after six years the Dragons are finally where they wanted to be.

The Hugo commentary will come tomorrow, because the ceremony starts at 3 AM my time.

ETA 1: Doris V. Sutherland has a write-up of the 2022 Dragon Award winners.

ETA 2: Camestros Felapton notes that one thing that hasn’t changed about the Dragons is that the winners skew heavily male. This is likely a result of the fact that the Dragons tend award broadly popular and very well known works. And books by big name male authors still get more promotion than books by female authors.

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First Monday Free Fiction: Old Mommark’s Tale

Old Mommark's Tale by Cora BuhlertWelcome to the September 2022 edition of First Monday Free Fiction.

To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on the first Monday of every month. At the end of the month, I’ll take the story down and post another.

“Talk Like a Pirate Day” is September 19, so why not have a pirate story. Therefore, I give you Old Mommark’s Tale, the story of a pirate, a treasure and a mysterious island with a secret.

So take a seat in the most disreputable tavern in Tortuga and listen to…

Old Mommark’s Tale

 

Arr, my luvvies, let me tell you a tale. A tale that’s one hundred and ten percent true, honest to God, cross my heart and hope to die. And if my tale be just sailor’s yarn, then may I swing upon the gallows ere the week is through.

So buy me a cup of rum and I’ll tell you my tale. The true tale of how I escaped the island of horror.

***

’twas thirty years ago, when I was still a young whippersnapper, a cabin boy sailing under Captain Scarlet on the Bloody Skull and hoping for better things.

As ye may know, Captain Scarlet was the most feared pirate in all of the Caribbean in those days. He’d gotten that name both for the colour of his beard and the colour of the deck of a captured ship after he was done with her. Battle-hardened men shuddered and trembled when the Captain entered a room, while women fainted straight away. And when the Skull appeared on the horizon with its sails the colour of blood, many a sailor jumped over board rather than face Captain Scarlet. The Captain spread terror wherever he went, and that included us, his own crew.

The Bloody Skull was once again prowling the Caribbean, looking for booty, when the lookout suddenly yelled from the crow’s nest, “Ahoy, land ahead.”

Now that was very odd, cause there wasn’t supposed to be no land in that part of the Caribbean. Just sea and waves and sharks as far as the eye could see. Besides, the lookout was known to have indulged a bit much in the good old Jamaica rum the night before. So no one paid much heed to what he’d said and seen.

But then he yelled again, “Land ahead,” and again and again. And finally, the first mate Mr. Bones reached for his spyglass and peered through. He frowned and then handed the spyglass to Captain Scarlet, who peered through as well. For lo and behold, the lookout had been right. There really was land on the horizon. A small island, uncharted and not found on any map.

Now it just happened that Captain Scarlet was looking for a good spot to hide some treasure. And an island that’s not found on any map… well, there is no better place to hide a treasure on the Lord’s great big Earth.

So Captain Scarlet ordered the Bloody Skull to set course for the island. We anchored just off the coast. I still remember the jolt as the anchor hit the bottom of the sea. It was bad enough to knock several pirates off their feet and throw me down the staircase back below deck.

“Captain, something’s wrong,” Mr. Bones said, “I don’t like this.”

But the Captain would have none of it. He ordered a boat let into the water, a boat that carried Mr. Bones, Mr. Scrabbles, Captain Scarlet, the treasure chest and mine own self, Jakob Mommark. Mr. Scrabbles and my own self were rowing, Mr. Bones watched over the chest and Captain Scarlet stood at the bow, arms crossed, glowering at nothing in particular, as he was wont to do. The plume of his hat fluttered in the wind.

The sea was smooth that day, almost unnaturally calm. That should’ve warned us… but it didn’t. And so Mr. Scrabbles and me strained our muscles to row over to the island, for the treasure chest was very heavy indeed and Captain Scarlet not exactly light either.

Finally, we set the boat onto the beach. The Captain was the first to jump ashore, then Mr. Bones, then Mr. Scrabbles and finally my own self. As my boots hit the ground, I got the strangest sensation. For this was no ordinary beach. There was no sand, no pebbles, not even rock. Instead, the ground was smooth and springy like I’d never seen before and have never seen since.

The others noticed it, too. For Mr. Scrabbles had trouble keeping his footing, while Mr. Bones frowned and poked the ground with the tip of his boot. And in response, the ground — I swear to God that it’s true — the ground itself flinched and shuddered, as if it really did not like to be poked.

“I really don’t like this, Captain,” Mr. Bones said, “I think we should leave. Now.”

But Captain Scarlet paid him no heed. He just strutted ahead and his stride was so intimidating that even the ground itself shrank from his tread. Mr. Bones followed, one hand on the hilt of his cutlass, the other on the grip of his pistol. His eyes darted warily to and fro. Mr. Scrabbles and my own self brought up the rear, lugging the treasure chest between us over the strange, springy ground.

The island was small, barely five hundred yards across. Yet the land rose steeply, almost from the beach on. Soon Mr. Scrabbles and I were lugging the chest up a hill, careful not to slip on the strange, smooth ground.

The barren beach gave way to vegetation. First grassland, then shrubs and finally a cluster of trees at the very top of the hill. The leaves and vines and blades of grass were of blueish green and looked like no plants I’d ever seen. The leaves were thick and succulent like those of spurges or agaves or the tree the Spaniards call palo de hule or the shrub known as guayule. When you reached out to touch them, they would shrink back, and when you weren’t looking, they would brush against your arms and legs and attempt to wind themselves round your ankles. It was almost as if the plants of this uncharted island were living breathing things.

It wasn’t just me either, but our entire party. For branches and vines also grabbed for Mr. Scrabbles and Mr. Bones and soon we were hacking our way through the undergrowth with cutlasses and machetes. And where our blades hit the plants, a red sap spurted from the cuts that looked just like blood. Only the Captain was left strictly alone. Apparently, the plants were as afraid of him as we were.

Captain Scarlet led us further into the jungle, oblivious to our struggle.

“Hurry up, ye scurvy dogs,” he yelled back at us, “Or I swear, I’ll have the lot of you flogged and keelhauled.”

Since I neither wanted to be flogged nor keelhauled, I indeed hurried up, at least as best as I could. For the jungle was getting denser, the plants more aggressive. And through it all, there was that uncanny feeling that we were being watched.

The others noticed it, too. For Mr. Bones cut through a particularly amorous vine and quickened his step to catch up with Captain Scarlet.

“Captain,” he whispered, “Someone’s watching us.”

“Balderdash,” the Captain thundered, “You’re a fraidy cat, Bones. Who should be watching us — on a deserted island?”

Mr. Bones had no real answer to that. But unlike Mr. Scrabbles and my own self, he was not afraid of the Captain. “I got a really bad feeling ’bout this place,” he insisted, “We shouldn’t be here. This island, it feels wrong. And it does not want us here.”

And then Mr. Bones did something I’ve never seen no man do before or since. He reached for the Captain’s arm and grabbed him right by the sleeve of his splendid velvet coat.

“We should leave while we still can,” Mr. Bones urged.

Captain Scarlet spun around, slaughter and bloodshed in his eyes. “I could…” he said, “…easily maroon you on this island and find myself a new first mate in Tortuga. And now unhand me or face the consequences.”

My heart all but stopped, while my mind furiously debated what to do in case it came to a mutiny. Would I back the Captain, cruel tyrant that he was, or Mr. Bones, who’d always treated me with kindness? And once I chose a side, what would I do if the other won?

By now, Mr. Scrabbles and I had set down the chest. The sausage fingers of Mr. Scrabbles tightened on the hilt of his cutlass, while I drew the little dagger I carried. We both watched warily, wondering whose side to take.

The Captain stood with his back to me, so that I could have easily crept up to him and jabbed the point of my dagger against his back or put the blade against his throat. Yet I did not move, for the Captain’s threats were still ringing in my ears. And while I really did not want to be flogged or keelhauled, I liked the idea of being marooned on this horror of an island even less. So I remained frozen in place, while a branch entangled itself in my hair and a vine wrapped itself around my ankle and began slithering up my leg.

Mr. Bones’ thoughts must’ve been similar to mine. At any rate, he lowered his hand and even brushed some dust from the Captain’s coat.

“Apologies for speaking out of turn, Captain,” he said with a bow, “I was merely concerned for your welfare and that of the crew. And this place…” He cast a glance over his shoulder as if expecting to catch someone in the act of watching us. “…gives me the creeps.”

I brushed an adventurous branch from my hair and absentmindedly stabbed at the vine that was slithering up my leg, waiting with bated breath for Captain Scarlet’s reaction.

“Apology accepted.” The Captain gave Mr. Bones a brisk nod.

His eyes, black and bloodshot like the deepest pits of hell, now focussed on Mr. Scrabbles and mine own self. I thought, feared that he’d say something, yell at us, order us flogged or keelhauled or — worst of all — marooned on this island of terrors. My hand tightened on the dagger in my hand.

But the Captain never said anything. Instead, he poked the ground with the heel of his boot. And once again the ground, that unnaturally smooth ground that did not look like no soil at all, shrank back and shuddered. As if it really did not like to be poked at all.

“This place will do as good as any other,” Captain Scarlet said, “And now get to digging, ye scurvy dogs.”

So Mr. Bones, Mr. Scrabbles and my own self all reached for our shovels and began to dig. With worry in my heart, I watched as Mr. Bones thrust his shovel into the ground and made the first cut. For if this island did not like to be poked with heels and boot tips, then how much less would it like to be stabbed with spades and shovels?

But nothing could’ve prepared me for what happened next. For as soon as the spade cut into the ground, a disembodied scream echoed through the jungle. The whole island started to heave and shudder, until we were all thrown off our feet, even Captain Scarlet. The treasure chest was knocked over as well and sprang open, spilling jewels and pearls and gemstones and doubloons all over the jungle floor.

Once the shuddering ground calmed down enough that we could all sit up again, I saw Mr. Bones freeze in horror. I followed his gaze and fell right onto my arse again. For there, seeping out of the ground where Mr. Bones’ spade had struck, was a thick, burbling liquid, red as blood.

Mr. Bones’ eyes met mine. “We should really leave now,” he said.

I nodded and so did Mr. Scrabbles.

Only the Captain was completely oblivious to the bleeding ground and the danger we were all in. Instead, he was focussed entirely on his treasure. He stomped his foot, not even noticing the tremors that rippled across the ground and the blood that stuck to his boots.

“Pick that up!”

“But, Captain…”

Captain Scarlet drew his pistol, cocked it and aimed it right at the scrawny chest of Mr. Bones.

“I said, pick that up.”

So all three of us, Mr. Bones, Mr. Scrabbles and my own self, bent down to pick up the doubloons and the jewels and the gemstones and the pearls. For though we were all terrified of the island, we were even more terrified of Captain Scarlet and his legendary foul moods.

The chest was not even half full, when Mr. Scrabbles’ eyes suddenly went wide. He poked Mr. Bones and said, “You were right, boss. We are being watched.”

Mr. Bones looked into the direction indicated and blanched. So did I once I saw what Mr. Bones and Mr. Scrabbles has seen. For there, right behind us, was one of the ever-present vines, poised like a snake ready to strike. But at the tip of this vine was no leaf nor no blossom, no sprout nor no seed pod. It was an eye. A very humanlike eye, blue and bloodshot and watching our every move.

Nor was it alone. For a second vine was snaking its way through the jungle, topped by another eye. This one even blinked.

I screamed. So did Mr. Scrabbles. The Captain aimed his pistol at the eye and fired.

The shot was impossibly loud and the acrid stench of powder tingled in my nose. However, it did no good at all. For the eye was not only still there, it had brought friends. And all of a sudden, dozens of eyes were staring at us from the jungle.

“Run, lads! Run like hell,” Mr. Bones yelled.

Captain Scarlet aimed his pistol at Mr. Bones before remembering that he had just fired his load. Undaunted, he drew his cutlass. And then a vine snaked around his waist from behind, while another grabbed his leg and yet another wrapped itself around his throat.

The Captain screamed and cursed until the vine around his throat cut off his breath. He hacked at the vines with his cutlass, but it was to no avail. More and more vines wrapped themselves around his writhing body, dragging him relentlessly towards the jungle.

“Run,” Mr. Bones cried again.

My hand was full of doubloons and jewels and pearls that I was just about to throw into the chest. I stuffed them into the pocket of my jacket, jumped to my feet and ran, ran as if the devil himself were after me. And in a way, he was.

Behind me, I heard footsteps pounding. Mr. Bones and Mr. Scrabbles, or so I assumed, for I never turned around, never looked back. And above it all, there was that unearthly scream, the scream of the jungle and the island, a scream of pure rage.

Branches and vines still reached for me. But I was too fleet, so they never caught more of me than a few strands of hair or a scrap of my clothes. And still the scream rose in pitch and volume. The ground was heaving and shuddering all around me now and it was increasingly difficult to keep my footing.

I dashed down the hill, towards the beach and the boat and salvation. Mr. Bones was suddenly there beside me and together we pushed the boat into the water, away from the island of horror.

I never saw Mr. Scrabbles again. The jungle must have got him.

Once the water was deep enough, Mr. Bones and my own self jumped into the boat, grabbed the oars and strained our muscles, rowing as hard and as fast as we could, headed for the Bloody Skull that was still anchored off the island. Waves crushed against the hull, rocking our little boat and threatening to tear the oars from our hands. Calm no longer, the sea seemed as furious as the island.

It was only when we’d reached deep water and the waves had settled down from stormy to stiff that we dared to turn around. The sight that greeted us made our blood freeze in our veins.

For the island had risen from the waters. No longer a small hill, it now towered like a mountain above us and our tiny boat and even the Bloody Skull. The jungle that covered its peak, the same jungle through which we had trudged mere minutes ago, was writhing like a living, pulsing thing. More eyes appeared, not just the tiny, human-sized eyes on stalks of vines that we had seen in the jungle, but also a massive pair of eyes that opened in the side of the mountain itself, right where the beach where we had landed had once been. The eyes were gigantic, the colour of a festering wound, very ancient and very angry.

Still the island rose from the waters, higher and ever higher. Below the eyes, two holes appeared. They seemed to expand and dilate at a regular rhythm. Whenever they were at their smallest, the undertow dragged us back towards the island, while whenever they were at their largest, a stiff breeze hit our back, driving our little boat onwards. And still the island screamed.

Mr. Bones yelled at the crew left aboard the Bloody Skull. He yelled orders to set the sails and load the cannons and stand by to raise the anchor as soon as we were aboard. He never took his hands from the oars, but the wind carried his voice over to the ship and soon we could see sailors swarming up the rigging to set the sails.

Behind us, the island rose yet further from the waters, until it eclipsed most of the sky. A grotto appeared where the water met the land, a grotto framed by a row of enormous jagged stalactites. Stalagmites, sharp-edged and pointed and taller than a man, rose from the sea.

Mr. Bones and my own self rowed even harder. The Bloody Skull was forty yards away, then thirty, then twenty, then ten. On board, they were getting the rope ladder ready. It fell over the railing and down the hull. Salvation beckoned.

The sea got rougher again, beating not just our little boat but also the Bloody Skull to and fro. Aligning our boat with the hull of the Skull proved unexpectedly difficult, much more difficult than it should be. Mr. Bones tried to grab the end of the rope ladder, but it slipped from his grasp time and again.

I glanced over my shoulder. Not only had the island completely eclipsed the sky by now, it was also no longer alone. Smaller islands rose from the water, writhing and curling like monstrous snakes. They were covered in suckers the size of a rum barrel. And still the island screamed.

Mr. Bones had finally succeeded in grabbing the rope ladder. He scrambled up the side of the Skull, still yelling orders at the crew. I held on to the rope ladder, both to steady it and so I could climb up as soon as Mr. Bones was aboard.

Tentacles rose from the water all around us. They grabbed for the figurehead and attempted to slither up the sides of the vessel and they reached for the anchor chain as well.

“Raise the anchor,” Mr. Bones yelled, as he clambered over the railing. He looked down at me. “Jake, climb up now.”

I heard the anchor winch screeching, saw the anchor chain pull taunt. But then the whole ship jolted, while the anchor chain ground to a halt.

“It’s stuck,” someone yelled.

My hands were on the rope ladder, ready to haul myself up. But before I could, a tentacle beat against the side of the Skull, knocking her away from me and tearing the rope ladder from my grasp.

My palms burned, but I bit my tongue against the pain and reached for the oars, so I could bring the boat into position alongside the Skull again.

But it was too late. The tentacles had grabbed the Bloody Skull from all sides. Some wrapped themselves around her bow, strangling her figurehead, while others slithered up her anchor chain and reached up to the deck from both sides. Men fell from the rigging or were snatched right from the deck and pulled beneath the churning waves.

The crew fought valiantly. They hacked and stabbed and fired at the tentacles. They even managed to fire one of the starboard-side cannons. But it was to no avail. The monster had them in its grasp now and it would not let go.

With a much bigger prey in reach, the monster had forgotten all about me and my little boat. I was still buffeted to and fro by the waves, but the tentacles no longer reached for me, now that they had the bigger prize, the Bloody Skull itself.

I rowed as hard as I could, away from the island and away from the Skull. I watched as my former ship and its crew were dragged to a watery grave beneath the waves, as the monster gradually lowered itself into the depths of the ocean again, until it was once more naught but an island, a seemingly harmless island.

And then the sea was calm again and me and my little boat were all that was left of the Bloody Skull and her once mighty crew.

***

The Black Lazarus picked me up two days later. I didn’t tell the crew what had happened and blamed the loss of the Skull on those bastards of the Royal Navy instead. It was a story that always worked and no one would have believed the truth anyway.

I was hungry and thirsty and feverish, when the Black Lazarus found me, so they took me back to Tortuga, where I found myself a new ship and a new crew. I still had the jewels and doubloons I’d stuffed into my pocket, so I bought myself clothes and boots, a fine cutlass and a good pistol, a few cups of rum and the company of a lady of light morals.

But I kept one of the doubloons from the lost treasure of the Bloody Skull as a talisman and a reminder of the dangers that lurk beneath the sea.

Here it is, me laddies. Ye may look at it, but not touch.

And that’s the story, the story of the Bloody Skull and the monster that masqueraded as an island. And if it not be true, if Old Mommark’s been telling you a tall tale, then may the Lord strike me dead on the spot, amen.

The End

***

That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new free story will be posted.

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Cora goes virtually to Chicon 8, the 2022 Worldcon

Chicon 8 BannerFor a variety of reasons, I can’t attend Chicon 8, the 2022 Worldcon in Chicago, Illinois, in person, but I will be participating virtually.

If you’re a member of Chicon 8, you can see me on the following panels:

If It’s Not Love, Then It’s The Bomb That Will Bring Us Together

Thursday, September 1, 1 PM CDT, Airmeet 1

A huge swath of SF from the 50s through the 70s was written in direct response to the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and disastrous and inhumane proxy wars. It all feels terribly relevant again! What are some gems and must-reads in the genre of “cautionary tales, pacificist, and anti-war SF”? Who are some more recent writers taking up these trends and what changes in approach have they made?

Cora Buhlert, Gloria McMillan, Julia Meitov Hersey, PJ Manney (moderator)

Virtual Table Talk – Cora Buhlert

Friday, September 2, 1 PM, Airmeet tables

This is what used to be called Kaffeeklatsch, but because there won’t be any food or drinks on site, they’ve renamed them. Anyway, sign up if you want to virtually chat with me.

To sign up for this Table Talk, visit https://chicon.org/tabletalks All sign up are available starting WednesdayAugust 31st at Noon central, and you will be notified at least 12 hours before the Table Talk time if you were chosen for a spot. More details available at https://chicon.org/tabletalks

1946: A Vintage Season For SFF

Saturday, September 3, 8:30 AM CDT, Airmeet 5

As the world began to recover from the trauma of the Second World War, SFF authors grappled with atomic futures. From Chan Davis to C.L. Moore, what works have withstood the test of time, and how are these works continuing to influence the genre today? How did they reflect, respond to, or ignore social and technological challenges of the day? (This panel is part of the 1946 project, a look back at the year in lieu of awarding Retro Hugo Awards.)

Cora Buhlert (moderator), Valentin D. Ivanov, Farah Mendlesohn, Terry Franklin

How Horror and SFF Blend

Saturday, September 3, 5:30 PM CDT, Airmeet 1

Horror has often overlapped with SFF—hello, Frankenstein! Lately it seems like we’re seeing a rise in horror elements in popular SFF, including many recent Hugo winners and nominees. What makes horror blend well with science fiction or fantasy? Are there challenges or problems with mixing the genres? And how do cosmic horror, the Weird, and New Weird fit into this discussion? Come find out whether or not anyone can hear you scream . . . in space!

Bob J. Koester, Cora Buhlert (moderator), Emma Osborne, Jennifer Brozek, L. Marie Wood

The Culinary Delights of Speculative Fiction

Monday, September 5, 8:30 CDT, Airmeet 3

Why do the fellowship/party have to eat the same stew every day on their trek into the dark lands? Why do the space farers enjoy reconstituted cubes/pellets on their way to Alpha Centauri? Food is the way we as a species come together, bond, and connect with each other. What are some examples of stories with rich descriptions of culinary traditions, as opposed to “astronaut fare” or “epic fantasy stews”? How does the inclusion—or exclusion—of eating and cooking practices impact the story?

Cora Buhlert, Gillian Polack, Jennifer Rhorer (moderator), Jo Miles, Thiago Ambrósio Lage

Finally, as regular readers of this blog will know, I’m a Hugo finalist for Best Fan Writer this year,  so of course you’ll find me (virtually) at the Hugo ceremony.

Hugo Awards Ceremony

Sunday, September 4, 8 PM, Grand Ballroom

Join your hosts Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz — and a bevvy of guest presenters — for the most prestigious awards in science fiction and fantasy. Come for the glitz and glamour, stay for the laughs and surprises!

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She-Hulk: Attorney at Law Experiences “A Normal Amount of Rage”

I haven’t been able to keep up with watching, let alone reviewing the latest Marvel TV series, because there are a lot of them and I don’t have a lot of time these days. So I still haven’t caught up with Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel, though I did like what little I saw of them.

However, there’s no way I was not going to watch She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, because She-Hulk or rather a version of her is a long-time favourite of mine.

Back in the 1980s, a company called Comics Spain made amazing PVC figures of various comic and pop culture characters, both American and European characters. Comics Spain had hardly any distribution in Germany, but at the time my Dad worked in the Netherlands and Belgium, where you could get the figures. And since I collect PVC figures and love comics, I bought a lot of their offerings.

Comics Spain‘s product range included a selection of Marvel and DC superheroes and a few supervillains (plus the Phantom and Flash Gordon, who are King’s Features Syndicate characters, but matched the Marvel and DC line in scale and style). Of course, I wanted to buy all of the characters – and I did eventually acquire most of them – but my pocket money was limited, so I could only afford a single figure first. I wanted a female character and as so often with toys supposedly aimed at boys, there were only two available, the Jessica Drew Spider-Woman and She-Hulk (they later added two DC heroines, Wonder Woman and Starfire, to the line). I never much liked the blank-eyes 1980s Spider-Woman costume, so I picked She-Hulk.

Except that I had no idea that this character was called She-Hulk at the time. To me, she was just an awesome green superheroine. Browsing some of the American comics on offer at the comic and book stores of Rotterdam and Antwerp eventually revealed that the character was called She-Hulk a.k.a. Jennifer Walters and that she was a female counterpart of the Hulk.

However, at this point I had already come up with a name, code name and origin story for the character, so I took the Marvel version as “Well, that’s their version of the story, but I prefer mine.” So here’s my version of her story:

Her name is Maud Daniels* and she used to be an investigative reporter. One day, while investigating a series of mysterious disappearances and deaths, she stumbles upon a mad scientist, is captured and experimented upon. Unlike the scientist’s previous test subjects, Maud survives, but she is now tall, muscular, super-strong and green. Maud takes out the mad scientist and escapes his lab, only to find that her old life is gone. No one will believe her, she loses her job, because she’s green and way too noticeable now and her boyfriend dumps her, because she’s green, taller and stronger than him and he thinks she’s ugly.

So Maud takes to wandering the world, looking for a cure, a purpose and a home. She finds the latter two, when she stumbles upon the Kirchenkistenheinis, an underground civilisation of gnomes, fairies, anthropomorphic animals and humans who have nowhere else to go. This underground civilisation of the Kirchenkistenheinis (the name means “church box guys” and refers to the fact that I originally kept my PVC figurine collection in a cookie tin embossed with a picture of the Cologne cathedral) is one of my oldest imaginary worlds and everybody, whether my own characters or characters borrowed from somewhere else, eventually washes up there. This stuff rarely finds its way into my published fiction, because it’s just too weird, but trust me, there are Kirchenkistenheinis everywhere and they’ve met everybody.

Anyway, the Kirchenkistenheinis and their leader Stella aren’t afraid of Maud, but think she’s absolutely awesome. Plus, her super-strength is really useful to help build their ever expanding underground civilisation (they have a space port, laser guns, highway, tunnels and everything). So Maud stays, find friends and is encouraged to become a superheroine, starts calling herself the Green Lady (yeah, not very imaginative, but then neither is She-Hulk) and joins a Justice League/Avengers type superhero organisation, because more Comics Spain superhero figures had by now joined my collection.

After a lot of misunderstandings, Maud eventually falls in love with and marries the Phantom, the second Comics Spain superhero figure I ever bought, because I liked the character. Plus, the version of the Phantom I was most familiar with was the one from the Defenders of the Earth cartoon who’s a widower living in a single dad superhero house share**. Together, Maud and Phantom raise Phantom’s teenage daughter Jedda from the Defenders of the Earth cartoon (who sadly never had a figure of any kind) adopt Suske and Wiske (there was no Aunt Sidonie figure and Suske and Wiske needed parent figures) and even have a baby boy.

You can see Maud and her family (sans Jedda, who has snuck off to make out with Flash Gordon’s son Rick – and yes, this is actually implied in Defenders of the Earth) below:

Maud and Phantom and their family

The extended Daniels-Walker family with Maud, Phantom, Suske, Wiske, Baby Kit, Jedda’s pet panther Kisa and the skull of the first Phantom.

Summing up Maud’s story, I still think it’s pretty good and no more absurd than what Marvel has come up with over the years.

Anyway, I absolutely loved this figure and took her everywhere. She was my absolute favourite for many years and I still love her and have her on display.

I did buy the John Byrne Sensational She-Hulk comics of the 1980s/1990s and generally enjoyed them, even if that story was not Maud’s story. Though Jennifer and Maud have a lot in common. They’re both green and both snarky and both kick arse.

There were rumours of a She-Hulk movie starring Brigitte Nielsen in the early 1990s, but it never happened and I never thought I’d ever see a version of this character on screen. Except that we now live in the golden age of superhero movies and every character, no matter how strange or obscure, will eventually wind up on screen. And if it’s a Marvel character, the chances of it being good are pretty high. If it’s a DC character, the chances are very hit and miss.

And so we have a She-Hulk TV series on Disney+ now and I of course had to watch it, because my teen self and Maud would never forgive me, if I didn’t. And yes, I had Maud and Phantom next to me, as I was watching.

Warning: Spoilers after this point! Continue reading

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