Ballots and Groups

15 July 2002

I finished my Hugo ballot yesterday. It's important to me to vote on these things, but then on the other hand, I don't do well with total orderings. At all. And in this case, I don't even do all that well with partial orderings. Stories that would otherwise seem perfectly fine became sketchy: is this really the best story of the whole year at this length? Really? How can that be? But it's too late to go read more small press magazines to try to find obscure gems. This is the set of choices I have. I'm just supposed to rank them. Sigh.

It was even worse for the novels, because many or most of them seemed to have dubious reasons for being on the ballot. Two of them fell under the Give China Mieville The Hugo rule change. (Seriously. Yes, books that are published first outside the U.S. are screwed under the old rules. They always have been. Books that are only published outside the U.S. are still screwed. But finally changing the rules exactly when there's a clear spec-lit-geek favorite just seems shady to me.) Two of them I would categorize as "lesser works by good and well-known authors." One probably wouldn't have made the ballot if it hadn't counterbalancing been such a fantasy-heavy year in many people's minds and shelves, and the remaining one has almost as much crossover fan quotient as last year's winner, albeit with a different group of crossover fans. (I think American Gods is many, many orders of magnitude better than Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I think it deserves the Hugo much, much more. But if you're going to gripe that people voted for the one because it was the only one on the list they'd read, well...keep griping about the other, I think. In either case, though, I'd really prefer that you didn't.)

Am I saying that none of these books could have made the ballot on their merit alone, in an isolated system? Of course not. There are some fine books on the list, some books I enjoyed very much. But as usual, I consider it important to participate in the process while simultaneously finding it very, very dubious.

Hey, why should this be any different than the other kind of voting?

So I finished The Hungarian Revolution yesterday. It was good and interesting to have the source articles and radio transcripts from the time, but I think I'd also like some broader context, either in place or in time. So if any of you have specific books on the Hungarian Revolution (or Hungarian Uprising -- the one in '56) or on Hungarian history or on the Soviet bloc in the mid-'50s to recommend, please do let me know. I whipped through Laurel Hamilton's Guilty Pleasures -- neither romance novels nor vampire novels are usually my thing, but enough people had raved over this series that when I saw it on Amber's shelf, I thought I'd give it a try. Still not my thing, but now I know. I'm slogging along in Kristine Kathryn Rusch's The White Mists of Power still -- agh. This is not a good book. Not at all, at all. In some ways, it's heartening. It's like Nancy Kress' first books: you read them and think, "See, and she could still pull a career out of this." So I suppose there are advantages to this book. I still wouldn't recommend it, though.

Last night while I was reading The White Mists of Power, Mark had a show about tornadoes on, and I got to thinking about the tornado. (For those of you needing a scorecard, my college got hit by a tornado during spring break of my junior year. Pretty much all the buildings were damaged, some destroyed. No more trees. We had extra spring break, and when we returned, we had classes on Saturday, classes in trailers, people staying in Mankato because their apartments, houses, or dorm rooms had been trashed. Quite an experience.) I've started to think that life after the tornado was really pretty good preparation for life after graduation.

Consider: I'm separated from a lot of the people I care about. I worry about them a lot while knowing that most likely if anything happened to them, I would have heard. I know that if anything does happen to them and I do hear, in most cases, I won't be able to do anything about it. I have the sneaking subconscious feeling that everything would be much better if only I was in Minneapolis. And I know that even once I manage to be in close proximity to some of these people again, it will never, ever be the same.

I sent e-mail to my Five Hundred-playing friends on Saturday, asking for a fourth. Two of them have written back with their typical lines -- Andrew made a seven spades bid, always conservative, and Matt said he'd play as long as he didn't have to deal. Pretty much exactly what they always said. It made me smile. Made me sad, too. I know that they still contain within them the people I played cards with in off moments for almost a year. I also know that I can't even predict in what directions they've moved on. I graduated before anyone else in the group that played Five Hundred, and in some ways, they froze in my mind at my graduation. Timprov and I were no longer available to play cards, but everything else went on. I'm pretty conscious that it didn't work that way for them, but I wasn't around to see how it did work, and specifics are important.

It seems to be my lot in life to pop in and out of fairly coherent groups. The Old Crowd, the people who graduated with Mark, had kind of the reverse thing: I got there in the middle. By the time I showed up, half of the psychodrama of the group had already played out. Most of the relationships between people were established or swiftly on their way to getting there. And some people have changed how they relate since they graduated. We see more of Amber, for example, than I think anybody would have predicted from how close she was to Mark or me at the time she and Mark graduated. Things haven't frozen. But they've come a lot closer to freezing. Yet, after knowing these people for six and in some cases seven years now, I still find that there are stories I never heard, things that can still surprise me about one person or another as part of the group and not just as interesting and unique individuals. (And, as we discovered Saturday afternoon, it's not just me -- there was at least one story Amber had never heard, either. That felt odd. Roles had been substantially established the other way.) The moral of the story is probably, "There's just no substitute for being there."

Not really the moral I need just now. Because the Five Hundred-playing group was still at Gustavus after I left, somewhere in my mind they're still together, even though I know that they're scattered across the northern part of the country. I know that the Cities, Duluth, Madison, and Seattle are not close enough that these people get to hang out all the time. I also know that the first three, at least, are close enough that they can visit each other if they want to, and sometimes do.

Funny thing is, I don't really need to hang out with these folks as a group. The Old Crowd, yes; I really like it when we can all get together as a group. But I'm perfectly happy seeing Curt one day and Slacker a bit later that week when we visit, trying to get in touch with Andrew when we're in Milwaukee, exchanging e-mails every once in awhile with Matt and Jess or with Twig. But I don't feel that anything would be added for me by getting even Curt and Slack (who are geographically closest and have stayed close) together, although nothing was subtracted when it worked out that way, either. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe because I'm aware that it wouldn't be like the Old Crowd, it wouldn't cohere in ways that I know or can predict. Maybe it's just that if things changed for the worse while I was gone, I don't want to watch it in action. I don't know.

I think mostly, though, the Old Crowd was -- and is -- one of those rare groups that really is more than the sum of its parts. If you asked me, "Who are the people you would most like to impress with your writing?", the highest concentration of names would come from that group -- but I'd be more likely just to name it as a whole than trying to rattle off everybody in it I'd like to impress. I mean, of course I'd like to impress the general categories of editors and agents. But why? So that they'll help me get my stuff published. And why that? Fortune and fame, of course: limited fortune, fame among people like these. The Old Crowd is probably the most concise and concrete representation I have of the kind of people for whom I want to write. It's both useful and intimidating to have something like that in your life.

Aaaaanyway. Why is it that any time someone makes a trip to the grocery store, dinner for that night uses up basic ingredients that were not purchased at the grocery store? Mark went yesterday afternoon, and we're now out of olive oil, lettuce, and walnuts. And isn't it reasonable to expect the newspaper to know the difference between comparatives and superlatives? And wouldn't you think that people advertising bathing suits would realize they'd made the wrong suit when they couldn't even get it to look good on a model specifically picked to wear it?

Stuff to ponder on a Monday morning.

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