Thursday, July 7, 2016

2014 Hugo and Clarke, 2013 Nebula and BSFA Winner: ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie

A side benefit of my extended hiatus is that I've managed to mostly avoid the Hugos' "sad puppy" stupidity, in which a group of Hugo voters stuffed the nomination ballot boxes with a slate of books that were supposed to celebrate sci-fi adventure over politically-correct messaging.  Look, if you have to game the voting process to get your nominees through, you're an undemocratic movement. Also, bigotry doesn't really make for good democracy either, and the idea that this was a move to eschew contemporary politics is either ignorant or dishonest (as, obviously, an anti-"message" movement sends its own kind of message). If I'd actually had time to read all the nominees, I would have quit doing so when these guys steamrolled through their slate. So, I guess I'm lucky I didn't have time.

One of the ironies of the movement that I think is worth mentioning is that the last couple of years have been exceptionally good for books that resemble an older style of Hugo winner. As I mentioned in my round up of the '00s, traditional forms of science fiction, like space opera, have been in a very rough spot since around the turn of the century, leading to many unconventional Hugo winners, including several fantasy books. If you squint hard and ignore 90% of what people in the movement say (and 100% for the rabid ones), you can almost see a half-decent point that the vast majority of the books from the previous few years didn't fit traditional definitions of mainstream science fiction (hell, I sort of obliquely complained about this is my only posts of 2014).

The problem is, here we have a winner that is absolutely what the Hugos have been missing for the previous decade or so. Ancillary Justice would be right at home in the 1980s, and it draws heavily upon the types of sf (like the works of Ursula K. LeGuin) that did well in 60s and 70s. The fact that a book that represents the best of classic sf won in 2014 really demonstrates the hollowness and sexism of the whole sad puppy "we just miss classic sf" movement.

Breq is an ancillary - a human body that is controlled by the AI of a massive starship of the Radch Empire. Most ships have many ancillaries, which are used as enforcers of colonial rule as the Radchai take over new planets, and these ancillaries share the consciousness of the ship AI. But Breq has lost her ship - she is a lone sliver of that AI consciousness now trapped in human form. She's also on a quest, the nature of which is unveiled over the course of the novel. It has brought her to an icy planet, where she meets one of her former captains, now strung out on drugs, named Seivarden. Much of the novel follows her attempts to fulfill her goals while dealing with her washed-up former commander. Meanwhile, alternating chapters flashback to the Radch conquest of a planet called Shis'urna and reveal Breq's backstory.

It's fairly straightforward, accessible space opera, recalling in world and tone Iain Banks' Culture series and the aforementioned LeGuin's Ekumen books. It doesn't necessarily equal the best works of either of those series, but it's a first novel, and a strong one. And, as a fan of space opera as the quintessential SF sub-genre, I'm happy to see this book gets lots of attention.

It's not perfect. There are plenty of ideas floating around, and not all of them get proper development and attention. The one that seems to interest people the most is the fact that the Radch don't distinguish by gender, meaning that you don't actually know the gender of most of the book's characters (everyone is referred to as a "she"). This is a fun little wrinkle to the world, and Leckie doesn't belabor the point. I think this is mostly for the best, but I did expect a bit more from it. Leckie is more interested in the theme of identity, and what it means to have these distributed consciousnesses. This makes for some crucial plot points, but you rarely get a sense of Breq's personal struggles with identity. Which leads me to my biggest problem with the novel: the prose. Ancillary Justice is written with first person narration, and it is very dry. This does make a certain amount of sense, as the the narrator is an AI fragment, but I think there could have been a more clever and poetic way of conveying this, and I suspect it is as much the result of this being a first novel as it is intentional. I don't want to suggest the prose is bad; it's probably above average for its genre, and it's certainly readable, but I hope for a bit more from Hugo winners (and have gotten it more recently with the likes of Walton and Chabon).

Overall, it's a nice return for space opera to the Hugo novel winners, and I look forward to reading Ancillary Sword (on my to read list thanks to the Locus voters).

Grade: B+

Sunday, June 26, 2016

2014 Locus SF: ABADDON'S GATE by James S. A. Corey

The third novel of what was originally supposed to be The Expanse Trilogy (at least, that's how I understand it) didn't do as much to advance the story as much as I had hoped. This entry was the first (and last, so far) novel in the series to win a major award, and I get the sense that it is beloved by Expanse fans, but I wasn't too fond of it, and I struggled somewhat to get through it because it feels a bit like it's spinning its wheels, but also because of one character that I found particularly annoying.

The extraterrestrial encounters of the first two books have escalated to create a mysterious object in the outer solar system. The crew of the Rocinante, a ship that was central to the first two books, find themselves drawn towards this mystery alongside the competing powers of the solar system (the Earth, Mars, and Outer colonies)  and competition between these powers again leads to conflict. Meanwhile, we get some new POV characters for the Game of Thrones-style 3rd-person limited narration: a gruff officer from the outer colonies put in an awkward position by his Earthly birth named Bull, a lesbian Christian missionary named Anna, and Melba...ugh, Melba.

This series has always been pretty pulpy, and that continues here. The pulp elements help make all of the books fun, propulsive reads. But, Melba takes the pulp to a whole other level, one that carried past suspension of disbelief for me. She's a vicious augmented fighter motivated by a psychopathic need for revenge who develops an intricate plot to destroy the man she blames for the destruction of her wealthy family. In other words, she's completely over-the-top, and both her actions and the success she achieves in her aims are pretty ridiculous. To make this all the more frustrating, her crazy arc drives and dominates this book that is ostensibly about humanity's contact with the remnants of an intergalactic empire. That last bit is the story I want to read, especially with these fun characters and Corey's fast-paced style and storytelling that are both accessible and imaginative. But, most of the book involves humans fighting each other while being manipulated by this master-plotter vengeance heiress.

This is it for me and the Expanse for now, that I won't rule out picking up another entry down the line some time. It's a series that I'm obviously ambivalent about: its biggest virtue - pulpy, exciting plotting, is also often its biggest downfall.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

2012: CALIBAN'S WAR by James S. A. Corey

The second book in the Expanse series has much in common with the first. For one, it carries on many of the best qualities of Leviathan Wakes - it is an exceptionally fast-paced page-turner with some compelling characters and ideas. It is also, at times, perhaps a little too much like that book in plot and themes.

I don't want to get too deep into the plot because my general spoiler-avoidance policy applies to the series as well as this book. Basically, there are tense relations between Earth and Mars that come to a head with an attack on Ganymede - an attack that is also connected to some of the evil corporate hijinks from the previous novel. The attack involves a power-suited Martian space marine named Bobbie Draper (is this a Mad Men reference?). In the midst of the attack, a botanist named Praxidlike Meng discovers that his young daughter has been kidnapped by evil scientists. And there's an Earth diplomat named Avasarala who is beginning to realize that there are some nefarious goings-on within the UN government. Eventually, all of these characters will come together with the surviving heroes of the first book to investigate the attack and the kidnapping, and to get involved in some naval-style space warfare.

So, yes, exciting and fast-paced. But, it is also a bit of a replay of the first novel. A character is obsessively looking for a missing girl. An evil corporation is experimenting with alien life. All of the characters will come together for a couple of action set-pieces. And Something Big will happen at the end that Changes Everything. The biggest problem with the replay here is that it means putting off dealing with the previous book's Something Big for basically this entire novel. I was really looking forward to dealing with that here.

The new characters add some diversity (in race and gender, but also in their more general point of view), but they do bring up one other complaint: everyone in these books is hyper-competent. This is a standard problem with thrillers and genre fiction, but Avasarala makes it especially clear here. We're constantly told that her political skills let her read incredibly subtle clues and game out scenarios dozens of moves ahead. As someone who pays attention to politics, I would not say incredible empathy and foresight are skills that many politicians possess to some preternatural degree. Then again, at no point do this books really make a claim of gritty realism, so maybe I shouldn't pick at that particular nit.

Despite some negatives, the Expanse remains a very enjoyable series, and, as easy reads, these books are ideal for my return to novel reading after my fairly long break.

Grade: B

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

2011: LEVIATHAN WAKES by James S. A. Corey

The Locus SF  award in 2014 decided to torment me and give best novel to the third book of a series - Abaddon's Gate of The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey (a pen name of writing team Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). So, I have to go back and read books one and two - luckily I had already read the first book, Leviathan Wakes.

The Corey duo are closely associated with George R. R. Martin (Franck is his assistant), and part of the point of The Expanse seems to be to take the formula that made Song of Ice and Fire so huge and apply it to hard sf. The result is a sprawling story that blends politics and traditional genre tropes with chapters that give 3rd person-limited points-of-view on a discreet set of characters. Though, when I say "genre tropes," I should add that there's plenty of noir detective and horror to go with the hard sf setting. And unlike Martin's dense and ambitious work, Leviathan Wakes is heavy on action and light on theme or even world-building.

The two main characters are Jim Holden, the captain of a freighter working beyond the asteroid belt, and Detective Miller, a cop on the asteroid colony of Ceres. The latter gets the aforementioned noir bits, while Holden gets to run around through some action scenes. It turns out that both of them are tangled up in the same case, which involves extra-terrestial life (which leads to the horror elements) and an inter-planetary conspiracy to start a war across the solar system.

If it sounds incredibly pulpy, it is. But, the authors do manage to put some thought into the colonies and conspiracies and even the characters. It's not high-art, but it's not trash either; instead it threads the needle like an unusually smart summer blockbuster. It's a very entertaining read that zips by, even at nearly 600 pages.

I haven't seen the SyFy series yet, but I am intrigued.

Grade: B+

Saturday, February 13, 2016

2012 Nebula Winner: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Alright, I want to try to catch up a little bit this year, including posting my review of this book that I years ago. Don't expect regular posts or anything, but I do want to keep my streaks in the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus SF novel awards going.

So, 2312 is pretty typical work from Kim Stanley Robinson, who is a favorite of mine. There's very strong world-building, as we once again get the Accelerando and its colonized solar system with lots of inventive terraforming (see Galileo's Dream and Blue Mars for other examples). There are some interesting ideas about social and political developments, clearly based on Robinson's clear understanding of history and social science. And your mileage with plot and character and prose may vary.

I found this novel especially uneven on the latter three counts. Robinson is a hard sf writer who really seems to put some energy into his style, and here he tries a little experimentation. It's appreciated but not entirely successful, and it stands out awkwardly next to some rather lengthy passages of technical writing focusing on the aforementioned world-building. Similarly, the characters can feel a little flat. Robinson's usual trick is to give his characters universal traits like love and ambition while also placing them in very specific historical and cultural contexts, and I think he's generally better at the latter than most of his peers. Here, the characters have immense longevity and the ability to change aspects of their appearance and identity fairly freely. At times, this is all realized wonderfully, and the best portion of the novel involves a gender fluid romantic arc with the main character Swan. Often, however, the characters just feel distant and cold - there's a lot of telling but not much showing, for instance, about how much Swan was inspired by a deceased character named Alex, whose death drives much of the plot.

Speaking of the plot, this is where the novel fails to realize its potential. It's basically a mystery, as Swan wanders the solar system investigating a series of dramatic terrorist attacks, but the investigations mostly feel engineered to show off the various exotic settlements, including a massive train city that circles Mercury between its light and dark sides - a device Robinson has used before, but he really goes into depth here. The setting is driving the story, not the characters.

2312 was more ambitious and literary than most of its competitors in 2012 (what I would have called a very off year, looking at the nominees), and I liked it quite a bit, but its flaws are evident enough that I'm not particularly bothered that it got beat by the fairly silly Redshirts for the Hugo and Locus.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

2014 Hugo nominees announced

And they look craptastic! It seems that I picked just about the right time to discontinue this exercise. I plan to read Ancillary Justice. I may post a review.

Monday, February 3, 2014

2014 Hugos?

Well, I'm having a busy couple of years, as I try to finish up my own book (history, non-fiction - I haven't talked about it much because it's pretty far removed from this blog's goals) and try to raise a toddler. I still need to write a review for last years Nebula winner, 2312, which I did read...

Meanwhile, I've realized that, for the first time in some years, I have absolutely no idea what could and should be nominated for the awards this year. There are new novels from some of the usual suspects, from Mira Grant to Neil Gaiman, but what else is out there?

Looking around, Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice seems to be getting a lot of love. Karen Lord's The Best of All Possible Worlds also sounds interesting to me (I have showed, many times during this blog, that I am a sucker for slightly-elevated Trek pastiche, so this sounds like it's right in my wheelhouse).

Anything else out there that I should be keeping my eye on?