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?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

2013 Hugo and Locus SF Winner: REDSHIRTS by John Scalzi

Hey, I'm alive!

I have a good streak of reviews for all of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus SF winning novels going, so I thought I'd peek in to keep those up. So, I'm doing Locus-winner Redshirts today, Nebula-winner 2312 in a couple of weeks, and maybe a general 2013 Hugos post before WorldCon. I rather hope that either Redshirts or 2312 wins the Hugo as well. I wouldn't mind reading a third novel if it were good, but I'm not that excited by the other entries. Throne of the Crescent Moon does look interesting, but the word that seems to pop up the most in reviews is "light," which I feel is a euphemism for "this is a generic fantasy adventure in a slightly unusual setting." I would feel bad about ignoring the two female nominees, but I think I've given Bujold and Grant their fair share of consideration. I really enjoyed Miles Vorkasigan's early adventures, but I feel like it's time - at book fifteen - for that series to either wrap up or grow into something different. And Grant's zomblogging series has never really worked for me. If I'm wrong, and you think any of these three are brilliant, let me know.

I like that I'm pretending I still have an audience after a fourteen-month break. :)

I was extremely skeptical about Redshirts as well. The idea of following some of the expendable ensigns on an Enterprise-like ship has potential, but there seemed to be even larger potentials that this novel would be overly meta, or, worse yet, a cavalcade of Trekkie in-jokes. I can't honestly say that Scalzi avoided either of those pitfalls, and yet, I really enjoyed this novel much more than I expected to.

We follow a new cohort of ensigns, led by a former student of an alien seminary named Andrew Dahl, as they join the Universal Union flagship Intrepid in the 24th century. They soon learn that the Intrepid has an alarmingly high casualty rate among those who go on away missions with a small core or bridge officers. They also learn that people often act irrationally, and the laws of physics even seem to change, in events surrounding these officers. Most of the ship's crew goes to great lengths to avoid any contact with them, for fear of being dragged off on a likely-fatal away team mission, but one crewman in hiding spurs them into action when he tells them his theory that the Intrepid is locked into the narrative of an old tv show, and the lethal bridge crew are the stars.

So, yes, the whole thing is a big in-joke, and an old one at that (I know the "redshirts always die" concept goes back decades in fandom). And yes, it all gets very meta as the characters come to understand they are characters, and Scalzi starts to explore the meaning of death in fiction (especially in the codas). But Scalzi still does a great job selling it all. He tosses off plenty of classic space opera plot ideas, and, though The Chronicles of the Intrepid is supposed to be a bad show, some of them were pretty interesting. For instance, he deals with Dahl's religious background well, and he has the feel of episodic space opera plotting down pat. This novel really made me miss Star Trek on television (especially reading it soon after watching another one of Abrams' dumb blockbuster pseudo-Trek movies). It also made me more interested in reading Scalzi's more straightforward sf; Old Man's War has moved up significantly on my "to read" list.

When the novel turns to the more meta aspects and begins to focus on storytelling more, it does lose some of its charm. But, Scalzi, other than short-cutting through a lot of the disbelief that some characters should have felt, manages to do some solid character work and say a few interesting things about writing along the way. I'm sure it's not the most brilliant novel about writing we've ever seen...but we've seen a lot of works in that category. Scalzi keeps his approach grounded, accessible, and character-oriented. In the process, he doesn't match the brilliance of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, Auster's New York Trilogy, or Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds, but he doesn't end up on that steaming mountain of garbage made up of 99% of postmodern metafiction either. The three codas, where Scalzi really starts to spend more time in the "real world" could have been a good deal shorter (especially the second), but they do have some nice moments.

I'm surprised to say, I'd be perfectly happy to see this win the Hugo - even against a more ambitious book like 2312 (though I'm only halfway through it, maybe it will wow me in the second half).

By the way, I listened to this as an audiobook. I think it was paced well for that mode of presentation. Wil Wheaton reads, and I was worried that would be an uncomfortable gimmick, but he acquitted himself well.

Grade: B+