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: A-

Saturday, June 23, 2012

2012 Hugo winner, novel: AMONG OTHERS by Jo Walton


For trendspotters, there’s a nice resonance between this book and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.   Both are novels with strong sf elements about young people overcoming rotten childhoods and doing so with the aid of science fiction media. Both novels are extremely nostalgic, and the timing isn’t that far apart (Ready Player One is obsessed with the 80s as a whole, though leaning towards the middle of the decade, Among Others takes place from fall of 1979 to spring of 1980, though it's more nostalgic for the books of the ‘60s and ‘70s). It’d be easy to make some grand pronouncement about generational shifts, or sf eating itself, or memoir bleeding into genre…or something. All that said, Among Others is a very different book from Ready Player One, and I think it’s a nice commentary on the diversity of the genre that Cline and Walton were obsessed with sf around the same time but had very little crossover in interests (Walton’s not so into the video games, the tv, and the movie films, though I’d argue, as a book lover who’s not fond of book snobbery, that Cline’s days in the arcade, and Walton’s science fiction book club probably served a lot of the same purposes for them).

In 1979, a fifteen-year-old Welsh girl named Morwenna runs away from home and finds herself in the custody of a father she has never known. Her wealthy aunts decide to send her to boarding school, where she is the unpopular new kid, though Walton nicely avoids piling on Dickensian melodrama and instead shows us a teenager who is simply not very popular, which certainly makes her relatable to much of this novel’s audience. Morwenna finds refuge in science fiction novels and eventually discovers a cohort of like-minded bookworms. It’s a gentle coming-of-age story peppered with commentary on the popular sf novels of the age. I imagine that there’s a fair amount of autobiography here as well, considering that the author was a fifteen-year-old science-fiction-adoring Welsh girl herself in 1979 (there were echoes of Walton’s Hugo blogging series here – fans of those posts should check out the novel and vice versa).

Oh yes, the fantasy twist. Morwenna is the daughter of a witch, she can see fairies, and she can cast spells herself. I’m very fond of the way Walton works this in. There are some pretty passages that meld fairies with the post-industrial Welsh landscape (check out the first pages for one of the best examples), Morwenna frets a bit about the ethics of magic, and there is something of a fantastic climax, but, for the most part, the fantasy elements are in the background. In fact, the most dramatic confrontation, in which Morwenna’s twin sister is killed in an attempt to stop the evil magic of their witch mother, occurs before the novel starts and is usually referred to only obliquely.

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that Morwenna is an unreliable narrator with an overactive imagination. There are subtle clues that suggest this: magic works purely by coincidence, not many people see fairies (you have to believe!). I think I’d need to reread the novel to find more. That said, Walton doesn’t underline that question and avoids the tired “I swear it was real!” fantasy trope. It doesn’t matter if it’s real, because it’s a real component of how the narrator experiences or processes the world around her.

This is a really charming novel, and it’s the type of book that I like more as I write about it, which is always a good sign. Is it Hugo-winner worthy? That’s a tougher question, especially since the speculative elements are so light. I almost wish it could win "related works." I am leaning towards it though - I'll talk more about my pick for winner soon.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

2012 Hugo nominee, novel: A DANCE WITH DRAGONS by George R. R. Martin


Yes, I'm still here. This summer is gonna be rough for me, so expect sparser and shorter posts. Sorry.

Martin's Song of Ice and Fire is surely the hottest property in speculative publishing at the moment (maybe disregarding YA), especially with the conclusion of the second season of the HBO series, which has been a success critically and in the ratings. I had my doubts about the first volume, was won over by the second, and adored the third. There's a general consensus that the fourth and fifth volumes show a decline, and, well, I guess I have to agree.

I obviously read A Feast for Crows first. My quick take is that it’s not as poor as its reputation – the fact that it was years late and its sequel years later factoring large in its assessment. That said, it’s a partial story, and the characters left out (not to mention the end points for the characters left in) seem especially designed by Martin to frustrate readers. The book is fairly focused though, and, in Cersei Lannister, we get one of our clearest single-book character arcs since Ned Stark’s in book one (though, again, it lacks an ending). I’d probably give it a B+, which is a big step down from the previous two entries, but not bad at all.

A Dance with Dragons, on the other hand, I found even worse than its reputation. I think it's a clear low point in the series. The series has always been a little notorious for its tangents - character arcs never quite end up at their original goal, new elements are constantly added, and characters can get bogged down in specific locales or storylines. Some people have gone so far as to suggest that Martin is using delaying tactics because he doesn't know where the series is going. I'm not going to go that far, but that would explain a lot. 

In Dance, one major character sets out in a promising direction and then gets waylaid at least half-a-dozen times to the point that he ends up as a slave performing a variety act. A major new claimant to the Iron Throne is introduced. Yes, by God, another one! Another major character is killed off for no particular reason (though I doubt he's really dead). Several characters only get look ins or don't appear at all, and most of the plotlines left hanging in Feast land with a thud. I found this novel somewhat tedious, and it took me months to get through (I read A Storm of Swords, which is longer, in a week or so, and Feast even faster - I think because I was still riding the high of Storm).

That said, the book does still contain many of the series' virtues. The prose is strong, the dialogue clever, the characters feel real, and he world is insanely detailed. Song of Ice and Fire fans will still find plenty to like. But some forward momentum and simplification of the plot would really be welcome.

A lot of bloggers seem to think that this is the odds-on favorite to win based on the current buzz that the franchise has. I'm not sure I buy that - my gut says Embassytown is unbeatable - popular Hugo-winning author does space opera for the first time is a clear winning formula. But I can't say I'd mind horribly if this did win, even after spending a full blog post complaining about it. There's no clearly better winner, in my opinion, and I'd view an award for this novel as an award for the series, which has not yet won and really does deserve to. I wouldn't vote for this novel though.

Grade: C+

Friday, May 25, 2012

2012 Hugo nominee, novel: EMBASSYTOWN by China Mieville


Mieville has obviously made plenty of waves in the past decade, and I have to admit that his books are consistently very good, even if only one has really clicked with me.  As much as the Hugos have turned towards fantasy over that same time period, I still think there’s a slight preference for science fiction among WorldCon voters…or at least a reserve of feeling that science fiction should be competing better against fantasy. So, when a hot author like Mieville turns toward space opera for the first time,* and gets some great reviews in the process, I think you have a very strong contender not only for a Hugo nomination, but for a win.

The novel takes place on the planet Arieka, a distant outpost of Bremen, a human (or “Terre”)-dominated stellar empire. The Ariekei are non-humanoid aliens with very different physiognomies that breathe a different atmospheric composition, and, most importantly, they have a very literal language that makes their cognition entirely different from other species. In other words, it’s a more likely portrayal of aliens than your typical Star Trek races, and one that takes us back to the linguistic Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that we saw back in Babel-17. The Bremen colony on Arieka is a smallish outpost called Embassytown, whose residents see the Ariekei as strange, somewhat frightening, Hosts.

Avice Benner Cho grows up in Embassytown, but learns that she has a talent for the “immer” that makes interstellar travel possible. She leaves Arieka and gets to see the universe, but she is eventually drawn back home with her linguist husband Scile, who wants to learn more about the Ariekei. We also learn a great deal about the Ambassadors, the only people really capable of communicating with the Ariekei. This requires a pair of twins linked through surgery and training. Avice is friends with Ambassadors named CalVin, but she also witnesses the arrival of a new Ambassador named EzRa, who inadvertently rocks Embassytown to its core.

The ideas are fantastic, as you’d expect with Mieville, but I also had some of my other typical Mieville complaints. The characters are all pretty flat, serving either to forward the plot or convey exposition and/or ideology. Mieville’s plots also all seem to follow the same trajectory: he sets up a society, shows its precariousness, and then tests it with a revolution (I wonder if Mieville is stuck in this revolutionary rut because he’s a Marxist).  I would like to see something different from him. The structure of the novel also seems needlessly flashy with a non-linear narrative that serves little purpose (and accordingly gets dropped after about a hundred pages).

So, my verdict seems to follow what I say about most Mieville novels (other than maybe The City & The City). It’s a well-written work with incredible ideas that could have worked better with more character and plot development. Honestly, this might have grabbed me more as a novella that simply established the world – I think such a work could have been a true classic. But, it’s a rare thing in this day and age to see a space opera this original and well-written that captivates mainstream literary circles and makes bestseller lists all over the place. As such, I expect it to do very well in the voting this year.

Grade: B


*I’d argue that The City & The City is actually a science fiction novel rather than a fantasy novel, which makes the 2010 Locus awards look rather silly (The City & The City won Fantasy, while magic-steampunk-Old-West-zombie-gas novel Boneshaker won as “SF”)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

2012 Hugo nominee: novel - DEADLINE by Mira Grant

Let the Hugo coverage begin!

I'm going to keep this short, if for no other reason than that it's difficult to talk about without spoiling the first volume. This is the sequel to last year's Hugo nominee, Feed, in which credulous conspiracy-mongering bloggers in the future attempt to save the world from zombie apocalypse with the Truth. I did not like that book, as it recycled zombie tropes to deliver a message that was both hackneyed and ridiculous. Deadline is more of the same.

Of course, if you liked Feed, you'll probably like the sequel too. And I do see why people liked this - especially zombie fans. It delivers the standard tropes of the genre quite effectively while adding a couple of fresh elements: the journalism angle, a future setting (the books takes place decades after the zombiepocalypse began), and - my favorite element - some decent speculative epidemiological material on how zombies work. There is a change of narrator, which I thought could cripple the book since the narrative voice of the first book is so important. It doesn't cripple the book; however, this is mostly because the voice doesn't change nearly as much as it should. So, yeah, that was Seanan McGuire's (Mira Grant's alter ego) voice in Feed, moreso than George's.

It really is more of the same. There's another clich├ęd conspiracy, this time involving the CDC. This book actually has a one-dimensional villain noting how one-dimensional the villain of the first book was while monologuing that this was part of a master plan. I think it’s supposed to make it seem like there was more to that story than we thought, but to me, it felt like an awkward attempt to salvage a problem from the first book while committing the exact same mistake.

And then, there are lots and lots of blog entries and conversations from the characters in which they portentously discuss how important the Truth is and just how super-awesome they are at delivering it. Commentor "strangetelemetry" made the excellent point (in a comment on my review of Feed) that Grant does not quite deliver the awesome prose and investigative journalism that her characters are constantly patting themselves on the back over. There's a lot of telling about how great the characters are at their jobs and not much effective showing, which makes their frequent self-praise annoying and, eventually, insufferable. It's worth noting though that "the truth" is something of a theme with this year's nominees, so I guess Grant is ahead of the curve. Should we call it "The Assange Effect"?

We get a stunning twist at the end that a) I saw coming from the first time the word "clone" was uttered by a character (sidebar: considering how hard Grant works to have her zombie virus make sense, I found it disappointing that she rolled out some clone psuedoscience like rapid aging), and b) made me roll my eyes. I really don't want to read the third volume in this trilogy.

Grade: C

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

RULE 34 by Charles Stross


This book is the sequel to Halting State, which I did read first. Halting State is a quick moving techno-thriller that I enjoyed more than any Stross I’d read yet. It took place in a near-future Scotland that has broken from Britain and joined the EU, and concerns a MMORPG gold heist that reveals a darker international conspiracy. Despite a very gimmicky multi-perspective second-person narrator (very off-putting at first, but easy to adjust to and somewhat justified by the book’s focus on gaming), it seemed like Stross was scaling down on ambition and just trying to do a solid tale. It’s a B+ for me.

Rule 34 is very much in a similar vein. We do shift focus from detective Sue Smith to her boss, Liz Cavanaugh, though I’d say, problematically, the voice doesn’t change all that much (both are lesbians – the relationship sub-plot does get more attention this go round). The second person is back, but this time we get a hapless petty crook and a schizophrenic assassin called the “Toymaker” as our other “narrators” (narratees? Wtf?). The latter allows Stross to play with the gimmick a bit, but it’s still a gimmick, and the gaming justification has gone out the window.

After the events of Halting State, Liz has been busted down to Rule 34, a “bizarre internet meme crimes unit.” But, once again, one of her investigations leads to a bigger, international crime. This time it’s a series of bizarre deaths by appliance that lead Liz and co. to uncover a newly-independent nation that’s being used as a debt-farm by oligarchs from the crumbling United States. And, they also encounter one of the oldest sf tropes in the book (I won’t spoil it, but it rhymes with shmurderous AI). At least this latter plot point has a good twist or two, and I won’t forget the term “spamularity” anytime soon.

Some of the ideas are good, and Stross does have a solid grasp on the futurism fads of the day. Again, augmented reality dominates life by 2018…I’ll believe it when I see it. But, the material on policing and governing in the internet age made some interesting, though often histrionic, points.
In the end, I’m still a bit disappointed by what I see as Stross’s unrealized potential. I kind of view him as a less-annoying Robert Sawyer – he focuses on (and extrapolates in too linear a fashion) near-future trends, he offers lots of sociological commentary, he’s plugged into a certain net-culture, and he likes to sprinkle in lots of pop-culture references. I had hoped he’d take the solid start of Halting State and step it up a notch into Neal Stephenson territory of cultural and technological insight (then again, Reamde was an overly long, less insightful Halting State). Instead, it retreads some familiar ground to tell a story that’s entertaining, but also frustrating in several ways.

Grade: B-