Friday, July 30, 2010

2010 Hugo, Campbell, and BSFA, 2009 Nebula Winner: THE WINDUP GIRL by Paulo Bacigalupi

My Hugo votes are in (the deadline is this weekend), and we're in the homestretch of our coverage!

In early 2008, high oil prices led to food riots in more than a dozen countries around the world. Paulo Bacigalupi's first novel, The Windup Girl, focuses on these sorts of connections between food and energy within the framework of globalization. In this future dystopia, the world has suffered a "calorie crisis" in which both fossil fuels and food sources have been exhausted by over-consumption, climate change, and genetically modified organisms gone wild. Electricity is a luxury. So is fruit. The automobile is virtually extinct. People depend on genetically modified animals such as mammoth-like "megadonts" to do much of their work. And, there are myriad new killer diseases that can ravage a population.
Bacigalupi sets the action in Thailand, a nation that has survived the worst destructions of the contraction caused by the calorie crisis with some nationalist and sometimes isolationist policies. Yet, it's still vulnerable to the big agribusiness/bioengineering firms of the West, the Calorie Companies. Bacigalupi writes in third person, but he alternately focuses on four interconnected storylines: Anderson Lake is an American "Calorie man" (or economic hit-man) whose duty is to gain access to Thailand's seed bank. Lake's employee, Hock Seng is an ethnic Chinese refugee from Malaysia who has lost everything and will do anything to regain success as a business man. Jaidee and his assistant Kanya work in the Ministry of Environment and try to protect Thailand from foreign business interests and their own government's corruption. Finally, Emiko is a "windup girl" from Japan. She has been genetically modified to serve as a sex slave, and she is hated and horribly abused for her differences. All of the characters face a series of dramatic crises that eventually explode with major geopolitical implications.
The Windup Girl is the heir to Stand on Zanzibar. Bacigalupi takes a set of contemporary problems and an understanding of global politics and projects forward a worse case scenario for a dystopian future. It's a chilling vision, but also a fairly grounded one. That's not to say it's a likely future (most alternative energy sources are inexplicably missing), but much of it is plausible, and thus it has a lot to say about the world we live in.
The characters are very complex - they all do terrible things, and they're all obsessed with their own success or survival. Yet, they also all got moments of compassion and redemption. There was some talk recently on the social science blog Crooked Timber as to whether Bacigalupi's Asian characters fall into stereotypes, and I'll admit to having a similar reaction early in the novel. Hock Seng, especially, seemed like a duplicitous schemer right out of a yellow peril story from a hundred years ago. As the novel continues, though, I do think that Bacigalupi presents some very complex motives and personalities for the characters that pushed them beyond stereotype. It's the kind of book where I didn't necessarily *like* any of the characters, but I had moments of sympathy and understanding with all of them.
Bacigalupi is also a great writer, though there seemed to be more lyrical moments in the first half than the second. Overall, I likes the beginning of the book more than the end. It's such an unremittingly bleak picture that it did begin to drag me down. It eventually begins to feel like more of an anti-GMO, anti-neocolonialism screed than a novel with rich characters and insight into the human condition - the characters still shine, but they also get ground under heel to the point that they almost fade to the background. But, that's true for most of the great dystopian novels.
Despite the bleakness, I can understand why this novel has received the praise and awards that it has. It's a cautionary tale with rich prose that exposes the moral conundrums of global warming, peak oil, overpopulation, and genetic engineering through fascinating characters. The Windup Girl is a pretty clear contender for the best science fiction novel of 2009.
Grade: A-

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

2010 Not-a-Hugo Nominee GALILEO'S DREAM by Kim Stanley Robinson

My third and final not-a-nominee entry. Galileo’s Dream is an ambitious work from one of sf’s most prominent (and, I’d say, best) writers, so I expected to see it on the nomination list. When it didn’t appear, I wondered if it’s late US release date (December 29th!) had hindered it in some way. For all I know, that could be the case, and it may even be eligible again next year. However, while I liked the book, now that I’ve read it, I’m not quite so miffed to see it absent from the nominee list.

Robinson’s main focus is on writing a biographical novel of Galileo Galilei, the seventeenth century scientist who made a host of discoveries that reinforced the idea that the earth revolved around the sun and paved the way for Isaac Newton a few decades later. Galileo emphasized mathematics and empiricism, and thus also influenced the modern practice of science. And, he made some of the first important observations with a telescope, discovering Jupiter’s largest moons among other celestial objects. When Galileo published his observations, he faced persecution by the Catholic Church, which had committed itself to a geocentric view of the universe that put the Earth at the center of everything (ironically, this was the result of a thirteenth century bout of rationalism in the Church that had Thomas Aquinas synchronizing Greek thinkers like Ptolemy and Aristotle with the Bible, and Aquinas was also persecuted and recanted, but that’s a whole tangent that Robinson doesn’t really get into).

So, about 3/5ths of the novel covers Galileo’s life, which is suitably operatic: he has an abusive mother, he suffers bouts of debilitating (mental?) illness, he fathers three illegitimate children with the same woman, his two daughters end up in a convent and suffer from their own illnesses, he’s caught up in court intrigues, he makes the aforementioned scientific discoveries, and he has a dramatic trial that includes forged evidence and startling testimony. There’s lots of material to work with, and though these biographical portions started out slow, I eventually came to prefer them to the science fiction portions.

So, yes, the other 2/5ths of the novel involve Galileo being plucked out of time by 31st century colonists of Jupiter’s moons. He’s pulled forward by competing factions who are involved in scientific disputes and want to alter Galileo’s destiny for their own purposes. Early on, these sections were very intriguing, and it’s fun to watch Galileo learn about Einstein (though he takes things in a little too easily). But it all gets a bit fuzzy as the story goes on, and we begin to get vague, pseudo-sciencey talk about “entanglement.” Robinson is usually known as a hard sf kind of guy, but, paradoxically, a hard sf version of time travel inevitably takes you to some sort of probabilistic, quantum mechanics-heavy view of the universe. The uncertainty principle is good science, but it’s not very satisfying from a narrative point of view: “ah, yes, you’re the Galileo who died young – or not – or both. Oh well, who cares?” This story just gets more bizarre and more pointless as it goes on, and I found some of the future discoveries about Jupiter to be just plain silly.

There are other weird decisions in the book as well. The future debates all involve the relationship between science and religion, and what it means for human history. But, it’s never explained all that well, and that entire narrative thread feels unfinished. There’s also a first-person narrator, but he generally refers to himself in the third person and drops completely out of the novel for hundreds of pages at a time. Again, I was left wondering what the point was.

There’s a lot to like here. Robinson’s writing and ideas are characteristically strong, and the Galileo material is generally compelling. But, the novel never quite comes together. It’s very unclear and uncertain, which may have been the goal…but it makes for a difficult and unrewarding read.

Grade: B-

Monday, July 26, 2010

1983 Hugo and Locus – FOUNDATION’S EDGE by Isaac Asimov

Asimov is the writer who did the most to get me into science fiction, and I really think he was a master of the genre. His Foundation series is brilliant, and his robot stories are even better. So, it's a shame that I don't really get to praise his two Hugo-winning novels.* I didn't like The Gods Themselves, and I'm afraid that Foundation's Edge feels much like the belated, unethusiastic cash-in that it was.

The Foundation, to review, is a scientific refuge that psychohistorian Hari Seldon predicts will rebuild the collapsing Galactic Empire in a mere millennium. The original trilogy covered the first three centuries of this effort, and then basically declared that all went smoothly from then on. It seems that Asimov was running out of ideas, which is fairly evident from how bogged down the end of the trilogy gets with various quests to find the mythical Second Foundation, which is full of psychologists so good at their jobs that they are mega-telepaths capable of mind control and galaxy-wide manipulations.

Asimov finished the Foundation series in the early ‘50s, but publishers and fans convinced him to return to the series in the ‘80s. In Foundation’s Edge, it’s 500 years into the Seldon plan and the Foundation is stable, but one man, Golan Trevize, is still worried about that pesky, manipulative Second Foundation. He’s given an assignment to try to find the Second Foundation (which was the basic plot of the previous three novellas in the series), and he’s accompanied by a historian named Janor Pelorat. Meanwhile, members of the Second Foundation suspect that there is an even greater psychic force manipulating them. Both of these stories converge on the search for Earth and lead to revelations that change everyone’s understanding of the galaxy.

This is a more conventional novel than the previous, exposition-heavy Foundation works (and with double the word-count for half the story!). But it somehow manages to replay well-tread plotlines (“someone is manipulating galactic history…besides us! We must find them and stop them!”) while also doing violence to some of the original concepts. The idea of preserving wisdom in a galactic dark ages gets replaced by telepathic super-beings and galaxy-wide organisms. The characters are flat even by Asimovian standards, and there’s a somewhat unconvincing romance with a beautiful superwoman named “Bliss” (no, really). This, by the way, was the first novel I ever read with a sex scene in it. I wish someone had slipped twelve-year-old me a Penthouse Letters collection instead.

The one thing I will say in Foundation’s Edge's favor is that at least it's much better than the next Foundation novel: Foundation and Earth (not to mention the additional robot novels added to link most of Asimov's works together).

*in between, he did write a fantastic story – “The Bicentennial Man” which won the Hugo for best novelette in 1976 (and was made into a sappy Robin Williams movie twenty years later). It's a sentimental, though very compelling, story of a robot who desires to be, and eventually becomes, human. The character of Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation was basically ripped-off from this material, although The Bicentennial Man is a much more domestic story.

Grade: C+

Friday, July 23, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, Dramatic Pres., Long Form: District 9 Screenplay by Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell; Directed by Neill Blomkamp (TriStar Pictures)

I think most sf fans can agree that the genre is at its best when its about something. We want to see imagination soar and be transplanted to somewhere new and unexpected, but we also want to learn a bit about the society we live in or ourselves. District 9 struck a chord with people because it was an imaginative and original film that was clearly about race, refugees and apartheid. There’s a lot to like about this movie, and it is entertaining. But, when it comes down to the social message, I think it missed the point…and quite badly.

In 1982, an alien ship appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa. The haunting images of the hovering ship are by far my favorite part of the movie. The aliens inside, rather than glowing beings bound to save humanity, are dirty, starving and impoverished. The South African government transfers them to camps, where they continue to live, uncomfortably segregated from humans in something akin to the apartheid that segregated the black majority from South African society until the 1990s. The film picks up in the modern day with South African bureaucrats working in one of the alien refugee camps (the titular District 9). One of them, Wikus, is exposed to alien chemicals that make him a wanted man in both the human and alien communities.

The film starts out as a faux documentary. In fact, it plays out a lot like the UK version of The Office, and Wikus owes a lot to David Brent. One of my minor complaints is that the documentary style seems to fade in and out. This inconsistency makes it look like a cheap narrative trick – a way to get out some exposition that’s quickly abandoned whenever it’s inconvenient. It does work much of the time though. There’s a lot to like about the film overall. Sharlto Copley’s performance is great, the effects are fantastic (especially at a tenth the budget of Star Trek or Avatar), and it really is original.

However, I do have some problems with the presentation of the central analogy, and these problems were serious enough that they kept me from enjoying the film. Nicole Stamp caused a bit of a stir with this blog post, but I think she expressed a lot of what I felt about the film. If you’re going to make a comparison between these aliens and African victims of apartheid, it’s problematic to portray the aliens as violent and disgusting. It’s even more problematic if almost all of the few actual Africans in the movie are also violent and disgusting. I’m not saying writer/director Neill Blomkamp is racist – just that he could have been more sensitive in his portrayal of Africans and more nuanced in the presentation of the analogy.

Actually, you could make the point that the white characters don’t come off any better – there are brutal white scientists and bureaucrats throughout. The fact that the characters fit so nicely into stock roles and stereotypes is still an issue. Also, the fact that almost all of the characters are equally despicable highlights a deeper problem here. I don’t think you can convey a message in a movie this unremittingly dark, vicious and gross. The aliens are so violent and disgusting, and the humans are so violent and disgusting, that I didn’t really care all that much if they all just brutally murdered each other. If you want to portray a humanist message, I think you need some sense of human (or alien) worth. The film borders on nihilism, and nihilism isn’t likely to inspire social change.

Grade: B

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, Dramatic Pres. Short: Doctor Who: "Planet of the Dead" Written by Russell T Davies & Gareth Roberts; Directed by James Strong

The Doctor Who Easter special. I mentioned last time that as a recent convert I have been watching some of the classic Dr. Who, and this special does work harder to evoke some of the feel of the old series than anything else since the revival began in 2005. There’s the winding, meandering plot (very common in the padded serials of the old series), there’s an appearance by the Doctor’s old partners UNIT, and there’s even a crazy zooming shot of a revealed alien.

In other words, it’s camp, which is often the show’s strength, and sometimes its weakness. For instance, the companion this go-round is a thrill-seeking cat burglar named Lady Cristina D’Souza (played by bionic woman Michelle Ryan). I like the idea of a morally ambiguous companion for the Doctor, but the thief idea gives writer Russell T. Davies license to do multiple descent-by-wire caper scenes that are…well…”super-cheesy” is the technical reviewers’ term. Making her an aristocrat doesn’t add to the plausibility.

The Doctor happens to be riding Lady Christina’s getaway bus, gets involved in a police chase, and then the whole bus is transported to a desert planet. As they try to get the bus back through the dimensional gateway, they meet some aliens with giant insect heads and learn that the whole Earth is threatened! The Doctor manages to call in his old friends from the alien-fighting UNIT, but must race against time to get the bus and its passengers back before UNIT closes the gateway.

The episode is probably a little too ambitious for its budget effects-wise, and the cg looks pretty bad (more vintage Who – too bad the sets don’t wobble!) I don’t mind so much, but when you add all of the little contrivances and pulp moments together, it’s just not great. It’s a fun way to spend an hour, especially if you’re a Doctor Who fan, but I’m sure there were hours of television more worthy of this nomination slot **cough**Fringe**cough** **cough**Caprica**cough**, and I’d be scandalized if it actually won. It was kind of hard to get through a second time.

Grade: C+

Monday, July 19, 2010

1982 Saturn Fantasy – THE DARK CRYSTAL

It’s easy to forget sometimes just how weird Jim Henson could be. Even the Muppets, who – though still funny – have become a very safe Disney property, used to be pretty weird. Henson’s weirdness really came out in his two non-Muppet ‘80s fantasy films, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.

One thousand years ago on another world, the Crystal of Truth splintered and became the Dark Crystal. The evil Skeksis worship the Darl Crystal and rule the land as tyrants. They have wreaked havoc on gentler races, enslaving the Podlings and wiping out the Gelflings. Two Gelflings survive: a girl named Kira and a boy named Jen. Jen is given a shard of the Crystal by the ancient Mystic who raised him and tasked with making the Crystal whole again before a rare celestial alignment. The Skeksis try to kill him and Kira on their quest.

The story isn’t the main attraction here though. It’s really all about the art direction. The muppet creatures certainly aren’t as fluid or detailed as what computer animation could produce today, but there is an added realism to their…um…being real. And, overall, the designs are magnificent. As for the plot, on rewatching I have to admit that it felt rather slight. There’s not a lot to it, and what we do get is fantasy-by-numbers questing. I did always like the ending though. Maybe I’m just seeing the film through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, but I think this is an enjoyable work, and one of the better fantasy movies out there (especially pre-Peter Jackson).

Grade: B+

Friday, July 16, 2010

2010 Hugo, Locus Fantasy, WFA, Clarke, 2009 BSFA Winner: THE CITY & THE CITY by China Miéville

One of the central stories of the twentieth century is the drawing (and redrawing) of borders. As empires rose and fell over the course of the first two world wars (the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, the British, the Soviet, etc.) borders kept changing, countries were partitioned, and we got immigration debates, ethnic cleansing, and global terrorism as a result. So, it’s an immensely important issue, but one that sf has not delved into often.
China Miéville’s The City & The City is all about the fictions and realities of borders, which are always arbitrary on some level. The Eastern European (maybe Balkan?) cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma not only border each other, they share the same space and are almost everywhere entagled. Therefore, just walking or driving down the street, citizens must always watch not to violate the border by seeing into the other city or even accidentally stepping into it. The novel is full of rich cultural details that explain how much the border defines the everyday lives of the people in this “divided city;” Miéville highlights the fact that borders are human constructions by creating a situation in which people must constantly construct one. Anyone who does violate this border falls into the grasp of a secret police force that bridges the cities called Breach. I would’ve liked a little more history as to how this came about, but I see why Mieville avoided the question (what would be believable?). Still, it would be nice to hear more about how these cities existed on the contentious borders of the Ottoman Empire or the Warsaw Pact.
The actual plot unfolds as a noir mystery. Tyador Borlú is a police detective in Besźel who is to solve the death of a young woman with ties to Ul Qoma. As the mystery unfolds, it raises all sorts of questions about the border, the cities’ twinned histories, and Breach. These genre conventions keep the novel moving at a brisk pace and they make it imminently readable. They also provide some of the novel’s few problems. It is, by necessity, somewhat formulaic, and parts of this novel will feel very familiar if you know the genre at all (it’s very reminiscent of Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union, either through direct inspiration or the shared inspirations). It’s very well done here, though, and the result makes for an engaging read that still leaves a lot to think about. I also personally prefer this concrete murder mystery approach to the dreamlike version of a similar idea in Valente’s Palimpsest. This was a fantastic novel, and it’s easy to see why it’s won so many sf awards this season.
Grade: A-

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

2010 Not-a-Hugo Nominee THE MAGICIANS by Lev Grossman

The Magicians is one of the most talked about fantasy novels of recent years - it's garnered a lot of mainstream attention, and it's generally considered a crossover into literary fiction. It's also divided sf fans (and readers in general). I expected it to make a few more nominee lists in the major awards, and the fact that such a successful and well-reviewed fantasy novel has not says a lot.

I should also note that we discussed this book last night at the excellent Books & Bars bookclub in Minneapolis - it combines two of my favorite things: books and alcohol. Lev Grossman did a skypechat with us, which added some nice perspective to the work.

The Magicians follows Quentin Coldwater, a gifted high schooler who is recruited to the magical college of Brakebills. There he runs into a cast of nerdy girls, effete upperclassman, and overachieving rivals, while entering into house tournaments in magical games, learning spells and potions, and facing supernatural menaces. Okay, so it probably sounds a little familiar. The Magicians is often described as an "adult Harry Potter," and that's exactly what it is...when it's at its worst. And, don't read "adult" as mature; in the early sections there's generally less emotional maturity than Harry Potter but more sex and drug abuse. The novel can feel awfully derivative, and I thought it was interesting that Grossman went out of his way to point out during our Skypechat that he wrote the earliest portions of The Magicians before he'd even heard of J. K. Rowling. The emotional immaturity also means that the characters can get on your nerves. Quentin, especially, wallows in depression and drugs, and makes some extremely bad choices. Whether this is more reflective of the real college experience seems to be one of the issues that divides readers, but I do think it's the characters who are immature, not the novel itself.

Furthermore, there is more to this novel than a speedy, low-rent Harry Potter knockoff with self-involved characters. Into the second half, the The Magicians begins to take some interesting turns and ask some more challenging questions about its subject matter. I don't really want to spoil anything, but it does become clear that Hogwarts isn't the only fantasy fiction target in Grossman's sights. I think that Fillory, an analogue for C. S. Lewis's Narnia books that Quentin grow up loving, is Grossman's best creation here.

More importantly, the novel has a lot to say about fantasy readers and the role of escapist fiction. There's a very interesting tap dance going on here: it's an homage, even a love letter, to fantasy classics from Narnia to Earthsea to Harry Potter. At the same time, Grossman asks how fantasy readers (especially himself; Grossman proclaimed his devotion to the genre multiple times in our chat) can deal with the existential disappointment of the real world. And, of course, this existential disappointment has all sorts of analogues: the many talented college and graduate students who find no jobs waiting for them when they finish...or jobs that they detest, for instance. It's a novel about finding your place in the world. I can't say it has great answers, but it poses the questions in ways that I found very interesting.

Grade: B

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

1982 World Fantasy Award – LITTLE, BIG by John Crowley

Little, Big is a lot of things, some of which are contradictory: dreamlike fantasy, family saga, metaphor for the twentieth century, quirky, epic, mysterious, complicated, simple, and on and on. The title is quite fitting: on one level it’s an intimate story of a family growing and changing over time; on another level it is an epic story of changes in American life told through the metaphor of a faeirie war. Whatever it is, it’s gorgeously written. Crowley’s prose and his metaphors are rich, evocative, and enthralling.

The plot involves a young man from The City (clearly New York, though never named) named Smoky Barnable walking to meet his fiancée, Daily Alice Drinkwater at a strange rural home in Edgewood. Of course, this home is at the “edge” of a mystical wood, populated by different breeds of faerie and old, fading magic. For the rest of the novel, we follow Smoky and Alice through their lives and flash back to Alice’s eccentric family. We learn about her strangely spiritual architect great-grandfather who sought to replicate the geography of a magical multiverse in the construction of his own home, and her grandfather who cursed himself to be loved by all young women. We also spend a great deal of time with her son, Auberon, who also works to understand the strange world at Edgewood and find his own Destiny, and love, in The City, now changed much for the worse (New York in the 1980s was not a pleasant place). In the background we have The Tale, the epic confrontation between old magic and the new modern world that plays out through the lives of the Drinkwater-Barnable family.

I’d heard a lot about how great this novel was…and perhaps it was a bit overhyped to me, as it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. On the one hand, Crowley's merging of the intimate and the epic is brilliantly accomplished – on the other, it left me a bit disconnected from the characters. Their overshadowing Destinies took away from their reality and relatability. For instance, when Smoky is led somewhat astray from Alice several years after their marriage, it seemed more the workings of magic than a true reflection of Smoky’s feelings and being.

But, saying that I didn’t like the novel as much as I expected too is not too harsh a review – considering I had been told that this was one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century by several sources. I still enjoyed the novel very much, and I had to admire Crowley’s amazing craft, from the gorgeous and illuminating metaphors that litter almost every page and the folksy but precise prose to the bigger truths that Crowley sought to uncover. I’d certainly recommend this book, especially to fans of urban fantasy (eg Neil Gaiman), as this is one of the founding texts.

Grade: B+

2010 Hugo nominee, graphic fiction: Girl Genius, Volume 9: "Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm" by Kaja and Phil Foglio

As I mentioned before, the Hugo voters seem to differ somewhat in their views from the voters of the big comics awards like the Eisners. This is only the second year that the graphic fiction category has existed, but based on these two sets of nominees, it looks like the Hugo pool leans heavily on high profile Vertigo series (Fables), properties from creators already well-known in the sf community (Cornell and Gaiman), and webcomics. I think the high profile of the latter category actually speaks in favor of Hugo nominators, as webcomics have huge circulation but often seem to be undervalued by comics tastemakers.

Phil Foglio has a couple of fan-art Hugos under his belt from way back in the ‘70s, and Girl Genius, by he and his wife Kaja, was one of the first self-published comics to embrace the webcomics model with great success. So, it’s not a surprise that Girl Genius is a mainstay in this category (it won the first year). It’s also very easy to see why Girl Genius has a huge following and active sf fanbase from the content itself: the character cartooning is lively and expressive with strong storytelling, the designs are fantastic, and the setting is very interesting. Girl Genius is set in an alternate nineteenth-century Europe where certain people have a “spark” that enables them to become mad scientists and create giant destructive machines. This has turned the Europe of this super-industrial revolution into a shattered war-zone full of giant robots. The titular “girl genius,” Agatha Heterodyne eventually discovers that she has a hidden “spark” and a special destiny. It’s all very steampunk, though the Foglios prefer the much cooler term “Gaslamp fantasy.”

This volume and the previous Hugo-winning volume both take place in a sentient castle that Agatha has inherited. Both volumes involve a lot of traipsing around the huge building while disarming of boobytraps, discovering secrets, and repelling invasions. The innovation of this volume in particular is that it puts both of Agatha’s love interests in the castle with her, which creates lots of comic and character opportunities, and, when a chromatic illness is introduced, adds a race-against-time element with some added drama. For these reasons, I liked this volume better than the previous one.

That said, I don’t think volume 8 should have won last year (I probably would have voted for Fables), and I’m not sure this superior volume should win this year either. The plot has stalled out a bit in the castle, after a series of very fast-paced entries through the first seven volumes. Also, as much as I can see why the series is so beloved, I’ve never been as big a fan. There’s a lot to admire here, and Phil and Kaja Foglio have great ideas and a lot of experience. It’s purely a matter of personal taste, but the mix of comedy and drama has never quite worked for me. I want the series to either be sillier or more serious. Still, I don’t think there’s any question that it’s the best “gaslamp fantasy” comic that America has produced in the past few years, and, in a year when Steampunk reigns supreme, that counts for a lot.

2010 Hugo nominee, novelette: "Overtime" by Charles Stross ( 12/09)

This is quite a different story from Stross’s “Palimpsest,” and he deserves credit for his versatility. “Overtime” focuses on a poor schlub who has to cover at work over the Christmas holiday. The twist is that he works at a secret supernatural watchdog agency run by the British government. So, it’s basically “The Office” meets Torchwood.

There’s a fair amount of magical hijinks and supernatural horror here, but Stross plays it all pretty light. It’s a Lovecratian Christmas Comedy Special. The story is at its best when it captures the full absurdity of that juxtaposition. Rather than a jolly old man, Santa Clause is “the hideous threat of the Filler of Stockings, who oozes through chimneys and ventilation ducts ev­ery Dead God’s Birthday-eve to perform unspeakable acts against items of hosiery.” The wry takes on Christmas rituals, government bureaucracy, and office politics that take up the first half of the story are very fun. And, I enjoyed Stross’s depiction of magic (much easier in the Information Age, appartently). When the story bothers to try to have a plot in the second half, I did check out a bit. It’s not that it’s bad, but as well as horror and comedy can mesh, suspense and comedy don’t work as well for me. I just didn’t feel involved. And Stross does wander back into his world of paradoxes and causality loops. The last line was worth a chuckle though, and the whole was an enjoyable read (actually, listen, as has it available as a podcast – again, I wholeheartedly endorse the audio short-fiction format).

Grade: B-

Monday, July 5, 2010

1982 Locus - THE MANY COLORED LAND by Julian May

As I said a couple of weeks ago, prehistoric settings were a hot commodity in the early ‘80s. Julian May sends her cast of characters to the Pliocene rather than the Pleistocene (a few extra million years in the past), but I was still hoping that she’d redeem the concept. I can’t say that I think she did, though Many Colored Land seems to fail in the exact opposite manner as No Enemy But Time. Bishop’s book was a simple narrative that tried to tackle ambitious and provocative themes; May’s novel uses an overly complicated setting and overloaded cast of characters to tell a very straightforward adventure story.

In the twenty-first century, a French scientist opens a window to the Pliocene epoch, but it turns out to be a one-way gate for living tissue. Still, people are attracted, especially those alienated from the world around them, and tens of thousands choose to go into exile in the ancient time period. This is an amazingly promising concept, and I looked forward to a tale of exploration full of fascinating factoids about a little-known era in geological history that could also explore some interesting, alienated characters.

May was not content to stop there, however. In the opening chapters we’re introduced to the characters in question, but we learn that they live in a space opera setting called the Galactic Milieu. That means we get lots of info dump on strange alien cultures, psychic powers, and even weird galactic sports – all of which is destined to be relatively unimportant in the novel’s latter sections (except for the psychic stuff). The characters themselves are mildly interesting, but a lot of them are pretty stereotypical – like the super tough girl athlete or the space-pilot scoundrel.

When we finally do get to the Pliocene, May continues to pile on extra concepts. I won’t spoil it too much, but suffice it to say that it’s more like a mythical quest in Narnia or Oz (both of which are name-checked) than prehistoric exploration and society-building. I just don’t understand why May wanted to smash all of these concepts together. Why not just write a fantasy novel? It seems that May had a fantasy concept and a sci-fi universe all fleshed out in her head, and she decided to throw it all into one novel.

As with No Enemy But Time, this could all be forgiven if it was a well-written novel, but it’s not. The prose is less offensively bad than Bishop’s, but it’s not particularly thrilling, and the dialog often tends toward the cheesy. This is part of a larger series, but I don’t feel the need to revisit the Pliocene Exile after this entry.

Grade: D

Friday, July 2, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, short story: "Non-Zero Probabilities" by N.K. Jemisin (Clarkesworld 9/09)"

Adele lives in a New York City that, through some unexplained event or intervention, has become a center of improbable events. For some people, this means the spontaneous remission of their cancer, or a big lottery win. For others, this means horrible accidents and deadly duck attacks. People react by turning to religion or superstition.

In this short story, we get a pretty thorough exploration of Adele’s troubled faith and her uncertainness in relationships. In fact, these uncertainties seem to be the point. Adele has a lot of the same questions about love and life that we all have, but an odd and original speculative fiction setting brings these issues into stark relief.

I really enjoyed this story, but I do have my usual short fiction complaint: I wanted more. There are so many great possibilities with this setting, that I wanted to see more bizarre events and learn more about Adele, a very relatable character, and her background.

This is a well-written, intriguing story with a great character. I’d like to see more from Jemisin, and I might seek some out. Available from Clarkesworld, including an audio version.

Grade: A-