Tuesday, August 31, 2010

2010 Hugo Nominees - Novella round-up

This was a very strong category with some excellent entries. The only novella that I’d throw out of contention was Stross’s "Palimpsest," which does a great job of using time travel to push the boundaries of reality, but does so at the expense of character and narrative. I didn’t love it, but it’s still an interesting experiment. The other 5 novellas break down nicely into two camps for me – Kress and Morrow use sf set-ups to explore a few select characters in depth. McDonald does the same, but he also has the advantage of using a world that he’s already established in a longer novel. Baker and Scalzi both establish fascinating worlds, but these works feel mostly like set-up, and they sacrifice character to concept to some extent. Of all of these, the work that came closest to giving me the well-rounded exploration of character and story that I was looking for was Morrow’s. It’s probably not a coincidence that Shambling was also the closest to novel length.

The trend in other awards seems to be towards Nell Gwynne’s (it’s already got a Nebula and a Locus). To some extent, this might be a tribute to Kage Baker, but it’s also a strong enough work that I can’t complain. If it had pushed its concept just a little further in that second half, it could have been something really special, and I have no doubt that Baker is deserving some recognition for a great career (and life) that ended far too early.

My vote did go to Morrow though. He really established the atmosphere of Hollywood’s golden age B-movies while also taking on the big issue of the American use of weapons of mass destruction. The novella was humorous, dark, and moving, and Syms Thorley was a very rich character. It affected me as much as anything I read for these awards, so I had to give it the nod.

Monday, August 30, 2010

2010 Hugo Nominees - Short and Novelette round-up

Short story was a tough decision. The only story I actively disliked was “Bride of Frankenstein,” although “The Moment” didn’t do much for me either. Neither story seemed to be saying anything all that interesting. On the other hand, “Spar” really jumped out at me as something special, but I also really enjoyed “Bridesicle” and “Non-zero Probablities.” For those two latter stories, my only complaint was that I liked them so much I wanted more. “Spar” I didn’t really want more of, which I guess is an accomplishment for a short story. In other words, on an intellectual level, and as an appreciation of the craft of short stories, “Spar” wins hands down. But I actually enjoyed reading the other two stories as much, with the edge probably going to “Non-Zero Probablilities.” I guess I’ll vote with my head rather than my heart.
  1. “Spar” Kij Johnson
  2. “Non_Zero Probablities” N. K. Jemisin
  3. “Bridesicle” Wil McIntosh
  4. “The Moment”
  5. No Award
  6. “Bride of Frankenstein” Resnick
Novelette’s an easy one for me though. I enjoyed all six of these stories, but five of them were mild “likes.” I’ve ranked them below, but 2-6 (and especially 4-6) are virtually tied. “The Island,” “Sinner, Baker, etc. etc.” and “One of Our Bastards” each presented original and exciting worlds, but I often found those worlds needlessly complex, especially in this short format, where you don’t really have time for effective world-building and detailed plot and character development. “It Takes Two” and “Overtime” gave us contemporary stories with speculative fiction twists. They were nice, but they also felt a bit inconsequential – the former focusing on an erotic tryst and the latter edging into slapstick. Swirsky’s story, however, really grabbed me and touched me in a very surprising way. It’s the least cutting edge of the six – it’s basically an Asimov robot story with a touch more emotional and psychological complexity – but maybe that’s a virtue (at least, from this reviewer’s prespective). Swirsky’s story is not only my favorite Hugo-nominated novelette, it’s my favorite short fiction of 2010 that I’ve read.
1. “Eros, Philia, Agape” Rachel Swirsky
2. Sinner Baker
3. “It Takes Two” Griffith
4. “Overtime” Stross
5. “The Island” Peter Watts
6. “One of Our Bastards is Missing” Paul Cornell

2010 Hugo Nominees - Graphic Story round-up

This was a tough one to decide on. Overall, I’d say it’s the weakest set of nominees except maybe “Dramatic Presentation, short form,” and I do get the idea that Hugo nominators as a whole aren’t too widely read in the world of comics. For both its two years, the category has been dominated by two specific webcomics and writers/properties from the wider sf world.

I’m going to contradict myself right off the bat. I’ve said several times that I like that the Hugos give more attention to webcomics than a lot of awards programs…but I’m going to immediately toss the two webcomics out of contention. Schlock Mercenary didn’t do it for me, and Phil Foglio is a sentimental favorite, but Girl Genius felt like it was in a holding pattern last year.

The three other collections are stronger entries, but each has its flaws. Captain Britain suffers from the minutiae of obscure continuity and inconsistencies in the art. Gaiman’s Batman has some beautiful moments, but again, not my favorite art, and not much of an overall story. Fables had beautiful art, but it’s in the awkward position of dealing with the aftermath of a truly epic story. All three are great, none is perfect.

In the end, I voted for Cornell’s Captain Britain, though Willingham and Gaiman were very close behind. I think sentimental reasons were the tie-breaker – I have more of a history with Captain Britain, and I really like Cornell.

Tomorrow, short fiction. Wednesday, novellas, Thursday, drama! Friday, novels.

Friday, August 27, 2010

2010 Hugo Nominees links

Here again are all of the categories I covered in my Hugo nominee round-up with links to the reviews. The awards will be announced at Aussiecon in one week.

(699 nominating ballots)

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (Tor)
The City & The City by China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan UK)
Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson (Tor)
Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Spectra)
Wake by Robert J. Sawyer(Ace; Penguin; Gollancz; Analog)
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade)

BEST NOVELLA* (375 nominating ballots)

"Act One" by Nancy Kress(Asimov's 3/09)
The God Engines by John Scalzi (Subterranean)
"Palimpsest" by Charles Stross (Wireless)
Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow(Tachyon)
"Vishnu at the Cat Circus" by Ian McDonald(Cyberabad Days)
The Women of Nell Gwynne's by Kage Baker(Subterranean)

BEST NOVELETTE* (402 nominating ballots)

"Eros, Philia, Agape" by Rachel Swirsky (Tor.com 3/09)
"The Island" by Peter Watts(The New Space Opera 2)
"It Takes Two" by Nicola Griffith (Eclipse Three)
"One of Our Bastards is Missing" by Paul Cornell(The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume Three)
"Overtime" by Charles Stross (Tor.com 12/09)
"Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" by Eugie Foster (Interzone 2/09)

BEST SHORT STORY*(432 nominating ballots)

"The Bride of Frankenstein" by Mike Resnick (Asimov's 12/09)
"Bridesicle" by Will McIntosh (Asimov’s 1/09)
"The Moment" by Lawrence M. Schoen (Footprints)
"Non-Zero Probabilities" by N.K. Jemisin (Clarkesworld 9/09)
"Spar" by Kij Johnson(Clarkesworld 10/09)

BEST GRAPHIC STORY*(221 nominating ballots)

Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? Written by Neil Gaiman; Pencilled by Andy Kubert; Inked by Scott Williams (DC Comics)
Captain Britain And MI13. Volume 3: Vampire StateWritten by Paul Cornell; Pencilled by Leonard Kirk with Mike Collins, Adrian Alphona and Ardian Syaf(Marvel Comics)
Fables Vol 12: The Dark Ages Written by Bill Willingham; Pencilled by Mark Buckingham; Art by Peter Gross & Andrew Pepoy, Michael Allred, David Hahn; Colour by Lee Loughridge & Laura Allred; Letters by Todd Klein(Vertigo Comics)
Girl Genius, Volume 9: Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm Written by Kaja and Phil Foglio; Art by Phil Foglio; Colours by Cheyenne Wright (Airship Entertainment)
Schlock Mercenary: The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse Written and Illustrated by Howard Tayler

BEST DRAMATIC PRESENTATION - LONG FORM* (541 nominating ballots)

Avatar Screenplay and Directed by James Cameron (Twentieth Century Fox)
District 9 Screenplay by Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell; Directed by Neill Blomkamp (TriStar Pictures)
Moon Screenplay by Nathan Parker; Story by Duncan Jones; Directed by Duncan Jones (Liberty Films)
Star Trek Screenplay by Robert Orci & Alex Kurtzman; Directed by J.J. Abrams (Paramount)
Up Screenplay by Bob Peterson & Pete Docter; Story by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, & Thomas McCarthy; Directed by Bob Peterson & Pete Docter(Disney/Pixar)


Doctor Who: "The Next Doctor" Written by Russell T Davies; Directed by Andy Goddard (BBC Wales)
Doctor Who: "Planet of the Dead" Written by Russell T Davies & Gareth Roberts; Directed by James Strong(BBC Wales)
Doctor Who: "The Waters of Mars" Written by Russell T Davies & Phil Ford; Directed by Graeme Harper(BBC Wales)
Dollhouse: "Epitaph 1" Story by Joss Whedon; Written by Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon; Directed by David Solomon(Mutant Enemy)
FlashForward: "No More Good Days" Written by Brannon Braga & David S. Goyer; Directed by David S. Goyer; based on the novel by Robert J. Sawyer (ABC)

Also, happy anniversary, blog. I made it a year, and I've made a pretty solid dent in those Hugo winners. I'd probably even be finished if I hadn't burdened myself with so many others...

2010 Hugo nominee, novel: JULIAN COMSTOCK: A STORY OF 22ND-CENTURY AMERICA by Robert Charles Wilson

Last, but not (quite) least for the 2010 Hugo nominees, we have the novel Julian Comstock, by Robert Charles Wilson. I’m inclined the group Wilson in with the likes of Sawyer, Stross, Scalzi as a successful sf author from the period I’d missed out on. This novel covers a lot of the same ground as The Windup Girl, but in very different way.

Like Bacigalupi, Wilson depicts a 22nd century future in which oil supplies are exhausted with a resulting collapse of technology. There are also rampant plagues and a population collapse that has resulted from the lack of energy, disease, and infertility brought on by chemical pollution. In the wake of this collapse, reactionary political forces have taken over North America: landowners have become aristocrats, while many laborers are slaves (called indentured servants, but it is an inherited class). Christianity has become an official religion that censors scientific knowledge and enforces morality.

The narrator, Adam Hazzard, tells the story of his close friend, the titular Julian Comstock, an aristocrat and the nephew of the evil President of the United States, who killed Julian’s father. When both are young men, they are conscripted in a war against the European Union in Labrador. They are very successful, and Julian especially rises to fame through his military exploits. Meanwhile, Adam works to become a writer of adventure books and falls in love with a rebellious young woman.

Adam is an odd sort of unreliable narrator – we don’t have any reason to suspect that he’s intentionally dishonest, but he’s one of the most naïve characters I’ve ever read. As a lower class country boy from a religious background, he seems completely unaware of much of what’s going on around him. Sometimes this makes for some humorous situations, but usually it was a bit too precious. It’s also difficult to believe that a character who sees as much as Adam, who finds himself (while still very young) in the highest echelons on military, political, and artistic circles, would be so thick. I wasn’t a huge fan of the prose, which was generally very plain with the occasional Victorian affectation, and I’m not sure if this is Wilson’s voice or Hazzard’s – if the latter, it is at least more impressive. The contrivances of the plot, which puts these young men at the top of American society, also feel Victorian, and again, I’m sure this is intentional on some level, but does that make it any less annoying?

Overall, this heavy leaning on American Victoriana is the novel’s biggest fault. It feels like Wilson’s been reading some Twain and some books on the American Civil War, and he wants to tell a futuristic story in this mode. I didn’t buy the turning back that we see here – the society of Windup Girl felt a lot more like our future than Wilson’s arbitrarily resetting culture, technology, and science back to 1900. There are also some cheap political shots here that took me out of the narrative. I think my politics are pretty close to Wilson’s, and I agree with most of his critiques of the contemporary US, but I still winced, for instance, when one character explains that America’s European attackers “hate us for our freedoms.” I’d prefer a bit more subtlety in my political satire.

There is plenty to enjoy here, especially if you're looking for a post-apocalyptic novel that's a little different, and much less grim. It’s a fast-paced and easy read, and the narrator is quite likable, despite his cloying naivete. It really does capture the feeling of a boys’ adventure novel, which is certainly the intention, but I’m not sure it worked for me. Mostly, I think it suffers in comparison to the better written and more compelling work by Bacigalupi.

Next week I'll wrap up my 2010 Hugo coverage by revealing my votes and making some predictions...

Grade: B-

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, novella: "Vishnu at the Cat Circus" by Ian McDonald (CYBERABAD DAYS))

This novella is part of the short story collection Cyberabad Days, which recently received a special citation from the Philip K. Dick awards and takes place in the same world as McDonald’s award-winning River of Gods (which is on the docket for future review). All of these stories take place in a divided India in the middle of the twenty-first century. Nanotech and genetic engineering are common, especially among the middle and upper class, and there are also powerful sentient computers, called “aeais” – basically, this future India is on the verge of a “singularity.”

This novella follows the titular Vishnu, a genetically engineered boy. A “brahmin,” Vishnu is super-intelligent and destined to live twice as long as a normal human. Unfortunately, he also ages at half the rate. In his teens, he’s a sexually confused prepubescent. In his twenties, he’s become an influential figure while still an adolescent. To add insult to injury, technology makes him obsolete before he reaches adulthood.

It’s a chilling depiction of genetic manipulation, and it also depicts a very rich world. It’s an incredibly dense work, with political, social, and technological changes introduced on every page. I have doubts that the world will change that much in my lifetime, and this is going to be a common complaint with me and stories about “singularity.” But, I’m willing to go with it, and McDonald’s focus on the developing world, quite well-realized, adds a welcome twist.

I got the impression that Vishnu was a new character but that his story was heavily integrated with material from River of Gods (I guess I’ll know for sure when I get to that novel, probably next year). As a preview for that novel, however, this novella certainly had me intrigued. I’ve complained in the past that short fiction leaves me wanting more; in this case, it’s nice to know that there actually is more. I’m not sure how well this novella stands on its own though.

Grade: B-

Monday, August 23, 2010

1984 Hugo and Locus, 1983 Nebula - STARTIDE RISING by David Brin

This is the sort of novel that inspired me to do this project: I’ve always wanted to read the Uplift novels, but I’d never gotten around to them because so many other books took precedence. This project has forced me to read them, and I have to report that I am very glad I did.

The setting is a space opera universe where humanity has encountered an ancient Galactic Civilization full of different alien races with a clear hierarchy between them. Every known species was granted sentience through instruction and genetic manipulation – the process called “uplift” – by another species (except, of course, the original, mythical Progenitors). The oldest species that have uplifted more aliens have high status, and their “client” species also share some of that status. The thing is, no one knows who uplifted humanity…which would mean that they would have very low status as an abandoned, or “wolfling” race, except for the possibility that they are the first species since the Progenitors to uplift themselves.

The first Uplift novel is a book called Sundiver, basically a murder mystery set on a solar expedition with a cast of humans and odd aliens as the suspects. I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to read Sundiver first, but it was a fun novel and a good introduction to the world of Uplift. The mystery does get a little byzantine by the end (there are several false resolutions and a very over-the-top climax), and I’d have to say that Startide Rising is the better constructed novel all around, which is probably why it racked up the awards and Sundiver did not.

Before they encountered aliens, humanity had begun to uplift a couple of species itself – both chimpanzees and dolphins have been taught (and genetically engineered) to reason, build, and speak English. Startide Rising follows the crew of the first dolphin starship, which makes a startling discovery that draws the wrath of several traditionalist aliens. As much as you want the fun and plucky dolphins to kick ass and save the galaxy, it turns out that they are in over the heads in several different respects. Their damaged ship, the Streaker, hides out on the water planet of Kithrup while the crew fights amongst istelf and aliens fight over them in the skies. Brin manages to play the tension of the situation very well, and he’s created a very convincing culture for dolphins, including a set of religious beliefs that stretch back to before they were uplifted. The characters are great, the novel moves at a fast-paced, and there’s an action sequence at the end that’s as exciting as any I’ve read in space opera.

My only complaint is that Brin seems to have a tendency to write moustache-twirling villains. His hateful aliens make sense, and they actually occupy a fairly believable and unique niche among sf aliens: they don’t want to help us be better people, and they don’t want to eat us or steal are water, they just don’t give a damn about us. So, the super-evil aliens I’ll accept, but there are actually some members of the crew who are just really dastardly. Some of them get fleshed out more by the end, but some remain two dimensional baddies throughout.

That complaint aside, I loved this book. Highly recommended.

Grade: A

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, Dramatic Pres., Long Form: Avatar, Screenplay and Directed by James Cameron (Twentieth Century Fox)

Avatar is James Cameron's box-office-record-shattering, 3D special effects extravaganza. A crippled ex-marine named Jake (Sam Worthington) volunteers to work in a sort of virtual reality-controlled alien body to negotiate with the natives of the large moon Pandora. Jake works for an evil Earth corporation that wants to mine a rare mineral with a stupid name, and they have come into conflict with the natives, called Na'vi, as a result. Jake must eventually choose sides in this fight.

I already wrote an apologia of sorts for Avatar back in Oscar season, but it does feel like any positive review of the film these days has to be defensive. Honestly, I don't think the film will win the Hugo; I get the sense that the conventional wisdom on the film has shifted from "it's an awesome game-changer" to "it's an overrated, derivative, and stupid spectacle." I think a backlash was inevitable when a movie with some glaring flaws was that successful ($2.5 billion+ worldwide, and still growing). I, however, still like it quite a bit, and after watching it again for this review, I even think it holds up on the small screen in 2D, though the experience was certainly diminished.

Let me start with those glaring flaws. I've seen the film called everything from anti-American to racist. I don't have a lot of time for these political arguments, though I do think the "the white guy saves the day, yet again" issue does have some traction. I think there are strong narrative reasons to have a POV character, especially in a film about aliens, so I don't mind nearly as much as I mind, say, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, or Glory (I usually call this the "Zwick effect" after the director of the latter two examples). I also think that while the Na'vi are obvious analogues for earthbound indigenous peoples, especially Native Americans, you can't think of them as more than analogues. The Na'vi may comment on the historical treatment of Native Americans, but you shouldn't see them in any way as realistic depictions of Native Americans themselves. You could get into a whole debate about portraying Native Americans as "children of nature," and the implications, both good and bad, of that stereotype. But the Na'vi are literally linked into nature in a way that Native Americans never were. The analogies do break down eventually.

And yes, Avatar is also derivative. It's Dances with Smurfs + Disney's Pocahontas + Ferngully x LeGuin's "The Word for World is Forest." Yes, and Star Trek=Wagon Train + Horatio Hornblower x Forbidden Planet. And Star Wars=The Searchers + Hidden Fortress x Buck Rogers. And so on. Of course, lots of science fiction classics are re-imaginings of historical events or classic stories in a new context. Cameron at least combines his influences in some interesting ways.

And there are more complaints. The plot is predictable? Well, yes, but at least it makes sense, which is apparently asking a lot of a blockbuster film in the age of Michael Bay's Transformer movies. The dialogue is flat? Check. The characters are static archetypes? I'm afraid so; that's the film's greatest weakness as far as I'm concerned...

Okay, it's not perfect!

It is, however, visually stunning and wonderfully imaginative. It's thrilling, and the world-building is meticulous. And, while there are a lot of fantastic elements, there's also a solid grounding in science from richly-conceived ecosystems to astronomical details. There's a blend here of planetary romance, hard sf, and computer age ideas that I think is really fascinating. Plus, it's all in service of a story that does relate (albeit, perhaps too simplistically) to issues of environment, neo-colonialism, and indigenous rights. It builds a new world that illuminates our own, and it uses groundbreaking special effects not just for cheap thrills, but to further engross us in that world. This film is pure, classic science fiction on a scale that I don't think we see that often.

Grade: A-

2010 Hugo nominee, Dramatic Pres. Short: Doctor Who: "The Waters of Mars" Writ. by Russell T Davies & Phil Ford; Dir. by Graeme Harper (BBC Wales)

Just when the silliness of the 2010 Dr. Who specials was starting to overwhelm, Davies delivered what I consider to be his finest Dr. Who story as a writer. This was the one special that I said should receive a nomination, and it is really good.
This serial does two things that Dr. Who doesn’t do often: 1) it takes place in the near future and deals with early efforts at space colonization (Mars, in this case), and 2) it explores the nature of time travel.
The basic story is that the Doctor stops off on Mars in the twenty-first century, takes a walk in his spacesuit, and runs across the first human colony on Mars. The humans are understandably confused by his arrival, but they’re soon caught up in an attack by some strange water-sucking entity. It’s a great change of pace for the series over the usual trips to a few millions of years in the future, and allows for some decent hard-sf moments (in Classic Who, Mars is home to rubber-suit aliens called Ice Warriors and pyramids dedicated to evil Egyptian deities). The colony looks great (though maybe too roomy), the monsters are effectively creepy, the guest actors are fantastic (especially Lindsay Duncan as Captain Adelaide Brooke), and there’s only one embarrassing moment of camp from Russell T. Davies (it involves a rocket-powered robot).
So, it’s a very good horror tale set in a Martian colony. What pushes it into the realm of greatness is that it does take on some of the central themes of the show. In the classic series, the Doctor often mentioned that you couldn’t change history and then proceeded to do so every week. In the new series, they came up with the compromise that only some moments must remain unchanged and only certain situations create paradoxes. This special focuses on one of those unchangeable moments and then asks if the Doctor can stand by and watch people die. The central conflict is not some crazy monster-of-the-week, it’s with the Doctor’s own ego. There’s a device that Davies used so often that it grew tiresome: everything looks bleaker than bleak, many people have died, the odds are overwhelming, there no way the Doctor can win, and yet, he still manages to turn everything around at the last second. This special has that exact moment – one of the best-realized versions, in fact – and yet manages to subvert it completely. It’s wonderfully dark and challenging, and by far the best of the 2009 specials.
Grade: A-

Monday, August 16, 2010


I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t even know this film existed. I did know of the Ray Bradbury novel (though I have not read it), and, considering that Bradbury wrote the screenplay adaptation as well, I thought this version of the work of a science fiction master (who doesn’t get a lot of coverage in this blog) would be worth a look.

The story begins in autumn in an idyllic Midwestern town and centers on two boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade. Jim’s father has abandoned him, whereas Will’s older father (played by Jason Robards) has disengaged from life due to his failing health. One evening, a train blows into town carrying a particularly creepy carnival run by a Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce). The carnival begins to seduce the townspeople with promises of youth, wealth, and women, and only Will and Jim seem to see what’s going on. As Mr. Dark chases them through town, they must depend on Will’s father to step forward and protect them.

It’s basically a children’s film (Disney produced the adaptation), but, other than a few cheap and generic scares (tarantula wranglers sure got a lot of work in the ‘80s), it’s still sufficiently creepy. And, there is a lot going on here thematically about fatherhood, age, and mortality; it’s a nicely layered film. It’s also fun to see two amazing and underrated actors at the top of their game in Robards and Pryce, though the kids are slightly annoying. My one real complaint is the same as my gripe with Farhenheit 451 – there’s some fairly harsh moralizing coming from Bradbury here. The film really condemns the townsfolk for their petty desires – from what I know of Bradbury, I doubt the novel goes any easier on them. When Stephen King basically rewrote the same story in 1991’s Needful Things, he, as usual, had much more sympathy and understanding for the average people as they fall prey to their desires.

Grade: B

Thursday, August 12, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee (and Nebula winner), novella: The Women of Nell Gwynne's by Kage Baker (Subterranean)

Kage Baker’s been one of the most highly regarded sf writers of the past decade, and her Company series has been on my reading list for some time. Unfortunately, she died earlier this year of cancer at the age of 57.

The Women of Nell Gwynne’s was one of her last works. It’s a limited edition illustrated novella, and it’s already won the Nebula. Wikipedia has it as a standalone Company story, but I have no idea how it connects.

Basically, it’s a story of steampunk cyborg superspy Victorian prostitutes. How’s that for a pitch? We begin with the origin story of one of the operatives, the aristocratic Lady Beatrice. After being raped and brutalized in the Afghan War, Beatrice is cast out of her family as a fallen woman. She turns to prostitution to survive, and, since she’s fierce, resourceful, and educated, she’s recruited by the brothel called Nell Gwynne’s, which is really an intelligence gathering operation of the mysterious Gentlemen’s Speculative Society. The Society has a lot of steampunk spying technology, which they share with the girls in a scene straight out of James Bond. The rest of the novella focuses on a single mission concerning more steampunk super-technology.

It’s a very entertaining story, though I’m not sure it quite lives up to its potential. The mission itself is a bit routine – again, it’s straight Bond or Avengers material, despite the unique setting, and the girls don’t get to make that much use of their special equipment and talents. There’s also not as much exploration of sex and class as the beginning seems to promise. The relationship between the Society and Nell Gwynne’s seems rather exploitative, for instance, and I’d like to see more on that dynamic. It’s good, and I’d recommend it to steampunk fans especially, but I can’t help thinking that it could have been more. I look forward to reading more of Baker’s work though.

Since it was issued as a limited edition book, it’s not easy to get hold of at the moment (I’ve becoming a supporting WorldCon member, so I got a .pdf copy as a voter). It will receive a larger print run this fall though.

Grade: B

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, novelette: "The Island" by Peter Watts (The New Space Opera 2)

Peter Watts packs a lot into this short piece of fiction, which was part of one of the “New Space Opera” anthologies that are supposed to highlight the new directions the genre has taken away from its traditional Star Trekkish roots.

It is different. The narrator is a woman named Sunday who lives and works on a ship named Eriophora over a billion years in the future. The ship is tasked with building wormholes to facilitate interstellar travel for the various posthumans zipping around the universe. It’s not a job that the crew can quit, and they seem to be immortal. It’s also a fairly thankless job – no one bothers to communicate with them. The crew resents the work, and especially their boss, a computer they call Chimp, but they toil on for eternity. Watts manages to get all of that world-building in, plus a fairly significant plot. The narrator meets a new worker named Dix who claims to be her son but acts a little odd, and the crew encounters a massive alien entity floating through space (the titular “Island.”) So, for all the high-concept post-singularity complexity of the world, it’s really a story about reaching out to other beings and making connections amidst an isolated and hostile situation (the title’s other meaning).

I liked it. It’s well written, and the emotional themes do resonate. At the same time, the world seems needlessly complex to me. The real story is about Sunday and Dix, and we don’t really need the wild setting to get them to the interesting emotional place we see them in. Watts seems to be showing off a bit with the world-building. There’s some interesting material in there, but I worry that these far future post-singularity settings are going to start to feel generic to me by the time I catch up to the present on my Hugo reading.

Grade: B-

Monday, August 9, 2010

1983 Locus Fantasy - THE SWORD OF THE LICTOR by Gene Wolfe

Another installment in Wolfe’s dying-earth epic The Book of the New Sun, and we get new companions, new hints and mysteries about Urth, and more misery for the narrator Severian.

Severian finally makes it to the city of Thrax that he set off for midway through book one, and things don’t go well there. From there, various monsters, mutated bandits, wizards, aliens, etc. try to kill Serverian and steal his legendary sword and/or the magical claw of the conciliator. The writing is still literate and lyrical yet highly entertaining. Wolfe manages to maintain a really rich sense of mystery throughout the whole series, and he’s constantly adding details and raising new questions. In this volume we get to see some witches, ancient technology, and we begin to learn a lot more about the presence of aliens on Urth (known as cacogens to the locals).

On the negative side, the series’ bleakness is beginning to pile up to dangerous levels. I mean, it was always obvious that a story about a conflicted torturer wandering a dying Earth was going to be dark, but Wolfe really keeps dialing up the gut punches to Severian (and the reader) as the series goes along. Severian has consistently gained and lost companions over his journeys, but some of the losses in this volume are especially brutal, and the trail of death that follows Severian is almost getting monotonous.

Still, The Book of the New Sun remains a great series, and I would put this volume on the same level as The Shadow of the Torturer, though it was probably not quite as good as the Claw of the Conciliator.

Grade: A

Friday, August 6, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee (and Nebula winner), short story: "Spar" by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld 10/09)

Now, this is a short story. Rather than give a little hint of a broader world or tell a cute vignette, this novel takes an unusual (and provocative) situation and uses it to briefly explore ideas of alien otherness, sexuality, and psychology.
The story is not for the easily offended. There are graphic (though mostly evocative rather than descriptive) depictions of sex. In fact, that’s pretty much the entire story.

There’s so little plot here, I’m afraid to spoil it. Let’s just say it involves the interactions of a female narrator and a very non-humanoid alien, whose ship she is trapped on after an accident. We get hints of what has happened, and we get a sense of how the narrator mourns and how lost she is. Taken straight, it’s an original depiction of alien interactions and the psychology of a desperate situation, but I think the story also has deeper things to say about sex and relationships. It actually makes some of the same points as Palimpsest, though I things it's sharper for being shorter.

Overall, the story is more than the sum of its small word count, something that’s rare and special in short fiction.

Available at Clarkesworld in both print and audio.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee, graphic fiction: Schlock Mercenary: The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse Written and Illustrated by Howard Tayler

Like Girl Genius, this is another webcomic. Unlike Girl Genius, this is much more of a daily comic strip (there used to be these things called “newspapers” that originated the concept. I hear they still publish a few for nostalgia purposes). This is the one nominee that I really wanted to pass on. Not that I thought I wouldn’t like it, but just because it’s so hard to compare to the other works, and also because I was so far behind. I had to read 365 strips to catch up, some of them quite wordy; I think this took longer than some of the Hugo-nominated novels this year. And, I didn’t even consider reading the nine years worth of previous strips, which means that I didn’t know the characters and world nearly as much as I’d like to.

What I did get out of it is that our main characters are mercenaries led by Captain Kaff Tagon, and including mad scientist Kevyn Andreyasn, a snarky floating AI called Ennesby, and the titular Schlock, a violent and blobby alien (?). In this volume, they escort an aid shipment to Credomar, where the delicacy of the local political situation frustrates the mercenaries to no end. It’s a more cynical and militaristic Star Trek. Much of the humor comes from sci-fi in-jokes. The rest of the humor comes from characters deadpanning in the face of over-the-top action sequences or their own callousness.

The cartooning is very simplistic, and even though some of the other nominees had occasional artistic inconsistencies, they’re all still miles ahead of this. The plot seems pretty thin as well; it feels quite padded. However, my biggest problem is how one-note the characters are. They’re all variations on a theme: no-nonsense, cut-through-the-bs military types who are a bit unstable. It got old fast. I also got the impression that Tayler had much more sympathy for the mercenaries’ violent attitudes than for anyone else. I’m all for black humor, but watching the mercenaries gleefully attack a world of aid-recipients was…a little unpleasant?

It is hard to compare the daily strip to collected volumes, especially when you’re reading it in big bunches rather than daily, but I could name a lot of examples that are funnier, better looking, or even have better sf concepts.

Still, I won’t say that I wouldn’t have enjoyed this more had I been prepared and followed the characters longer. But, I’m pretty confident that it wouldn’t be getting my Hugo vote. The whole series is available for free here, so you can decide for yourself.

Monday, August 2, 2010

1983 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation - BLADE RUNNER

People will endlessly tell you that Blade Runner is a brilliant exploration of identity and artificiality in a corporate universe. It is those things, though I’d have to say that the source material, Philip K. Dick’s amazing novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, explores these themes in much more daring and challenging ways. No, the real brilliance and influence of Blade Runner is the rich world that Scott creates for the story and characters to inhabit. Every time I watch it, I find myself almost ignoring the plot and characters to stare at the sets and art direction. The city is gorgeously dark and forboding with its giant ad blimps, stark pyramidal mega-buildings, and flying cars zooming through polluted darkness. Scott also does a great job blending noir and sf. This film almost single-handedly plants the seeds for the genre of cyberpunk.

In 2019, Los Angeles is a densely populated, overcast, polluted hellhole in a world run by amoral corporations. Lifelike robots called replicants have been invented to serve humanity, especially in space, but these robots have a tendency to rebel. Some escape and try to blend in to the human population. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a blade runner, tasked with finding and “retiring” rogue replicants. Deckard is drawn out of retirement to hunt a group of replicants that are trying to extend their brief lives. He also begins to fall in love with an especially complex replicant named Rachel (Sean Young), in the film’s best scenes.

I’ll readily admit the film’s greatness, though I’m personally not as fond of it as most sf fans. Really, anytime the replicants Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Roy (Rutger Hauer) are at the center of attention, my eyes glaze over…and that’s most of the film’s final third. I think Scott was more interested in creating threatening villains than exploring the aforementioned complexities of identity. So, these replicants spend all of their time threatening and killing (and flipping around and punching Harrison Ford), and we don’t get much of a sense of the emotions they’ve developed or the moral complexities of their situation. On paper, this should be a very ambivalent situation, but Scott can’t resist a brutally physical confrontation between “good” and “evil” at the film’s climax. Things do thankfully get more complex at the end of the fight between Roy and Deckard, but that only serves to make the preceding twenty minutes of flipping, punching, and shooting feel all the more pointless. The film has gone through several different cuts, but I’m still yet to see one that’s paced well. But, the subtext is there if you look for it, and, most importantly, the film looks gorgeous.

1982 was a great year for science fiction films. It also saw the release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is still the best Star Trek film, in my opinion, and easily one of the top five science fiction films of the ‘80s. Still, it’s hard to argue with Blade Runner beating it for the Hugo. I’m not as keen on E.T. beating both Khan and Blade Runner for the Saturn, but that is an understandable decision as well.

Grade: B+