Wednesday, May 18, 2011

90s Wrap

There are a couple of clear trends that immediately leap out when I look over the ‘90s. First of all, series! Increasingly, books are part of a greater whole, and repeat winners were more common than ever. Four writers won nine of the eleven novel Hugos this decade. And, they stick to traditional sci-fi realms – space exploration/opera, time travel, and a couple of post-cyberpunk works. They are a very good set of winners though – this was probably the most consistent decade for Hugo winners yet (it certainly is based on my grades).

The Nebulas went in a very different direction. They rewarded a variety of women writers (Hugo only gave awards to two, though they did so five times), which is nice to see, and they continued to expand their definition of sf, a trend which began for the Nebulas in the ‘80s. Again, this is great on paper, but the Nebulas were much less consistent than the Hugos. I almost wonder if they were working harder at stretching themselves than rewarding great books. They had their least consistent decade, based on my grades. Again, I don’t think that this should be an indictment of the SFWA’s strategy of casting a broad net (Hugo voters will go much the same way in the ‘00s), and it certainly has nothing to do with gender (the Nebulas are dragged down the most by a couple of male authors in the ‘90s), they just chose some stinkers.

The one big notable trend, or maybe a fad, in ‘90s sf is probably the influence of Michael Crichton. The doctor/lawyer/techno-thriller writer became a massive success in the ‘90s on the back of Jurassic Park. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that he was the bestselling sf author of the decade. He didn’t win any of these awards, but I think you can see this influence on works like Sawyer’s Terminal Experiment and Bear’s Darwin’s Radio. Again, I hated both of these books, but I was a fan of the genre at the time. The X-Files hit a similar note as a forensic-based show that looked at sf ideas from a very grounded, contemporary perspective. And again, it didn’t win any awards (well, it received Saturn tv awards, which I haven’t covered), but I was a fan, and I think its influence on the genre is evident.

Top novels:
Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernon Vinge
Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

Bottom novels:
The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer
Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear

Top dramatic presentations:

Worst films:

The Hugos change in some big ways in the ‘00s, and it happens almost immediately with the first clear fantasy winner. So, stay tuned! But first, a week or so off while I do a temp job in Kentucky, and then I dive into the 2011 Hugo nominations

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

2000 Nebula – DARWIN’S RADIO by Greg Bear

Greg Bear becomes the second author to win two novel Nebulas without having won any novel Hugos. Samuel Delaney was the first, and he makes a lot of sense. He was the New Waviest of the New Wave, who won at a point when Hugo was still handing statuettes to old schoolers like Heinlein. I think Bear’s success demonstrates how the Nebulas have changed. They’ve moved from rewarding “writers’ writers” of edgy sf and begun to favor character-based works that are light on the sf. In the ‘90s at least, I think they’re so focused on expanding the definition of science fiction, that they haven’t always been recognizing the best works. Of course, the big science fiction successes of the ‘90s (neither of which make an appearance on my masterlist of award winners for this blog) are The X-Files and the works of Michael Crichton, and, as in Robert Sawyer’s Terminal Experiment, that’s the model we’re working with here.

Darwin’s Radio has a fantastic pair of opening sequences. Anthropologist Mitch Rafelson discovers an unusual pair of mummified Neanderthals amidst a thrilling climb in the Alps. Evolutionary biologist Kaye Lang investigates a mass grave in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Both of these discoveries (whose simultaneity is only extremely contrived) connect to an emerging epidemic of a miscarriage-causing virus called SHEVA. Mitch and Kaye both come to the conclusion that this virus, which has emerged from non-coding remnants of ancient viruses locked in our DNA*, is actually prompting a rapid evolution in the human genome. Then the government chases them.

I had two major problems with this novel. First of all, it’s a novel about scientific ethics that is entirely without an ethical center. Mitch hates that he has to respect Native American interests under NAGPRA when dealing with ancient remains. Kay’s instincts tell her that her baby will be okay, so she shouldn't submit to the epidemic-fearing CDC, who are portrayed as tyrants for trying to halt the spread of what looks like a deadly virus. The day after pill is….something. Patenting parts of the genome is right, unless it’s wrong? Bear seems confused about those last two. At the end of the day, the novel is not about creating a reasonable ethical framework to deal with a novel problem (which could have been exciting to read about), it uses ethics to create artificial conflict. The final arbiter of right and wrong comes down to Bear’s protagonists: if they believe it, it’s probably right. If the smarmy, interfering government antagonists believe it, it’s wrong.

An even bigger problem is that I just didn’t enjoy the novel. It moved slowly and focused on the characters’ miserable lives. I went to the novel’s Wikipedia article to double-check the spellings of the characters names, and I found a fairly detailed summary that manages to go on for three paragraphs without mentioning any characters. That’s kind of telling. It’s not that Bear doesn’t spend time on the characters; as in Benford’s Timescape or Sawyer’s Terminal Experiment, most of the novel is spent on detailing their tawdry lives and petty politics. But, if the Wikipedia author is anything like me, she didn’t care about or like the characters, so I don’t blame her for skipping them and sticking with describing the book’s fake science.

The most interesting part of this novel for me was the question of what would emerge from this evolutionary infection. Turns out that I have to read another book called Darwin’s Children to get into that. After this one, I’m not gonna, especially since the last few pages were rather discouraging on that front. Communication by scent? Didn’t our ancestors drop that trait several millions of years ago?

My ‘90s recap is up next, and I predict that I’m going to say mean things about the state of the Nebula awards in this decade.

*These remnants really do exist; the rest of the science in the novel felt like pure bs. Bear needlessly complicates evolutionary theory to a ridiculous degree. You’d think genes as a networked intelligence might be an interesting concept. Here, unfortunately, it is not.

Grade: D+

2000 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation – GALAXY QUEST

Galaxy Quest follows actors from a fictional Star Trek-like show of the same name that aired in the early 80s for three or four seasons. The actors now make their living touring the con circuit and dealing with obsessive fans. These fans include a group of real aliens, Thermians, who think the old episodes are “historical documents.” They need the crew from Galaxy Quest to save their species from the cruel alien overlord Sarris. Tim Allen plays the Shatneresque Captain, full of swagger and always trying to overshadow his crew. Alan Rickman plays his alien first mate, who, like Nimoy in the ‘70s, wants to be taken seriously and is somewhat ashamed of his role. Sigourney Weaver plays the female officer who never had much to do (her job was to repeat everything the computer says). Sam Rockwell gets some of the biggest laughs as a “red shirt” who died early in an episode. All of them are taken by the Thermians to a complete, thorough recreation of their ship.

I’ll be honest; when I first saw this film, I really didn’t like it. A lot of the satire, especially in the first half, is dead on… But, as the film goes on, it becomes more and more like the material it initially mocks. By the end, it’s much more of a love letter than a satire. It’s a full on space adventure with real action, and real stakes. Back in 1999, I was in my heady, pretentious college days. I was both too good for Trek and really sick of it, and I was in no mood for a corny knock-off, as I saw it.

On this review, I enjoyed it quite a bit. Mostly, I’ve just gotten over myself. The thing is, this film works both as a space opera and as a gentle, fun-poking love letter. In hindsight, it’s one of the best space operas between Star Trek: First Contact in ‘96 and Serenity in ’05. The Fifth Element is the only film during that almost-decade span that I can really say might be better. True, the rest of the qualifying films are horrible Star Trek: The Next Generation films, awful Star Wars prequels (none of which even received a nomination from the Hugo voters, amazingly), and failed Vin Diesel vehicles. After all of those trainwrecks, this film looks a lot more successful. It’s funny, fun, and it has a great cast.

That said, this is a spectacular era for films with speculative elements, and I would’ve been happy with any of this crop of nominees. I already talked about Malkovich and The Matrix. The Sixth Sense is a fine supernatural drama, that holds up despite the steep decline of its creator's reputation. The Iron Giant is a wonderful animated film by Brad Bird, who went on to greater fame with Pixar. I’d probably rank Galaxy Quest fourth or fifth out of that set of films, and it certainly doesn'r have the credentials or influence of The Matrix. But, I do have a much greater appreciation of it now.

I guess you could even argue that this movie continues our “what is reality?” theme in the film reviews of late, as it does rest on a misunderstanding about the nature of fiction in a sf tv show. That's kind of a stretch though.

Grade: B+

No post on Monday, but I'll be back Wednesday.

2000 Locus SF – CRYPTONOMICON by Neal Stephenson

After writing what is, for better or worse, the landmark cyberpunk novel of the ‘90s in Snow Crash, Stephenson worked hard not to be pigeonholed in the sub-genre. He’s followed it up with a novel about nanotechnology that’s full of Victoriana, a series of novels about Early Modern Europe, a novel about mathematical monks, and this family saga that moves from World War II to Silicon Valley in the late ‘90s. Still, in all of these novels, he maintains some of the same cyberpunk sensibilities.

Cryptonomicon introduces us to two families with intertwined histories (whom we’ll see again in future Stephenson works): the Waterhouses and the Shaftoes. Before World War II, Daniel Waterhouse is a socially awkward mathematical genius and Bobby Shaftoe is a hardcore marine who’s already seen some of the horrors to come during a tour of duty in a China savaged by the Japanese (who Stephenson insists on calling Nipponese in all of his novels). Waterhouse eventually joins Alan Turing to do crucial cryptography work, and Shaftoe ends up as part of a series of harebrained schemes (which usually result in insane action set-pieces) to aid their efforts. In more contemporary times, Randy Waterhouse is working on a Silicon Valley start-up that hopes to create a “data haven” in the Pacific where information can be freely exchanged without government interference. He hires Douglas and Amy Shaftoe to lay cable for him near the Philippines, but soon becomes involved in a hunt for lost Nipponese gold leftover from the war. The novel jumps back and forth between the two plots with the usual amount of Stephenson’s long digressions about mathematics, philosophy, religion, etc.

It’s epic (I read this for the second time in paperback in an edition that ran to 1140 pages), and it’s incredibly fun. Considering the length, and Stephenson’s tendency to deliver lectures, it does inevitably slow down at many points. Like Robert Sawyer, Stephenson can go off on rants that’d be better suited to a blog than a novel. But, Stephenson can also deliver the action and excitement, and most of the novel is page-turning. Also, unlike Sawyer’s, his prose is a joy to read. There’s a three page description of one character’s preferred method consuming of Fruit Loops at one point. Is it necessary? Certainly not. Is it a funny read that gives some insight into the main character. Yes.

I’m sure Stephenson’s not for everyone. Even people who like the mini-(well, sometimes, maxi-)lectures, might not by as happy with the silliness of some of his action scenes, which can make John McClane’s hijinks look realistic. I wasn’t always on board with his arguments either. He spends a lot of time hammering "Godless," postmodernist straw-men academics (I kind of got the impression that Randy’s problems with his girlfriend had some basis in the author’s life). These scenes really jumped out at my this time, maybe because these things (religion, postmodernism) have become so much more politicized in the last ten years. Or maybe I was just being overly sensitive. Even more problematic for me was the fact that the data haven itself seems destined to become a haven for some really awful criminals. I think Stephenson is right to show that international criminals of various stripes would be the first on board, but he seems to think this a minor setback and well worth freedom from state interference. I think that proposition is worth a little more consideration.
Sure, it could’ve used a bit of trimming, but this is one of the funnest reads out there, and it does a great job of brining a sci-fi/tech geek sensibility to the history of World War II and the rest of the twentieth century.

Grade: A-

Monday, May 16, 2011

2000 Hugo and Campbell – A DEEPNESS IN THE SKY by Vernor Vinge

It’s a good thing that I’d built and increased the lead time in my reading for this blog, because the whole project came grinding to an awkward halt for about a month when this book came up on the list. For the past few years, I’ve been in a groove where I read a novel or two every week, and that includes some eight-hundred pagers…but this one stopped me cold for some reason.

Some reason? I actually know the exact reason. This novel may look like a svelt 800 page novelette, but there’s about 10,000 pages of story in those 800 pages, and a lot of it, frankly, ain’t that interesting. In fact, between A Fire Upon the Deep and this novel, I can see a clear pattern in how I react to Vinge’s books: Phase 1) initial interest in the Big Ideas presented, along with a little confusion as I get my bearings. Phase 2) a long slog through the middle as everything bogs down in jargon and the characters plot and plot and plot, stop to plot a little, then plot some more. Phase 3) a jumbo exciting climax and generally satisfying dénouement. So, I come out liking about 2/3rds of Vinge’s novels, and in A Fire Upon the Deep it worked out fine. In Deepness, however, that middle third took up a solid 9000 of the aforementioned 10,000 pages. It was a slog.

Deepness takes place 20,000 years before A Fire Upon the Deep in the same “Zones of Thought”-verse, though the Zones don’t actually come up much. Humanity hasn’t met many aliens, and they just chug around in slower-than-light sleeper ships. There’s a large group of freedom-loving space capitalist traders named the Qeng Ho who swashbuckle around space (they’re mentioned often in Fire). They’ve found a crazy star that periodically shuts down, which they call OnOff. That’s mysterious enough, but when they learn that it’s inhabited, they have to check it out. Another group of humans, called Emergents, also hear alien transmissions, and the race is on. The Qeng Ho and Emergents work together for about five pages, but the Emergents ambush the Qeng Ho with a virus called "focus" that turns people into obedient computing machines. Meanwhile, we also begin to learn about the spider-like aliens on OnOff’s planet, who are undergoing their own version of Earth’s twentieth century (these are actually the best scenes in the drudgery of “phase 2”). I’d mention some characters, but they’re all super-brilliant heroic/evil generic plotters, and there’s a minor spoiler about the main character.

I’m actually fairly excited about the summary I just wrote, and I wish I could remember this novel more fondly. There are plenty of interesting Ideas, half of which I haven’t even mentioned, and some intriguing twists at the end. But, that middle portion of the book just killed my brain. From the time the Emergents attack to the final confrontation is so repetitive, hopeless, and dull that I often put the book down for days at a time. I had zero connection with the characters, and there are several large time skips in the novel that really put me off. The whole thing takes place over several decades (I mean MegaSeconds…don’t even get me started on the metric time scale), and we’ll check in on a character after five years and find that NOTHING HAS CHANGED because they’re all SO DAMN BORING. This, of course, only increases the distance I felt from them.

It’s a rich book with wonderful ideas and some memorable moments. I tend to like this sort of ambitious, epic space opera, but I can’t really recommend this one, and I have to admit that I struggled to relate to it. I hope Vinge’s third Hugo-winner is shorter.

Grade: B-

Friday, May 13, 2011

1999 Saturn Fantasy – BEING JOHN MALKOVICH

This is another example of a film that makes me happy to be covering the Saturn winners. One of the most original concepts out there, Being John Malkovich uses a fantastic plot device to explore issues of identity. The film is the debut feature of director Spike Jonze, who does a great job with some odd visuals, but the real attraction is screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who is yet to write a movie that is not ingenuously cerebral (and they’re usually entertaining as well).

John Cusack plays a struggling puppeteer named Craig who is married to an animal lover named Lotte (played by a surprisingly unattractive, frizzy-haired Cameron Diaz). Both lust after Craig’s coworker, Maxine, played by Catherine Keener. Craig works in a half-sized floor of a New York office building, and, one day he discovers a small door that leads to a tunnel that leads into the mind of actor John Malkovich. Maxine and Craig soon begin to sell tickets, while Craig and Lotte begin to use John Malkovich’s body to sleep with Maxine. Yeah, that old story.

All of the actors deliver career performances, and the film is consistently amusing, even while it raises interesting questions about identity: Craig and Lotte both prefer living in the body of a celebrity – even a lesser-known one – to their own sad lives. Maxine is incredibly comfortable in her skin, but her need for the adoration of others and her callousness show that she is also disturbed. Anything can happen, and the film even lives up to its speculative fiction credentials by developing the nature and rules of the Malkovich tunnel. This is a fantastic film, and one of the clearest representations of the American film Renaissance of the late ‘90s. It’s about as different as can be from The Matrix, but it’s at least as good.

Grade: A

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

1999 Saturn – THE MATRIX

America film’s sudden obsession with the nature of reality continues in this immensely influential film. The Matrix also gives us one of purest representations of cyberpunk on celluloid (though there was a brief rush of not-very-good entries in the late ‘90s).

The Matrix is probably about as universally seen as Star Wars among sf fans by now, though I seem to remember it taking about a year for the film to really land in the universal pop culture consciousness. It did well enough in the theaters, but when it came out on DVD (when the format was still relatively new), everyone had to buy it. By 2001, every movie this side of Merchant Ivory Productions looked like The Matrix. Anyway, the delayed reaction is the only reason I can come up with for why this film didn’t win the Hugo. I mean, Galaxy Quest is fun, but…The Matrix!
Rewatching it this time, I was struck by the film’s simplicity. It has a reputation for complexity, and there are some subtleties, and the world is fairly ingenious (even if the human battery thing makes no scientific sense). However, the movie follows a three act structure quite nicely. Act 1) Neo meets the mysterious Trinity and gets chased by scary guys in suits. Act 2) Neo journeys to reality, trains and learns about his destiny. Act 3) Neo has his showdown in the Matrix. Many bullets are fired.
Actually, some of the morality of the film has always bothered me…the heroes kill a lot of innocent humans (especially cops) over the course of the film. They’re not really left with much choice, but I’ve always wanted at least a “darn, killing all these innocent people sure does suck.” On the other hand, bam pow boom! Action is fun! My only other complaint is how humorless the movie is, sometimes I really miss the charisma of a Han Solo or Indiana Jones in…well, pretty much every sf movie since the ‘80s ended.

I think The Matrix still holds up pretty well. I agree with the consensus that the sequels are terrible, with the second film being uneven and the final film being a messy disaster, but they haven’t sullied the first film for me. The acting is passable (Fishburne is a real presence and even Keanu Reeves gets his best role outside of Ted Logan), but the visuals are truly amazing and the action choreography is unparalleled. It’s still fun, and there’s just enough substance for the film to transcend guilty pleasure. It’s a great sf film experience, even if it does spawn some terrible knock-offs and sequels.

Grade: A

Monday, May 9, 2011

1999 WFA – THE ANTELOPE WIFE by Louise Erdich

When playing the old genre definition game, one of the trickiest traps of all is dividing fantasy from magical realism. The latter is a rather distinctive genre, more closely identified with the realms of literary fiction than the speculative variety. The basic idea is to take a population and explore real-world problems like identity, poverty, or totalitarianism by adding a bit of folkloric magic. The genre came out of Latin America (Gabriel Garcia Marquez is probably its most famous practitioner) but subsequently spread into other regions. I don’t think there’s any question that this novel, which deals with the rough and tumble relationships of several Ojibwa Indians in modern Minneapolis through the lens of myth, fits the bill.

We begin with the story of a US cavalryman who takes part in a massacre of Indians on the Northern Plains, then, feeling deep guilt, miraculously nurses a child separated from her family in the chaos. We then turn to the story of an Indian trader named Klaus Shawano, who bewitches a strange, untamed woman that people dub his “antelope wife.” At the same time, we get a love triangle between Klaus’s brother Frank, Richard Whiteheart Beads, and Richard’s wife Rozina. The story is mostly told through a series of vignettes that shift focus from character to character. There are multiple twins, talking dogs, tragedy and comedy, and eventually we learn how the modern characters are descended from the characters from the massacre at the novel’s beginning.

Erdich’s prose is quite poetic and full of poignant one-liners. But, it did feel a bit disjointed in the end. The problem is this: I think to really appreciate this novel, I’d need to read it again immediately to better understand the characters in light of later revelations about them; however, the novel didn’t quite sell me on the idea that doing so would actually be worth my time. So, instead, I’ll probably set it aside somewhat dissatisfied, but I am interested in reading more of Erdich’s work (especially since she’s such a major presence in my local literary scene). I do like that WFA has recognized magical realism though – it’s a slight bit of genre-bending that gives the award a definitive identity – we’ll see another example in the next decade that is one of my favorite books of the past decade.

Grade: B

Friday, May 6, 2011

1999 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, 1998 Saturn Fantasy – TRUMAN SHOW

What is it with the late ‘90s obsession with questioning reality? First we get Dark City, we have the Matrix coming up, and here we have The Truman Show (not to mention eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, Memento, and Pleasantville) all with the same basic theme - what if the world around you isn’t what it seems? So, what’s up late ‘90s? Things a little bit too easy in the days of the Silicon Valley Boom between the Cold War and Al Qaeda? Did we have to come up with some existential angst to compensate? Or is it something as simple as a generation of Philip K. Dick-reading geeks coming of age?

Peter Weir’s is the brightest and most mainstream of all these films. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) lives in the artificial world of Seaheaven. All of his friends and family are actors, and every moment of his life is broadcast around the world as a 24-hour cable television show. Truman, unaware of all of this, goes through the motions of his humdrum life until he begins to notice odd things – lighting plummeting from the sky, stage directions broadcast over his radio, and his dead father appearing on the street and then being carried away by extras. As Truman begins to suspect the truth, his life begins to unwind. Meanwhile, the showrunner, Christof (Ed Harris) attempts to block Truman at every turn to keep the show running.

It’s an interesting conceit, and it makes for some funny moments and some nice bits of satire (the film’s best joke is a runner about the cast’s awkward efforts at product placement). It also seems quite timely; this is, after all, the moment when reality shows began to takeover television schedules. It looks great and it’s easy to watch. I do wish it asked some tougher questions though. Everything seems a bit…surfacey. I’d like to know more about how Truman’s sheltered existence has shaped him as a person – he seems to have the same hopes and dreams as anyone else would, despite living in a bottle. I’d also like to know more about the actors on the show, who give up their own lives and identities to maintain the illusion (Truman’s wife, played by Laura Linney in my favorite performance of the film, supposedly sleeps with him, despite not really liking him in real life). I’d also like more insight into the audience – we see lots of heartwarming cutaways of them rooting for his escape, but Weir seems to ignore the fact that few of them actively protest his captivity, and they even enable it by obsessively watching his show and boosting the ratings. In other words, the film offers all sorts of great opportunities for insight or satire, but manages to ignore almost all of them.

The one area where Weir really does seem to want to push a metaphor is religion. Christof has something of a God complex, and Truman is the victim of his divine whims who finally rebels. But even this metaphor is a tad heavy-handed, and I can’t entirely say what it means in the end. Still, it’s a nicely made film that only fails in the sense that it could have been so much more. I’d rather watch a film that fails to meet the promise of an ambitious project than a Men in Black-style going through the motions, which is exactly how I’d describe fellow nominee Star Trek: Insurrection. Of the other nominees, I’d say I prefer Dark City, and I like Pleasantville even better (again, lots of similarities there), but I’m not upset that this film won.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

1999 Nebula – PARABLE OF THE TALENTS by Octavia Butler

The Nebulas have been sort of rough of late, but I really enjoyed this novel, and its predecessor, Parable of the Sower. Together, they form one continuous story that follows a young woman named Lauren Olamina Oya in the crumbling United States of the 2020s and 30s. The novel is told mostly through Olamina’s journals (though this volume includes a few other excerpts from first person narrators, especially her husband and daughter), and much of it involves her attempts to create a new religion, called Earthseed.

Parable of the Sower begins in Southern California, which is bone dry due to climate change, and is being picked apart but bandits, drug addicts, and even cannibals. Olamina’s modest walled community eventually falls apart, and she and a few survivors must hike north along dangerous interstates in search of better climes to the north. Parable of the Talents picks up with Olamina more settled in northern California, but she must continue to contend with the United States’ fall, this time in the form of a fascistic Christian fundamentalist President.

There’s a lot of high concept science fiction material here. There’s a drug that turns people into pyromaniacs, and another drug causes a birth defect (which Olamina suffers from) that grants near-psychic levels of empathy (more a disadvantage than anything else in a world so full of pain). There are also high tech slave collars, and virtual reality “dreamasks.” And, Olamina’s religion, Earthseed, is all about the dream of interstellar travel as a way to unite humankind in troubled times (as well as the idea that “God is change,” a refrain which did get a little old to be honest). Yet, the books’ real strength is in how grounded they remain. The characters and their relationships feel incredibly real and immediate. As a result, this is one of the best post-apocalyptic works I’ve read. Butler’s prose is folksy and engaging, and the books are consistently dark and yet somehow never despairing. It just feels real.

My only problem is with some of the pacing of this book. Butler throws a lot of material in, and things begin to move very quickly towards the end (including a half-century jump at the very end). I’ve heard that Butler had considered making this a trilogy, and it might have been nice to fill these later years out. Sadly, Butler died suddenly in 2006. I’d recommend these two books, and I plan to seek out more of her work when I finish this project.

I actually liked this a little bit more than To Say Nothing. I thoroughly enjoyed both, but it has been a while since a Nebula-winner won a match-up against a Hugo-winner.

Grade: A-

Sunday, May 1, 2011

1999 Hugo – TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG by Connie Willis

Well, this is a change of pace. We’re back in the Oxford of the 2050s that we saw in Willis’ The Doomsday Book. Again, we have historians as time travelers, and again the science fiction aspect takes a backseat to a focus on characterization and English “comedy of manners” humor. Time travelling is important to the plot, especially the novel’s climax, but we spend most of the novel in Victorian England while our protagonists try to return a cat and discover the fate of an ugly vase.

In the 2050s, the historians are preparing for a celebration of the renovation of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed over a century earlier in the blitz. The inconsiderate and monomaniacal Lady Shrapnell has pushed young historian Ned Henry to the brink in her quest for a decorative vase dubbed “the bishop’s bird stump.” Professor Dunworthy tries to protect Ned by sending him to return a rescued cat to 1888, from whence it had been taken by another historian, Verity Kindle, after a near-drowning. Verity is close to a young Victorian woman named Tossie, and Ned meets a nice young man named Terrence, and soon the two Victorians fall in love. Unfortunately, they’re both supposed to marry other people and the course of history may depend upon their progeny. Verity and Ned, fearing that it is their involvement that has changed these relationships, desperately try to find Tossie’s true husband-to-be.

While the wonderful writing and clever dialogue of The Doomsday Book remain, the stakes are clearly much lower than the dual raging epidemics of Willis’s earlier novel, which managed to kill off most of the characters by its conclusion. You don’t often hear that a story falters because the stakes are too high, but The Doomsday Book may be the exception that proves the rule. It’s hard to laugh at fussy upper class twits when everyone is slowly and painfully dying in two different eras. However, in a light tale of Victorian love, this kind of comedy is quite a bit more welcome. This is a really fun and sweet novel, and I think it accomplishes more by doing less. It still has a lot to say about destiny and random chance, and it can still be quite suspenseful. Willis uses a Victorian historian, Professor Peddick, to introduce dueling theories of history – that it is the product of the agency of a few important, individual decisions or that it is the product of broader forces, from mass movements to weather and geography. These ruminations fit in perfectly with the novel’s themes and enrich the overall experience. At the same time, the relationship between Verity and Ned is cute, and gives the reader something to root for.

It’s very different from most of the Hugo winners, which tend to feel like important epics even when they’re brief. There are no intergalactic worlds or dark dystopias here. If I had to describe my experience reading this novel in one word, it would be “relaxing.” That might sound like damning with faint praise, I wouldn’t want every book I read to take the same attitude, but I rather enjoyed this sandwiched between Forever Peace and A Deepness in the Sky.

Grade: A-