Tuesday, August 30, 2011
I laid out most of my thoughts on the Harry Potter series last time (in fact, I was going to combine these two reviews at one point), so this should go pretty quickly. Perhaps the most important thing to mention here is that this is the first fantasy novel to win a Hugo award, which still kind of amazes me. There were forty-eight Hugo awards handed out without anything close to fantasy winning (fantasy novels were eligible and nominated from the beginning), then, starting here, they win four of five. I think this is testimony to both how big the Harry Potter series had become and a sea change in speculative fiction readership as a whole. I’m sure I’ll say more about this going forward.
As for the book itself, it’s another strong, mid-series entry in the Harry Potter series. Every book and film after the first two always prompted headlines along the lines of “Harry Potter Grows Up,” but if you really want to choose a novel where the series matures the most, I think you have to look here. The central plot is kind of lame. There’s a big, inter-school competition hosted by Hogwarts in Harry’s fourth year called the Triwizard Tournament. Harry is chosen as a competitor despite being too young, but, with his usual pluck and help from his friends, he manages to do quite well. It’s a very artificial structure, and it’s one of the worst offenders of Rowling’s bad habit of not having her characters examine major mysteries until it’s convenient to the plot.
The attraction here is not in the main plot though, it’s in the sub-plots. And, there are a lot of them. One of the ways that this novel “matures” the series is that it is the longest yet, by a healthy margin. At 700+ pages, it’s more than twice as long as the first book. Rowling uses that space mostly for character development, as her characters become teenagers with the requisite hormonal angst. Harry has a crush, for instance. Meanwhile, in the background, Lord Voldemort once again threatens to return, but Rowling breaks formula by making the threat realer than in the first novels and by having his vicious minions, the Death Eaters, attack a sporting event in a manner that parallels any number of real world events. There’s also the famous death at the end, though it’s a fairly ancillary character.
All in all, it’s another fun book from a series that’s become an instant classic. It's one of the most controversial Hugo winners, and I probably wouldn't have voted for it, but it makes sense that such a landmark series should get some recognition from within the field. I am glad that the awards stepped away from the subsequent books though. They remain strong (especially the final two entries), but one Hugo and one Locus fantasy seems about right for the series.
Also, to follow up on the movie watch from last time, I think the Goblet of Fire film isn't very good. It sticks mainly to the central plot, which, as mentioned above, isn’t so great. Mike Newell’s direction is limp and generic where Cuaron’s was taut and original. See Prisoner whether you like the books or not, but consider avoiding Goblet even if you are a big fan of the books.
Who am I kidding? Who hasn't read all the books and seen all the movies by this point?
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Harry Potter is a multi-billion dollar phenomenon. It has probably made more money and penetrated into the popular consciousness more than anything else I’ll talk about on this blog with the possible exception of Star Wars. I think the real turning point of the phenomenon, the moment that it truly broke the bonds of the fantasy genre and the juvenile audience was right around 2000, when Goblet of Fire came out and the first film went into production. At least, that’s when I first heard about it, and it’s about the time that the awards I’m covering took notice.
The novels follow an orphaned and neglected boy named Harry Potter as he turns eleven and discovers that a) magic exists, b) he can do magic, c) he’s expected to attend a school for wizards, and d) he has a destiny as the unwitting defeater of the evil Lord Voldemort. It’s a perfect wish-fulfillment scenario, but it also allows Rowling to play with some of the tropes of urban fantasy, an area where I think the films have focused more. In the novels, it’s almost suburban fantasy, as the real world (or “muggle,” in Rowling’s parlance) contrast is the suburban, dull, and downright abusive Dursley family.
Each of the seven novels in the series focuses on one year of Harry’s school at the wizard school Hogwarts. I think this might be Rowling’s most brilliant conceit, as it gives her a sold formula to follow or subvert as needed, and it allows the series to grow and mature along with its protagonist. The early books are short and clever, but fairly childish. The latter books are heavy, and filled with character deaths and epic battles. The two award-winning volumes slide right into the middle at three and four, which results in a nice balance of light and heavy, and this is probably my favorite era – the formula hasn’t broken, but it’s maturing.
Prisoner of Azkaban may be my favorite for this very reason. It manages to maintain some of the series' early innocence and charm, but the threats seem more real than ever, and Rowling does a great deal of world-building that hints at the magical world outside of Hogwarts and gives some more background to some of the characters. Sirius Black, a key follower of the dark wizard Voldemort, has escaped from the nototious Azkaban prison. He betrayed Harry’s parents, and there are hints that he is coming to kill Harry himself. Meanwhile, Dementors, the grisly and ghostly guards of Azkaban also frighten and endanger Harry as they hunt for Black. There are the usual number of intricate, interlocking mysteries that you get in a Harry Potter book, as well as some of the usual magical gadgets; this has my favorites: an interactive map of the school grounds and a limited time travel necklace that Rowling puts to great use.
It may be obvious by now, but I am a fan of these books. Rowling is a great plotter, and she reweaves some tired fantasy tropes into something that feels both original and classic (I’ve heard it claimed that these books rip off Earthsea and/or Ender’s Game, but I don’t see it. The school setting is old and oft-used, and the mood is completely different. Orson Scott Card sure seems convinced though!). The prose makes for a fast-paced read, though it can get a little precious, even for a children’s book. Still, the books are fun and exciting, and I think they offer plenty for adults. But you’ve probably already read them, so you don’t need me to tell you.
I also want to mention that the film version, directed by the excellent Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, ifantastic. By far, it’s the best of the film versions, as it steers away from the childish schlock of Chris Columbus’s first two films and creates a new visual style that clearly influenced all of the subsequent films. He really plays up the urban fantasy elements, and his Hogwarts is more spacious and engrossing. It was nominated for a Hugo in 2005, and maybe should have won (actually, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind should have won, but that’s a debate for another day). I highly recommend it.
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Comic books are science fiction’s bastard child. Pulp comics grew alongside golden age pulp science fiction, and it’s clear that both genres have influenced each other from the ‘40s on. And yet, a graphic fiction category wasn’t created for the Hugos until 2009, and Watchmen was the only sequential work to get recognition before then.
Most sf fans in their thirties and forties, from Joss Whedon to yours truly, would tell you that writer Chris Claremont’s X-Men was one of their formative sf experiences. If you’d asked twelve-year-old me if I wanted to see a live-action X-Men film, I probably would have said “YES!” followed shortly thereafter by “oh no, I’m sure it will be terrible.” There are a lot conceits of superhero comics that just don’t translate to the big screen: the brightly colored costumes, the soap operatic deaths and resurrections, the wanton genre-mashing, and the larger-than-life supervillains. As a result, most superhero movies before this one are awful. Even the good ones, Donner’s Superman and Burton’s Batman and…that’s about it, have their embarrassing moments. And, well, so does this film. But, director Bryan Singer does manager to take one of the most over-the-top superhero properties and translate it to a mostly successful film.
One of the keys to his success is that Singer approaches this as a science fiction movie rather than a comic book movie. The point of the X-Men is that they are mutants, people with genetic differences that give them superhuman abilities. All you naysayers are probably complaining right now that a genetic mutation is unlikely to allow someone to manipulate magnetic fields, read minds, or shoot lasers out of their eyes, but there’s a perfectly good psuedo-sciencey explanation in the comics involving space gods called Celestials. Obviously, the movie isn’t going to go there, so let’s move on.
One mutant, a Holocaust survivor named Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen), fears that humans will destroy the mutants and takes a more militant line. Another, Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart), has created a school for the “Gifted” to teach mutants to use their powers safely. He takes a more assimilationist line, and he’s trained a group of mutants to fight Magneto that he calls the X-Men. A Canadian with a healing factor and claws named Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) picks up a young woman who can absorb people’s lifeforce named Rogue (Anna Paquin), and they end up with Xavier, but Magento tries to kidnap her as part of a sinister plot. Also, Halle Berry, Famke Jansen, and Rebbeca Romjin are around.
The cast is very strong (Picard versus Gandalf!), and says a lot about how seriously the filmmakers took the subject matter. Along with the sleek metal sets and not-as-corny-as-they-could-be leather uniforms, this keeps the film out of embarrassment territory for most of its run time. In fact, the first act is quite strong, as it efficiently raises the key issues, introduces the characters, and all around looks good. The film goes a bit downhill from there though. Magneto’s sinister plot is far too elaborate, the dialogue takes a turn for the cheesy, and the ending feels rushed and decidedly un-epic. However, the film does deserve a lot of credit for making the franchise, and really the whole genre, credible.
This film kicked off a trend, still ongoing, of blockbuster superhero movies. From here, they come to dominate the Saturn Fantasy category (it does make sense to me that Singer’s X-Men are “sf” to Saturn while Spider-man, Superman and Batman are “fantasy,” though I’m not sure I could justify it all that well). I can’t say that I’ll cover many of these Saturn fantasy winners (anything not to have to watch Superman Returns again), but Raimi’s first two Spider-man movies and Nolan’s Batman movies are quite good.
Monday, August 22, 2011
Before I move onto the last decade of coverage, I wanted to tie up one loose end from the ‘90s (that I didn’t read in time to hit in the natural order…but close enough). This is going to be a very short review, even though it’s another rather long, epic book. Why so short? Two reasons: 1) It’s too difficult to discuss the plot much without spoiling major plot points from A Game of Thrones. 2) this whole post can be summed up rather neatly in three words: I. Was. Wrong.
Now, I wasn’t that wrong. I gave the first novel a solid B, which is not all that bad by my grading standards. But, I also complained that the book had a lack of world-building, over-reliance on shallow conceptions of medieval Europe, and a focus on nobility (in many different senses of the word) that I found off-putting. This volume so directly addressed and overcame those objections, that I can’t help but think I completely misjudged, maybe even misunderstood the previous volume.* The world-building here is amazing. Several new elements are added, religion and magic are fleshed out, and characters spends much of the novel discussing the history of the continent of Westeros. This is certainly the most background information I’ve seen in a novel series this side of Tolkien. These historical interludes could feel like unnecessary diversions, but each manages to illuminate or resonate with the situations the characters find themselves in. All of the characters show off greater depth, and I have growing sympathy for some of the “evil” characters of the first novel, while the “good” characters are forced to make some very tough ethical choices. Finally, we see how hollow the concepts of chivalry and aristocracy are, while also witnessing more of how the struggles for power between the principle characters impact the lives of the “small folk,” and also how they can and will make their own voices heard, even in a strictly hierarchical world.
I do still have a few complaints though. Two books in, and it *still* feels like Martin is mostly moving the pieces into place. The story is very intricate and chaotic at the same time, and it only seems to get moreso with each passing chapter. I don’t really have a sense of narrative structure here, and I can only hope that Martin has some kind of plan. Also, one of the characters and his storyline were so annoying that they drove me nuts (*cough*Theon*cough*). It’s one of those things where I have to give a grudging respect for the author for managing to get such a rise out of me…but that doesn’t make it any more pleasant. Maybe Martin will address these objections as well as the series goes on.
Also, what a lousy cover. It really misrepresents the tone of the series. The newer, simpler paperback covers are much nicer.
This was a great read, and I’m looking forward to seeing it on HBO next year and reading the next volume.
*The excellent HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones (while will hopefully show up on next year’s Hugo ballot, preferably the whole series in “Long Form”) makes me feel the same way.
[Note: There was a long ranty post up here this morning about overreactions to Blackout/All Clear winning the Hugo. There's nothing sinister about my pulling it down; I just didn't think it was a very good post. It seemed kind of silly to rant about other people's rants, especially to defend a book I hardly liked.]
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Hugo voting statistics are here.
Just like last year, this is where I really get to see how out of step I was. Feed a strong second? The Dervish House last? "The Lady Who Plucked Flowers" below "Troika"?
The most interesting voting was not in novelette (as I predicted last night - it actually went rather smoothly), but in Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, where there was an initial surge of first place votes for the "Ray Bradbury" novelty song, which then sank quickly down-ballot. The Doctor Who finale became the consensus choice from what was initially a very divided ballot; it was fourth in first place votes (above only my pick).
As for nominations: Three novels that would have been interesting additions to the nominees (and which I would have preferred to read over some of these nominees) came in just below Cryoburn: Who Fears Death, Kraken, and Surface Detail. As for my "Not a Hugo" reads: How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe came in 12th and Zoo City was 27th. Super sadly, no love for my favorite science fiction novel of the year. Thankfully, WWW:Watch was 20th.
Scott Pilgrim just missed in Graphic Fiction. Caprica got no love in Dramatic Short.
Saturday, August 20, 2011
- BEST NOVEL: Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis (Ballantine Spectra)
- BEST NOVELLA: The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang (Subterranean)
- BEST NOVELETTE: "The Emperor of Mars" by Allen M. Steele (Asimov's, June 2010; also in audio)
- BEST SHORT STORY: "For Want of a Nail" by Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov's, September 2010)
- BEST RELATED WORK: Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O'Shea (Mad Norwegian)
- BEST GRAPHIC STORY: Girl Genius, Volume 10: Agatha Heterodyne and the Guardian Muse, written by Phil and Kaja Foglio; art by Phil Foglio; colors by Cheyenne Wright (Airship Entertainment)
- BEST DRAMATIC PRESENTATION, LONG FORM: Inception, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (Warner)
- BEST DRAMATIC PRESENTATION, SHORT FORM: Doctor Who: "The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang," written by Steven Moffat; directed by Toby Haynes (BBC Wales)
- BEST EDITOR, SHORT FORM: Sheila Williams
- BEST EDITOR, LONG FORM: Lou Anders
- BEST PROFESSIONAL ARTIST: Shaun Tan
- BEST SEMIPROZINE: Clarkesworld, edited by Neil Clarke, Cheryl Morgan, Sean Wallace; podcast directed by Kate Baker
- BEST FANZINE: The Drink Tank, edited by Christopher J Garcia and James Bacon
- BEST FAN WRITER: Claire Brialey
- BEST FAN ARTIST: Brad W. Foster
- JOHN W. CAMPBELL AWARD FOR BEST NEW WRITER [Not a Hugo]: Lev Grossman
I didn't cover it, but the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer did go to a novelist that I've reviewed before: Lev Grossman. I'm not really clear how he qualifies, since he had a widely-distributed novel published in 2004, and, apparently, another years before that...oh well. I'm looking forward to reading the just-published The Magician King, and if it's as good as people are saying it is, I hope it gets some consideration in the novel category next year.
Graphic Fiction - I said the Foglios were hard to criticize because they're super-nice and hardcore supporters of sf fandom, and they proved this yet again by withdrawing themselves from contention in this category next year. And yet...I don't have much confidence in the category getting better without them. I won't be covering it anymore unless there are some really interesting nominees, and, speaking as a fan of the medium, I kind of hope it just goes away.
Dramatic Presentation, Short Form - I voted for a different Who episode, but at the last moment, I started rooting for "The Lost Thing," just to have something different... But, Who wins anyway, and the more predictable episode at that. I can't complain though; it was a very strong season of what's been a great show.
Long Form - Yep.
Short Story - I'm shocked that "The Things" didn't win, but also very happy that "For Want of a Nail" did. Maybe I have more in common with the majority of Hugo voters than I thought...or maybe the Watts story is just much more polarizing than Kowal's, and she won on alternate votes.
Novelette - Another pleasant surprise. I figured "That Leviathan" was too polarizing, but "Plus or Minus" was also a great story. I bet the voting was really interesting in this category.
Novella - Ugh. Damn you, Hugo voters! "Lifecycle" was a fine story, and my second choice, but it was nowhere near Swirsky's story, which was my favorite Hugo nominee of the year (except possibly Inception).
Novel - I take back what I said three categories ago about being on the same wavelength as most Hugo voters. Well, it's a relief that the female winner drought has ended, though it'd still be great to see a new female winner. I liked Blackout/All Clear better than a lot of the reviewers I read, but it's flaws are glaring. I can't help but feel that both Willis's and Chiang's wins are more about their legacy than an honest evaluation of quality. But, then again, maybe that's just nerd blogger sour grapes. You can't win them all, and there wasn't a stand out novel among the nominees anyway this year, so cheers to Willis and the rest of the winners.
Swirsky not winning really burns me though...
6 of my first place votes won
1 of my second place votes won
2 of my third place votes won (an art category, and novel)
1 of my fourth place votes won (a Dr Who episode that I certainly didn't dislike)
1 winner that I preferred "no award" over
And I skipped the other 5 categories, due mainly to unfamiliarity
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
At first glance this was an extremely poor set of nominees, but I think they turned out stronger than I expected. If I could replace Cryoburn with Super Sad True Love Story, and Feed with Zoo City, and force Connie Willis to edit five hundred pages out of Blackout/All Clear, it’d be an even stronger slate than last year.
But, I’m told I can’t do that. So, I guess I have to decide who should win out of the nominees, which are clearly not as strong as a whole as in 2010. As I said last year, I think a Hugo winner should have three qualities: 1) it should explore speculative ideas, 2) it should build a compelling world, and 3) it should be of high literary quality. Super-Sad True Love Story did these things really well, and so did the Hunger Games trilogy…okay, okay, I'll move on to the actual nominees for real this time. Actually, now that I have grades, unlike last year, this is probably pretty darn obvious.
Anyway, ascending order: Feed didn’t work for me on a number of levels. It leaned too heavily on zombie tropes and a rather generic conspiracy plot. I was intrigued by some of the world-building, but I didn’t buy the “blogger’s truth over the lamestream media” concept at the crux of the world. The writing could have been better. A crowd-pleaser like Boneshaker, but probably not as good.
Cryoburn was a fairly forgettable entry in a series that was always a little ridiculous and is probably past its prime. Then again, I read four other books to catch up, and I never really regretted it. Bujold is still great at putting well-rounded characters in pulpy situations, but only a brief epilogue prevents this volume from being completely skippable, even for diehard Vokosiganers (? - I don’t know what the fans call themselves).
Blackout/All-Clear was better than I expect. In fact, it was almost really good, and portions of it were fantastic. And, it meets all of my criteria – a very detailed world, some exploration of time travel’s consequences (though there could be a lot more of that), and strong prose. I wouldn’t mind if it won the Hugo, as it did the Nebula and Locus. But, it’s just too damn long.
One-Hundred Thousand Kingdoms presents an interesting, layered fantasy world with very strong characters. The world could use some elaboration, and I could’ve done without the “tortured-dangerous-sexy man” romance sub-plot, and I’m just not quite sure Jemisin has realized her full potential as an artist yet. There’s so much potential there to realize though.
Which leaves McDonald’s Dervish House. I don’t think this is McDonald’s strongest work, but it does seem to have the richest ideas out of the nominees, and it has beautiful prose that really evokes an ancient city in wondrous detail. I'd put it third behind last year’s dual winners, but it kind of wins by default for me this year.
And, that makes me a horrible sexist for voting for the one man in a year with four female nominees in the midst of a serious female-winner drought. Honestly, I’m kind of rooting for Jemisin to pull off an upset and break the penis-streak, even though McDonald deserves a Hugo for a strong body of work over the past decade. Either way, I think that they’ll both have other chances.
Here's a summary of my Hugo coverage:
Finally, if you want to see how I line up with other blog reviews, Nicholas Whyte did a cool comparison here, and I was happy that he included me. I'm in the minority on "The Things," which I already knew, but otherwise, I seem to be with a pretty strong consensus except in that pesky novelette category (which also happened to be my favorite this year).
I'm sure I'll have more to add this weekend after the ceremony (which will be streamed live).
Monday, August 15, 2011
Charles Yu is really good at freezing a moment in time - not necessarily a particularly important moment - and picking it apart. Within these moments, he manages to detail every conflicting emotion, all of the personal history and potential, and the interplay of little background vignettes. In this novel, Yu hand-waives his way through some science fiction traditions like time machines and temporal loops as an excuse to create some of these frozen-in-time moments. We get to see every detail of a father and son meeting in a park, for instance, because the narrator is reliving it.
Just as with Super Sad True Love Story, we’re back on the topic of literary/sf crossover. I generally try to avoid excluding books with labels, but I’m going to put my cards on the table and say what I think about the genre elements here: while Shteyngart is an example of a literary writer doing science fiction, this novel is an example of a writer using science fiction references to write a postmodern, literary novel. I spent much of my decade away from reading science fiction reading “po-mo” novels by the likes of Pynchon and Auster, so I know these things when I see them. There are a lot of genre tropes here, but this is really a story of an unhappy man thinking about his father and about where his own life went wrong. Heinlein, LeGuin, Niven and others get name-checked, but there’s not much of their spirit here – which is not inherently a bad thing, though perhaps it is misleading.
The narrator, Charles Yu (first sign we’re in a postmodern novel: the author or his/her name appears somehow) is a time travel machine repairman in some sort of meta-universe that is finite, shifting and crowded with characters and ideas from science fiction (Luke Skywalker’s disgruntled son appears – it’s totally non-canonical if there are any hardcore Star Wars expanded universe fans out there reading :P ). Yu finds himself in a time loop, and he kind-of-maybe has to solve the mystery of the book he’s in that we’re reading (now we’re really getting po-mo!) and find his Dad. He’s aided by a cute computer program named TAMMY and his retconned dog Ed (if you don’t know what a retcon is, you don’t read/watch enough serialized storytelling). That’s kind of the plot, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. We mostly get these detailed deconstructions of scenes of Charles and his dad as they struggle to build and market the first time machine.
I have mixed feelings about these freeze-frame analyses. As I said, Yu does a great job with them, and there are moving moments and a few beautiful lines in the mix. On the other hand, they tend to drag on and maybe even get a bit repetitive. And they’re pretty damn self-indulgent. And, if you don’t like them, there’s not much going on in the rest of this short novel other than some po-mo games with illustrations and metatextuality. But, when the book is moving, it really is moving. It feels like there’s a lot of raw emotional truth on the page, trying to hide behind the games, and (deliberately?) failing. I kind of admire Yu’s sincerity, even if I didn’t always completely enjoy it.
I’m having a hard time rendering a verdict on this novel. I'm glad I read it, but I didn’t love it. I admired the emotional content and enjoyed some of the po-mo games about half the time, but found them cloying and tedious the other half. I liked its metatextual engagement with science fiction, but found it too shallow in the end to say that it added all that much…
I think I’d give this novel a mild recommendation, but I’d like to see more work from Yu, specifically something more ambitious and straightforward. I wish the sf literati had taken a harder look at Super Sad Love Story, but they weren't missing much here (even though this book seemed to get a little more attention in sf circles - I guess its the title).
Friday, August 12, 2011
Well, I managed to finish this 1140 page monstrosity. I think the Hugo nominators were right to combine these two books as one volume, and that’s how I’m going to talk about them. It’s clearly one story, and the dividing point between the volumes is rather arbitrary. I’ve seen some criticism of the division as a result, but it seems unfair to Willis, who apparently didn’t have much choice. The way the economics of book publishing are these days, I don’t necessarily blame Ballantine either. An 1150 page print-job has to cut into their profits, and Willis isn’t necessarily a New York Times bestseller. I don’t blame them for keeping All Clear out of the Hugo Voter’s Pack initially either (I got my copy for free using an old-fashioned, analog version of bittorrent called the St Paul Public Library).
So, the question isn’t "should this 1140 page book be divided into two volumes?"…it’s “should this book be 1140 pages long in the first place?” My answer: Hell no. That said there is a lot to like here. I’ve been dreading this book since before it was nominated, because of the length and the fact that Willis has covered much of this ground in novels and stories I’ve already read. I guess I forgot how charming a writer Willis can be, because she did suck me into this novel at several points. Unfortunately, there are just as many points when I wondered how the novel could possible still be meandering on.
For the third time on this blog, we’re in twenty-first century Oxford, where historians literally travel into the past to do their research. Mr. Dunworthy is still desperately trying to protect his students from past dangers, and he’s still failing miserably. Willis adds a time travel wrinkle by arbitrarily switching settings and protagonists. The three main characters are Polly, Merope, and Mike, and all of them travel to Britain in 1940, at the beginning of World War II. When their scheduled method of return fails, they must try to find each other and another way out, all while avoiding death in the Blitz, while also worrying about possibly altering the future and causing Britain to lose the war, which may or may not be the reason they’re stuck. We also get occasional chapters in 2060, as the Oxford crew investigates some anomalies in travel to that period, and this includes young Colin Templer, last seen in Doomsday Book. Then we have a set of nurses during the V-1 rocket attacks in 1944, and the attempt to create a fake invasion of France to distract the Nazis from Normandy in the same year. These are the main stories (though there are a few more), and it’s only very slowly that Willis reveals how they all connect together.
I enjoyed this basic storyline, and some of the resolutions, quite a bit, especially since Willis’s prose is clear, light, and clever, and her research is impeccable and richly detailed. The last hundred pages or so especially sparkle as the puzzle pieces get together and the relationships between the characters pay off. Getting there can be a real chore though. Willis likes to wring drama from delaying the passage of information. A character vitally needs to know x, but loud noises, air raids, other characters making speeches, dull wittedness, mixed signals, rocket attacks, limps, sudden marriages, secrecy, etc., all prevent the straightforward conveyance of x. End chapter on cliffhanger. Rinse and repeat. Very quickly, this becomes less dramatic, and more annoying. In fact, I was still annoyed about this from the last Connie Willis book I read (Passage, review forthcoming soon) going into this book, so I had little patience. Considering that it’s these constant interruptions that do the most work in stretching the novel’s length, those 1100 pages were pretty unbearable a lot of the time. Everyone’s so damned passive-aggressive (fittingly, in Willis’s model of time travel, the whole damn space-time continuum is also highly passive-aggressive). Just communicate!
As I’ve said before, as a historian, the Willis books were among my most anticipated when I started this project. While they’re certainly given me their fair share of entertainment, they’ve frustrated me just as often. Reading Blackout/All Clear, I’ve decided that one of the things that’s most disappointed me is that they’re not really about history, they’re about historical settings. The research is admirable, but we never get more than hand-waivey discussion of how history works (in these books, it’s a mixture of coincidence and individual heroism). Her historians don’t ask the sort of questions that any real-life contemporary historian asks about the why and how of things, and that’s where my biggest disappointment comes from. If you want good science fiction that explores the themes of academic history, check out Kim Stanley Robinson. If you want well-researched and charming historical fiction with an sf twist, Willis is for you. Unfortunately, I’d been hoping for the former.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Two things I love combine: National Public Radio and sf novels.
NPR has published a list of the top 100 science fiction and fantasy books. I've read 65 (many of them for this blog), though I'm counting a series even if I've only read one book (hello, Thomas Covenant).
I can't say I'm thrilled with everything on the list. For one, it seems heavy on Tolkien rip-off fantasy series. But, these things are always fun. It's nice to know there's plenty of material out there for me to work through once I finish with the Hugos, Nebulas, Locuses, etc.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
As I've discussed before, things often get uncomfortable when authors from the amorphous world of “literary fiction” crossover to the world of science fiction. You get elaborate excuses from the likes of Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut about how their dystopias and time travel space epics ARE NOT science fiction, and the major awards promptly ignore and reject their work (unless it’s the first year of the Clarke). I can’t say things went all that differently with this novel by a young lit fic sensation – I don’t see it on any sf award nominee lists – but this does feel well grounded in the world of sf. In fact, this novel read a lot like Vinge’s Rainbow’s End (review coming soon), touching as it does on singularity and post-humans, social networking, physical books, and generational issues. But, it’s like awesomely way better.
Set in the post-literate near future, we follow the journal of Lenny Abramov, the almost-forty son of Jewish-Russian immigrants to New York who acquires clients for a company offering immortality treatments. Abramov is something of a throwback, he likes actual physical books, and he, like, reads every word of writers like Tolstoy and Chekhov. On a business trip in Italy, he falls in love with a boisterous-but-damaged girl in her early twenties named Eunice Park. We alternate that journal with emails and chats from Eunice, who thinks she could score a hotter guy, but Lenny seems so sincere and easy. They move in together in Manhattan, in an America in steep decline. Debts are heavy all around, people with low credit ratings are discriminated against, America is losing another foreign intervention in Venezuela, privatized National Guardsmen harass people on the streets, and the world has become shallow and obsessed with their rankings on social networks, which are displayed on apparati (basically smaller iPhones with more social networking features).
So, lots ofcyberpunk/dystopian material we’ve seen before, as I mentioned, but the differences are huge and all fall in Shteyngart’s favor. Most importantly, Lenny and Eunice are incredibly rich characters. They both can annoy, they both make bad choices, and their relationship is a trainwreck, but they also both feel real, and even young shallow Eunice has hidden depths of compassion. This deft touch with character is what sets some these literary types apart, and I do think it speaks to all that crossovers have to offer in an area where science fiction has been, traditionally, pretty weak.
Maybe I'm biased because Shteyngart clearly shares my anti-singularity, anti-post-human pessimism in another clear difference from most sf these days. For Vernor Vinge, the destruction of books and the alienation of the elder generation are birth pangs on the way to something bigger (man, I wish I'd gotten to my review of Rainbow's End before this), but Shteyngart focuses on the class issues and the unpredictability of technological advance. Of course, post-human technology will be the province of the super-rich for a long time, and of course there will be setbacks and unintended consequences. Shteyngart is clearly aware of the discussion of these issues within science fiction, and he makes some smart, incisive additions to the debate. That said, I’m not so convinced that the US will collapse into a corporate security state, but there’s plenty of echoes of our reality to keep things believable.
The one area where I felt the book did fail, and even admitted defeat to some extent, was in the portrayal of a post-literate world. Yes, people think books are smelly and gross, and no one seems to have the attention span to focus on longer pieces of text, but Shteyngart’s voice for Eunice is full of evocative language. He even has characters comment on this, calling her a “born writer.” There’s clear growth in her style throughout the book as well, and I couldn’t help but feel that this was part character development and part Shteyngart throwing in the towel on writing a solid portion of a novel in semi-literate txt speech.
Either way, I really enjoyed this novel. It has a lot to say about love, relationships, and mortality, and it says it all while presenting an insightful view of the future. It’s everything I want from science fiction; who cares if it’s written by someone not so immersed in the genre (has anyone not in the SFWA ever gotten a Nebula nomination?) Maybe we can set up some sort of lit fic/sff exchange program?
Noir sf has become quite the trend in the last few years, with recent Hugo winners Yiddish Policeman’s Union and The City & The City doing rather classic versions of the genre in recent years, among others. It makes a lot of sense, as the genre has always been about introducing a new world – whether it’s the criminal underworld of LA or San Francisco in the 1940s or a fictional bifurcated city in Eastern Europe, these gritty stories let the reader explore a place they’re probably not familiar with in a manner that’s almost anthropological. We get to learn the laws, the leadership structure, probably a bit of history, and the social mores, all at their rawest. Beukes novel fits nicely into this emerging trend, and, at least as far as North American readers like myself are concerned, it gets to do double duty. It introduces us to the criminal underworld of modern South Africa, with its violent tsotsis, refugees from horrific African wars from Rwanda to Congo, and 419 scams. But, it also gives us a fantasy element of animal familiars that attach themselves to certain people and grant magic powers (African myth and magic lurks behind most of these ideas). In Johannesburg, these people have been segregated into a slum called “Zoo City.”
Zinzi December is “animaled” with a sloth, and she’s gained the power to find things that people have lost, which she uses to do cheap detective work in Zoo City. She used to be a journalist, but drug addiction put her into a life of crime, and landed her in jail then in Zoo City. She still works email scams to pay off some of her debts. Meanwhile, her refugee boyfriend learns and reveals some things about his own past that begin to disrupt Zinzi’s life. In an effort to work her way back into her former career, she takes a bigger case involving a pair of young pop stars that also brings her into contact with a string of murdered "zoos." These plots begin to intertwine as the usual gritty, ultraviolent noir hijinks ensue.
There’s a lot to like about this novel. Beukes’s writing is strong, Zinzi is a very compelling character, and the sociological details she’s invented for the zoos are well-thought out and compelling. She’s done exactly the sort of world-building that I want from a fantasy novel. Her portrait of Johannesburg is also quite rich, and I think I would’ve enjoyed this novel almost as much without the fantasy elements. On the other hand, I did think the fantasy elements were underplayed at times. The novel goes for long periods in which the animals aren’t much of an issue, and the pop star storyline especially felt off topic for most of its run. Beukes has a lot more she can do with this concept, and I almost wondered near the end if she was holding material back for a sequel. Some of the noir stuff can get a bit generic as well. In the end, I’m not sure the novel is as unique as its concept and world promise. It’s certainly a worthwhile urban fantasy read though, and at the least, it shows how much can be done with the sub-genre without resorting to vampires and werewolves.
Monday, August 8, 2011
This is something like the twelfth or fourteenth Vorkosigan book (depending on how you count it). There have been four or five novellas in there as well. Three of those books (and a novella!) won Hugos in the 90s, but the last win was in 1995, and the last nomination in 2000. It’s a real challenge to keep a series going this long; I can’t say that I’ve ever read a book past the tenth in a series that still engaged me as much as the early volumes (though I can’t name many series I’ve read that far in). So, imagine my surprise when I found that one of my favorite books in the Vorkasigan series came in this later period.
Unfortuantely, that book was not Cryoburn, it was Komarr, which was not nominated for a Hugo when it was eligible in 1999. Yes, I did read the intervening books since Hugo-winner Mirror Dance, and I did get some enjoyment out of the experience. The books move star Miles Vorkosigan from his position as an undercover mercenary and into a position as a powerful diplomat, beginning with the bloated Memory. The plots remain on the pulpy side of the suspension of disbelief continuum (someone should count how many times Miles has escaped capture by his enemies), but the move away from military plotlines was a welcome change. Komarr and A Civil Campaign blend an off-beat love story with some espionage intrigue. Bujold avoids a lot of clichés by making Miles’ love interest Ekatrin a single mother coming out of a disastrous failed marriage, and the relationship feels mature and believable (despite the fact, maybe because of the fact, that Miles frets like a lovesick fifteen-year-old during the courtship). Both books have nice, straightforward plots, though A Civil Campaign has some silly, lame hijinks with Miles’s clone Mark. I can barely tell you what Diplomatic Immunity was about, even though I read it a couple of weeks ago (I do remember that it featured the quaddies from Nebula winner Falling Free), which tells you more-or-less how I felt about that one.
Cryoburn seems to be in the same category as that previous entry, so I better write this out quickly while it’s still fresh. We begin in media res with a confused Miles escaping, as he so often does, from a kidnapping attempt. We soon learn that he’s on the world of Kibou, which is dominated by a small cohort of powerful cryonics corporations with eyes on the Barrayaran colony of Komarr. Miles investigates in typical Miles fashion, throwing his weight around, getting in over his head, breaking some local laws, befriending innocent children, scheming with his clone, and generally overcoming every obstacle in his way with supernatural ease. It’s all stuff we’ve seen before. Bujold usually does a good job of mixing in some biotech ethics questions in with her pulp space opera, and cyronics is an interesting topic, but we don’t get too far into the problems of life-extension, and the main problem seems to be simple corporate greed.
There is an event at the very end (on the very last two or three pages) that keeps the book from being completely forgettable and immaterial to Miles’s life. It’s a bit of a shock, despite some subtle foreshadowing, and Bujold relates it in a very interesting way. I can’t quite decide if Bujold made a mistake by sidelining the main event, or if it’s kind of brilliant, but I think those pages alone kept this book from getting a C+ from me. Either way, this is a weaker entry in a series that probably has more than its fair share of Hugos as it is.
Friday, August 5, 2011
If I were a more ambitious blogger, I’d go back and see how many Hugo nominees were first novels. I suspect it doesn’t happen that often, though Windup Girl was Bacigalupi’s first published novel. Anyway, here we have the first novel of N. K. Jemisin, who wrote my second-favorite short story nominee last year. She delivers an entertaining and original fantasy story right out of the gate.
The story takes place in a world where a war between a trinity of gods led to the prominence of a god of light Intempa, the enslavement of the god of darkness Nahadoth, and the death of the god of dusk and balance. The Arameri, human servants of the god of light, rule the world with absolute authority backed by the power of their enslaved god of darkness. They rule from a towering city called Sky. The narrator is Yeine, daughter of a self-exiled Arameri, who is called back to Sky to compete for inheritance of the throne (this is volume one of the "Inheritance Trilogy"). This involves a whole lot of wicked intrigue by Yeine’s devious cousins, and many smoldering glances between Yeine and the imprisoned and rageful Nahadoth.
One problem I have with the book is that it is so heavily focused on the rather clichéd romance trope of the dangerous/powerful/tortured/sexy male lead. I honestly don’t have a lot of patience for this trope. Still, Jemisin does have a deft touch with these characters. My other problem is becoming a running theme in my fantasy reviews. Even I’m sick of me saying this, but the world-building here just doesn’t quite work for me. I said this recently about Game of Thrones, and as I watched the tv show and dived into the next book, I began to realize my mistake. I was clearly wrong on that series, which is basically almost nothing but detailed world-building. I feel a bit more confident here. We get a lot on the capitol of Sky, but we don’t step outside it all that much. We get a few details of Yeine’s people, but even these seem more designed to add some depth (and trauma) to Yeine’s character than actually creating a believable ethnography of a fictional culture. This feels like a very narrow, confined world. I was actually a bit claustrophobic reading this, which is perhaps what Jemisin was going for, and at least Jemisin’s limited scope kept the novel short and brisk.
There’s some fascinating material, and I was very intrigued by the set-up for the sequel at the end, which promises to take us out of Sky and give us a new character to look at. I think Jemisin probably has some room to grow as a writer, but she’s certainly a talent to watch, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be my second favorite of the Hugo nominated novels.
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy is the latest in a line (starting with Harry Potter and detouring through Twilight) of Young Adult sensations that have crossed over to adult readers and grabbed massive sales as a result. It’s tempting to use this phenomenon as an excuse to make catty remarks about adult literacy (and maybe throw in a Fahrenheit 451 reference), but I actually really like Harry Potter, and I enjoyed this trilogy as well. I read it for a book club meeting that I never made it to, but I ended up hoping that this final volume would garner a Hugo nom.
The series takes place in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian Panem (shortened “Pan-America”). In this fascistic state, a central capitol dominates twelve poor, hard-laboring districts. In retribution for a past revolution, and to symbolize the capitol’s dominance, two children are drafted from each district every year to take part in a deadly reality show with only one survivor. Twenty-four kids fight to the death, while tv audiences cheer.
In Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is a teenage girl in District 12 who developed survival skills after the death of her mother. She joins the Hunger Games to protect her sister and becomes outraged by what she witnesses in the capitol and in the games themselves. Collins doesn’t pull many punches in her portrayal of the fights, and this book is very dark and very violent, especially for YA fiction. There are some interesting sf ideas here besides the dystopian setting. We get high speed trains, hovercraft, and all sorts of high-tech weapons, including some genetically modified, weaponized organisms. There are obvious similarities to the Japanese novel/film/manga Battle Royale, but it does still feel pretty original, especially with the additions of the sequels.
I have to spoil something fairly obvious about the ending of this book to continue with the review, so stop here if you’re an absolutist about living spoiler-free.
So, yes, the existence of a trilogy should make this obvious, but Katniss survives the first book. In Mockingjay, the final volume of the trilogy, Katniss now finds herself the leader of a rebellion against the capitol. She, and other Hunger Games survivors, use their celebrity status as a weapon against the media-obsessed society of Panem. In an excellent, and very mature, twist, we see here that the revolution can be just as bad, just as manipulative, callous and violent, as the Capitol. It’s a great concept. It’s dark and pessimistic, and it’s a more nuanced version of the rebellious tendencies that often pop up in YA fiction.
The pacing of the trilogy as a whole does have some problems. I actually liked the first novel the best, because of its quick pace and self-contained structure. The final book spends a lot of time hammering on the flaws of the revolution, and speeds through the climax and denouement at the end. The middle volume, Catching Fire, I found especially weak – it mostly reiterates the first novel while laying some groundwork for the third, and it gets stuck in the obligatory love triangle. I like romantic subplots; I think they’re too rare in sf novels, but these books push hard for the lusty heights of Twilight, and I didn’t find that aspect convincing, or interesting, in any way.
There are also a few other clear signs that this is YA, despite the politics and slaughter. The world is very small-feeling. This novel sprawls over an America-spanning empire, but everyone seems to know each other. You get the feeling that the population has been reduced to the tens of thousands, which is hard to buy; it's a continent-spanning empire of one city and twelve small towns. The world-building could have used a bit more thought. The prose is solid, but it is constrained by the intended audience. There are some great cultural details though. I would recommend this series, which is darker, and more thrilling, than a lot of adult fiction out there. Also, as I mentioned in my Hugo prediction post, I think it's very interesting that WorldCon nominators passed this by just two years after nominating three YA novels.
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
This novel got a lot of buzz in certain circles as a smart steampunk novel; I mentioned it while discussing the Stross-engineered Great Steampunk Debates of 2010. I hate to play the genre game, but I didn’t get much of a steampunk vibe from this novel. There are a few anachronistically-complex war machines in a nineteenth-century setting, but they don’t get much more than an occasional mention. It’s really a metaphorical fantasy novel with western trappings. But now I’m just being pedantic.
The novel takes place in a world much like late-nineteenth century America but with different place names and ravaged by a conflict called the Great War. On one side is the Line, powered by the Engines. The Engines are giant mechanical beasts with their own intelligence, and, apparently, immortality. They’re like clockwork Lovecraftian horrors. The Line is made up of their human recruits, who conquer territory and spread the Engines' reign with sheer numbers and horrible mind-destroying weapons of mass destruction. On the other side is The Gun, made up of a different sort of supernatural intelligences, embodied in weapons, who recruit Agents to spread anarchy in opposition to the Line. The Line continues to march ever westward, while the Agents of the Gun wreak havoc on the frontier. Beyond the frontier, the world is more surreal (not-yet-made) and inhabited by the First Folk or Hillfolk (somewhat discomforting Native American analogues).
Decades ago, the Red Valley Republic tried to create a civilized, democratic society beyond the power of either the Gun or the Line, but, in 1878, they were defeated in battle, and the heroic General Enver was driven mad by Engine weapons called Noisemakers. in 1889, Enver reappears in a mental asylum, and Gun and Line begin to fear that he knows a secret that could destroy either of them, or both. The Line, under a bureaucrat named Lowry, begins to bear down on him, as does an Agent named Creedmoor. Enver’s doctor, a young widow named Liv Alverhuysen tries to protect him from both.
You can probably tell from my brief description of the set-up that there’s some pretty clear metaphors going on here. The Engines obviously represent the spread of industrial capitalism in America’s Gilded Age with the machinery and the relentlessness and the bureaucracy and the chewing up of workers. The Gun, I assume, represents anarchists, labor agitators, and outlaws (who many historians see as explicitly opposed to industrial capitalism – did Jesse James attack banks for ideological reasons or because that’s where they kept all that money he wanted to steal?). The Republic shows us American ideals at their best, which are then overridden by industrial capitalism. It’s all so clear. A little too clear. The metaphor really overrides world-building here. It’s a thoroughly reductive, two dimensional world; a bleak two-by-four to the head. And, as I mentioned before, things like the depiction of Native Americans as magical fairy-beings in the unformed mystic lands beyond the frontier get downright ugly.
Despite this issue, the characters, especially Creedmoor, were compelling enough to keep me interested, and there’s a lot I like about this world, especially the Western setting. The ending left me thinking a sequel was coming, and I would be interested if Gilman focused on filling in the many gaps in his simple world and adding more nuance.
Monday, August 1, 2011
Ian McDonald has made a splash in the past decade with a simple but effective formula: take a broad cast of characters, put them in a near-future setting of a developing nation, and add the ramifications of an important technological trend. River of Gods gave us AI in India, and Brasyl gave us quantum computing in, well, Brazil. Both of those novels did quite well in the awards circuit, and I’ll be covering both of them in the fall, but neither won the Hugo. Now, McDonald has his best chance yet with The Dervish House, which explores the effects of nanotechnology on the Turkey of the 2020s.
As I said, there is a formulaic element to these books, but it’s a really good formula. For instance, the big cast of characters with separate but interconnected stories allow McDonald to explore several different aspects of his near future, non-(semi?)-Western society. We get an ambitious young couple – the man is trying to make a fortune on oil from an irradiated Iran; the woman is trying to strike it rich finding an impossible-seeming artifact. We also have an even younger woman seeking to start a marketing career with a nanotech DNA-reprogramming start-up firm. And then there’s a delinquent who begins to believe he can see djinn after he survives an apparent suicide bombing and gets drawn into a group of Islamic fundamentalists. And then there are the typical (for McDonald) outsider characters, an elderly Greek scholar who fears ethnic cleansing in his beloved Istanbul, and an adventuresome boy with a life-threatening heart condition. McDonald weaves all of these stories together and moves them towards a thrilling climax that underlines the possibilities and dangers of nanotech.
I think this is the odds-on favorite to win, but I did find the book somewhat uneven. Most of the characters aren’t particularly likable, others aren’t all that interesting. The trader Adnan Sarioglu is neither, and yet he gets a great deal of the book’s space. The Greek Georgios Ferentinou is by far the most interesting character, and I wished that he’d get a little more of the novel's focus. Of course, the most important character is Istanbul. McDonald employs some of the best prose in science fiction today, and he uses it here to convey a rich sense of the history and geography of one of the world’s great cities. I’ve never been there, unfortunately, but my Turkophile father-in-law has been there often. He read the book, and said that McDonald captured the city perfectly.
There are actually a lot of similarities in setting and story with one of last year’s winners, Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, though McDonald is far more optimistic than Bacigalupi. I like that, but it does lead McDonald wrong at times. For instance, 2027 seems a bit early for most of the technological developments shown here, which is a consistent problem for McDonald (see last year’s novella). This and my lack of interest in some of the characters keep me from giving this my highest grade, but I did enjoy it quite a bit, especially the excellent writing, and it’s a strong frontrunner for me so far.