Saturday, June 23, 2012

2012 Hugo and 2011 Nebula winner, novel: AMONG OTHERS by Jo Walton

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Friday, May 25, 2012

2012 Hugo nominee, novel: EMBASSYTOWN by China Mieville

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

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

Thursday, May 17, 2012

2012 Hugo nominee: novel - DEADLINE by Mira Grant

Let the Hugo coverage begin!

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

RULE 34 by Charles Stross

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Sunday, April 29, 2012

2011 – READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline

Yes, this review requires an '80s soundtrack.

Ernest Cline's first novel takes place in a dystopian future of economic and environmental collapse. Or, at least, that's somewhere in the background. Most of the novel takes place in a shared virtual environment called OASIS, which is basically an internet-encompassing MMORPG (or, to go to the sf roots, like Stephenson's Metaverse from Snow Crash). The creator of OASIS, James Halliday, became the richest man in the world, and, in his will, he left his vast fortune to whomever could solve a vast OASIS-spanning puzzle based on Halliday's own childhood obsessions. Since Morrow grew up in the '80s, what we get is a massive nostalgia trip that relies on '80s video games, tv, movies, music, and table-top RPGs.

Most of the book is a straightforward adventure revolving around the young orphan Wade Owen Watts and some of his friends as they try to beat an evil corporation to the prize. There is an interesting speculative idea here though - as millions of people obsessively consumed Halliday's favorite media, '80s pop culture has come to dominate the cultural landscape of 2044. People trade allusions to Star Wars, Indiana Jones, D&D, Pac-Man, Zork, and Ladyhawke (of all things) like past generations of classically-trained intellectuals bandied about Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Shakespeare. It's a really promising idea, but Cline doesn't do much with it. There's no real sense of how these pop fossils have been reinterpreted in a very different future world, except for a few imaginative uses of the virtual OASIS environment. Instead of investigating this idea, Cline seems more interested in going to great lengths to create a world where his favorite stuff is put on a pedestal by the rest of the world. Cline is most famous for his geek movie Fanboys, and it's very clear that there's a lot of him in Halliday and young Wade. With some of his other ideas (trailer park skyscrapers, the megalopolis of Columbus, Ohio) it's hard to figure out exactly what tone the author is shooting for.

That said, if you share a lot of Cline's taste (I'm a few years younger, but if you've been following the blog, you'll know that most of this is in my wheelhouse), you can get a lot of joy out of the steady stream of references. And, the book is fun. Not only does Cline relentlessly talk about '80s adventure films and games in this book, he also does a pretty good job of re-creating their feel. They were full of plucky underdogs - kids (Goonies and others), rebels (Star Wars), nerds (John Hughes and others), losers (Ghostbusters and others), etc - who took on adult criminals or their social betters or interstellar empires or supernatural monstrosities and somehow managed to win. This didn't quite come out in my own '80s review, but the films of that decade really were optimistic. Maybe it's a Reagan thing? I love the '80s adventure film formula, and so part of me really loved this book.

On the other hand, those '80s films could be kind of shallow. Subtext is not one of George Lucas's great strengths. Or Robert Zemckis's. Or Richard Donner's. Or even John Hughes's. I wouldn't mind seeing a few more fun '80s-style adventure movies (hello, Super 8!), but I wouldn't want every film to follow that formula. And it's not really a formula I look for in award-winning novel's. On top of that, Cline is a first time novelist, and I wouldn't say that his prose really shines here. Most of the time, it's...adequate. There are probably more awkward turns of phrase than sublime ones, but there aren't many examples of either. The writing is just there.

So, while this was a nice nostalgia trip, there's not much else to this book. If you're not a fan of '80s media, you might find it downright terrible. Me? I had fun, but I can't blame Hugo nominators for passing this one by.

Grade: B

Monday, April 23, 2012

2011 – THE MAGICIAN KING by Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman (rather belatedly since he’s been a published novelist for a while) won last year’s Campbell for best new writer. A couple of years ago, I noted some fondness for Grossman’s The Magicians, but also commented on its lack of recognition among fantasy awards. I had read a couple of reviews that believed Grossman was mocking Potter fans or fantasy fans in general. With his rather reverent acceptance of the Campbell, his extensive writings on his love of fantasy, and with the tenor of this novel, I believe that myth has been dispelled, so I thought he might have a shot at a few nominations with this book. But, it seems that it was not to be.

This book returns to the surviving protagonists of The Magicians and looks in on their further adventures. I don’t want to spoil the first novel, but I will note that the story continues to revolve around Quentin Coldwater and his friends and that we do get more action in Grossman’s Narnia-pastiche of Fillory, which provided much of the best material in the first novel. The Magical Academy Brakebills makes an appearance, but not a large one. Interlaced with Quentin’s continuing adventures, we also learn of the education of his high school crush Julia, who had to learn her spells on the streets.

I did have a few complaints about the first book. It tended to revel in the melodrama and debauchery of college/post-grad life a little too much, and Quentin came off as especially self-involved and whiny. Grossman seems to have heard these complaints, or perhaps the story has just matured with his characters, but this novel works much better. There’s a lighter touch with the characters, and I found Quentin, especially, more relatable. Julia’s journey is rather dark, and I’m not sure that Grossman gives some of the worst scenes in her story the full weight they deserve. Her storyline does give structure to a novel that could have been fairly aimless though.

The biggest improvement is the sheer amount of fantastic details that Grossman packs into this book. The first novel was a little short on magic compared to something like Harry Potter, especially in the first half. Grossman’s fairy tale weirdness doesn’t quite make for the rigorous world-building that I’ve often demanded from the fantasy books I’ve read, but his ideas are so original and fun here that I didn’t mind at all.

Grade: A-

Monday, April 16, 2012


So, I've decided to get the non-Hugo-nominated material I read for 2011 out of the way before jumping into the Hugos in a few weeks. This, for instance, is a book that I nominated for "related work," despite some reservations.

If you haven’t heard of Grant Morrison, he’s one of the most acclaimed comic book writers working today, despite the fact that much of his work has been in mainstream, corporate superheroes (Superman, Batman, the X-Men, etc), a field which usually gets one’s work quickly dismissed by the comic book literati, unless you’re deconstructing the genre a la Frank Miller of Alan Moore. Morrison likes to work with big science fiction concepts from comic books of the 1960s and early 70s. He even resurrected an obscure and bizarre interstellar Batman storyline (“the Batman of Zur-en-Arrh”). He’s actually the perfect mainstream “graphic story” writer for the Hugos to examine for that category, but the nominators seem not to read comics as a general practice... Oh well.

This book, his first published prose work, is a history of superhero comics that also becomes a professional biography as Morrison tracks his interest in the genre and his rise within the industry. If this sounds dry or directionless to you…it’s really not. Though there are a few rote chapters that trace the evolution of Batman on film or check off the creations of Stan Lee in the early ‘60s, most of the book presents some rather bold ideas about the concept of the superhero. While I probably disagreed with Morrison’s conclusions more often than not, I always found them fascinating food for thought.

If you’re the sort of hard-headed skeptic who doesn’t even like to hear pseudo-science, quasi-magical cosmological meanderings, you should probably avoid this book like the plague. For the rest of us, Morrison presents the sprawling fictional continuities of DC and Marvel comics as self-aware and self-perpetuating mini-universes, and he sees superheroes as Jungian archetypes of polytheistic deities who rebirthed themselves into human culture. The climax of the story has “five-dimensional beings” revealing the nature of the universe to Grant Morrison while he trips in Kathmandu in the early ‘90s.

This tends toward the risible, and it’s easy to see Morrison as a parody of counter-culture fads. He’s raised as a pacifist by socialist parents, becomes a punk in the ‘80s, then a chaos-magician to hipster stars in the ‘90s, and, of late, he’s become a sort of settled, middle-upper-class yupster who vaguely complains about the state of the world – it’s an alarmingly stereotypical evolution. There’s a fair amount of arrogance involved in the biographical sections as well – I think the fact that he believes to have learned the secret meaning of existence hints at this. His description of his own work is valedictory, even on the (relatively rare) occasions that he could have copped to a misstep (Final Crisis). His friends’ work is groundbreaking; his enemies and competitors, meanwhile, are derivative and misguided. In the final chapters, this eventually devolves into pro-DC partisanship, which is silly and tiresome.

His discussion of trends tends to over-generalize, and it’s easy to come up with counter-examples to every trend he traces. Morrison sees the ‘50s and ‘60s as heavily-influenced by science fiction writings, the ‘70s mirror the auteur movement in cinema, the ‘80s superhero comics follow Star Wars and are more corporate until a “British Invasion” led by Morrison and Alan Moore ignite a “renaissance.” Watchmen ignites a dark turn that takes us into a style-over-substance ‘90s. The ‘00s are haunted by 9/11, but turn more optimistic as Morrison evokes transhumanism and “real superheroes” to wonder if we may become the next “supergods.” Beyond being vast over-simplifications, much of this is a pretty standard narrative; the only big differences are an apparent exaggeration of his own status and influence in the late ‘80s, and the final portions. The comic book analysis can be quite pretentious as well. He calls the use of revolving narrators in Brad Meltzer’s DC-event Identity Crisis “Joycean” – the device is nicely executed in that book, but it’s nothing particularly new, and certainly not “Joycean.” That said, he keeps the narrative brisk and interesting, and he can be quite eloquent about the comics that he loves, especially some of the over-looked material like Killraven, Don MacGregor’s '70s Marvel comics sequel to War of the Worlds, which I have never read but now plan to as soon as possible.

I think your reaction to Supergods will depend entirely on your reaction to Grant Morrison. I think his comics are often brilliant (like his New X-Men or All-Star Superman), but occasional get overwhelmed by Morrison’s voice and skewed perspective, and are also plagued by bouts of pretension. I can say pretty much the same about this book – it’s often fascinating, but Morrison’s pretensions and perspectives can also make it frustrating. It would've been an interesting entry in “related works” though, especially considering the “bastard child” place of superhero comics in science fiction history that I’ve discussed before. I mean, are superheros really that much more juvenile than zombies?

Grade: B

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

1956 - THE STARS MY DESTINATION by Alfred Bester

Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man won the first Hugo, so reading this novel, usually considered his masterpiece, feels a bit like circling back to this blog's beginning. Many authors look up to Bester as the father of a darker branch of science fiction - his characters are morally ambiguous and his plots darker than his golden age forebearers', and he's sometimes seen as a sort of proto-cyberpunk figure as a result (Gibson's rather fond of him). This novel certainly brings the dark and morally ambiguous.

In the 25th century, humanity has colonized the solar system, and a war has broken out between the inner planets and the outer colonies. Also, people have learned to teleport across vast distances with the power of their minds. This "jaunting" can't cross space, but it has revolutionized human society and spawned a new puritanical sequestering of women as it's become much easier for amourous types to sneak around. Also, there are a few telepaths. And the heirs of corporations rule as a corrupt aristocracy. Oh yeah, and there's a primal substance that can cause cosmic explosions! Also, wacky space circus! So, yes, as with The Demolished Man, Bester piles on the science fiction concepts, and the novel seems more interested in rolling out ideas than giving us a linear plot. Before this blog, I'd read novels from the '40s and '50s before, but they were generally by Bradbury, Asimov and Heinlein...I'm beginning to sense that those three are rare Golden Age writers in their ability to remain focused and give the readers something approaching a traditional three act structure.

Loosely borrowing its plot from The Count of Monte Cristo the novel centers on Gullivar (Gully) Foyle, a soldier who spends a nerve-racking 167 days on a failing spaceship called the Nomad constantly on the verge of running out of oxygen. He is elated when a ship called the Vorga arrives, but then devastated when it leaves him stranded. He is then rescued by the "Scientific People," inhabitants of the Sargasso asteroid who have turned into a tribal people (my favorite creation in the book - I was sorry to see that they got so little attention). The Scientific People cover Gully's face with tattoos before he escapes and makes his way back to Earth, where he dedicates himself to destroying the Vorga. He attacks and rapes a telepathic teleportation instructor, attempts to assassinate the head of the corporation that owns the Vorga, Presteign of Presteign, runs afoul of a radioactive detective named Saul Dagenham, escapes from a darkened, underground anti-teleportation super-prison, disguises himself as a circus entertainer, and falls in love with Presteign's blind and callous daughter. Meanwhile, the war rages on, everyone looks for the cosmic McGuffin of PyrE, and the novel ends with a series of revelations and a psychedelic jaunt through time and space (that includes some innovative typographical games).

This novel is jam-packed, and, as with The Humanoids, this is both a strength and weakness. Many of these ideas are fascinating and writing the above actually endeared the novel to me more than reading it all. In execution, it can feel like a jumbled patchwork, and the characters get pushed aside in favor of weirdness. Gully himself is intriguing. I guess he's supposed to be twisted by his time on the Nomad, or by the other manipulations in his life, and that's supposed to explain his occasional bouts of violence. It's still hard to get over the rape in the first third of the novel. I guess it's brave for Bester to have his protagonist be so brutal - again, a testament to his noir roots - but Gully never gains the complexity or depth to justify the incident's inclusion. It feels like provocation for provocation's sake. Presteign, Dagenham and Gully's other nemeses feel like generic "men in suits" who speak in exposition. The women are especially atrocious. The whole identity of the victim of Gully's attack, telesender Robin Wednesbury, is wrapped up in her victimhood, Gully's cellmate Jisbella McQueen is an over-the-top femme fatale, and the main love interest in part naive waif/part femme fatale. I didn't care about any of them, probably Gully least of all, and reading the novel became a game waiting for the next wacky idea to keep my interest. At least I never had to wait too long.  

If I sound disappointed in this book (and I'm sure I do), it's very much a product of my expectations. It's easy to see why this is a classic, and, as with The Demolished Man or The Humanoids, I had a good time. But, as with those books, this novel did not seem to be capable of transcending its genre. It's pulpy goodness, but it's not classic literature, and it could be. It should be!

By the way, I believe this novel would have been eligible for the Hugos in 1957, the strange year when the Hugos couldn't be bothered to have a novel category. I'm pretty sure this would have been nominated, and it probably would have won, though I think I'd still favor Asimov's The Naked Sun.

Grade: B+

Sunday, April 8, 2012

2012 Hugo Nominations

Leviathan Wakes, James S.A. Corey (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Deadline, Mira Grant (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin (Bantam; Harper Voyager UK)
Embassytown, China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan)
Among Others, Jo Walton (Tor)

‘‘The Ice Owl’’, Carolyn Ives Gilman (F&SF 10-11/11)
‘‘Countdown’’, Mira Grant (Orbit Short Fiction)
‘‘The Man Who Bridged the Mist’’, Kij Johnson (Asimov’s 10-11/11)
‘‘Kiss Me Twice’’, Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s 6/11)
‘‘The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary’’, Ken Liu (Panverse Three)
Silently and Very Fast, Catherynne M. Valente (WSFA)

‘‘Six Months, Three Days’’, Charlie Jane Anders ( 6/8/11)
‘‘The Copenhagen Interpretation’’, Paul Cornell (Asimov’s 7/11)
‘‘What We Found’’, Geoff Ryman (F&SF 9-10/11)
‘‘Fields of Gold’’, Rachel Swirsky (Eclipse Four)
‘‘Ray of Light’’, Brad R. Torgersen (Analog 12/11)

‘‘Movement’’, Nancy Fulda (Asimov’s 3/11)
‘‘The Paper Menagerie’’, Ken Liu (F&SF 3-4/11)
‘‘The Homecoming’’, Mike Resnick (Asimov’s 4-5/11)
‘‘Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City (Prologue)’’, John Scalzi ( 4/1/11)
‘‘The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees’’, E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld4/11)

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Third Edition, John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls & Graham Sleight, eds. (Gollancz)
Jar Jar Binks Must Die… and Other Observations about Science Fiction Movies, Daniel M. Kimmel (Fantastic Books)
Wicked Girls, Seanan McGuire
Writing Excuses, Season 6, Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, Mary Robinette Kowal, & Jordan Sanderson
The Steampunk Bible, Jeff VanderMeer & S.J. Chambers (Abrams)

The Unwritten, Vol. 2: Leviathan, Mike Carey, art by Peter Gross (Vertigo)
Locke & Key, Vol. 4: Keys To The Kingdom, Joe Hill, art by Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW Publishing)
Schlock Mercenary: Force Multiplication, Howard Tayler, colors by Travis Walton (
Digger, Ursula Vernon (
Fables, Vol. 15: Rose Red, Bill Willingham & Mark Buckingham (Vertigo)

Captain America: The First Avenger
Game of Thrones: Season 1
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Source Code

Community: ‘‘Remedial Chaos Theory’’
‘‘The Drink Tank’s Hugo Acceptance Speech’’, Christopher J Garcia & James Bacon (Renovation)
Doctor Who: ‘‘The Doctor’s Wife’’
Doctor Who: ‘‘The Girl Who Waited’’
Doctor Who: ‘‘A Good Man Goes to War’’

Lou Anders
Liz Gorinsky
Anne Lesley Groell
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Betsy Wollheim

John Joseph Adams
Neil Clarke
Stanley Schmidt
Jonathan Strahan
Sheila Williams

Daniel Dos Santos
Bob Eggleton
Michael Komarck
Stephan Martiniere
John Picacio

Apex Magazine
The New York Review of Science Fiction

Banana Wings
The Drink Tank
File 770
Journey Planet
SF Signal

The Coode Street Podcast
Galactic Suburbia Podcast
SF Signal Podcast
SF Squeecast

James Bacon
Claire Brialey
Christopher J Garcia
Jim C. Hines
Steven H Silver

Randall Munroe
Spring Schoenhuth
Maurine Starkey
Steve Stiles
Taral Wayne

Mur Lafferty
Stina Leicht
Karen Lord
Brad R. Torgersen
E. Lily Yu

Complaining about nomination shortlists is becoming cliché (*cough*Christopher Priest*cough*), so I'll try not to focus for too long on the negative. The novel category is a bit of a let down: there are no real surprises here, and I'm not thrilled to see Deadline (the reviews I've read seem to think it's not as good as Feed, which was already a disappointment for me). I'm two-thirds of the way through A Dance with Dragons, and liking it the least of the series so far, but maybe it's about to kick into high gear. The other three are solid, if predictable, entries.

Also, I think I'm finished with Graphic Fiction as a category. I might check out Digger and Locke and Key (which I have heard many great things about), but the domination of perennials in this category is depressing, as is the absence of an ambitious work like Craig Thompson's Habibi.

And then there's the "Drink Tank Hugo Acceptance Speech." I really don't think this sort of thing should be nominated, honestly. Nothing against the Drink Tank guys, but there's no speculative content here, and it feels like sort of an insult to the scripted content that wasn't nominated. And, boy is it navel-gazing: we're going to give you one of our awards for enjoying receiving our award so much! If it were to win (I assume it won't), it would be worse than the Gollum boondoggle, and I considered that one of the low points of Hugo history.

However, the rest of the short form category is solid. Yes, Doctor Who dominates again, but it's a solid slate, including the inevitable Gaiman-penned winner, my personal favorite of the series ("A Good Man Goes to War") and an Amy-centric episode that is fairly clever and clearly better on the more bombastic opening  two-parter or the finale. I'm thrilled to see Community nominated. It's a great episode of a great show.

Long Form also looks pretty good. Hugo's title is destined to mess up google searches for "Hugo awards" for years to come, and, as Allie pointed out to me in a comment here before I finally saw it, it's not all that speculative. But, it's close enough for me.  It's shocking that Rise of the Apes isn't on the list and that Captain America is...I thought I was the only one who found the former extremely overrated and loved the latter cheese fest, but I guess not. I probably would have gone for Super 8 over Harry Potter 7 and 1/2, but Game of Thrones is the main event here, so who cares?

I'm especially excited about reading the short fiction this year. I'm looking forward to reading another Swirsky story, the titles look great, and I feel like that's where I'll see some fresh material.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

2004 – THE FAMILY TRADE by Charles Stross

I’ve read three works by Charles Stross so far, and I’d say I’ve failed to connect with him, even while I can recognize that he plays a paramount role in sf today, and I like what he’s about. I can’t quite say that The Family Trade broke the dam, but it did give me hope that I can someday learn to love the Stross.

Modern-day Bostonian tech reporter Miriam Beckstein get fired from her job for digging into a money-laundering scheme that involves important companies. Then, her adopted mother gives her a locket from her real mother that allows her to “world walk” to an alternate universe where Europe has collapsed and the modern United States has a few still-feudal Viking settlements clinging to the coasts. Miriam learns that one large family has this ability to walk between worlds, and they’ve used this ability to cement their positions as feudal lords and enrich themselves with the products of industrial society from our world. Miriam is a long-lost heir to one of the most important branches, and she becomes a target of other clans. Meanwhile, the economically-savvy Miriam begins to cook up her own plans to modernize the backwards society of the other world…a plan which I assume plays out in the following novels, since we don’t get much beyond an introduction the world here.

The story and mood are highly reminiscent of Zelazny’s Amber series. Highly reminiscent. I’m glad that Stross acknowledges as much before the novel even begins, but the breadth of the similarities bugged me a bit. I had a feeling of déjà vu through most of this book. Stross does make a couple of changes. Putting a female protagonist in this sexist feudal world is a nice change from Amber’s testosterone-fest, and the magic is much toned down while the economics are much played up. There’s certainly enough new here to justify the series’ existence, but sometimes the new stuff feels too much like thought experiment. I read this book because a lot of economists I respect had recommended it on blogs and such. I can see why, but it can verge on being a treatise of economic development (before whipsawing back to vapid actioner).

But, this was a fast-paced book with a clear thread of central plot, nicely developed and paced sub-plots, and a compelling and quasi-believable central character, and those are all of the things that I’ve found lacking in my previous Stross adventures. Now, I feel like if I can just find the Stross work where he combines his dazzling originality (a la Accelerando) with the solid plot and character work we see here, I’ll love it.

As for the Merchant Princes, I can’t quite decide if I want to continue. If I didn’t have a to read list of about 300 books right now (not to mention Hugo noms coming on Sunday), I’d jump right on to The Hidden Family. But, I do feel like I have higher priorities. Anyone out there read the subsequent books? Do they get better?

Grade: B

Monday, March 26, 2012

1948 – DIVIDE AND RULE by L. Sprague de Camp

Where has L. Sprague de Camp been all my life? I vaguely knew the name, but I’d never read a word he’d written. About a year ago, I head a description of this book and though it sounded worth checking out (which is why I’m starting here rather than the obvious Lest Darkness Fall).

“Divide and Rule” is a short novel/long novella from 1939 about a future in which humanity has been conquered by giant rabbit aliens that everyone calls “hoppers.” They landed in South America and waged a long war of conquest (aided by epidemic alien disease in a very nice historical touch). Once they were finished they took action to suppress humanity so that it could serve as their labor force; they outlawed industrial technology and forced schools to teach that they were gods in the natural order. Most importantly, they decided to divide humanity (we have a title!) by imposing a new feudal order.

A couple of centuries later, Sir Howard van Slyck, the Duke of Poughkeepsie, has spent most of his young life raiding castles and fighting duels across New York. He meets a chain-mailed, whip-wielding commoner from the west named Lyman Haas. Haas and van Slyck team up to rescue a damsel-in-distress named Sally Mitten but earn the enmity of the hoppers in the process. Sally leads them to the resistance in hiding, and they learn the truth about their world.

It’s a fast-moving, fun adventure story with good characters, snappy dialogue, a strong concept, and some interesting sf ideas. The only flaw is that the hoppers have some very convenient weaknesses that allow the story to wrap up quickly. I really wouldn’t mind more of this story.

The bigger flaw with this product is that “Divide and Rule” was paired with a much weaker story called “The Stolen Dormouse” to fill out the book’s length. It’s not a bad story, and there is a thematic link – it’s another feudal order. This time, corporations become so powerful that they evolve into feudal states with inherited ranks. It’s an interesting idea and one that’s been fairly persistent in sf, but de Camp uses this setting first to do a Romeo and Juliet pastiche, then adds some slapstick action. Hawaiians get to play a fun role though, and de Camp throws in some decent sf concepts that were probably fairly new in 1941 – the titular “dormouse” is a person in a hibernation chamber and a few bioengineering ideas get thrown around. It’s short, clever, and funny, but not nearly as strong as “Divide and Rule.”

I will definitely be revisiting de Camp in the future. He checks a lot of sf boxes for me – he likes history and uses it to inform his speculative fiction, he’s a rationalist, he likes to mix comedy and adventure, and he’s fairly progressive on gender and racial issues…at least for someone writing in the late ‘30s. This was a great surprise.

Grade: A- (though that ignores “The Stolen Dormouse”).

Friday, March 23, 2012


Much to my amazement, I did manage to get out to see Disney's John Carter. At this point, the film seems destined to become a cult classic. It is one of the largest box office flops in history, and Disney has taken a $200 million-dollar write-down as a result. Meanwhile, most science fiction fans seem to have really enjoyed the movie, and there's even a facebook page demanding a sequel (fat chance guys). By this point, I think almost every other relevant blog has already praised and/or buried this film, but here are my belated thoughts anyway.

The film is a fairly faithful adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars. Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) gets chased into a cave by Apache and then gets teleported to Mars. On Mars, the lower gravity makes him incredibly strong, and he can jupo great distances. He hangs out with the tribal green Martians and befriends their leader Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), then he gets involved in a war between the red Martian kingdoms of Helium  and Zodanga, and their respective princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and "jeddak" Sab Than ( West). All of this is straight out of the novel, and many specific scenes from the book appear.

John Carter is the first live action film of Andrew Stanton, who directed a few Pixar films, including the masterful Wall-E. Considering that pulp fan Michael Chabon was also involved in writing the screenplay, I had high expectations for this movie, despite its poor box office performance and the general air of doom that clung to it. And, well, I did have fun. The cgi characters look great (and DaFoe steals the show as Tars Tarkas). Dejah Thoris was a bit more proactive than in the novel, and she's a scientist now; I thought Lynn Collins did an especially good job pulling off a mishmash of character tropes and finds the core of a fairly ridiculous character (also, Martians wear clothes in this version). There's a strong sense of adventure that pervades the whole film, and, in what I consider to be a very good sign, I like the film more today than when I walked out of the theater a few days ago.

That said, it's far from perfect. I think there are two major problems. First, Taylor Kitsch didn't really sell his role as the transplanetary swashbuckling warrior. If you look at the implausible-epic-fun adventure films that have worked and succeeded over the past few decades, it's clear that you need a very charismatic male lead to win larger audiences over by winking their way through the silly parts - someone like Johnny Depp or Harrison Ford. Kitsch, on the other hand, plays it straight and delivers his lines with a James Franco-esque woodenness that threatened to put me to sleep on the few occasions when the action slowed down. Which leads us to the second problem: the film is over-packed with concepts. Making a very faithful adaptation of a hundred-year-old pulp isn't necessarily a good idea, and the screenwriters probably could have streamlined things more. Not only do they keep most of the novel's clunky concepts, they actually add a few more wrinkles - Carter gets a more tragic past, for instance, and, in what I think was the film's biggest misstep, we get alien manipulators called  the Thern as the mastermind villains (I assume that this material is from the second book, The Gods of Mars). It's easy to see why these choices were made. The former gives Carter more of a character arc, and the latter allows the writers to raise the stakes (in perhaps a more plausible way than the possible loss of all Martian oxygen in the novel) and link Mars' fate more closely to Earth's. These ideas work on paper, but they cluttered things up in practice. Along the same lines, the framing story is far too long, though at least it did pay off nicely in the end. I also think the Martian landscape could have looked a little less like Utah.

I wouldn't be surprised to see this film on next year's Hugo short list. It seems to be well-liked, and it's failure has made it a lovable 250 million dollar underdog. And, I could even see myself nominating it. That said, I hope that this isn't the peak of sf film for the year, especially with films like Prometheus and The Hobbit on the horizon.

Grade: B

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


I haven’t had a lot of experience with Jules Verne, outside of some cartoons I watched as a kid and a DisneyWorld ride. He’s arguably the first writer of modern science fiction, and his influence is impossible to disregard. And yet, I avoided him for some reason; mostly, I think, because I didn’t know what to expect. Turns out I should’ve expected fun.

The plot is nice and simple: a German scientist named Otto Lidenbrock discovers a sixteenth-century runic manuscript by a famous alchemist that brags about a journey into the Earth. Our narrator is Lidenbrock’s young nephew Axel, who is in love with Lidenbrock’s goddaughter Grauben and doesn’t want to do much else other than marry her. Bullied by the monomaniacal professor, Axel manages to decode the scroll, and then Lidenbrock drags him off to Iceland to descend into the Earth’s interior through a crater. They also pick up a stoical Icelandic hunter named Hans as their muscle.

Within the Earth, they go through a series of misadventures: bouts with thirst, epic climbing, giant mushroom forests, massive underground bodies of water, mastodon herds and giant men. There’s also a fair amount of geology lecturing as they view the Earth’s strata during their descent. The science is obviously out of date – I’d give a pass to Lidenbrock’s theory that the center of the Earth is cool because the whole conceit rather depends on it, but other ideas, like a warmer outer space, jump out as pretty flawed even in the context of the time (there’s even a bit of racist phrenology). Still, overall it’s a fun way to learn about concepts and spotlight a relatively new science.

The characters are probably the best part of the novel. Not that they’re nuanced explorations of human psychology in any way; actually they’re quite the opposite, but they’re damned entertaining. Lidenbrock is an excellent early example of the eccentric scientist (in nineteenth-century literature, he fits the mold a lot better than Shelley's Frankenstein); I know that Doc Brown from Back to the Future has a lot of Lidenbrock in him. He’s excitable, obsessed, impatient, focused on his theories over anything else, but capable of some compassion and love for his wards Axel and Grauben. Hans is basically Brock from the Venture Brothers, and Axel’s reluctance to go on the adventure and efforts to get out of it make him relatable and funny.

The plot does lack structure though, especially in the second half. The characters get underground, encounter some weird stuff, then Verne seems to lose interest and quickly wrap things up. Maybe this is a product of serialization? The novel doesn’t quite fulfill its potential in this rushed ending. However, it does nicely embody the values of science fiction: take the wisdom of the day and put a twist on it to tell an entertaining or enlightening story. The focus is on “entertaining” with Verne, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

1949 – THE HUMANOIDS by Jack Williamson

In the 1943 story “With Folded Hands,” Jack Williamson first created the humanoids, sleek black robots whose “Prime Directive” is “to Serve and Obey, and guard men from harm” (it would’ve been great if this bit of gendered language had saved women from humanoid intervention, but that’s asking a lot from a 1940s story).  As the story unfolds, we see that the robots take their Directive a little too seriously, and they create a totalitarian state which carefully monitors everyone’s behavior and drugs or lobotomizes people who refuse to properly avoid potential harm. It’s a dark take on the trade-offs between security and freedom, and a relatively early take (maybe the first?) on what has become a well-worn technophobic trope. “With Folded Hands” may be Williamson’s signature work – it’s probably his most anthologized.

Rather than an expansion or reimagining of the novella, Williamson revisited the concept with a full-on novel-length sequel, The Humanoids, serialized in three parts in John Campbell’s Astounding in 1949. In the process he adds lots of new concepts and themes and comes up with a work that rapidly flits between ideas and never really finds a center.

We learn that the Humanoids were created over ten thousand years in the future, after humanity has spread across the stars and created scores of different planetary cultures (this background isn’t very apparent in the original story, though in both we do learn that the robots were created after a devastating war on the planet Wing IV). The planet Starmont is in a sort of cold war with the totalitarian Triplanet Powers. In his finest speculative moment, Williamson comments on the burgeoning Cold War by warning that “threatened with the inevitable fruit of its own exported know-how, the democratic republic was already sacrificing democracy as it armed itself desperately.” The technology in question is rhodomagnetics, which is like magnetism, but works on interstellar distances and allows Williamson to break Einsteinian laws of physics whenever necessary.

Our protagonist is Dr. Clay Forester*, the world’s foremost expert on rhodomagnetics. At the beginning of the novel, a group of powerful psychics, including a young girl who can teleport vast distances named Jane Carter, contact Forester and warn him that the humanoids are coming. Forester is skeptical of psychic phenomena and wary that these strangers know so much of his research. When the humanoids do land, Forester does little; they are around to help after all, and they promise to remove the threat of the Triplanet Alliance. Then, they begin forbidding science (which could be used to make weapons) and drugging people who are hostile or depressed, including Forester’s neglected wife. Forester’s only hope to defeat the humanoids is to turn to the team of psychics and attempt to unlock the powers within his own mind.

*Yes, for the entire novel I imagined him looking like this:

Yep, it’s psychics versus robots! And it gets weirder from there. I’m not sure if it’s just the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink nature of Golden Age sf (John Campbell’s fingerprints are all over this story – he was a big fan of “unleashing the psychic powers of the human mind” stories), or maybe it’s a case of a serialized story going off the tracks due to lack of planning, but this is a real mess. The pacing is bizarre, as Williamson zips by the key moments (like the humanoid takeover of Starmont society); characters disappear (the entire psychic team mostly fades away after an elaborate introduction – wherefore art thou, Graystone the Great?); and plotlines are foreshadowed without paying off (there are lots of hints about the mysterious origin of Forester’s friend Ironsmith, but he’s really just a robot-loving, wife-stealing jerk). The ending is also a bit of a mess – there’s some intentional ambiguity, but there also seems to be some confusion about the political message.

However, despite this messiness, I really enjoyed this book. It juggles interesting concepts and has some big sf set-piece moments. Overall, the book has a real “anything goes” Big Idea attitude that is both its greatest virtue and failure.

Grade: B+  

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

1917 – A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I don’t think these novels were even in print when I started this blog, but, thanks to Disney’s film adaptation (opening this Friday, though I probably won't manage to see it), this book is probably firmly reinstated in even the most mainstream and shallow versions of the science fiction canon. It’ll probably make the next NPR top 100 science fiction and fantasy novels, after missing the last version.

Not that its place in the canon was ever really in question. Started around the same time as his even-more-famous Tarzan novels, Burroughs' chronicles of John Carter’s adventures on Mars have had a long-lasting influence on the genre as a whole, and especially on the pulps, which is really where American science fiction begins (with a couple of notable exceptions). A whole subgenre of “planetary romance” owes its existence to Burroughs' works as well, and homages abound (one won a Hugo for novelette last year).

John Carter was a Confederate soldier in the Civil War (and he reminds us of his Virginia roots quite often). At the end of the war, he wanders into the Arizona desert, gets chased by some Apache, and ends up in a strange cave that teleports him to Mars. On Mars, he meets a variety of new peoples, including giant four-armed and betusked “green martians” and a bunch of humanoids with exotic skin colors (especially the beautiful “red martian” princess Dejah Thoris from the city of Helium). Carter, because of differences in gravity between Earth and Mars, and because he’s an all-American badass, can jump extremely high and pound multiple opponents into submission. He becomes a hero and a leader, and eventually he’s overthrowing savage warlords and leading Martian armies.

It’s fairly fun stuff, though there are plenty of problems. The book’s morality is based on western and male chauvinism. Dejah Thoris is a damsel in distress, seduced by Carter’s ability to brutally murder the alien culture that’s imprisoned her. All of the Martian cultures are inferior to Carter’s American values, and there’s even some racist material tossed at Indians in the beginning for good measure. A lot of this is to be expected from this timeframe, but it did seem a bit egregious to me. The prose is turgid and awkward. Burroughs isn’t adverb-happy like Lovecraft, but he does like the passive voice and run-on sentences.

Where Burroughs really shines is in his originality. He merges the detail-oriented world-building of contemporary fantasy writers with a few of the scientific details of Verne. As he reveals the details of the moss-covered, dying red planet (including a giant atmosphere machine that runs on the “ninth ray"), the uniqueness of this setting begins to emerge, and the lasting appeal along with it.

Pulps don’t age well. I don’t know if it’s the audience they’re trying to appeal to, the speed with which they were produced, or the differential aging process of genre work. Nevertheless, the escapist fun and the lasting influence of this work made it a worthwhile read as we approach the hundrenth anniversary of publication.

Grade: B

Monday, March 5, 2012

Political Bloggers Argue about Star Wars

I don't know how much overlap there is between people who have lots of sf review blogs on their feed and people who have lots of wonky political science blogs on their feed. In case, as I suspect, there aren't many out there besides me, I bring you the great political journalist/scientist Star Wars debate of 2012:

Kevin Drum kicks things off by making a solid case that Return of the Jedi is not only not-horrible but actually the greatest of Star Wars films.

Professor Seth Masket overreacts and makes the mad claim that Revenge of the Sith is better than that Ewok trash.

Professor Daniel Drezner plays the voice of reason and reminds us all that Empire is the best, but there's no way a prequel film is better than an original trilogy entry.

Professor Jonathan Bernstein pipes in briefly (point #5) to argue that the original Star Wars is the best.

I'm with Drezner, though I am a big Jedi apologist.

And, while I'm at it, the recent and immensely popular Machete order for watching the films for the first time. There are some good arguments in here, and if you read my prequel review you know that I generally agree, but I don't see the point in watching II and III at all unless you want to see what else is out there and get the "full story" which case, you might as well inflict Episode I upon yourself as well.

Much as I complain, I'll probably watch all 6 again when the kid old enough.

I'll have a real review up at some point this week (maybe even this afternoon).

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hugo Nomination Speculation Time: Fiction

As usual, I haven't really checked out any short fiction. If I had more time, I could have dived into the Nebula list and gotten a sense of what's out there, but I didn't. I hope Rachel Swirsky gets nominated again, because she had the finest Hugo entry last year and a strong one the year before. Otherwise, Ken Liu seems to be the name to watch for.

I should mention that I also read a book that would fit nicely into the "Other Works" category: Grant Morrison's paean to superhero comic books, Supergods. Morrison is an imaginative writer of comic books like the X-Men, Batman, and Superman, alongside some weirder stuff (I'd suggest Seaguy as a good introduction to the oddball brilliance of his work). It was a fun read, with a good account of the rise of the genre and its redeeming qualities (it really does have some!), but all of that is intermingled with an off-putting autobiography that veers between self-congratulation (Morrison is certainly innovative, and he just can't stop reminding you about it) and painfully sincere psychedelia (higher beings revealed the nature of the universe to Morrison in the '90s. No really, they did). Anyway, I might nominate it anyway, for the good parts.

The main event - Novels!

I've actually read some this year, though Lev Grossman's The Magician Kings is the only one I feel strongly about nominating.

Mieville's Embassytown is an ambitious book that gives off a strong '60s New Wave vibe. It has to be the early favorite. I didn't love it, but I can't fault his ambition (don't I say that about all Mieville books?), and it's nice to see a hot young fantasy writer take at a stab at an older sf genre like space opera. Ernest Cline's first novel Ready Player One also seems to have a lot of support; it's a fun '80s nostalgia fest...and that's about it. It seems to have a struck a nerve with a lot of sf readers though.

I'm reading James Corey's Leviathan Wakes now. It has a nice, classic feel, and it's a very competent action story - maybe that sounds like faint praise, but I don't mean it to. I do mean, however, that it's probably lacking the sense of "importance" that I think many Hugo voters look for. I haven't decided my own take yet, but I will complain that this is unfair if Ready Player One gets nominated instead. I'm also reading A Dance with Dragons, but I've put that one down a few times. It's not bad, but it does feel like some momentum's been lost.

Reamde was my disappointment of the year. I love Stephenson; I really did not like this book. The first third had some nice Stephenson digressions about "how the world works," which were then neatly applied to world-building in a fictional MMORPG. Then the book bogs down in an interminable action scene that seems like it will never end. Then there's a brief break, and AN EVEN LONGER action scene. This final two-thirds of the book is lacking Stephenson's trademark speculative digressions (my favorite part of a Stephenson book), but full of his trademark macho b.s. (not my favorite part of a Stephenson book). It's not really speculative in any way, so I don't expect to see it on the short list.

Jo Walton's Among Others is next on my reading list, and I hear a lot of good things. I imagine Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique is a contender. I wouldn't mind seeing Ian Mcdonald's YA Planesrunner, which sounds fun.

I can't figure out if Hanna Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief is eligible this year...and that alone is probably a strike against it getting nominated. Okay, google.... and it is! But, really, most people read this one a long time ago.

And then, there's a host of sequels to nominated works. Mira Grant's zombies vs. bloggers story continued in Deadline. The second AND third volumes rounded out N. K. Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy. Sawyer's www trilogy ended, though people don't seem to be talking about it. And, Vernor Vinge released a sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep called Children of the Sky.

If I had to guess, I'd go with a nominee list of (in order of certainty):

Ready Player One

Among Others

Kingdom of the Gods

Children of the Sky
Leviathan Wakes

I wouldn't be unhappy with this list. But, I'm likely wrong on half, and, of course, there will probably be a book I've never heard of on there.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hugo Nomination Speculation Time: Dramas and Graphic

Hugo nominations are due a week from this Sunday, and I'm trying to put together a nomination ballot, so here (and Friday) are some of my favorite works and some of the usual semi-informed speculation. Today we'll cover the two Dramatic Presentation categories with a word or two about the Graphic Story category.

2011 was the year of the science fiction movie. Exactly 32.9 bajillion movies came out with some sort of science fiction or fantasy aspects. These include Season of the Witch, The Green Hornet, The Rite, Gnomeo and Juliet, The Adjustment Bureau, Beastly, Rango, Battle Los Angeles, Mars Needs Moms, Little Red Riding Hood, Limitless, Paul, Sucker Punch, Hop, Insidious, Source Code, Your Highness, Dylan Dog, Thor, Priest, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Midnight in Paris, Kung Fu Panda 2, X-Men: First Class, Super 8, Green Lantern, Cars 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Zookeeper, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Captain America, Another Earth, Cowboys & Aliens, The Smurfs, Attack the Block, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Final Destination 5, Conan the Barbarian, Fright Night, Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, In Time, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Apollo 18, Real Steel, The Thing, Paranormal Activity 3, Immortals, Melancholia, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1, Hugo, and The Darkest Hour. The latest Big Momma's House sequel probably had an alien invasion and/or vampire romance.

That’s over fifty.

I saw about a dozen of these, all before September (when my amazing daughter came along to make sure my wife and I would never go out for fun again). So, to some extent, I have to narrow the list down on word of mouth. Of the films I didn't see, Hugo looks great (though it has made googling the Hugo Awards more difficult...grrr). Attack the Block looks fun, and I've heard surprisingly good things about Real Steel, which looks thoroughly cheesy. I have a hard time believing that In Time wasn't good, considering it has such an interesting speculative concept and a strong sf pedigree (written, directed, and produced by Andrew Niccol or Gattaca), but there seems to be a pretty strong consensus against that one.

Of the movies I have seen:
I'd imagine Rise of the Apes is a shoe-in, though I don't quite see what everyone else sees in it. It's not the usual Hollywood bombast, I guess. Super 8 was very fun and pleasantly nostalgic, and it should be in the mix as well. Duncan Jones won with his last film, and Source Code was pretty good too. Woody Allen could be a dark horse with cutesy time travel film Midnight in Paris (believe it or not, the highest grossing Woody Allen picture of all time). I really enjoyed the somewhat-cheesy films Captain America and X-Men: First Class, which both got some extra mileage out of the superhero genre by using historical settings. I don't expect to see either of them on the list in such a crowded year. Harry Potter VII-B was not as good as Harry Potter VII-A in my opinion, and it's hard to guess whether it would receive a nom like its predecessor. I know Paul has a lot of geek fans, though I really disliked that one. And, I'm sure I'm not alone in my dislike of Cowboys & Aliens; combining a generic western with a generic alien invasion story does not magically create something original.

It's such a big class of films, it's hard to narrow down the nominees. To add to the dilemma, my vote will probably go to a televisions series. I plan to nominate the entire season of Game of Thrones in the Long Form category, and I'll probably be rooting for it to win.

There are a lot of different ways this could go, but I guess I'll predict Rise of the Apes, Super 8, Source Code, Hugo and Game of Thrones. 

In Short Form, we might as well just give the award to Neil Gaiman for "The Doctor's Wife" in the sixth series of Doctor Who. Who and Gaiman are Hugo perennials - put them together, and it's game over, especially since the episode has garnered a lot of rave reviews (I thought it was a middling episode, full of Gaiman and Moffat tics. Can Gaiman just not stop himself from putting a gothy Victorian girl front and center? Is there a goth equivalent to "manic pixie dream girl"?)

If Gaiman hadn't written that episode, Doctor Who would be looking very beatable after a fairly disappointing season. I did enjoy the mid-season finale "A Good Man Goes to War," which had a fantastic opening sequence and some new insights on the Doctor. I wouldn't be surprised if a few other Who episodes made the list.

There was a lot more sf tv in 2011, but it was mostly awful. Terra Nova, Once Upon a Time, Grimm, blah. The Cape? I don't think so. I did like Falling Skies, which had a fun, 80s-sf vibe. It was more V than the V revival. And it does correctly predict that history professors will be the saviors of humanity. That said, I don't think it's Hugo-worthy.

I rather hope that some short films, like last year's The Lost Thing, get nominated. Time Freak and The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore were Oscar-nominees that looked promising.

Finally, there is Graphic Story. The category is in its fourth year, and, as I understand it, could expire.This might be for the best, considering how narrowly Hugo nominators' tastes seem to cluster around a couple of web comics, some popular Vertigo properties, and works from writers known for their prose or tv work. Girl Genius has won this award every year, but the Foglios have pulled it from contention this year, guaranteeing that something new will win...probably Fables. I can imagine that Schlock Mercenary and Unwritten will also show up on the ballot.

I doubt I'll cover this category this year, but I do really hope that Craig Thompson's Habibi gets a nod. It's a gorgeous graphic novel that takes place in a post-apocalyptic middle east that resembles the world of The Arabian Nights. Yes, there's a fair amount of Orientalism, but there's also clearly a love of he source material, a respect for the Koran and the Arabic language, and some of the most beautiful art you'll ever see that also plays with the sequential medium in some really interesting ways. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

‘00s Wrap

What a wacky decade, eh?  As in the ‘90s, the awards are very diverse, and there’s a lot going on, but I did notice some clear trends.

The blindingly obvious trend in the Hugos is the rise of fantasy and the fall of the most traditional forms of science fiction. We went three-and-a-half decades without a fantasy winner, and then we have more than half of the Hugo awards for best novel going to fantasy books. That’s quite a sea change. As I’ve said many times before, I don’t know if this is an issue of gender, a rise in the quality of fantasy, or a decline in sf, but I’m not going to fret over it, even though I do lean more towards the science fiction end of the speculative spectrum. Hooray for variety!

SF is clearly in some kind of decline though. The most obvious change is the fall of space opera, which had dominated the genre in its golden age, and had a long and powerful resurgence through the post-Star Wars era. Space operas or books about alien visitors won 2/3rds of the ‘50s Hugos, more than half of the ‘60s, 70% of the ‘70s Hugos, 90% of the ‘80s Hugos, and more than half of the ‘90s Hugos.  And then, in the ‘00s, one. And even that one focuses more on contemporary characters responding to big changes with the aliens distant and mysterious. So, something has clearly happened. The limited reading I’ve done on latter day space opera writers like Alistair Reynolds tells me that space opera has become far less accessible to the average reader. I’m not sure about cause and effect though. Were space operas abandoned because they got too far out and self-referential, or have they moved off to their own little corner to play with Big Ideas because no one pays attention any more? Big Ideas did abound in this decade though.

Other trends? Everyone loves history all of the sudden, which makes me happy. The Baroque Cycle takes science fiction to a new frontier, Jonathan Strange does the same with fantasy, and lots of other books follow suit, like Brasyl, or, deeper into the past, Lavinia. Also, globalization is clearly on sf&f writers' minds. Bacigalupi and Ian McDonald (and Air) provide obvious examples, but detailed and respectful explorations of exotic settings became the norm in these (mostly) English-language books. This is another trend I welcome, and I hope both stay alive. The Years of Rice and Salt nicely combines both trends.

Favorite books:
1. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
2. Kafka on the Shore
3. The Baroque Cycle
4. The Years of Rice and Salt
5. River of Gods
6. A Storm of Swords
7. American Gods
8. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union
9. Anathem
10. The Windup-Girl

Least Favorite:
1. Ilium
2. Nova Swing
3. www.Wake (not Hominids! Take that Sawyer h8ers!)

Favorite films:
1. Wall-E
2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
3. Children of Men
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
5. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
6. Serenity

Least favorite films:
1. Cloverfield
2. AI
3. Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith

And, my recap of the awards is done!

The rest of this week, I'm going to look forward to this year's Hugo nominations as I try to fill out my ballot. I'm also going to take on Worlds Without End's Grand Master Reading Challenge, because WWE is awesome and has been the fuel of this blog.

And then…something. I don’t know…

Where are you 2012 Hugo nominations???  I need you now!

So lost….

Friday, February 24, 2012

2009 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, Long Form – WALL-E

Normally, I’d cover this category in the first week of covering a year, but this is actually my last “catch-up” review (at least, unless I start tackling short fiction Hugo winners somewhere down the line), and I wanted to end on a high note. And it doesn’t get much higher than this.

I adore this movie; that’s about the only way to describe my reaction to it. It’s my favorite Pixar film, and that’s saying a lot. It’s a masterpiece of animation, of science fiction, just of film in general. It takes place in the 28th century, on an Earth so polluted that it has become inhospitable to life. Robots have been given the task of collecting the mountains of trash that litter (pun!) the planet and condense and stack them, but most of the robots (called “Wall-E” units) have worn out, except for one resourceful little guy who replaces his own worn out parts. He manages to find some pleasure in his dreary work, collecting little pieces that amuse him to decorate a little lair. He also loves “Hello Dolly!” One day, a more advanced, feminine robot shows up to look for plant life, and Wall-E falls in love. When they do discover a sprout, a spaceship picks them up, and they end up running around on a space cruiseship amidst a decadent consumer culture of the surviving humans as they try to trigger a recolonization and renewed clean-up of Earth.

The robots all have limited speech, yet they get most of the screentime, so the film is short on dialog, and yet it moves briskly and manages to entertain and keep forward momentum. I haven’t seen physical storytelling this funny, effective and powerful outside of Charlie Chaplin. And, Wall-E does a great job balancing a bleak vision of future Earth, right out of those ‘70s eco-dystopias, with the beauty in the trash. Nothing hits my aesthetic sweet-spot quite like a sense of wonder, hope or love in the midst of ruin and despair, and few movies hit that sweet-spot as perfectly as this. It’s also a rich sf film full of references to the sf canon: 2001, Star Wars, and, hey, Sigourney Weaver even makes an appearance. There are lots of cool rockets and robots to boot. I can’t say that the film asks probing speculative questions about robot emotions – Wall-E and EVE are in love; deal with it.

The film isn’t particularly nuanced or detailed in the environmental questions it raises either. There’s a satire of consumerism with the brand Buy N’ Large (fronted by the almost-always welcome Fred Willard), but it’s pretty broad. Also, of all the environmental problems we face, burying ourselves in trash really isn’t one of them – landfills may be an eyesore that no one wants in their backyard, but there is ample space for our trash. But, mountains of trash and yellow noxious sky serve as a strong enough metaphor. People may have found the critiques here heavy-handed, but, considering the state of climate change legislation in the US, maybe people do need to be smacked in the head with broad metaphors. Again and again. And then some more. And the film, for all of the dirty, trashy, hopeless world it depicts, still gives us that sprout, and still has its bloated consumerist humans stand up for hope in the end. And I love it for that.

Grade: A

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

2009 Clarke and Campbell – SONG OF TIME by Ian MacLeod

Ian MacLeod is yet another innovative Brit to break in at the start of the twenty-first century. This novel made a very good first impression on me. The prose is stunning; this is easily one of the best-written novels I’ve read for this project. I’m just not sure that the story lives up to MacLeod’s crisp and elegant language.

The novel is narrated by a British woman of part-Indian descent named Roushana Maitland. Most of it is a sort of memoir of her life through the twenty-first century, which turns out to be a rough one. As environmental disasters, war, refugee crises, and increased religious and racial strife take their toll on the world, Roushana deals with personal tragedies and becomes a violin virtuoso. This sort of dystopia pile-on isn’t especially new – I was reminded a lot of Butler’s Earthseed at times – but the perspective of a wealthy and successful artist is more original. Some of the sub-plots add some new wrinkles as well – like post-human “ghosts” and a Frankenstein’s-monster messiah figure who sells bottled water and takes Paris by storm. There’s also a framing story wherein we follow the elderly Roushana in Cornwall as she encounters and befriends a mysterious naked man who washed up on the beach.

The writing and Roushana’s story were strong enough to keep me turning the pages, but some of my initial enthusiasm wore off as the novel went on. It’s just so damned bleak. MacLeod piles hate upon disaster upon disease upon destruction. Again, this isn’t unlike Butler’s Earthseed, but there are two big differences: Roushana isn’t as strong or compelling as Olamina. She’s often lost and confused, and she ends up playing second fiddle (pun alert!) to her composer husband Claude for much of the novel. Also Earthseed was a struggle for survival, while Roushana’s privileged position precludes that exciting element. When MacLeod unleashed his final U.S.-destroying disaster, I responded with an “Oh come on!” rather than getting further absorbed in the story. MacLeod also piled on a series of “surpise” melodramatic scenes from Roushana’s personal life in some late twists that also had me rolling my eyes a bit.

So, the darkness overwhelms a well-written story about the arts, but it’s not quite dark enough to be a compelling story of survival. And all of this rather overwhelms MacLeod’s exploration of his central themes of memory and mortality. But, it was an engaging read, and I’d like to check out some more MacLeod.

Grade: B