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