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 clich├ęd 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-