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Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Hugo Awards: The No Award Conundrum
Since I know you're all curious about the voting system for the Hugo Awards, I thought I'd spend some time babbling about it, just for your edification. Believe it or not, voting systems have a lot of interesting pitfalls, not the least of which is that there isn't a particularly great solution to discerning the preference of a large community of individuals. Every system has its flaws, even something as simple as Plurality voting (i.e. the choice with the most votes wins).
Fortunately for you, I'm not going to babble on about this too much (and you don't want to get me started on the Electoral College, our misunderstood friend), I'll just note that the Hugo Awards uses an Instant Runoff System. In other words, I don't just vote for my favorite novel, I rank all the nominated novels in order of my personal preference. When it comes time to vote, unless there is a clear majority favorite, most winners can't win based solely on the voters who ranked the winner #1. There is an additional wrinkle in that there is an option available in every category called "No Award", which means that you think that no one should be awarded for that category (or that the category should be abolished). There are some finer points to the voting process, and this has already been discussed to death in other venues so I won't belabor the point.
Add in a particularly controversial ballot this year, and I think the voting process is going to play a particularly big role, especially when it comes to the Best Novel ballot. When the awards were announced this year and the entire The Wheel of Time series was nominated for Best Novel, there were a number of people who seemed to think that it was a shoe in to win the award. Given the Hugo Award's populist nature and just how popular The Wheel of Time series is (despite it's length, it's got more readers by at least an order of magnitude), that's probably a fair supposition... except that I think Instant Runoff Voting will squash any hopes that it will win.
While I assume the dedicated fans of the series would vote for it in the #1 position, I suspect few will rank it at #2 or below... and many have already expressed the notion of voting for it below No Award (or, as the link above notes, not include it on the ballot at all). Some will do this because they actually hate the books, but many will be doing this as a sorta protest of the obscure rule that allows multiple books to be nominated as one.
Personally, while I recognize the need for the No Award option (and the ability to leave options off the ballot), I'm also hesitant to deploy it except in extreme circumstances. The No Award option makes me a little uncomfortable. I mean, I am voting, so I'm obviously considering my opinion to be worthwhile, but on the other hand, the No Award option feels sorta petty, except in extreme circumstances. I'm even a little on the fence about the Wheel of Time situation, though I think I'm leaning towards ranking No Award above it because it is ridiculous to nominate a 14 book, 11,000 page, 4.4 million word work for a best novel award. The only other situation I'd consider deploying No Award is when a nominee is not at all Science Fiction or Fantasy. Given the fuzzy nature of genres, it would also have to be an extreme case, but in this year's Novella category, we have a great example: I'm sorry Wakula Springs, but there is nothing even remotely science fiction or fantasy about this story (except insofar as all fiction is a fantasy, I guess). We could quibble about a couple lines in the story, but this is ultimately historical fiction or maybe literary fiction. It's a fine story, but I have no idea what it's doing on the Hugo ballot, except that it was published by Tor (a genre imprint).
So there you have it. I'm still pondering, and obviously I'm not done reading all the stuff, so maybe I'll turn around on the No Award option in some other categories. I'll be sure to post my final ballot once I submit it (probably towards the end of July, which is when the deadline is...)
Sunday, June 22, 2014
Hugo Awards: Novelettes
As far as I can tell, Science Fiction is the only genre that continues to use Novelettes as a category. For the uninitiated, the Hugo Awards defines a Short Story as less than 7,500 words. A Novelette is between 7,500 words and 17,500 words. A novella is between 17,500 and 40,000 words, and a novel is more than 40,000 words. Everyone else says there are short stories and Novels, with the Novella being anything inbetween (and many awards only feature short fiction and novels, with no space for novellas). Science Fiction, on the other hand, clings to the Novelette. Legend has it that this is a legacy of SF's pulpy magazine roots, where different sized works had different pay scales, which I guess makes sense, but it's otherwise a pretty pointless distinction. That being said, I was much more happy with this year's slate of Novelettes than I was with the Short Stories... There were 5 nominees, and it only took a couple hours to read all of them (on average, somewhere between 30-60 minutes per story), and if you're looking for some quality short fiction, this is a decent place to start. My rankings for the Hugo Voting.
I just finished the second Grimnoir book and am starting on the third (i.e. the actual nominee) this week. I've also started the Novella slate, and should be finishing that off soon enough. If I have time, I will try to tackle the second Wheel of Time book as well. The voting deadline for the Hugos is the end of July, so you will only have to deal with these Hugo posts for about another month or so...
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
I have actually been listening to less Podcasts of late, though that's really just because I've finally taken the plunge into the rough and tumble world of Audiobooks, most of which are roughly the length of, like 10-20 regular podcasts or something. That being said, I still listen to a fair amount of podcasts. Some of the second string podcasts are getting sidelined to make room, but that's ultimately not a bad thing. Anywho, here are four podcasts I've glommed onto recently and have been enjoying.
Sunday, June 15, 2014
Hugo Awards: Short Stories
I have never been a huge fan of short stories. I think the biggest part of that is that I tend to read them in collections of short fiction, which tend to be, by their very nature, uneven. Like anthology films, it's hard for me to take in a bunch of short stories at once, and I usually find myself exhausted by the inconsistency. There are some exceptions, I guess. I've always been a fan of I, Robot, but those stories have a consistent style and throughline that is usually missing in short fiction. I have a fondness for Clive Barker's Books of Blood series of horrific short stories and they are some of the most imaginative writing around, but even those tend to be very uneven (and I suspect many would more readily be classified as a Novelette or Novella). Of course most short fiction is published in magazines (or websites these days) first, and are never meant to be collected together, but I still tend to struggle with them.
I have read occasional short stories here and there on the interwebs, but I've rarely strayed from known authors... which is odd, because you'd think that short stories would be a good way to experiment and try new things without making too much of a commitment to any one story. And while I've struggled with short stories in the past, I've also been getting a little tired of stories that are much longer than they need to be, so maybe it's time for a sea change. So it's a good thing there are a bunch of short fiction categories in the Hugo awards, eh? Well, if the Short Story slate is any indication... I'm not going to get back into short stories after all. This is not a statement of quality, just of my personal taste - these are all well written stories, they're just depressing as all get out, none seem to have much of a plot, and none of them really scratch my speculative fiction itch (indeed, most of them would probably fit more under Fantasy than SF, but even amongst Fantasy, these are a challenging bunch). That being said, I read them all, and will rank them as best I can. There are only 4 nominees (the Hugo rules say that a work cannot be nominated unless it has at least 5% of the votes, and the short story ballot tends to be the most contentious - last year there were only 3 nominees!) and they are all available for free online, but like I said, these weren't really my cup of tea.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
You know the drill, yet more links uncovered by my chain-smoking monkey research squad. Enjoy:
Sunday, June 08, 2014
Hugo Awards: Hard Magic
One of the challenges of an award like the Hugo is how to handle sequels. One of the nominees this year is Warbound, by Larry Correia... but it's the third in a series of books. Do I need to read the first two books in the series in order to give the third a fair shake, or are all bets off when an individual entry gets nominated? Being something of a completist when it comes to questions like this, I decided to start from the beginning. As luck would have it, Hard Magic (the first book in the series) is a fine book, and I've already begun the second book too. It does seem like these books are relatively self-contained though, which is good (I'm still glad I started from the beginning, but I'm guessing you wouldn't have to...)
This series, called the Grimnoir Chronicles, takes place in an alternate history version of the 1930s. It's a universe where magic started appearing in the mid-nineteenth century, and has slowly but surely become more common. Many differing attitudes about "actives" (folks with magical power) exist, from the Japanese Imperium (who kidnap active children and train them in scary "schools") to the German war machine (who leveraged an active to raise zombie armies) to the Americans, who seem to sway back and forth in their democratic ways (this seems to be something that will be tackled in later books, but is introduced here). Jake Sullivan is an active, a war hero and ex-con working for the government. He quickly runs afoul of a secret society called the Grimnoir, actives who seek to ensure that magical powers are used only for good (or something like that), and a plot by the Imperium to assemble a super-science doomsday weapon. Will Sullivan and his plucky allies fend off the dreaded Imperium?
This books is attempting an interesting balancing act, mashing up many different sub-genres, including urban fantasy, pulpy noir, gritty action, and even a bit of steampunk for flair (really just a bunch of dirigibles, but hey, that's steampunky, right?) For the most part, Correia makes this mixture work, which is impressive - this combination of elements was far from a sure thing, but he manages. The only thing I was hoping for that I didn't get much of is some fantastic noir turns of phrase, but then, it's hard to hold something like this up to the standards set by folks like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler (but then, the setting does sorta beg the comparison).
One of the things I find frustrating with fantasy stories is the way magic is handled. All too often, the magic is described in such vague ways and with few limits, leading to an escalation of powers that can get tedious and strain credibility. Correia manages to design a system with some limits and logical extensions, and he does treat the subject consistently, but there is still that escalation of magical powers that gets difficult to swallow. It never gets too ridiculous, and the limitations of the system are clear and well balanced, but it's still magic, so it can also, at times, get to be a bit much. I do wonder how well Correia will be able to swing this in future books, though I guess I'll find out soon enough.
The characters are, for the most part, a compelling bunch. Sullivan makes for a good hero, a huge physical presence who is nevertheless deceptively clever, we discover much about the magical system through his eyes. His gang of allies also has some bright spots, in particular Faye, a young teleporter who has seemingly endless reserves of magical power and a fast thinking mind. This being alternate history, we're also treated to some historical figures like General John "Black Jack" Pershing and John Browning (this works, but I'll also say that Neal Stephenson did it better in Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle). As villains go, the Chairman of the Imperium is imposing and while his powers are seemingly infinite (there's that escalation of magical power I was talking about), Correia comes up with a believable way to "defeat" him (spoiler, I guess!) Sullivan's brother Madi is also a formidable foe (and again, we get some escalation of powers to make him so).
What you end up with is a well executed mashup that is a very fun read. Correia can spin a good yarn, and while I will say that this isn't something I'd have sought out on my own, I'm glad I read it and will have no problem getting through the next two books. I found this one a tad on the long side, but again, I had no major problems getting through it, and it was a lot of fun. Since this isn't actually one of the nominees this year, I shouldn't really be ranking it, but it feels like something that would come in towards the middle of the pack. Assuming there's not a drastic uptick in quality or something in the nominated work, I can't see it unseating my top two votes (which remain Ancillary Justice or Neptune's Brood). Again, this is blatant speculation, but I could see Warbound coming in third (ahead of Parasite and The Wheel of Time). I'm currently reading Spellbound (the second book in this series) and have started reading the other fiction categories (look for a recap of the short story ballot next week).
(Incidentally, I've left out all the controversy surrounding the nomination of Correia's book. I've already discussed it elsewhere, and will probably bring it up again at some point, but for now, I'm concentrated on actually reading the books...)
Wednesday, June 04, 2014
It's that time again, and yes, I guess it's been that time a lot lately, but links are fun, so enjoy them why don't you:
Sunday, June 01, 2014
Hugo Awards: Parasite
One of the complaints frequently leveled against the Hugo awards is that the same folks tend to get nominated every year. This makes a certain sort of sense, since the Hugo is a populist award, and a lot of authors tend to put out novels at a roughly once-a-year pace. There is a bit of truth to this, but on the other hand, there are folks who seem to break into this process fairly often. Mira Grant (a pen name of Seanan McGuire) has somewhat recently established herself as an annual resident on the Best Novel ballot, securing nominations for each of the last 4 years (not to mention several nominations in other categories, like novella or novelette, etc...) Alas, the Mira Grant style seems to encompass a zombie sub-genre, with 3 of the last 4 nominations being part of one series of zombie books. This novel, Parasite, is the first in a new series, and while it starts out as a sort a medical thriller, it is basically a zombie story as well.
The story takes place in the near future, about a decade out from now, when genetically modified tapeworms have become a sorta universal healthcare solution. Like any good capitalist solution, there's a planned obsolescence and replacement regime, but the tapeworm also provides a very reliable means of regulating the human body, even going so far as to administer various medications at the appropriate intervals, and other such conveniences. Our protagonist, Sally "Sal" Mitchell, was in a car accident and while initially thought to be brain-dead, she manages to come back with the help of her "Intestinal Bodyguard" (the innocuous name Symbogen has given to this seemingly helpful tapeworm). She has no memory before the accident, and has to relearn basic social skills and knowledge, living a life of a lab rat mixed with socially awkward teen (as the story opens, she's basically 6 years old, though she has the body of an early twenties woman). Of course, all is not what it seems, and we quickly see a series of sleepwalkers that are becoming more and more violent (and frequent) over time.
For the most part, I can see why these Mira Grant novels are so popular. I am pretty emphatically not a zombie story fan, but this novel worked well enough for me. It helps that there is a rational scientific explanation for the zombification process, but on the other hand, many of the supposed revelations in this novel are not all that surprising. I hate to be that guy, you know the one, who claims they predicted the final twist early on in the novel, but this isn't a claim of superiority. I suspect most, if not all, readers would come to the same conclusions much sooner than our hapless protagonists. The ending, in particular, is unsatisfying, settling on a cheap reveal (which, again, is entirely predictable) and sequel setup, rather than an actual resolution. I would assume that Mira Grant's fans are eating this stuff up and eagerly awaiting the next book in the series, but as an awards nominee, it feels rather incomplete.
It is certainly a page turner, which is an accomplishment in itself. The characters are, for the most part, personable and relatable. Sal is a fine protagonist, though because we get the grand majority of the story from her perspective, we perhaps get a bit too much in the way of uncertainty and anxiety. Add in the predictable plot twists (which Sal somehow does not see coming), and you've got a character who is sympathetic, but not all that bright. Her family has some typical hesitations when it comes to her condition, but for the most part, they're fine (until they take a harsh turn later in the book, where Grant relies on miscommunication as a plot device, which always frustrates me). Sal also has pretty much the greatest boyfriend in the history of the planet, fictional or non-fictional. He shows some frustration from time to time, but even those instances are somewhat restrained. Other side character range from the very colorful (the sprightly Tansy) to obviously devious (CEO Dr. Banks).
In the end, this takes the form of a slick medical thriller, with some SF tropes sprinkled in for fun. Again, I Can see why this sort of thing is popular with the Hugo voters, and it is a very easy going read. On the other hand, it is a bit predictable and its ending leaves a bit to be desired. There's a forthcoming volume that is supposed to finish off the story, but I find it hard to judge this book in that it's so clearly not finished. Given recent history, I guess we can expect the next book to be nominated as well, but for now, this is not a book that will unseat Ancillary Justice or Neptune's Brood from the top of my Best Novel voting.
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