Hugo Awards: Novelettes

So we come to the short fiction categories of this year's Hugo Awards. This year, I start with the Novelettes, that odd category that fits stories that are longer than a short story but shorter than a novella. If the past several years are any indication, these stories actually tend to be my favorite of the short fiction finalists. Short stories have been almost uniformly a disaster for the past few years (partly the doing of the Puppies, but it was an issue for me even before then). Novellas somehow seem to be bloated and overlong while still missing the depth you get from a novel (with the notable exception of Bujold's Penric novellas, which I love). Novelettes hit the Goldilocks zone, providing enough space for a complete narrative, but not so much that the story drowns in hooptedoodle. Does the trend continue this year? Let's find out:
  1. Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman - Mysterious alien ships arrive one night without warning. Translators (comprised of formerly abducted humans) emerge and claim the aliens come in peace and don't want anything. A woman is hired by the government to drive around a translator so that he can see the sights. It turns out that the aliens are intelligent but unconscious, which has some interesting implications. This story works well, with a good exploration of consciousness with the occasional detour into other areas. The ending has a twist that's pretty easy to see coming (though it does elicit some questions as to the premise of this whole road trip - aren't there, like, security clearances or something? Is the trip even necessary?), but it works. Lots of open questions, but at least we're getting something that's engaging with an interesting idea and trying to hit that sense of wonder that makes SF so great. Short and sweet, this is certainly not perfect, but it's got some solid ideas and it works well enough...
  2. The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon - An old woman with a penchant for growing tomatoes in the desert is surprised to find that a mockingbird is stealing her ripest tomatoes. All is not what it seems, and the old woman takes it upon herself to free some magically imprisoned folk. This is a neat little story, reminiscent of Stephen King's Dark Tower setting, it has a solid throughline and a genial protagonist. Moderate levels of hooptedoodle, but manageable and probably the tightest plot of the bunch. I currently have Touring with the Alien at #1, but this is really close and could potentially take it when it comes time to finalize my vote.
  3. You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay by Alyssa Wong - A western about a necromancer pulled into service by greedy folk from out East to clear out a mine that's overrun by the undead. We find out about the source of his power and his relationship with a prostitute, but it seems his talents doom him to be forever alone. Or something like that. A markedly more somber tale than The Tomato Thief, but it almost feels like it's set in the same universe (and thus, it also has that Dark Towerish feel to it). Well written, but not a whole lot of meat on the bone here. Certainly a worthy entry, even if it didn't completely do it for me. Pretty clearly a #3 or #4 rank for this one.
  4. The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde - A valley protected by magical gems harnessed by "lapidaries" and wielded by ruling "Jewels" is invaded, thanks to the betrayal of a high ranking lapidary. Now it's up to two teenagers, the titular Jewel and her lapidary, to repel the invaders. This is one of those stories that just drops you in the deep end, which makes it rough going at first, but it eventually settles as you begin to understand the various worldbuilding concepts. The ending is a bit anticlimactic, but it works. Certainly not the best of this crop, but a decent read nonetheless. Again, could move up to #3, but not any higher.
  5. The Art of Space Travel by Nina Allen - A woman works at a hotel while astronauts destined for Mars stay for a night. We get a little about the mission and some information about a previous, failed mission, but it turns out that all the SF elements of the story are nothing more than window dressing for our protagonist's character study, relationship with her mother, and her quest to find out who her father really is (again, we initially think he might be an astronaut, but the truth is far more mundane). Well written and a decent story on its own, but it only barely clears the bar of SF and frankly not all that much happens, which knocks it down a peg or two (or, uh, 4) in the ranking.
  6. No Award - I don't hand these out often, but...
  7. Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex by Stix Hiscock - *sigh* Some people like dinosaur porn and three breasted green aliens that shoot lasers out of their nipples, I guess. Oddly, this is the second time I've actually read speculative erotica due to the Hugo Awards. That's a lot, voters. Below No Award for obvious reasons (this is only on the ballot due to trolling from a certain subset of fandom, so while I did read it just to be sure, it doesn't really deserve to belong here).
Not bad, I say. Stay tuned for the Short Story roundup next week. Will I get to the Novellas? Or the Best Series? I might have, but then The Rise and Fall of DODO arrived in the mail and... Sorry novellas, that takes priority.
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Hugo Awards: The Obelisk Gate

Of the six finalists for this year's Hugo Award for Best Novel, N.K. Jemisin's The Obelisk Gate was my least anticipated. I'm in the dramatic minority here, as the first novel in this series, The Fifth Season, received near unanimous praise and walked away with the Hugo in a decisive win. I was less sanguine about that initial novel's pessimism and relentless misery, which mostly served to distance me from the narrative rather than suck me in. There were some interesting revelations and solid worldbuilding in that initial volume, but on the whole, it didn't feel like much progress had been made in the overall arc. Such things happen in the first volume of a series, I guess, but that didn't exactly inspire confidence that the second book in the trilogy would fare better. Spoilers for both The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate forthcoming...

When a novel's overarching narrative is that the world is ending, but the world is so monstrous that such an apocalypse is seen as almost welcome from its inhabitants (at least, the ones we get close to), it's hard not to feel detached. As I noted in my review of The Fifth Season:

If Fantasy too often errs on the side of optimism, this book perhaps errs too far on the side of pessimism. It's one thing to confront complex problems, but it's another to propose a solution that is the end of the world. That's not a solution that provides hope or inspiration, merely despair. Or maybe I'm just being too literal. Jemisin is certainly a talented author with a good command of language, but this novel never really managed to get over the hump for me.
The Obelisk Gate begins with a rehashing of man murdering his toddler, because such anguish was only hinted at in the previous book and obviously needed to be expanded upon with further detail here ("It doesn't take a lot of effort to beat a toddler to death, but he hyperventilated while he did it.") After this cheery interlude, the story picks up where The Fifth Season leaves off. Essun (aka Syenite, aka Damaya) has not yet caught up with her toddler-murdering husband Jija or their kidnapped daughter, Nassun, but is instead living in an unusual underground comm called Castrima, where she has met up with her old mentor Alabaster. She learns that he has actually set off the current world-destroying event by attempting to leverage the obelisks that float in the skies to end the cycle of Seasons and thus shatter the social structures that oppress so many, but he apparently failed and his powers are on the wane. The cryptic and tantalizing cliffhanger of The Fifth Season was a simple question: "Tell me, have you ever heard of something called a moon?" It seems that this world once had a moon, but a previous civilization did something to drive it off, and we get some background here. Now it's returning, and Alabaster attempts to share his knowledge with Essun so that she can finish the job. But since the world is currently ending, they also have to deal with enemies at the gates, and all that fun stuff. Elsewhere, Essun's daughter Nassun has wound up being trained as an orogene herself, and is starting to come into her own.

The horror of the opening chapter's infanticide aside, I actually found this to be a somewhat less grim exercise than the opening novel. Nassun's thread, in particular, is a welcome addition. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of misery to go around and Nassun is clearly coming under the influence of some unsavory folk, but maybe I'm just inured to it this time around, or maybe I just braced properly for the sucker punches. Still, it's good to get a differing perspective on the world, even as Essun's narrative seems to stall out. Such is the way of middle installments of a trilogy, but I'm still struck by a remarkable lack of progress in the overarching narrative. Two books in, and little has actually happened. Jemisin seems more concerned with her characters than the plot, and the big twists of these novels bear that out. In the first novel, we find that the three viewpoint characters were actually the same person. In this novel, we finally figure out who is telling Essun's story in second person narration... it's Hoa, the stone eater. This is not quite as interesting as the first book's revelation (and I'm not entirely sure how Hoa knows enough details to narrate that way), but at least we're getting somewhere. The various factions of the world (guardians, stone eaters, etc...) are fleshed out a bit more (though still plenty of open questions), as is the magic system, but it all still feels like characterization, worldbuilding, and setup rather than a satisfying story in itself. Not to overuse this bit from Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing, but I can't help but think that too much of this book is "perpetrating hooptedoodle." The clouds have been gathering for two novels, but I suspect the finale will be a light rain shower, not the exciting thunderstorm that would normally be expected.

I think I can see the outlines of the endgame. I suspect Essun will be reunited with her daughter... in battle! As Essun tries to save the world by bringing a renegade moon into orbit (thus perhaps permanently quelling the earthquakes that shatter the world so), it looks like Nassun is being manipulated to bring the Moon crashing down on the world, ending everything once and for all. Plus, her feelings towards her mother don't exactly indicate any desire for reconciliation in the first place. Or something like that. Of course, I could be completely wrong. Jemisin seems to revel in subverting established tropes of storytelling, which sometimes results in an interesting spin on a familiar story (the "revenge" throughline of this series certainly hasn't gone as expected, for instance), but that sort of thing is difficult to pull off. Sometimes tropes are tropes for a reason. I'm guessing the "battle" I mentioned above won't be a big action setpiece, but rather a small, intimate battle of wills. Is that enough? On a personal level, I simply haven't been able to get over the hump, even if it feels like the near unanimous sentiment of fandom is one of ecstatic enthusiasm.

Ultimately, if it weren't for the Hugo Awards, I wouldn't have read this, and I have no real interest in finding out if my above speculations will come to pass. Hugo voters doing what they do, though, means that the final book will probably get nominated and thus I'll feel obligated to give it a shot. Jemisin is a talented writer, but not one that has really struck a chord with me. I've now read all of the novels nominated for this year's Best Novel Hugo. Alas, this one will be bringing up the rear, along with Too Like the Lightning. A peg above those two is All the Birds in the Sky. I keep flipping Death's End and A Closed and Common Orbit, but either would make a fine #2 or #3 ranking. At the top of the list remains Ninefox Gambit. A pretty good list this year, if a bit heavy on the hooptedoodle.

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You will criticize me, reader, for writing this review of Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning in the style that the book itself notes is six hundred years removed from the events it describes (though only two hundred years removed for myself). But it is the style of the Enlightenment and this book tells the story of a world shaped by those ideals.

I must apologize, reader, for I am about to commit the sin of a plot summary, but I beg you to give me your trust for just a few paragraphs longer. There are two main threads to this novel. One concerns a young boy named Bridger who has the ability to make inanimate objects come to life. Being young and having a few wise adult supervisors, he practices these miracles mostly on toys. Such is the way they try to understand his powers while hiding from the authorities, who would surely attempt to exploit the young child ruthlessly.

Looking after Bridger is Thisbe Saneer, a member of prominent bash' (basically a house containing a family that is less biological or romance than interest-based, though all seem to coexist in this world) that controls the world's transportation network and Mycroft Canner, who is our erstwhile narrator. He's also a mass murderer, like a combination of Jigsaw and Hannibal Lecter. He was long ago caught for torturing and murdering an entire bash' (a crime we're told, repeatedly, was the worst in centuries), but in this society, most criminals are not sent to prison, but instead are relgated to becoming a "servicer" who wears a uniform and serves at the pleasure of society. With his Hannibal-esqe intelligence, Mycroft is actually highly sought-after by the most powerful people in the world, frequently mixing with rulers and highly-influential businesses. At least, he wants us to believe this is so. It is unclear as yet why Mycroft has such an interesting service regime. Has he been conditioned, Clockwork Orange-style, to be less violent? Or is there something deeper at work here? He's our narrator, and we should, reader, assume that he's an unreliable one (even if it's not entirely clear in this initial volume of the series how this will manifest). Regardless, Mycroft has taken it upon himself to protect Bridger from the world powers in whose orbits he revolves (at least, until Bridger is old enough to fend for himself).

The other plot thread has to do with a stolen a Seven-Ten list (more on that in a moment) that mysteriously shows up at Thisbe's bash' house. A crude attempt at a frame-up that is immediately seen for what it is, but investigation is unavoidable. This bash' is responsible for the world's transportation network, after all, and if it was so easily broken into, this must be investigated, which, alas, may have the unintended consequence of exposing Bridger.

So Seven-Ten lists. There are things about the worldbuilding that might give pause, but this, reader, is perhaps the most difficult thing to swallow in the book. Each year, a number of publications present listicles in which the worlds most influential people are ranked. For some unfathomable reason, a given leader's position on these lists can actually have a profound effect on the political, social, and economic order of the entire planet. Surely, these lists are based on some sort of objective, measurable criteria, right? No, dear reader, they are not! Completely subjective, and some appear to be ghost-written by the equivalent of a bright intern who thought it might be fun to shake things up. It is very nearly a bridge too far, reader, enough to almost make this feel like a Buzzfeed-feuled dystopia.

But no, reader, I exaggerate. Listicle worship aside, the rest of this world feels balanced and approachable, if not entirely convincing. Depending on one's predilections, one could even go the opposite route and see a utopia in the making. On a personal level, I find that unconvincing though. This setting has the ring of tradeoffs. For example, there is a sort of internet that is easily and freely accessed by a device called a "tracker", which I think you can intuit also provides various surveillance capabilities to authorities. It gives you convenient access to information and travel networks, but at the price of privacy. This isn't new, reader, it's just a simple and perhaps even likely extrapolation of current trends. Sure, it'd be a big change for us but after a period of adjustment, we'd probably get along fine. Not utopia fine, but just regular fine, complete with tradeoffs, like we've always had to deal with. Other aspects of the worldbuilding are somewhat less successful. Each of the "Hives" have interesting concepts attached, but we don't really see how they play out and none of those concepts are sufficiently explored. There's a lot of "telling" without actually "showing", and all we really get a look at is the "Great Men" of this world.

Is this style starting to get to you, reader? Surely it is my own lack of knowledge and skill that grates, but my experience with the novel's narration was sometimes strained as well. Science Fiction is infamous for its exposition and info-dumps, and indeed, this device provides an interesting and perhaps more justified approach than most. On the other hand, exposition and info-dumps are still out in full force, and this strategy, while clever, might also have provided a false sense of security for the author. The information that is summarily and frequently dumped on us, reader, is often interesting in its own light, but in context presents certain challenges. Pacing, for example, becomes a genuine problem. It's difficult to get into the story when you're constantly being interrupted. This is absolutely intentional, but self-awareness does not necessarily make it less of a flaw.

The information on offer ranges from worldbuilding tidbits to philosophical interludes to sexposition (a sequence that I must admit, reader, fooled me in precisely the way Palmer intended) to character background to Mycroft's running commentary, a sort of humorless MST3King of the plot as it unfolds. Some of these are vital, others work at first but chafe after a certain point. The Eighteenth Century direct address and prostration for forgiveness bits work fine at the start, but halfway through the book, on the umpteenth occasion that our narrator lectures us on gender pronouns, it grates. Not because of the subject mater, reader, but because of the repetition and dismissive assumptions. I get it, and the gender pronoun contretemps presents some thought provoking ideas that have generated some interesting debate in the fandom. But after the dozenth time the plot is interrupted to rehash that very same idea, I was less willing to go with the device.

I have been calling you reader, but I'm virtually certain you do not frequent my writings. This is not an admonishment, reader! Just context, since you may not have seen a recent pointer to Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing, in which that estimable author perfectly describes my feelings on this book's stylistic trappings. He calls it "perpetrating hooptedoodle", and that, dear reader, is what this book is filled with. Also this review, so let it be clear, reader, that I'm not above hooptedoodle. But I'm not nominated for a Hugo award either, and with good reason.

All that being said, there is much boiling under the surface here. As absurd as the Seven-Ten lists are, their superficial nature belies the fragile balance the various world powers have struck. There's clearly more going on here than the lists, which, indeed, appear to be a red herring and are dealt with in pretty short order. But the investigation of Thisbe's bash' does present other problems, and not just for Bridger. I must admit, reader, that this book had nearly lost me before the revelations of its final chapter (a chapter, I should note, that is not narrated by Mycroft, who you must remember is an unreliable narrator). Are those revelations enough to get me to read on? Will the potential be fulfilled? And how, reader, shall I rank this amongst other Hugo finalists?

In order to emphasize the incomplete nature of this story, I was going to try and end this review on a cliffhanger. Perhaps just finish the review mid-sentence, or add a "To be continued in one year..." note. But that would be unfair to you, reader, and to the author as well. It still does beg the question though: Is this like one of those TV series where you have to get through the frustrating first season to get to the good stuff? Or one of those video games where it, like, totally gets better after you put 40 hours into it? I almost certainly wouldn't read the sequel to this book, with the one caveat that the Hugo Awards tend to revisit series throughout, and this feels like it could be one of those. This is clearly ambitious stuff, and I am curious about some of the open plot threads. The revelations of the ending could certainly lend themselves to a more engaging narrative and let's not forget some of the logical endpoints of the Enlightenment, such as the Reign of Terror in France. Will this series actually go there? I admit curiosity, but not so much that I'd check it out without nudging from a second Hugo nomination. For all its interesting ideas and ambition, as it stands now, this book would fall somewhere towards the bottom of my current ballot.

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The universe is so large that it's inconceivable that we'd be the only form of intelligent life in existence, but in the words of Physicist Enrico Fermi, "Where is everybody?" If there's lots of intelligent life out there, some far more advanced than we are, why isn't there any evidence that they exist? This contradiction between probability and evidence is known as the Fermi Paradox. There are potential explanations, but the implications of the Fermi paradox are often not very comforting and sometimes downright depressing.

In science fiction, first contact stories usually deal with this in some way, at least implicitly (if not explicitly). In The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu lays out one reason first contact should be carefully considered. Spoilers for all three novels follow! In that novel, a Chinese scientist, disheartened by her Communist upbringing (during the Culural Revolution, her father is killed, she is persecuted for reading a banned book, other family members joined the Red Guard, etc...) and general cruelty of humans, basically invites a nearby alien race to come and "purify the human race." The Trisolarans live in an inhospitable star system and the relative comfort of a planet like Earth is attractive to them, so they naturally begin invasion procedures. Interstellar travel being what it is, even for a civilization more advanced than we are, it will take their invasion fleet 400 years to reach earth. To clear the way for the invasion, the Trisolarans send and advance party of Sophons (basically a computer/AI embedded into a single proton in a handwavey but bravura sequence in the book) that will spy on the humans and also halt human scientific research and development by interrupting experiments and giving false results, etc...

The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo award a couple years ago, thanks in part to its absence from Puppy-related slates (and yet, being the type of story that Puppies seem to like). The follow up, The Dark Forest, picks up where the first book left off: Trisolaran fleet on its way, Sophons blocking technological progress, whatever shall humans do? After some speculation on the general impact such events would have on society and politics, the book settles into an examination of a human plan called the Wallfacer project. The UN selects four individuals and provides them with unlimited resources in order to devise a counterattack to the Trisolarans. However, thanks to the surveillance of the Sophons, these four men must keep their true plans secret. The Trisolaran response, carried out by human traitors in an organization called the ETO (Earth-Trisolaris Organization), is to designate four individuals in opposition, the Wallbreakers.

Due to the need to keep these plans secret, they all appear to be rather simplistic and silly on their face. However, as the novel progresses and the Wallbreakers study their opponents, the true nature of the plans come to light. Wallfacer Frederick Tyler, the former US Secretary of Defense, has a public plan to create a fleet of mosquito ships with kamikaze-like pilots that will swarm the attacking fleet and detonate nuclear bombs. His Wallbreaker reveals the true plan, which involves bringing a huge amount of water into space and using it to fuel a massive hydrogen bomb (this plan was never all that clear to me). Wallfacer Rey Diaz, famous for repelling a US invasion of Venezuela, has a similar public plan of creating huge nuclear bombs, but his true plan, to use the nuclear bombs to launch Mercury into the sun, thus destroying the entire system (including Earth), is exposed by his Wallbreaker. While this might have been an effective deterrent, it was revealed too early and the rest of humanity wasn't too keen on the plan. Wallfacer Bill Hines, a British neuroscientist, wants to use genetic modification to improve the human mind. His true plan is subverted by his Wallbreaker, who is also his wife. Details are a little unclear, but it turns out that the "Mental Seal" device he created actually instills defeatism in its users. Fortunately, the process was never fully adopted.

Finally, there's the most unlikely Wallfacer, Luo Ji. If this book could be said to have a protagonist, it would be him. He immediately refuses the honor, but his refusal is taken to be part of his plan. Resigned to his fate, he simply adopts a hedonistic lifestyle, finding an isolated home, drinking expensive wine, and using the UN as a dating service to find an attractive woman (who, for some reason, goes along with this?) Eventually, he reveals a public plan to transmit a "spell against the planets of star 187J3X1" into the universe. He says this will take at least one hundred years to work, but he predicts that his spell will be devastating. For their part, the Trisolarans seem the most afraid of Luo Ji, and rather than assign a Wallbreaker, they simply try to assassinate him. Luo Ji escapes barely, and manages to make his way into hibernation.

200 years later, he awakens to a changed world. Environmental degradation has lead to large underground excavations. Despite the Sophon block, technology has increased dramatically, and humanity now sports a fleet of thousands of spaceships. Observations of the Trisolaran fleet show trouble for our enemies, as the size of the fleet dwindles (presumably due to accidents or damage sustained during high speed travel). Humanity seems to regard the Wallfacer program a failure and is now seeking to establish diplomatic talks with the Trisolarans. Despite this, Luo Ji has to dodge a series of assassination attempts after he awakes, so clearly the Trisolarans are still scared of him.

All's well, right? Well, not so much. The arrival of the first Trisolaran probe results in a devastating attack on humanity's space capability (dubbed "The Battle of Darkness"). If such a tiny probe is so advanced, humanity has no chance against even a weakened Trisolaran fleet. That is, until Luo Ji's spell finally takes effect and star 187J3X1 is destroyed. His Wallfacer plan is thus finally revealed, and it relies on one of the more depressing explanations for the Fermi Paradox: While intelligent life may be plentiful in the universe, if you reveal your location, at least one of those civilizations will be both more advanced than you AND be a scary, predatory culture that will only see you as a potential threat. The strategy of such a civilization would be to preemptively strike any developing civilization before it can become a true threat. Luo Ji had sent out a message indicating that it came from star 187J3X1. This message was presumably received by lots of alien civilizations, but it eventually reached a more predatory species who simply destroyed the system. The title of the book comes from a metaphor: The universe is a dark forest where every civilization is a silent hunter. Any civilization that announces itself becomes a target.

Phew, that's a lot of plot, and believe it or not, I'm greatly simplifying here and leaving lots out. Like its predecessor, this book is stuffed with plot, ideas, and little thought experiments. This makes for interesting reading, and the overarching conflict is tense and exciting, but in execution it does feel a bit scattershot. The concept of the Wallfacer project is great, but it takes a bit too long to get at the hidden plans, and we spend a lot of time with characters who are closed off and focused on seemingly tangential plot points. It turns out that in deceiving the Sophons, the Wallfacers also have to deceive the reader, which is a great idea, but Liu only barely clears that bar, making this an entertaining read, but one that feels like it has a lot of filler. By design and for good reason, but filler nonetheless. That being said, I was surprised that it didn't manage to make the Hugo ballot last year. Then again, it's not like I read it back then or nominated it, so I don't have to look far for an explanation.

So finally we get to Death's End, the conclusion to Liu's trilogy and one of the nominees for this year's Hugo Awards. Naturally, this one starts with a segment set during the Fall of Constantinople. Without spoiling details, it ends millions of years in the future. Inbetween, we get some other approaches to the Trisolaran threat that parallel the Wallfacer project (a timeframe referred to as the "Crisis Era"), such as the Staircase Program (an attempt to send a lone human emissary to meet the Trisolaran fleet). We eventually get to the "Deterrence Era" in which Luo Ji is known as the Swordholder and deters the Trisolarans with mutually-assured destruction. But Luo Ji is getting old and must be replaced. His replacement is Cheng Xin, who worked on the Staircase project. Unfortunately, at the moment of transition, the Trisolarans immediately attack (using their probes and Sophons, etc...) and it's revealed that a new invasion fleet, capable of light speed, has set out from Trisolaris and will arrive in 4 years. Cheng Xin does not initiate the Dark Forest broadcast (because that would kill both civilizations) and the Trisolarans start colonization procedures, allowing humanity to collect itself in Australia (while the Trisolarans will take the rest of the planet). When the full implications of this emerge (the Trisolarans expect only about 50 million humans to survive), humanity gets all uppity and ends up broadcasting the location of Trisolaris into the Dark Forest, resulting in its quick destruction. It's only a matter of time before that same scary, predatory race intuits Earth as the origin of these broadcasts, so the Trisolaris fleet changes directions and flees into the galaxy. Humanity works on ways to counter the predatory race, either by hiding from it, escaping to interstellar space, or a few other tricks. Will they succeed?

Once again, what we have here is a novel that is overstuffed with ideas and thought experiments. Liu has a knack for naming things to evoke archetypal characteristics. Wallfacer/Wallbreaker, Staircase, Swordholder, and even the various Eras referred to throughout (Broadcast Era, Bunker Era, etc...); all of these lend a certain feeling of universality and scope that make this seem classical and enduring. High ambition, high stakes (that are actually earned), and a willingness to confront uncomfortable ideas and take them to their frightening but logical conclusions. I won't spoil the ending, but it's bittersweet at best, and existentially terrifying at worst. There's a reason that Fermi Paradox folks like to say "No news is good news" and this novel nails why that statement works.

Those ideas that evoke the fabled SF goal of Sense of Wonder are what make these books work. The more sociological and philosophical aspects of the story are a little less focused and successful, leading to some inconsistency in terms of characters and pacing that perhaps make the series too long and pull the books down a peg or two. I suspect some things are lost in translation here, but this is not meant as a slight on Ken Liu (who translated the first and third books in the series), just an acknowledgement that translations naturally produce, for example, awkward dialog and pacing. I'll put this on me too, as reading a book from another culture always presents challenges that I'll readily admit I'm not always equal to. However, most of my complaints are far outweighed by what this series gets right, and this will rank high on my Hugo ballot, though I don't know that it will unseat my current frontrunner (which remains Ninefox Gambit). This isn't quite the diamond-hard SF of Greg Egan or Peter Watts, but it's fully in the tradition of "literature of ideas" and even if some of those ideas don't land for me, it's definitely my kinda SF.

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Link Dump

I've run across some links of such importance that any and all other thoughts had to be postponed so that I could just point to them:
  • Things full of beans that shouldn't be full of beans - Um, ignore the intro above.
  • If Guardians of the Galaxy was DC - Marginally better than beans, but still completely frivolous. A fun takedown of DC's humorless approach though.
  • Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing - This one is actually a pretty useful list of writerly tidbits:
    A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

    My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

    If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

    Man, I'm really going to fall back on this when reviewing Hugo finalists that are "perpetrating hooptedoodle" (of which there seems to be a lot).
  • The Conceptual Penis as Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies - These stunts are anecdotal, but remain a little troubling anyway. The reference in the subtitle is from physicist Alan Sokal's famous nonsensical parody "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". Sokal was pretty thorough, but this most recent effort should have been embarrassingly easy to spot. For example, their references were mostly fake:
    Not only is the text ridiculous, so are the references. Most of our references are quotations from papers and figures in the field that barely make sense in the context of the text. Others were obtained by searching keywords and grabbing papers that sounded plausibly connected to words we cited. We read exactly zero of the sources we cited, by intention, as part of the hoax. And it gets still worse…

    Some references cite the Postmodern Generator, a website coded in the 1990s by Andrew Bulhak featuring an algorithm, based on NYU physicist Alan Sokal’s method of hoaxing a cultural studies journal called Social Text, that returns a different fake postmodern “paper” every time the page is reloaded. We cited and quoted from the Postmodern Generator liberally; this includes nonsense quotations incorporated in the body of the paper and citing five different “papers” generated in the course of a few minutes.

    Five references to fake papers in journals that don’t exist is astonishing on its own, but it’s incredible given that the original paper we submitted had only sixteen references total (it has twenty now, after a reviewer asked for more examples). Nearly a third of our references in the original paper go to fake sources from a website mocking the fact that this kind of thing is brainlessly possible, particularly in “academic” fields corrupted by postmodernism.
    Again, it's anecdotal, and there's plenty of pay-for-play type journals out there that don't have any integrity (see this guy who got an article published in a medical journal about Seinfeld's fictional urology disease "uromycitisis"), but that this seems to keep happening isn't exactly encouraging...
  • Ever wonder what happened to Kirk Van Houten right after he was fired from the cracker factory? - An excerpt that didn't make it into a Simpson's episode... Very funny. Introduction above reinstated.
That's all for now.
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SF Book Review: Part 27

Clearing the decks before we get into this year's Hugo nominees, here's some stuff I've read recently:
  • Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement - There are various approaches to establishing a setting for a science fiction story. One is to have the story in mind and let that dictate the details of the setting. Another is to extrapolate basic scientific theories in order to generate a realistic setting, which can then drive a plot. Mission of Gravity is very much the latter. Based on some newfangled data about the star 61 Cygni (that turned out to be inaccurate, but that's beside the point), Clement created his world from reasonable extrapolations. Mesklin is an oblate planet with extreme gravity: 700 g at the poles but only 3 g at the equator. Then he posited a centipede-like alien species that could survive such extremes, cooked up a human crisis (a satellite has crashed at one of the poles), and chronicles the collaboration between the humans and a native ship captain and explorer. The story is rather simple, but it's the setting and its various implications that really make this a winner. You get a lot about the Mesklinites' perspective, much of which is interesting but makes perfect sense when you think about it. For example, they all have a crippling fear of heights, since at 700 g, even a tiny drop can cause death. Less obvious is their perception of the world around them. It makes sense that, for example, they'd have trouble conceptualizing the concept of flight or projectiles, but their view of the world as a giant bowl takes a little more work to get there (though it makes sense once you do). The story is episodic and a little repetitive, but it's still one of the more enduring creations from the 50s that I've read. As an aside, I will be naming my next homebrew after Barlennan. It's a good name, and it has the semblance of "barley" which also works. What? Oh, yes, the book is great and recommended for fans of SF from this era (it may be too advanced for newbs, but it's short and approachable too).
  • Mira's Last Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold - Another Penric and Desdemona novella, this one picks up right after the previous story, Penric's Mission, left off. Despite nominating that earlier work for the Hugo (as it turns out, it's not eligible for the novella award because it's a hair too long), I never really wrote much about it. Penric is a scholar, but was recruited for a covert operation. He is to travel to a foreign land an help a disaffected general defect to Penric's side. However, he's immediately betrayed and thrown into prison, while the object of his mission is arrested and punished in horrible ways. Penric must find a way to help the general (and his loyal sister) escape, and this being Bujold, there's lots of great detail in how this is accomplished. Mira's Last Dance finishes off the escape, and goes to some weird places, but is just as tightly plotted and fun as the previous Penric and Desdemona novellas. Well worth your time (though you'll probably want to read Penric's Mission first!)
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis - This is the second novel set in Willis' Oxford Time Travel universe, but I'm having a hard time conceiving of how it could be any more different than the first novel in the series, Doomsday Book. They share some side characters, notably Professor Dunworthy, but are otherwise completely disconnected (and you can read this one without having read the first). They are both about time-traveling historians, but while Doomsday Book displayed almost none of the consideration for paradox and other time-travel tropes, To Say Nothing of the Dog is chock full of time-travel theorizing, paradox, and full-blown explorations of the mechanics of time-travel. Without giving anything away, Doomsday Book has some unbearably sad moments, while To Say Nothing of the Dog is an outright comedy. A romantic comedy, even. Ned Henry is assigned to recover the Bishop's bird stump, a large piece of Victorian bric-a-brac for an overzealous recreation of Coventry Cathedral in 2057. It was last seen in the early 40s, but he's made so many trips to that time period that he's developed a serious case of "time lag". The aforementioned Professor Dunworthy, knowing that Ned's condition would be ignored, decides to send him to Victorian England, where he can hang out for a while and shake off the effects of time lag. Meanwhile, Verity Kindle has nearly destroyed the space-time continuum by accidentally bringing a cat from Victorian England back to 2057. Naturally, Ned and Verity must find a way to repair the timeline, ensure that the cat returns and survives, and that a certain other couple gets together. It's all very Back to the Futurey, and it's a lot of fun. I will say that it's a bit on the overlong side, but as these things go, it's quite enjoyable. The time-travel machinations are much more interesting here than they were previously, and it's just fun spending time with some of these characters. Other characters are somewhat more annoying, but they work in the context of the story. Well worth checking out.
  • Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein - It strikes me that I still haven't read all of Heinlein, so I added a few of his books to my queue and got to this one first. An above average example of Heinlein's "juveniles", this one tells the story of Thorby, a young, scrawny, defiant slave-boy who isn't fetching very much at the slave auction... such that a local beggar, Baslim the Cripple, is able to purchase him for a tiny amount. However, Baslim is not all that he seems. He almost immediately frees Thorby, but also offers to teach him languages, mathematics, etc... Baslim eventually runs afoul of the local authorities, and thus Thorby executes a contingency plan to escape the planet, ending up on a Free Trader ship at first, then moving on to a quick military assignment until his true identity as the heir to a wealthy business empire. As it turns out, these business ventures are nearly as dangerous as his other occupations. Again, a pretty solid example of the juveniles, not as good as Have Spacesuit, Will Travel or Tunnel in the Sky, but a good, quick read that hits on a lot of Heinlein's typical notes.
And that's all for now. Stay tuned for some Hugo nominee reviews coming in the next few weeks or so...
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Problematic Influence

Movies can be judged along many spectrums. One is the influence it has on the world. This is difficult to measure, but it seems ridiculous to say that a popular movie will have no influence on its audience. Unfortunately, this influence is often used to justify some of our baser censorious instincts. In doing so, I feel like our would-be censors often exaggerate the influence a film has. They also tend to assume that because a movie can be interpreted in some harmful way, that it always will be interpreted that way. By that logic, the Bible is the most dangerous book in the world (that might be a bad example, because there are some who might actually believe that, but I digress). Another spectrum to observe is that a movie is merely reflecting the culture it was created in. This one is particularly weird because it messes with causality. When someone does something horrific that resembles a movie, was it the movie that caused that? Or was the movie merely another expression of the same thing that caused the horrific event in question?

A few years ago, I read a book called Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday The 13th. It's a fascinating book, and not just because I'm inexplicably obsessed with that series of movies. It's basically set up like an absurdly comprehensive Oral History (only it was published a few years before the concept was repopularized) of all the films. One of the interviewees was Tom McLoughlin, the director of Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI (a Kaedrin favorite).

Jason is confused
Jason is confused by our puny mortal form, but also by his influence
At one point, he discusses the two sides of the coin about doing a Friday the 13th movie:
A number of years after I did Jason Lives, I was watching an HBO special about teens who kill. They had this boy on there who was about 14. They asked, "Why did you kill your friend's mom? What could have possibly been going through your head?" And he said, "Jason, man. I was thinking like Jason." It really affected me-could a movie like this truly influence somebody?

The other side of the coin was that I was once directing a play in San Francisco, an all-out comedy. One night, after a performance, somebody was waiting for me, this very professional guy. He says, "Are you the director?" I said, "Yeah." He says, "I noticed on your credits that you did one of the Friday the 13th movies." And I immediately started making excuses. "You know - it was a fun thing, blah blah blah." And he said, "I didn't see the movie, but I just wanted to thank you." I was stunned for a second, and then I asked, "Why?" He says, "Well, I'm a psychologist and we have a clinic up here in San Francisco where we work with disturbed kids. We have them put on these Jason masks and they take out their aggressions on stuffed dummies. By not being themselves and venting what they feel through this character, we've had a lot of wonderful breakthroughs. I just wanted to thank whoever is responsible for all this."

Boy, was that something I didn't expect to hear. I was just so blown away that somebody of authority and experience thought that Friday the 13th was a positive thing.

I was reminded of this anecdote because I read Yoon Ha Lee's recent post, The Problem With Problematic:
"But is it hurtful?" you ask.

I feel this is the wrong question.

Individuals are hurt by whatever hurts them. And that's not always something an author can predict--given the number of individuals in this world that's a losing proposition, to try to write a work that never hurts anyone. I was not hurt by Palmer's exploration of gender and society and use of pronouns, but again, trans people are not a monolith; and I want to be clear that people who noped out of the novel because of the pronouns (or any other reason) are entirely within their rights. I do think she was doing something interesting and definitely science fictional and that that's fine, and that she should not have been prevented from writing with this device.

Let me tackle this from another angle. There is a class of narratives about trans people that hurts me, personally, that I avoid the fuck ever reading if I have a choice in the matter. But that does not mean that this class of narratives should not be written, or even that there should be content warnings for this class of narratives. Because that class of narratives is "trans stories with happy trans characters and happy endings." I actively find these stories painful to read because they remind me of the suck aspects of my existence and the fact that I'm not getting a happy ending. But does this mean these stories shouldn't be written? Fuck no! These stories are important and vital, and other readers should get a chance to read them.

All this just to say--readers are so individual in their reactions that "never write something hurtful" is untenable.

I think this is related to the going trend these days, which is to ask authors not to write works that are "problematic." But what do we really mean by that? Analysis of, say, racist or sexist elements in media is valuable, and we need more of it. But sometimes what I see is not that, but "don't write problematic works" in the sense of "don't write things that I consider hurtful."

The funny thing about this, and the thing that I think surprised McLaughlin is that the opposite is also true. To paraphrase: But is it helpful? Individuals are helped by whatever helps them. And that's not always something an author can predict. Sometimes it even comes from the most unlikely of sources, like trashy Friday the 13th movies.

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The Collapsing Empire

"Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space." - Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Space is so big that it's difficult for us puny humans to really internalize the distances involved. Voyager 1 is the farthest man-made object from Earth and a few years ago, it became the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space. It's not pointed at any specific star, but for the sake of illustration, let's say that it's headed towards our closest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light years away. At its current speed, it would take Voyager 1 over 70,000 years to reach it.

Again, space is big. Some science fiction takes advantage of this and even manages to generate the fabled sense of wonder from the scale of the universe, but a pretty sizeable portion of the genre is dedicated to shrinking the universe down to a more manageable scale. To accomplish this, science fiction writers wave their hands really, really hard, and we're left with a class of travel known as Faster Than Light (FTL). The special theory of relativity implies that such travel is basically impossible, but science fiction authors need FTL to make certain stories possible. So up yours, Einstein! We've got some exciting space opera to write.

John Scalzi's latest novel, The Collapsing Empire, posits a FTL method called "The Flow", which allows humanity to spread out through the universe to establish colonies on tons of other planets. But the Flow isn't quite as stable as it seems, and thanks to the interdependency of all the planets in the empire, a collapse of the flow system would be catastrophic to the empire. Spoilers, I guess, but hey, it's right there in the title of the novel. As FTL fables go, this isn't exactly original, but Scalzi leverages the tropes well, and spins a fun little space opera yarn that's filled with his usual snappy, page-turning dialog and characters.

I always enjoy Scalzi's novels, but I found something wanting in his past couple efforts. Both Lock In and The End of All Things, enjoyable as they were overall, fell prey to some glaring problems with exposition and info-dumping. This isn't exactly unusual for science fiction (that hand waving that enables things like FTL takes its toll), but even accounting for that, there were some egregious examples of this sort of thing in those books. Lock In was particularly bad, opening the book with a bald, encyclopedia-like explanation of his worldbuilding that is almost completely superfluous (i.e. you could have picked up the majority of that information through context as the story unfolded). Thankfully, with The Collapsing Empire, Scalzi has reversed course and at least achieved normal SF exposition standards. The story introduces us to the Flow during a mutiny (that is entertaining and well executed), and it even foreshadows the collapse that the rest of the story fleshes out.

Speaking of which, the book is populated with your typical cast of Scalzi characters. There's a family of scientists studying the Flow, one of whom is tasked with traveling to the empire's capital to inform the freshly minted Emperox (who, naturally, wasn't expecting to ascend to the throne, but has to deal with it because her brother died in a freak accident). The Emperox, of course, has to deal with all the attendant nonsense that every new emperor encounters. Then there's a starship captain (or business owner, or whatever) who says "fuck" a lot. Like, really, every other word out of this woman's mouth is "fuck". A little excessive, but she's a pretty cool customer, a little on the shrewd and unforgiving side, but good at handling the various crises Scalzi puts her in. Finally, there's a clan of villains that are vying for power in this new empire, and they're all suitably nefarious. The POV changes around a fair amount (moreso than usual for Scalzi, but right on the nose for Space Opera) and while this is the first in a series and you can clearly see future potential, the ending brings enough closure and satisfaction that I wasn't annoyed (as a lot of first-installments tend to do for me). Apparently some have complained that the novel is short, but I thought it was fine, and indeed, one of the things I like about Scalzi's books is that they tend to be around 300 or so pages of pretty tight plotting. Not a lot of filler or bloated literary wanking, which I like.

You know what's funny? Scalzi writes Nutty Nuggets. Spaceships, blasters, competent heroes, space pirates, all on display here. These are fun page-turning books that focus on ideas and storytelling. Yeah, he's an opinionated guy and his politics are on full display at his blog, but he writes good books. That's all I really care about, and The Collapsing Empire is pretty darned good. I'm looking forward to more in this series.
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Link Dump

As per usual, interesting links from the depths of ye olde internets:
  • The Stats of the Furious - A thorough accounting and visualization of a series that only kinda-sorta-deserves this kind of scrutiny. Also of note, Sonny Bunch's ranking of the Fast/Furious films. All of which is to say, these are fun films, but let's not overthink it.
  • The Silence of the Lambs as a Romantic Comedy - This sort of thing is old and I don't think anyone will ever approach the already-produced Platonic ideal of Shining, but this one works pretty well.
  • seriously, the guy has a point - You know that "Fearless Girl" statue that appeared in front of the famous "Charging Bull" on Wall Street? It turns out that it's a cynical advertising ploy, while the original "Charging Bull" was actually guerrilla art.
    In effect, Fearless Girl has appropriated the strength and power of Charging Bull. Of course Di Modica is outraged by that. A global investment firm has used a global advertising firm to create a faux work of guerrilla art to subvert and change the meaning of his actual work of guerrilla art. That would piss off any artist.
    Indeed. This is one of those questions that has many answers, all right. Art doesn't exist in a vacuum, but you can detach it from its context to interpret it in interesting ways. The "Charging Bull" is an interesting example, most people interpreting it in ways the original artist didn't intend. Similarly, the "Fearless Girl" seems to have taken on a life of its own. But origins are origins, and I don't think either piece should ultimately be able to shake their context completely, which is a good thing.
  • Dyatlov Pass Incident - The mysterious unsolved deaths of nine ski hikers in Russia under suspicious circumstances.
    One victim had a fractured skull while another had brain damage but without any sign of distress to their skull. Additionally, a female team member had her tongue and eyes missing. The investigation concluded that an "unknown compelling force" had caused the deaths. Access to the region was consequently closed to amateur hikers and expeditions for three years after the incident (the area is named Dyatlov Pass in honor of the group's leader, Igor Dyatlov).

    As the chronology of events remains uncertain due to the lack of survivors, several explanations have been put forward as to the cause; they include an animal attack, hypothermia, an avalanche, infrasound-induced panic, military involvement, or a combination of explanations.
  • The Incredible Intuition Of Professional Chicken Sexers - Some professions are weird:
    ...the strange nature of chicken sexing. This is the valuable process of separating female and male chicks as soon as possible, because each sex has different diets and endgames (most males are just destroyed). The mystery is that when you look at the vent in the chick’s rear, some people just know which are female. It is impossible to articulate, so the Japanese figured out how to teach this inarticulable knowledge. The student would pick up a chick, examine its rear, and toss it into a bin. The master would then say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ based on his generally correct observation. After a few weeks, the student’s brain was trained to masterful levels.
    A lot of what we do comes down to intuition, and I'd be curious how much of it could actually be more formally defined. This is going to be a thing in the next century, as we all start training our robotic AI overlords how to do stuff like chick sexing. Or maybe our intuition can't be replicated. Only one way to tell, and I guarantee someone will do so in the nearish future...
  • The Black Knight satellite conspiracy theory - I'm generally not too keen on conspiracy theories, and this one doesn't exactly change my mind, but it's a pretty fun one. Basically, there's a satellite in a near-polar orbit of the Earth that UFO enthusiasts believe is of extraterrestrial origin. Tons of stuff out there about this, most of it unconvincing... but fun! At the very least, a good way to see how conspiracy theories work...
And that's all for now...
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Weird Movie of the Week

Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we covered some Holiday Horror (a film that turned out to be not quite as weird as desired, alas). This time, we return to the Bigfoot realm with a movie that has one of the greatest titles I've ever heard: The Man Who Killed Hitler and then Bigfoot. Produced by indie statesman John Sayles (who is probably best known for his serious work like Lone Star or Eight Men Out, but got his start with trash like Piranha or Alligator) and starring Sam Elliott, this premise sounds like a hoot:
The story follows a legendary American war veteran named Calvin Barr (Elliott) who, decades after serving in WWII and assassinating Adolf Hitler, must now hunt down the fabled Bigfoot. Living a peaceful life in New England, the former veteran is contacted by the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to lead the charge as the creature is carrying a deadly plague and is hidden deep inside the Canadian wilderness.
Sounds glorious. These things don't always pan out that way, but I think this one is worth the stretch.
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