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Sunday, July 24, 2016

2016 Hugo Awards: Novellas
After last year's train wreck of a Novella ballot, I wasn't exactly looking forward to this year's finalists. But it seems my fears were misplaced, as this might be the most solid fiction category of the year. Novellas can be awkward and to be sure, a couple of these don't entirely pull it off, but even those manage better than the other categories.
  1. Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold - No surprise here, as I was one of the many who nominated this in the first place. I'm a huge fan of Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga and it's very much to her credit that I've followed her from my preferred SF genre to her fantasy worlds. This story takes place in her Chalion universe and tells the story of a young man who accidentally contracts a demon. This is both better and worse than you'd expect. Better, because in Chalion, demon possession can grant great powers. Worse, because with great power comes intrigue and scheming by those interested in your new powers. That's all background though, and the story itself is well plotted and the character relationships, particularly between Penric and his demon, and extremely well done. Easily and clearly tops this list. (Also of note: the sequel to this story is out!)
  2. Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson - What I know of Brandon Sanderson is that he tends to write epic (i.e. 1000+ page tomes), high fantasy stories, and that he's extremely prolific. So imagine my surprise when he's nominated in this pint-sized story category... for a work that is primarily SFnal in nature. Oh, sure, there are lots of fantasy tropes in here too, as this is a virtual reality story and our hero is the master of all he surveys. Almost literally, since he is a "liveborn" living in a simulation tailored directly to him. There are border states and other areas he can cross into to meet (and battle with) other liveborns, but he seems content to live out his little fantasy. Until he goes on a date with another liveborn and his rival engineers a monster attack. Well drawn and executed, with some interesting ideas that stick with you after reading (in particular, I'm curious about how this universe generates and maintains echo chambers - we don't see much outside of our hero's perspective, but we get enough to wonder). Would have topped my list in any of the past few years, but falls just shy of Bujold's story.
  3. Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds - Scurelya is in hot water. She's been captured by a sadistic enemy and even though the war is over, her tormentor doesn't acknowledge such things. After a harrowing escape, she passes out... and then wakes up on a prison ship that appears lost in time. This is a grim and gritty little SF tale. There are some interesting ideas floating around, in particular the predicament they find themselves in and how that happened, but Reynolds never really harnesses them together in a cohesive enough way. The concept of a slow bullet seems rather silly, honestly, especially given how easy it is to hack. Some of the relationships could be interesting, but feel perfunctory. Again, some of the ideas are decent, but they're too obscured by Reynolds' insistence on grim and gritty action. As a result, the story hangs together ok, but never really soars.
  4. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor - An interesting little space opera tale that doesn't quite land, this tells the story of Binti, an ethnic minority (Himba) traveling to a university planet. At first marginalized, she realizes that while her fellow classmates aren't Himba, they were still her people (because of their love of learning, etc...) Then the Meduse, a Metroid-like alien race, show up and turn everything upside down. It's the sort of story that kept me engaged while reading it, but whose flaws became immediately apparent in the end. The prose is a little ornate, but the real problems have to do with the Meduse. They're not particularly well established and even Binti's relationship with them feels rushed and unbelievable (especially given what the Meduse has done to her friends). Similarly, once she presents the university authorities with the Meduse's story, their response is even more ludicrous. Finally, there's a mysterious artifact that the story hinges on that is clumsily introduced and rather poorly explained. Again, an entertaining enough story, but one which falls apart upon reflection.
  5. The Builders by Daniel Polansky - As H.P. notes: "A mouse, a stoat, a possum, a salamander, a badger, a mole, and an owl walk into a bar..." A neat idea, but unfortunately, I can't say I was as taken with this story as H.P. The captain is a mouse who was betrayed during a civil war. He's bided his time and now seeks revenge. He puts his gang back together again and takes on his nemesis. A decent idea, but I found the execution rather lacking. In particular, the opening of the novella is awkwardly paced and clumsy. The stakes here aren't particularly well drawn either. We like the Captain and his band of fighters mostly just because they're the ones we know, not because they're inherently noble or something. In the end, it all feels a little pointless, even though it is fun to hang out with a salamander gunslinger or a possum sniper and whatnot. Not a terrible story or anything, I just didn't quite connect with it the way I did the others this year (and what's more is that I liked this much more than any of last year's nominees, which gives you an additional point of reference here).
All pretty good stuff, no need to deploy No Award. See also: Jonathan Edelstein's thoughts over at Haibane.info (I mostly agree with his assessments, with only minor differences in ranking). The top two are pretty well set, but the bottom three may shift around a little before I finally submit the ballot... which is due this week? Yikes, where does the time go? I've finished all of the fiction categories, and will probably only vote in a handful of others...
Posted by Mark on July 24, 2016 at 02:04 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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Sunday, July 17, 2016

2016 Hugo Awards: Novelettes
Continuing the march through the Hugo finalists, we come to the awkward middle-ground between short stories and novellas that no one else uses but SF people: Novelettes. Fortunately, this is a pretty decent bunch of stories (especially compared to the lackluster short story ballot), even if none of them really stands out as truly exceptional. For me, they are all flawed in one way or another, making it pretty difficult to rank them. As such, this ranking will probably shift over time.
  1. "Obits" by Stephen King - A modern-day journalism student who naturally has difficulty landing a real job creates a snarky obituary column for a trashy internet tabloid. One day, frustrated, he writes an obituary for a living person. This being a Stephen King story, I think you can pretty much predict what's going to happen from there. Admittedly, this is a bit on the derivative and predictable side, but King's got the talent to pull it off with aplomb. He ably explores the idea at it's core, taking things further than I'd expect, even if the premise itself doesn't quite allow him much room. King has a tendency to write himself into corners, and you could argue that here, but I think he just barely skirted past that potentiality. It's comforting to be in the hands of a good storyteller, even if this is not his best work. Still, its flaws are not unique in this batch of novelettes, so it ends up in first place for me.
  2. "And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead" by Brooke Bolander - Rhye is a former military cyborg, now streetfighter and freelance security agent, whose boyfriend and hacker Rack is in hot water with some gangsters. It seems Rack's virtual security system is a little too good at it's job, and when the gangsters destroy his body, Rhye most go into virtual reality to finish off the mission and maybe save Rack's consciousness while she's at it. Cyberpunk comfort food, I guess. It doesn't really extend the genre at all, and its gratuitous cursing and violence feel a bit tacky. There's a decent enough story at the core here, and it's well executed, but it's even more derivative and predictable than Obits, even if it remains satisfying enough in the end. Still, I could see this falling in the ranking by the time I submit my ballot.
  3. "Folding Beijing" by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu - Beijing is separated into three spaces, and the city literally folds and unfolds, making each space active for a limited time. Lao Dao is basically a third-space trashman in need of a quick infusion of cash so that he can afford his daughter's tuition. He takes on a mission to illegally travel to first space to deliver a love letter. Along the way, he gets a glimpse into the economic and social forces dividing the spaces. It's an interesting prism with which to view class struggle and unlike the other stories, it's not predictable. The problem is that it doesn't particularly feel satisfying either. It's a very literary exploration, and as such, the speculative elements are mostly just window-dressing. The storytelling feels a bit flabby and uneven, with multiple loosely-related threads that are explored, but not particularly resolved. Of course, they don't need to be resolved, but this sort of approach makes it feel less speculative and more flat, which drops it down a peg on my ranking... and it could potentially fall even further, though I'm betting it will remain where it's at.
  4. "Flashpoint: Titan" by CHEAH Kai Wai - Commander Hoshi Tenzen of the Japanese Space Self Defense Force is on patrol near Titan as China launches a gambit to take over the system (is it China? No, yeah, it's definitely China.) The result is basically space battle porn, and it's well conceived and executed. This is the only real hard SF story of the bunch, and as such, the practical matters are the compelling force here (rather than, say, characterization), from the physics to the economics. Alas, not much else to say about it than that, though it does seem to be aging well in my head.
  5. "What Price Humanity?" by David VanDyke - Vango is a fighter pilot who finds himself in some sort of virtual reality system, reunited with various comrades, even including his long dead ex-girlfriend. As time goes on, they're given more and more advanced tasks, and their simulation gets more and more detailed. Once again, we've entered derivative and predictable territory here, and while the ending twist is easily guessed, it does leave you with some tricky moral questions. Not questions that are particularly well explored, mind you, but it does give this story enough of an edge for consideration. I liked this one a lot when I first read it, but it has been falling in my estimation since then...
All finalists ranked, no need to deploy No Award this time around, which seems to be my pattern with Novelettes. However, I'm having a lot of trouble ordering the list, such that almost all of the finalists could move around dramatically when I submit my final ballot...
Posted by Mark on July 17, 2016 at 11:59 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut's Windlass
Jim Butcher is most famous for chronicling the adventures of that other wizard named Harry in the long running Dresden Files series, but he has been known to branch out into other Fantasy realms from time to time. What was nominated for this year's Hugo Award is one of those departures, a steampunk adventure called The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut's Windlass. I've read four of Butcher's Dresden novels with mixed reactions, and that feeling generally holds here. Steampunk fans may enjoy this heartily, but I found myself struggling through it for some reason that I'm having trouble pinning down. I should really enjoy this novel, but something elusive is holding me back.

Humanity has retreated from a hostile, mist-covered earth into large floating spires ruled by aristocracy. They fly ships harnessing ethereal currents and use magic crystals to power everything. Spire Albion is currently embroiled in a cold war with Spire Aurora, a war that's about to escalate, even as an even greater threat to humanity begins to stir...

Captain Grimm commands a merchant ship (ne privateer) for Spire Albion, but when the ship is hobbled in combat, he must embark on a secret mission at the behest of his Spirearch, Lord Albion himself, in order to secure the necessary repairs. Along for the ride are Gwendolyn Lancaster, hailing from a prominent aristocratic house that is famous for growing those magic crystals in vats. Her cousin Benedict is a warriorborn, human beings hybridized with some feline features to make them more efficient warriors. Bridget Tagwynn is another aristocrat, but her house is not nearly as prominent as the Lancasters. Her talking cat Rowl follows her, acting all haughty and superior (as cats do). Then there are the etherialists, people who can harness ethereal powers for their own purposes, driving them partially mad in the process. Ferus is renowned and powerful, but comes off as an absent-minded, bumbling professor. He mentors Folly, a manic-pixie dream girl whose goofiness manifests as a tendency to address all communication to her crystals (rather than who she is trying to communicate with).

All of these characters are actually pretty well established and likeable, and their relationships work well. There are some mentor-mentee things going on, some romantic inclinations, unlikely friendships, and so on, and it's all effective and entertaining stuff. Grimm is a well-drawn leader and the glue that keeps the group together and focused. As you might tell from my description of Folly above, she initially comes off as a bit cliched, but as time goes on and we spend more time with her, she really comes into her own. There's a villain named Cavendish who is a worthy foe. There are big ship battles that are effective and maybe even realistic. Butcher takes full advantage of the three dimensions, and seems to leverage some of the principles of aerial combat (i.e. higher altitudes have a higher energy potential, a la John Boyd's E-M Theory, or maybe I'm giving too much credit here).

This should work for me, but for some reason, it doesn't. Maybe it's just the steampunk tropes that are giving me the hives. Every once in a while, Butcher will drop a term that is so very steampunk and my reaction was almost always a roll of the eyes. Verminociter? Telescoptic? Oy. But that's just superficial surface stuff, right? The deeper dislike is more difficult to pin down. One of the things I've never particularly enjoyed about Butcher's storytelling is his sense of pacing. He gets repetitive and overly-reliant on exposition, especially in the middle sections of this book. There's great action sequences at the beginning and end of the novel, but the middle section features entirely too much silkweaver (a sorta cross between giant spiders and centipedes). Butcher's brand of fantasy also seems to fall into the whole "escalating magical powers" trap that usually doesn't work for me. A corollary to this is the hero who can take on obscene amounts of punishment in battle and still come through alive and well in the end. This book isn't as bad as some of Butcher's others, but it's still there, and it is one of those things that just makes the book seem longer...

It often feels like we're just spinning our wheels. Eventually everything's set up for the climax, so he kinda gets there... only that isn't really the climax. The conflict between Spires Albion and Aurora has only just begun. There are hints at an even larger threat, an ancient enemy, but they're only hints. We don't really get far into either of these, and yet this book is over 750 pages long. Sometimes you can get away with that, but the airship battles, characters, and their relationships just weren't enough to overcome the bloated exposition and steampunk cliches. I'm not particularly opposed to finding out what happens next, but I can't see myself picking up the next book in the series either (without some sort of outside prompting).

In the larger context of the Hugo novel category, it's perhaps telling that my two favorites are standalone novels (Seveneves and Uprooted), while the two series-starters (this book and The Fifth Season) are clearly my least favorite. Ancillary Mercy kinda squeaks by because it's the end of it's particular story, even if I didn't particularly love it. I've finished off the novelettes and am working through the novellas now, so look for updates on those in the near future.
Posted by Mark on July 10, 2016 at 10:33 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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Sunday, June 26, 2016

2016 Hugo Awards: Short Stories
Short Stories are tricky beasts. In its ideal form, the short story is a pure distillation of storytelling. No slack, no flab, no digressions, just story. This is hard to do, and lots of stories don't really work (for me, at least). As a result, reading a bunch of short stories together leads to an uneven experience. This goes double for Hugo shortlists, as there's not even a pretense that the stories are related (most collections are from a singular author or cover a theme), and when you add in our current culture wars, things get even more annoying. I've been mildly unimpressed with the last few years worth of Hugo Short Stories, and this year doesn't really change that. I'm not sure if that's just because there are so many short stories and so little agreement during the nominating phase or if it's because there really aren't enough great short stories out there. This year's ballot is mostly Rabid Puppies, with one non-Puppy work that made the ballot as a result of one original nominee bowing out in protest to the slate approach (a shame, since I loved that story). What's more, you can tell from the works themselves which belongs to which camp. There's a bifurcation of preferences that is very stark and obvious. Is that good? I don't know, let's dive in:
  1. "Cat Pictures Please" by Naomi Kritzer - Told from the perspective of an AI that was unintentionally created at Google to optimize their search algorithms. Bored, the AI decides to try helping out some humans... humans who are stubborn and uncooperative. In exchange, all the AI asks is for cat pictures. This is a fun little story, albeit a little derivative. I mean, the story itself references other stories (such as Bruce Sterling's "Maneki Neko") and that has the effect of making you want to read those rather than this one. Otherwise, it's reasonably well executed, with the occasional quibble to be had. The AI does seem surprisingly human in its thought process (dare I say: a Mary Sue), even as it pretends to be superior, but it works well enough. As it notes, most AI stories are about evil AIs that must be destroyed before they destroy humanity, and it is a little refreshing to read a story about a benevolent AI (albeit one with no boundaries on privacy).
  2. "Seven Kill Tiger" by Charles Shao - A tale of biological warfare and casual genocide, this story has some interesting ideas floating around. Not new ideas, to be sure, and the whole thing comes from a position of nationalism and xenophobia that is uncomfortable, but perhaps intentionally so. It's a little depressing (as I'm sure was intended), but perhaps too simple in its execution, which undercuts its effectiveness a little. Still, it's paced well and hits all its points quickly and effectively. These first two stories are imperfect, but on about the same level (as such, depending on my mood, the order might switch up when it comes to final voting).
  3. "Asymmetrical Warfare" by S. R. Algernon - Alien forces occupy earth and humans stubbornly fight back, as told from the perspective of the Alien commander. It's a little too short for its own good, but effectively shows a tragic misunderstanding at the heart of the conflict. That being said, there's not quite enough meat on this bone to make it truly effective, but then, who knows. We'll see how it marinates in my head when it comes voting time.
  4. Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle - A pretty blatant trolling nomination here, but it starts out surprisingly SFnal. But yeah, it's more gay erotica than SF and, um, how are we supposed to vote on this thing? For his part, Tingle seems to be taking the nomination in stride and with good humor, but whatever. I don't know, I'll just keep it here I think.
  5. No Award
  6. "If You Were an Award, My Love" by Juan Tabo and S. Harris - Look, I didn't particularly like "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" (a controversial nominee from a couple years ago) either, and if you want to whine about it on your blog, that's fine too. But best SF short story of the year? It's not a story at all. It's just a thinly veiled screed against non-Puppy Hugo voters and John Scalzi. Also? It's about a year too late. Hey, you guys, if I post my trenchant take-down of Murphy Brown next week, will you nominate that for a short story award next year? I get the "let's troll the awards" instinct that the Rabids have, I guess, but this is clearly not deserving of even being ranked on the final ballot. I don't hand out No Awards very often, but this is a pretty clear case.
Of note: the story that dropped out, The Commuter, would have probably been #1 on this ballot. So there you have it. I'm finishing up my final novel on the list and will move on to Novelettes and Novellas soon enough, so stay tuned.
Posted by Mark on June 26, 2016 at 12:49 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of this day's posts

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Book Queue
It's been a long time since I posted a book queue, so naturally it's been filling up with lots and lots of things that I want to read. For the most part, this is separate from the Hugo Award reading list which I'm also hoping to tackle in the coming few weeks (finishing up novels now, moving to short fiction this week).
  • Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement - I really enjoyed Clement's Needle, so this one seems like a good next step. Often mentioned as a classic of hard SF, I'm looking forward to this one.
  • The Player of Games by Ian M. Banks - I started Banks' loosely connected Culture series a while back and it seems like it gets better as it goes, so this one is up next. I've heard great things about the next book in the series, and even though I don't think you need to read them in order like this, I guess I'm a completist and just want to go in order.
  • Jhereg by Steven Brust - Back when I finished up Bujold's Vorkosigan series of novels and started going through withdrawal pains, I started seeking out a replacement series. Something that would give me that same high. This... has not been a successful effort. I've read some decent books, of course, but nothing that quite reached the level of Vorkosigan. Not even close, really. But one of the suggestions I found was Steven Brust's long running Vlad Taltos novels, of which this one is the first. It's a fantasy series, so it's nothing like the Vor novels, but still, I'm willing to give it a chance.
  • Startide Rising by David Brin - I read the first novel in Brin's Uplift series not too long ago, and thought it was fine, but I only really read it so that I could get to this novel, which has a great reputation. And yes, I'm cheating, I'm already in the midst of reading this book. And it's quite good! More to come!
  • Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp - I'm not sure where this one came from, but I've heard good things and I've never read anything from this author, so there's no time like the present. Or a few months from now, when I'm more likely to find time to read this...
  • Heaven's Queen by Rachel Bach - I "read" the first two novels in this trilogy last year, but never finished it off... because I was listening to them as audio books and for some reason, this final installment isn't available on audiobook. So I'll just have to bit the bullet and read it. Poor me. Still, I've greatly enjoyed the series so far, so I'm looking forward to this one.
  • The Two-Bear Mambo by Joe R. Lansdale - I will, inevitably, become fed up with SF/F in the near future, so I'll return to Lansdale's Hap and Leonard series of Texas crime novels. I've read two so far, and greatly enjoyed both, so this third installment is next up...
  • Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury - And now we move on to the non-fiction phase of the book queue, and this one sounds fun. Art fraud, con men, and so on, what's not to like?
  • The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage - I've read excerpts from this novel and greatly enjoyed them. It's about telegraphs and the stairstep in communication that it represented. It turns out that many of the "strange" things about the internet (another stairstep in communication improvement) have happened before. History repeats itself. Sounds great.
  • Time Travel in Einstein's Universe: The Physical Possibilities of Travel Through Time by J. Richard Gott III - I'm a sucker for time travel stories, and this book goes through some possibilities and supposedly references some fictional stories that I've read, so I'll check this out at some point...
  • The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer - Another cheat! I've been reading this for, like, 9 months. Well, not straight. It's a collection of short stories, so every time I finish a book, I take a break and read a short story or two. It is excellent! There are great stories here, and it seems to be giving a fantastic overview of hard SF throughout the history of SF, ranging from 19th century fiction to the 80s (the book was published in the early 90s). It's a huge book, featuring stories from all the classic authors and more, but it's going to take a while to finish. Over 1000 pages and it's dense, small-type pages so it'll take a while, but I want to finish it this year.
Well, that should keep me busy for a while, right?
Posted by Mark on June 19, 2016 at 08:49 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Link Dump: Peakquel Edition
A rash of articles this week examine the lackluster performance of many recently released sequels, which is interesting speculation but perhaps feature a bit too much hand wringing. Movies can be "successful" because of many factors. We all like to think that quality has something to do with it, and it probably does, but not as much as we'd think. Luck undoubtedly plays a part. Marketing can get people into theaters and goose the numbers, but it generally doesn't get people to like the movie. Look, this isn't quantum physics, a movie's success isn't just the sum of metrics describing it. Plenty of movies make lots of money, but that doesn't mean people actually want to see more. Indeed, they might have hated the movie, such that when the inevitable sequel comes out, they stay away. Ultimately, on a long enough timeline, bad movies get their just desserts.
  • Hollywood's New Problem: Sequels Moviegoers Don't Want - The article that kicked off the discussion:
    "Sequels of late have fallen on rough times. The tried-and-true formulas and familiar characters and themes that are the cornerstone of the modern sequel have acted as a de facto life insurance policy against box-office failure," says box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. "However, 2016 has proven to be a very tough battleground, and the landscape has been littered with a series of sequels that have come up short, and thus call into question the entire notion of the inherent appeal of non-original, franchise-based content."
    Which is funny, because don't we so often hear about original content being not so appealing? Indeed, this year hasn't seen a particularly great performance, even from quality films like The Nice Guys.
  • Have we finally reached peak sequel? asks Matt Singer, who would eventually discuss "peakquel" on twitter and turned the discussion towards "event" based movies:
    American movies in 2016 are all about creating events, movies so "important" that they can’t be missed (or, more specifically, that they can’t be put off until they show up on cable or streaming services). But how much of an event can something be if it's the sixth installment in a series that seemingly has no planned ending?

    ...But events are unique; that's what makes them events. Hollywood now tries to position so many sequels as events, that they've inadvertently diluted their primary selling point. When everything is an event, nothing is an event - and when a franchise has no end in sight each individual installment is inherently less unique, because there will always be more where that came from.
    This is quite true. One of the successful things about Captain America: Civil War was that the fate of the entire planet didn't really hinge on a giant laser beam into the sky, but rather a personal battle between two friends. Meanwhile, X-Men: Apocalypse feints towards the literal end of the world, and audiences mostly just yawn.
  • Maybe Audiences Want Sagas, Not Sequels - Devin Faraci has an interesting spin, but it basically just amounts to the need for a sequel to be good and worthwhile, not just a shameless retread. Still worth thinking about though:
    As Hollywood studios chase guaranteed box office they need to understand that audiences recognize when a movie has been made as a shitty cash grab or, in the case of Neighbors 2, they're cynical when it looks like it might have been a shitty cash grab. Audiences want to feel like a sequel has a reason to exist. On the other hand understanding that too much leads to a peculiar phenomenon where the first movie is just a set up for a trilogy or something, leaving audiences unsatisfied. The key is to create a complete movie experience with one eye on the future. That's the lesson nobody's taking from Marvel.
    Also worth noting that Marvel's source material is already serialized in nature. I think that's a key part of Superhero movie success, though it can often collapse in on itself when filmmakers become too ambitious and try to cram too much into one film. Marvel has done this from time to time, but seems to have largely escaped the normal fate that befalls such a film...
And that's all for now. Stay tuned for the sequel link dump next week. Or not.
Posted by Mark on June 12, 2016 at 03:14 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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Sunday, June 05, 2016

Link Dump
As per usual, just some links from the depths of ye olde internets: And that's all for now...
Posted by Mark on June 05, 2016 at 03:32 PM .: Comments (1) | link :.


End of this day's posts

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Hugo Awards: The Fifth Season
The Fifth Season is death... or maybe the end of the world. It's happened before and it's going to happen again, metaphorically and maybe even literally. Spoiler alert, I guess, but the grim nature of N.K. Jemisin's Hugo-finalist novel and the downright misanthropic outlook it gives us on its world are almost immediately apparent. After all, this is a book that opens with a woman grieving for her infant son who had been beaten to death by his father. It's a rough way to start the story, coupled as it is with some deft but also quite dense world building, but don't worry, things get way, way worse as the story proceeds.

The setting is a world with a giant supercontinent that is under constant state of geological distress, occasionally leading to catastrophic Fifth Seasons that humanity barely survives. To help quell the earthquakes and volcanoes and tsunamis are the orogenes, magic users with seismic powers that are essential to keeping the world alive. For their trouble, they are generally feared and despised by the rest of the population (I kept thinking of X-Men). The plot considers three different orogenes, each at a different point in their life. One is Essun, an older orogene in hiding and also the aforementioned grieving mother who is now determined to seek out her husband (who has also presumably kidnapped their daughter). Then there is Syenite, a cranky but talented orogene sent on a mission with another, very powerful orogene named Alabaster. Finally, there's the child Damaya, who we follow as she's taken from her home to be trained at the Fulcrum and serve at the will of the Empire. Meanwhile, Winter is coming a fifth season is brewing.

To some people, this dark (to put it mildly) approach is like catnip. At least, judging from the reviews, that's the case. I found myself floundering a bit at the beginning, at first in a good way. I like the dense worldbulding and the magic system (such as it is) is well thought out and used in clever ways. The characters are well drawn and yet, I didn't particularly like anyone. This can be fine, but they're not particularly interesting either, except insofar as they are instruments of the worldbuilding. The twisted and misanthropic nature of the relationships and institutions don't help. There are no real friendships here, only betrayals. There isn't any love, only lies. Every relationship is a twisted power struggle resulting in exploitation at best and usually outright abuse. Every institution is oppressive and exploitative. The result is misery porn.

Look, I don't need a book to have all the answers or be uniformly upbeat, but this book takes such an extreme and dismal view that it resulted primarily in a sorta detached experience for me. The end of the book even has a revelation or two that are genuinely interesting, but it's all undercut by this relentless horror that only served to desensitize me. It could almost approach self-parody, but it's far to horrifying to ever reach comedic levels. Towards the end of the book, there was a big twist that I find interesting on an intellectual level, but which didn't have nearly the impact it should have because I just didn't care that much about the characters. As a result, the twist felt more like a cheat than a revelation. Progress is made on all of the storylines, but little is resolved in the end, perhaps because this is the start of a series. The final line of the novel holds an interesting promise, but I can't say as though I'm at all interested in revisiting this world or its characters.

In her review at the New York Times, fellow Hugo nominee Naomi Novik praises Jemisin's novel, noting that:
Fantasy novels often provide a degree of escapism: a good thing, for any reader who has something worth escaping. Too often, though, that escape comes through a fictional world that erases rather than solves the more complex problems of our own, reducing difficulty to the level of personal struggle and heroism, turning all obstacles to monsters we can see and touch and kill with a sword. But N.K. ­Jemisin's intricate and extraordinary world-­building starts with oppression...

...Yet there is no message of hopelessness here. In Jemisin's work, nature is not unchangeable or inevitable. "The Fifth Season" invites us to imagine a dismantling of the earth in both the literal and the metaphorical sense, and suggests the possibility of a richer and more fundamental escape. The end of the world becomes a triumph when the world is monstrous, even if what lies beyond is difficult to conceive for those who are trapped inside it.
That's an interesting perspective, but from what I can see, Jemisin's pendulum has swung way too far in the other direction. 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. As usual, judging a book from a series presents certain difficulties with how to rank this on the Hugo ballot. Right now, Novik's Uprooted and Stephenson's Seveneves are at the top somewhere, which puts this book about on par with Leckie's Ancillary Mercy (another book that bounced off me).
Posted by Mark on May 29, 2016 at 11:43 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.


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